Six Days: San Francisco to Los Angeles
Cycling down the Pacific Coast Bike Route in 2018
It didn’t rain once, although the coastal marine layer smothered us at times. I ignored the news. I slept deeply every night. We woke up, ate, rode, talked and laughed. We spun up some hills, hammered down some descents, stopped to admire the views, and slowed down to chat and listen. I only regret not having more ice cream.
This ride was with http://www.fireflieswest.com — a charity ride to raise funds for The City of Hope. All cyclists fundraise, but importantly, pay their own way so all money raised goes directly to the City of Hope.
Fireflies West — Day 1
The ride started in a thick Bay Area fog. It didn’t burn off, just dissipated slightly to reveal an equally drab sky — low, lazy clouds, that weren’t threatening, but nor were they going away.
The highway was a bit of classic Californian riding — a wide shoulder with cars whizzing by. Plenty of glass remnants and subsequent punctures amongst the group. We were told to take it easy on the first day. So we hammered down the long stretches by the coast.
A diversion off the highway down Stage Rd offered some relief from the traffic, although it was ominously sign posted with a warning: “Bicycles not advised. Loose gravel”. It turned out to be not as bad as all that, with just a dusting of gravel yet to be carried away on some truck tires. The climb and descent were quiet and peaceful. The noise of the highway faded away to conversation and the rhythmic sounds of our breathing up the climb. Rolling into Pescadero, we found the Downtown Local Cafe. The Police was playing off vinyl, the barista halting all work to carefully flip and brush the dust off the B-side. It was the best coffee of the trip, and Stage Rd was also one of the best roads of the ride. It was an early treat. Back to the highway, we continued on to Santa Cruz. We stopped at a strawberry farm and sampled the produce. Small and sweet, the fruit was far superior to the stuff you find in the chain supermarkets. Some went for a slice of strawberry pie. I think I was getting pretty sick of sugar at this stage and gave it a miss. We rolled into Santa Cruz, and plied ourselves with chocolate milk and beer, happy that there were no first-day problems.
Fireflies West — Day 2
Santa Cruz to Big Sur. Another grey start to the day. It was cool and chilly. I made coffee for my roommate, Polo, and we talked about the course, and what we would wear. Polo dressed for warmth, I dressed to carry as little weight as possible. In retrospect, just a gilet may have been too light.
I had ridden northwards from Monterey, through Santa Cruz to Palo Alto last summer. I was curious to do it the “correct” way around this time. We more or less followed the Pacific Coast Bike Route along the coastline. It weaves in and around quite a lot of farmland, where there are also quite a lot of trucks. The roads aren’t the best, and we had more than our fair share of punctures — nails, glass, and industrial staples. Things got very civilized on the Monterey bike path, and we relaxed into a more genteel pace. We had lunch in Carmel. For the first time in the trip, the sun got a toehold through the clouds, gradually burning them off, bringing glorious (and somewhat unrelenting) sunshine. The ride towards Big Sur was a treat. The ocean was lit up, the air was clear and we could see for miles. We stopped for pictures as often as we could, joining the milling tourists on the north side of the Bill Bixby Bridge. Occasionally people would ask where we were riding to, looking a bit incredulous when we said Los Angeles… I didn’t think to explain that our luggage was in the back of a truck, and we weren’t living in our cycling kit 24/7. We stayed at Big Sur Lodge, in their well-appointed cabins. We all ate together. Fellow Fireflies spoke of their personal stories, how cancer affected them, how they had survived, or overcome, or continued to battle. They were touching, visceral, sad and sometimes humorous anecdotes. Ultimately they were very intimate stories. They reminded us all of why we were doing this. As indulgent as cycling a tour can be, it felt we were at least trying to give something back.
