Ironman Chris Lieto’s top 5 Northern California cycling routes

December 09, 2015                 5m read time
Chris Lieto

Sometimes Ironman champion and ZOZI Guru Chris Lieto describes a favorite cycling routes as “easy.” More often, he uses words like “crazy,” “challenging,” and “amazing,” all in one sentence. Give one of his top five Northern California rides a try and see what adjective (or expletive) you end up uttering at the end.

Napa’s Silverado Trail

Biker on the Silverado Trail in Napa, California Olga Vasilkova

Biker on the Silverado Trail in Napa, California

Olga Vasilkova


Distance: Varies; approximately 50 miles from Napa to Calistoga and back

Type: Out and back

Start at the Silverado Resort and Spa at Napa Valley. Take Hardman Avenue to Silverado Trail and head north. It’s a beautiful area with lots of wineries along the way. You’ll ride over rolling hills, but nothing is too challenging. It’s nice because you can go as far as you want and turn around when you’re ready to head home.

Make a day of it and pedal all the way to Calistoga. It’s about 25 miles one way, and the town is filled with restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms.

Mill Valley

Cyclist in Marin County, California Benedicto De Jesus

Cyclist in Marin County, California

Benedicto De Jesus


Distance: About 60 miles

Type: Loop

Park and start just north of San Francisco in the small bayside town of Tiburon. Head north and west, skirting the town of Mill Valley. Pick up Panoramic Highway, and take it into Mount Tamalpais State Park, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wind your way up to the top ridge of the mountain, pause on the peak (elevation 2,571 feet) to check out the views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the ocean, and then ride back down the west side of the range. You’ll drop into a beach community. Take Shoreline Highway along Bolinas Lagoon, to Olema (near Point Reyes), where you’ll head east onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Follow the country roads back through a bunch of small towns where you can stop for a protein bar or sandwich and refill your fluids. Pedal your way along the shore through Paradise Cay and back south to Tiberon.

Mount Diablo

Mount Diablo biker in California Oleg Shpyrko

Mount Diablo biker in California

Oleg Shpyrko


Distance: To summit and back, 26 miles; saddle option, approximately 12 miles from gate to gate

Type: Out and back

My old hometown is Danville, so I would start riding from downtown Danville. There are some great coffee shops to caffeinate and meet friends. And Pegasus Bicycle Works bike shop is there if you need any last-minute items. Pick up Diablo Road (which runs under the freeway) from downtown and head east toward Mount Diablo.

Cut off Diablo Road and ride through Diablo Country Club to avoid more traffic, then get back on the main road, and go through the park entrance on South Gate Road. Here you have a couple of options. You could go all the way to the summit of Mount Diablo (elevation 3,849 feet). It’s a really beautiful, peaceful trek, especially in the morning and on weekdays. You’ll see deer and birds and not a lot of cars. The grade is about five percent on average, so it’s an easy gradual climb. It’s one of my favorites places to ride.  

The second option is to ride to the saddle, which is the middle point between Danville and Walnut Creek. Ride up to the saddle from Danville, then switch at the Junction Ranger Station to North Gate Road and ride downhill to the park gate. Turn around, ride back up to the saddle, and head back to Danville and home. (Or if you’re training for a certain distance, make the saddle ride a couple of times. It doesn’t take a long time, and it gives you more variety than just the longer up and down to and from the summit.)

Mount Hamilton

Signs on Mount Hamilton in Northern California Oleg Shpyrko

Signs on Mount Hamilton in Northern California

Oleg Shpyrko


Distance: Approximately 100 miles

Type: Loop

This is a huge route—which means, for me, it was a great ride for Ironman training, but it’s very difficult and challenging. (It’s actually part of the Tour of California route.) Carry plenty of fuel with you.

Drive to Sunol, the town just south of Pleasanton. It’s very small town that was a railway hub in the late 1800s. I usually park at the Niles Canyon Railway (now a living history museum) and ride from there. Jump on Calaveras Road and head south, paralleling Interstate 680. This route will wind through country roads, past Calaveras Reservoir, all the way into San Jose. When you hit San Jose, head south on Piedmont Road, to State Route 130 (also known as Mount Hamilton Road) which you’ll ride all the up to the top of Mount Hamilton. There is a small section, maybe 5 miles or so, where you will hit some stoplights and traffic, but otherwise the majority of this route is very rural. Make sure you stop off in San Jose to refuel with fluids, especially because you won’t get another stop for a while. The climb up Mount Hamilton is beautiful, but a very long climb.

Stop at the top, and fill up from a water faucet there. (I'm not kidding about the fluids on this ride.) There is a little snack shop for tourists, but don’t count on it being open. The descent down the backside of Mt. Hamilton is steep with sharp corners, so be cautious through the downhill. Once you’re through that, you’ll hit country roads that take you back to rural California farmland 50 or a hundred years ago. Follow route 130 until it becomes Mines Road, which you’ll ride all the way to Livermore, descending and climbing rolling hills. There is one rest stop along this section. Make sure to pause and refuel—this will be your last food stop. Once you hit Livermore, you’ll backtrack through Pleasanton to your car in Sunol. It’s a crazy ride and an amazing ride. If it’s hot out, carry three bottles, if not four, because you’ll want them all. (Seriously. Stay hydrated.)

Lake Tahoe

Boardwalk at Lake Tahoe, perfect for biking David Lofink

Boardwalk at Lake Tahoe, perfect for biking

David Lofink


Distance: 76 miles

Type: Loop

Start in Tahoe City and ride around the lake. Ride clockwise—it’s the safer route, because you don’t have to cross over too many streets, and it’s also the more scenic route because you’re always on the inside of the lake.

Riding clockwise takes you from Tahoe City, through a little bit of a climb to Incline Village. Make sure to fuel up here because a long stretch without any good rest stops follows. After Incline Village, you’re riding more of a quiet road that goes around the backside of the lake in Nevada. There are great views along this route. When you’re coming from the north end of the lake to the south end, you’re riding through forestry area and you can see many different aspects of Lake Tahoe. You’ll find a lot of short climbs and a couple of big climbs, but no real traffic until you come through this stretch and into the more touristy South Lake Tahoe. Make sure you refuel well here, maybe even grab another bottle of water to tuck in your back pocket. There aren’t many stops again in this final stretch. Then head off into the long climb to the top of Emerald Bay and back to Tahoe City.

Chris Lieto

Chris Lieto has won 50-plus triathlons, including more than 10 Ironman events and two U.S. Ironman Championships. He also placed among the top 10 at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii three times, finishing with a career best of second place in 2009. Today, Lieto is most passionate about sharing his experiences and getting people excited about accomplishing their dreams.

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