Leonie Sherman
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Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge: An exciting mission-driven future for this classic hilly ride

Three years ago, when the world went into lockdown, I got on my bike. My mental health starts with physical health, and I needed three to four 20-70 mile rides a week just to soothe my anxiety and sudden unemployment. A silver lining of the pandemic was learning to love road riding in Santa Cruz.

I’m late to the party. Before I was even born local riders recognized the gem of sparsely populated mountain roads on the Central Coast and started the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club (SCCCC) to promote cycling, friendship, teamwork and fun.  In 1978 they incorporated as a non-profit and 20 years later they decided to share the love by starting a group ride called the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge (SCMC).

At first, most of the riders were locals, but as word of the fabulous course and friendly vibe spread, the SCMC began to attract riders from the Bay Area and beyond. Pre-pandemic the ride was attracting about 550 riders from around the country each year. Covid’s forced hiatus allowed the group to recharge, reset and refocus. This year’s ride will take place July 29, and they’re taking it to the next level by  partnering with Ecology Action to offer family friendly options and build resilience around climate change.

Previously, the ride’s courses were designed for folks who wanted to push themselves hard all day in good company. “The Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge used to be like a local version of a death ride at sea level,” explains former SCCCC President and current SCMC Director Maura Noel. “Folks would do 100-125 miles with 13,000 feet of elevation gain. Even our shortest option had 6,000 feet of gain!”

During decades of involvement, Noel noticed that a lot of partners and families would drop off their riders in the morning and pick them up at the end of the day. “So we thought,  let’s see if we can include those folks and expand our ridership by adding some routes that don’t involve a ton of elevation, that regular folks can ride, like 50 miles to Watsonville,” she explains. “This year we are doing a group ride that will be inclusive and ‘no-drop’, where everyone sticks together or waits for people at designated spots. We’ll have a ride leader and a sweeper to make sure everyone is accounted for.”

After years staging the ride out of north county for easy access to mountain roads, this year the event will start and end at Cabrillo College. There will also be more options than ever, with five different rides for varying abilities and interests. This year’s line up includes a 50-mile ride through agricultural lands in south county, a 50-mile ride to the mountains in north county, an option to combine the two for a century, a 125-mile option that adds a little bonus kick to the century, plus a family friendly ride from Aptos to downtown that highlights safe travel bike corridors and low-stress two-wheeled commuting options.

BIkers giving the thumbs up symbol

Happy cyclists having conquered the first half and steepest part of Alba Road. Photo courtesy of SCMC

That last ride is courtesy of Ecology Action, a Santa Cruz based non-profit that works to support a thriving low carbon economy and build resilience in the face of climate change. They’ve been recipients of SCMC funds for years, but this year they became partners in the event. In addition to leading two commuter rides, they will sponsor family friendly activities, and lead discussions at monthly SCCCC rides throughout the year.

SCMC has always been an entirely volunteer effort, so all the money they raise goes back into the community. In the past, proceeds went to grant applicants like the UCSC Bike Co-op or Ecology Actions Youth Safety and Education program. This year SCMC decided to donate a chunk of the proceeds upfront. “We realized we wanted to donate to an organization that was doing work around climate change and sustainability, and then it was obvious, of course, that would be Ecology Action,” explains Noel.

“It’s such a good fit!” exclaims Kirsten Liske, Ecology Action’s Vice President of Community Programs. “The ride is going to go through some of the deep burn areas and past massive slide repairs. It’s almost like a tour of the impacts of climate change, a reminder of what’s already happening and will get worse if we don’t all get serious.“

Image of burned trees along Alba Road

The sad after-effects of the devastating 2020 CZU fire, near the top of Alba Road. Photo by Tom Pennello

Liske believes endurance athletes make excellent climate warriors. “Think about it! What does it take to be an endurance athlete?” she asked me over the phone. “They have determination, the ability to set their sites on a long term goal, work hard, work with others, sacrifice and try new things to achieve their goals. Endurance athletes can stay focused and engaged when their mind is telling them it’s impossible or they don’t want to or when they have to overcome an injury. Those are all traits that we need to respond to the climate crisis. They are exactly who we need joining in this fight.”

The SCMC showcases all those traits and adds the element of working together. “People who do the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge know that being in community with others, whether you train with them or Strava or whatever, that is what keeps you going,” explains Liske. Perhaps no effort on the planet requires more cooperation than tackling climate change.

A group of smiling volunteers at one of the rest stops.

Happy Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge volunteers at the East Zayante rest stop. Photo courtesy of SCMC


Which means it’s got to be fun. To paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara, real progress on climate change hinges on making climate change irresistible. This year, the SCMC won’t be just a ride, it will be a climate festival. Ecology Action will offer a bike safety rodeo, a bike obstacle course, and an Electric Vehicles For Everyone exhibit that provides education and assistance on rebates and how to make an EV affordable.

“60% of our emissions in the county come from transportation, especially personal transportation,” explains Liske. “A lot of folks will throw their bike on a vehicle to go mountain biking or road riding, and they’re driving to get to work or school or go grocery shopping.” Ecology Action hopes their involvement in this event can inspire riders to reduce their carbon footprint by using their beloved two-legged steeds for transportation as well as recreation.

“Every bit of emissions we can reduce sooner will have exponential impacts later,” explains Liske. “The longer we wait to make changes, the less opportunity we have to do so, and more intense impacts we will face. We are already facing un-fun impacts, like wildfires, droughts, extreme storm events, countries that are two thirds underwater. This is accelerating at a rapid rate, so we need to fast track and front load our efforts now.”

Events like the SCMC, and partnerships like the one they are forming with Ecology Action offer a way to build resilience while having fun. “We need everybody to challenge their endurance athlete,” explains Liske. “This is not a crisis we are going to solve in our lifetimes, but the efforts we make right now are going to be crucial for avoiding some of the worst impacts further down the line.”

MAIN IMAGE: Climbing a steep switchback on Upper Zayante Road. Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge

This year’s SCMC is on July 29. Register at santacruzmountainschallenge.com. 

View other upcoming events on our calendar page here.