Fireflies West — Day 3
The sun stayed with us on Day 3. We split into smaller groups for our ride down the highway. Big Sur did not disappoint. It looked glorious in the early morning light. We passed over the new section of road, where a mudslide had left the highway severed for about a year (or more?). We took an early turn and climbed Nacimiento Rd. What a beautiful climb! The first section was rather steep, but the grades became a little gentler the further we went up. In the exposed sections, we had an incredible view over Big Sur. Then the road would close up under a canopy of trees — we’d climb in the cool — the dappled light rolling over road to rider back to road. At the crest, a number of curious hikers asked what we were doing. We collected water, bars, gels and ate grapes out of the back of the support car. Being able to refill at the top was a boon, and I am not sure where the next water stop would have been without it. I would guess quite a few miles. After the descent (as awesome as the climb) we headed towards Paso Robles. It was Saturday, and San Antonio Lake was busy with recreational boats. Unfortunately, while we were in small groups to lower our footprint on the road, some trucks towing boats buzzed us. I had thought that Paso Robles was a cycling Mecca. By the looks of some of the side roads, it is, but it certainly wasn’t on our road. The worst of the harassment was a black truck that slowed in front to unleash “rolling coal” (the car has been altered to belch black smoke). The driver farted diesel bile at every group he could find on the road. I am at a loss to explain that mentality. But the early parts of the day, and the glorious ride on Nacimiento overshadowed any aggression completely. In Paso Robles, we ate an excellent Thai meal, and slept heavily.
Fireflies West — Day 4
Fireflies West — Day 4
170.4 km, +1574 m. Bike ride in El Paso de Robles (Paso Robles), CA
September 30th, 8:21 am, 2018
The sun was a little less generous heading in to Day Four. The thick cloud cover we left in San Francisco decided to come back, but it definitely was a lot warmer. Day Three had been the most amount of climbing we would do in one day, but Day Four was the longest at 170 km (105 miles). The carrot on the stick was if we made good time, we would still be able to get to Rusack Vineyards before they closed. The course was familiar to me, having ridden back towards LA a few times from San Luis Obispo (because that’s where the train stops!). We had a fun diversion off the highway onto some gravel… I babied my bike all the way down. I’d had quite a jarring gravel crash way back in March. My appetite for breaking bones has diminished somewhat… but I do enjoy the odd gravel jaunt. Even so, there were quite a few pinch flats amongst us. We ate in Santa Maria, overwhelming a salad and sandwich chain store like land-bound Piranhas. We drowned our dehydration in bottomless iced-teas. There was some anxiety from certain members of the group to make it the winery on time. Pushing on from Santa Maria, we followed Foxen Canyon Rd, starting out at quite a pace. This is one of my favorite roads in California, but I am not sure if that is just because of familiarity or because it is really awesome. Maybe it’s just all the wineries. It was, of course, hot. It’s always a warm ride there. Even though the clock was ticking, a few of us let the desperate and thirsty paceline kick ahead, and we enjoyed the ride. At one stage, my roommate Polo blasted past us, in some sort of crazed solo TT towards the winery. I guess he didn’t want to miss out. The headwind wasn’t going to let him go too far from us though, and we kept sight of him all the way in. We got there with an hour to spare. Ordered a bottle and sat in the grass. I don’t know if dehydration affects the palate significantly when it comes to wine, but it tasted great. I think our metabolisms by this stage were running at 11, and that wine felt like it barely hit the sides. There were no bold Sideways judgements going on. We were just grateful to get a taste. We rolled downhill for the few miles into Solvang afterwards. Solvang is an interesting town. Whoever thought a Dutch-themed town would be a good idea in wine-country? Rich, (my regular riding partner on this trip), and I went to the closest pizza place we could find. Luckily they sold XL size. We ate like cyclists.
