For being the first to reach Kaiser Pass in the very first Climb to Kaiser, Larry Hendrickson received a stuffed gorilla.
King Kong Kaiser, the name given him by then-Fresno Cycling Club president Suzanne Lock, wore a cycling cap with brim flipped up and had a club patch sewn onto his chest.
“Suzanne wanted (Hendrickson) to carry the gorilla back down to Fresno on his back,” club historian Mark Perkins recalled, “but he wasn’t having anything to do with it.”
Four decades later, the whereabouts of King Kong Kaiser are unknown (“My ex might have it, or she may have thrown it away,” Hendrickson said), but the Climb to Kaiser grinds on as the signature endurance sports event in the Fresno area.
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About 300 cyclists are expected for Saturday’s 40th annual slog from Alta Sierra Intermediate School to the top of 9,175-foot Kaiser Pass in the Sierra National Forest and back, including those doing the shorter Tollhouse Century and Millerton Metric rides.
It’s just a personal endurance challenge, man against the mountain.
Mark Perkins, Fresno Cycling Club historian and five-time finisher
That’s a big leap from June 25, 1977, when 46 hardy souls (44 men and two women) set out from Woodward Park for the inaugural ride on what was a 106-degree day in Fresno. Thirty finished.
“The only casualty was a Fresno clubber who crashed after hitting a sandy spot going down the grade to Big Creek. … A skinned thigh, only,” The Bee reported.
The Climb to Kaiser is 155 miles and requires 13,500 feet of climbing – which is plenty tough. However, it was actually conceived as a training ride for an even more grueling event called the Sierra Super Tour that ran 1,000 miles over eight days and tackled 13 passes.
The Climb to Kaiser is 155 miles long and requires 13,500 feet of climbing – which is plenty tough. However, it was actually conceived as a training ride.
“We just thought it would make a super training ride for people,” Lock said. “It’s a real surprise to me that it’s still going on.”
In those early years, Climb to Kaiser wasn’t the complete name. The ride was officially called the Fresno Uphill Climb to Kaiser – forming an acronym that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. (The Bee, in that 1977 story, called it the “Great Kaiser-And-Back ride.”)
Yes, the acronym was intentional. The ride’s logo (an amusing cartoon drawn by local artist Doug Hansen – note the turtle and snail keeping up with the sweaty cyclist) and first jersey had the words arranged so that the meaning was obvious.
“Everybody that has ever ridden up that hill from Big Creek to Huntington Lake, if that word is in your vocabulary, you’d use it more than once,” said Perkins, who finished the first five editions and has written a 700-page book on the Climb to Kaiser that has yet to be published. “It’s going to come out. If not, you’ll use a milder expletive.”
Halfway up Big Creek, we’d put a sign that said ‘Begin Climb Here.’ You just have to laugh at the pain.
Suzanne Lock, Climb to Kaiser founder
In time, as the Fresno Cycling Club transitioned from a hardcore racing club to one more focused on recreation, the “Fresno Uphill” part got lopped off.
Another big change is how riders view the event. These days, it’s all about finishing. (Brandon Franklin of Clovis holds the course record of 8 hours flat, set in 2011.) In 1977, the bigger goal was simply getting to the top.
Hendrickson’s “winning” time that first year was 6 hours, 29 minutes. After being awarded King Kong Kaiser, he and the stuffed gorilla posed for several photos that serve as a cycling time capsule: skinny-tubed frame; white Bell helmet hanging from the bars; pedals with toe clips; woolen jerseys and shorts; long, white socks.
“To me, Climb to Kaiser meant the climb to the pass,” said Hendrickson, who at the time owned a bike shop on the corner of Blackstone and Floradora.
“The ride down was meant to be kind of scenic, take your time. The goal, for most people nowadays, is to get down as fast as possible.”
Hendrickson never finished another Climb to Kaiser (he tried again in 2008, the year smoke from a nearby forest fire blanketed the course), so the memories of the first one are vivid.
“That day was one of those things when everything clicked,” he said. “I just flew up Big Creek. Even to this day I can’t believe how effortless it was.”
2,010 feet of elevation gain on notorious Big Creek climb, over 3.8 miles
That’ll be the first and only time the words “Big Creek” and “effortless” are used in the same sentence. The notorious climb from the village of Big Creek to the dammed end of Huntington Lake pitches up 2,010 feet in 3.8 miles with gradients that reach 20 percent.
But that didn’t prevent ride organizers in those early years from having some fun at the cyclists’ expense.
“Halfway up Big Creek, we’d put a sign that said ‘Begin Climb Here,’ ” Lock said with a chuckle. “You just have to laugh at the pain.”
The origins of the first Climb to Kaiser can be traced to a training ride Lock did in May 1966 with her then-husband, Nigel Lock, and their neighbor Ben Weaver, a past Fresno Cycling Club president.
It was Weaver who suggested riding from Fresno to Florence Lake, a place where he had gone fishing and backpacking. The trio left at sunrise, carrying one water bottle apiece and no lights, but elected to turn around once they ascended Kaiser Pass. By the time they got back, it was dark.
“That, as far as we know, was the first time the pass was ever ridden up on a bicycle and recorded,” Perkins said.
Suzanne Lock enjoyed the course so much, she soon proposed turning the ride into an annual event. That’s how the Climb to Kaiser began.
Ben (Weaver) said, ‘Hey, I know a ride. Let’s do it.’ So we did and I thought it could be made into an annual event.
A top endurance cyclist in her day (she completed the 1,200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris), Lock grew up in northern Michigan before moving to Fresno. Her first love was actually dog sledding.
At the top of Kaiser Pass sits a memorial to three dogs (Whiskey, Babe and Trim) that were part of an Alaskan sled team that delivered mail and light supplies to workers on the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project during the 1920s.
Climb to Kaiser riders in those early years would typically pose for photos next to the memorial. Sometimes, they’d even sit atop the wooden sign. That rarely happens today.
“Being up there is like being in a different world, but to me the memorial makes it even more personal,” Lock said from her cabin near Fish Camp. “It’s really awesome that the ride is still going on.”
Even if the winner no longer gets a stuffed gorilla.