Climbing Gibraltar Road

Complaint: The Tour of California needs more climbing stages.

Compliment: Being included as one of them puts you in high esteem.

Every year our famed cycling race gets one, maybe two stages that end on a true mountain finish.


Baldy and Diablo are the two that get repeated the most, but the Gibraltar Road climb has been asking, “What about me?” for the longest time.

Last year, this Santa Barbara beast of a climb finally got its due and definitely provided a dramatic day of racing.

Naturally, I wanted to see what all the hubbub was all about and I finally got my wish last week.


Starting off near Mission Santa Barbara.


While you have to climb to get up there if you’re starting from downtown, the commonly accepted segment of Gibraltar covers 6.1 miles climbing 2,593 feet.

For local reference, that’s a little vertical as climbing Angeles Crest Highway up to Clear Creek, but in about two and a half less miles.

Also, it’s far more punchy than the ‘Crest with spots that hit double digit grades.


A couple riders taking off layers after a cold descent.


The start is at Gibraltar and El Cielto where we found a few riders either preparing or recovering from the climb.

We were welcomed with an 9% grade as the road started its serpentine path along the mountain.


Start climbing this.


It’s very hard to distinguish where you are headed as the winding road occludes your view.

The first section exposes you to the longest visual stretch of the road covering about the first mile and a half.


A lot of edge.


You’ll see the occasional home along this part, but your eyes will be mostly cued into the view.

The mountains parallel the coastline at an equal distance reminding you this alignment forms part of the San Andreas Fault.


Starting to turn back in.


As you start to turn in, you start to feel enclosed with not much to look at other than hillside, but that lasts about a mile.

Soon the road turns west and as you finish the hairpin turn, you get a glimpse of the other side of the mountain while the ocean reappears again at the same time.


Obey signs. Or don’t.


You’re also greeted by a set of “No Shooting” signs which apparently mean you’re supposed to shoot at if you own a gun.

We approached a radio tower which signified the halfway point, a fact my friend did not hail as the haul was already starting to get to us.


That guy is adrift in life.

I would have taken a picture of this landmark, but I was distracted by the hang glider floating away in the distance.

From here, the mountains were more exposed as you can understand what millions of years of earth movement can form.


“Let’s put a road here. Why not?”


You’ll soon notice all the engineering challenges of building a road through such a rocky landscape.

If you look closely, you’ll notice pieces of that were cutaway were reused as support in certain places.


The reused rock blends in.


It’s easy to notice all this because the grade mellows out to a consistent 7% grade.

To shake you out of your ease, with about a mile and a half left to go you enter Flores Flats which is a bit of a misnomer.


Unwelcome to Flores Flats.


You can say this is an unwelcoming area with the number of questionably upkept homes sporting “No Trespassing” signs.

The real displeasure comes from the climb as you’re averaging above 11% for .6 miles with spots rising above that grade.


Not you again.


Right as you turn back inward, it’s a bit of a cruel joke to see all those hang gliders on the side of the road getting prepped to fly.

Yes. I get it. We’re already really high.

(BTW – Is hang gliding territorial like surfing? “These are our gusts!” I was too tired to stop and ask).

The last portion of the climb is a bit of a drudge.


There’s some end up there…


The views of the ocean and mountains are gone and you just wonder where you’re going and when it’s going to end.

There’s a cut of road off to right which is El Camino Cielo, but you seem to make M. C. Escheresque progress towards it, until somehow it sneaks up to you.

It’s a bit anti-climatic hitting this intersection, as there’s not a lot to see at this exact spot, but we continued (and did more climbing) up El Camino Cielo which provided the real payoff for views.


At least the sign tells you you’re finished.


I’m pretty eager to come back here, not just to try Gibraltar at a faster than casual speed, but also to give some of the dirt roads a try as well.

Gibraltar is definitely on the Mount Rushmore of Tour of California climbs.

It’s not the last time we’ll see it in the race. Or me either.