Fireflies West — Day 5
Solvang to Ventura. Light cloud cover, and only really one major climb. This would turn out the be the hardest day for me. My legs felt fine, but I had managed to damage a cleat to the point that it refused to float at all. My bike-fit was also beginning to change, and I had a restless day of saddle fore-aft and height adjustments, looking for that Goldilocks position again… Coming out of Solvang, we quickly ended up on Highway 154, San Marcos Pass road. It’s a terrible road for riding, and one that I have never ridden until now. Previously I have used the 101, which has a much more generous shoulder. However, when we turned onto Stage Coach Rd, the benefits of this route became obvious. It’s a beautiful climb, barely any traffic, quiet and reasonably shaded. You slowly wind up the hill, passing the curiously isolated Cold Springs Tavern (well worth the stop). At the top of this hill, our ever cheerful support crew jumped around in pineapple and flamingo outfits, served us banana and Nutella sandwiches while we took group photos. Another short stint on the 154 downhill (speed!), until we turned onto N San Marcos Rd. A quick, sharp descent — the kind that begs you to overcook corners and threatens to fling you off the steep sides. In short, quite fun. Some of the more enthusiastic riders took a side trip up Gibraltar Rd, the most famous climb in the area. I was keen at first, but my quickly degrading cleat gave me an excuse to back out. We cruised towards lunch in Montecito, playing a guessing game to choose which one was Oprah’s house. The run from there to Ventura was flat and stuck to the cycling infrastructure. I found a bike shop along the way to buy a new set of cleats, giving me sweet relief from the growing bike-anxiety of the day. The hotel had a pool, if it was actually being used by anyone, I’d say we took it over. However, it wasn’t being used, so I guess we just occupied it and soaked ourselves. That evening we had a final dinner, appropriately Italian. More stories and talks, some heartwarming and some harrowing. By this time we had begun to know each other quite well, and I heard family being used more than friend.
Fireflies West — Day 6
The final leg, from Ventura to Los Angeles (Playa del Rey) via Calabasas. The group was joined by a solid turnout of fresh-legged guest riders. The big climb of the day was Mulholland Highway, and we hammered down the Pacific Coast Highway to where it starts upwards next to Leo Carrillo campground. I felt pretty good, which surprised me. We either kept a solid pace, or it felt like a solid pace up the climb. It could have also have been because we were on home turf, familiar roads, not far from our destination. Pedaler’s Fork put on a great spread for us. I got a flat from a good old-fashioned thorn. “I didn’t think they still made those,” I quipped, amusing myself with my Dad-joke more than I should have. Rich and I headed out to the Old Topanga climb, and whistled down the other side. On the Topanga descent, a kind woman in a white Mercedes kept a careful distance as we paced ourselves down the hill. It was a small act that I deeply appreciated. It is unusual on that section of road to meet a patient driver. I gave her a wave and a thumbs up, she waved back, and soon we were back on the final sections of the PCH. Turning on to the beach bicycle path Rich and I couldn’t see any other red jerseys within cooee of us. So we did what all responsible cyclists would do in this situation: we stopped for coffee (mostly in the hope that we wouldn’t be first). It’s not a race, and we were first to lunch. Being first to the regroup before the final end point would not look good, we rationalized. When we actually got to our designated spot, we were still the first to arrive. Whoops. It took a good 15 minutes to see anyone else, but at least there were a few of them. Nobody chided us for being there first. We told them we had been there for an hour anyway. It didn’t take long for the main body of the group to arrive, and with beers, cheers and a few tears, we rolled into the final end of ride party as a group. Huge cheers from family and friends as we rode into the car park of advertising agency 72andSunny. Music, more drinks and food. I couldn’t work out if I was more tired or sad that the ride was over.
It was a great six days on the road. I made friends that I look forward to riding with for years to come; and — as is the way with these kind of trips — made memories for a lifetime.
The tour was amazingly well organized. Kudos to those who sacrificed many riding days to make it so smooth, precise, and run like clockwork. I can’t imagine the amount of work it took. We were 45 totally spoiled riders to have such a good crew. The spirit, friendliness, and dedication that imbued the ride flowed from and was sustained by them.