There is no such thing as an easy day to ride the Climb to Kaiser.
But some days are easier than others. Especially when it's "only" 95 degrees in Fresno instead of the usual triple-digit furnace blast.
"It's a totally different ride when it's cool like this instead of the blistering heat," said eight-time CTK finisher Peter Mersino of Fresno, standing beneath a shady tree at Huntington Lake, where temperatures never broke 70.
"But it's OK to have a little bit of enjoyment on a 155-mile ride."
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The word "enjoyment" is rarely used to describe the CTK, once called one of the 10 toughest cycling events in the United States by Bicycling magazine.
The group of 223 cyclists, plus 83 others doing the shorter, easier Tollhouse Century and Millerton Metric, departed Clovis High at 5:30 a.m. with police escort.
Brandon Franklin of Clovis made it back faster than any rider in the event's 35-year-history. His finishing time of 8 hours, on the nose, shaved 4 minutes off the course record that Franklin and Fresno pro bike racer Vince Owens set in 2009.
But Franklin was quick to credit others. His teammates on Sierra Pacific Racing helped set a fast early tempo in the flats before Owens took over and paced Franklin to the final climb up 9,200-foot Kaiser Pass. Franklin rode the second half of the course, mostly downhill, by himself.
"I didn't think I was in as good a shape as two years ago, but it worked," Franklin said. "It helps to have somebody in front of you and not have to worry about how fast you're going.
"If Vince wanted to do the whole thing, we'd have gone under 8 hours."
Leah Bellamy of Costa Mesa was the fastest female finisher in 11:05 -- despite taking a wrong turn that made her do the infamous Big Creek climb twice.
Most participants, though, aren't interested in their finishing times. They just want to finish.
Take Jonny Harmer, also of Costa Mesa, a first-timer who shed 30 pounds over the last year.
"This is probably the hardest thing I've ever done, physically," Harmer said after scarfing down lunch. "I'll get to the finish line one way or another. Hopefully, I'm still on my bike."
Gloria Cobble of Pasadena, one of just 20 women registered for the CTK, said she would never do it again.
Which is exactly what the three-time finisher told herself last year.
"Every year I say, 'This is it. I'm not doing it anymore.' And every year I come back," Cobble said.
"Because your mountains are spectacular. And for the challenge. I'm just fighting old age. I keep coming back to prove to myself I can do it."
The average age of this year's CTK field was 44. The youngest was 15 and the oldest 70.
The cooler temperatures, combined with last winter's near-record snowpack, made for unusual conditions. On Kaiser Pass, riders encountered wet, slippery roads from all the snowmelt as well as 4-foot-tall snowbanks.
Ride coordinator John Craft reported two crashes, both of which took place on the steep downhill into the town of Big Creek. One unidentified rider crashed and suffered a broken wrist, while another, Steve Mysko of Lake Forest, wound up in a bush and emerged with cuts and scrapes all over his face and arms.
"It was a thorn bush," Mysko said. "It hurts, but I feel worse for the guy with the broken wrist."
The Fresno Cycling Club recruits more than 200 volunteers to man rest stops, perform bike repairs, drive support vehicles and offer general encouragement.
CTK rookie Christopher Payne of Los Angeles complimented organizers for their "incredible support."
"All the people up here, it's almost like the ride is part of the culture," Payne said. "Except for the guy who almost ran us off ."