April 3, 2014

Cycling San Francisco to Santa Barbara

In 2010, I rode the Oregon coast with Nate and Kimber Hansen. (Photos & Video) We covered 413 miles in 9 days, at a very comfortable 11 miles per hour and 50 miles per day. It was a stunning way to experience the coast, with ample time for photos, frisbee, and relaxation.
We told ourselves that one day we would continue the trip, down the California coast. Well, that day recently arrived on short notice. Nate found a few days off from podiatry school and we discussed a few adventure options. Considering weather, travel, and (least of all) fitness, we decided to ride another 400 mile section of Hwy 1, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. In the time crunch, we only could afford 4 days of riding. Dividing 400 miles by 4 days is pretty easy math, but the 100-miles-per-day resultant is definitively not easy.
           Before this trip, my longest ever bike ride was 60 miles, and that was in 2008. On the Oregon tour, our longest day was only 55 miles. Since moving to CA in 2011, my longest ride has been a mere 20 miles. This is all simply to say that riding 100 miles in a day would roughly double my previous best. To do 4 consecutive 100 milers would break my personal measuring stick.

Day 1: Oakland, 7:30am.
            The first segment of our ride is the most circuitous, as we navigate the BART rails, weave through The City traffic, curve down the famous Lombard St, pass the Golden Gate, and finally hit the beach at Hwy 1.

            Pacifica, 10:00am.
            After 25 miles, we’re finally getting in the groove. Open highways, scenic terrain, and perfect weather dissolve the miles easily. Our rhythm becomes very simple: pedal-pedal-pedal-eat, pedal-pedal-pedal-eat, rinse-and-repeat.

Day 2: Santa Cruz, 8:30am.
Our daily pattern is fully developed. There is no time for anything but pedaling and eating. The morning is not so scenic, but the eating is terrific. The roadside produce stands are a treasure, the Whole Enchilada in particular, and it’s hard to beat a Sunday afternoon in Monterey.

            Monterey, 12:30pm.                                                                       After lunch, we tour the famous 17-mile-drive around Pebble Beach. Shortly after leaving Carmel, we develop a new component to our routine: bike repair. This year we forego the single-wheel bike trailers from the Oregon ride, and opt to load all our gear onto our rear panniers. It should be obvious that our aluminum and carbon bikes are not designed for the extra weight, as they have no braze-ons (fancy bike word for ‘mounting spots’) for rear racks. Nonetheless, we use a blend a jury rigging (link) and jimmy rigging (link) to affix our gear as best we can. Eventually, inevitably, things fall apart. First to break is Nate’s rack. We scrap some pieces, replace some screws, and continue south. Pedal-pedal-repair-pedal-eat, pedal-pedal-repair-pedal-eat… It just doesn’t have the same rhythm. We make it to camp with few other issues, but the physical strain of 190 miles in two days starts to affect us.


            Big Sur, 6:30pm.
            The scenery of the riding is unrivaled, and the downhill sections are exhilarating, but the highlight of each day is definitely the first few minutes at camp. Parking the bikes, putting on sandals, and resting at the picnic table with a beer… it’s even better than lunch in Monterey. A great component of our coastal bikepacking is that we can usually find a market within a few miles of camp. With some planning, we ride as lightly as possible, then bulk up on food and drink just before the finish. In this way, we always have fresh food and cold beer when we collapse at the campsite. Also of great benefit to bike campers is the $5 fee in most state parks. The regular sites are up to $35.
            Despite the lavish comforts of camp, the nights arrive quickly and the mornings quicker still. With many miles to cover, we wake at 5:30 to break camp. The sudden transition is difficult. Riding in the dark is a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to the hills that await in Big Sur.

Day 3: Big Sur, 7:00am.
            The camera battery dies as the sunrise paints pastels over the Pacific. This section of Hwy 1, ridden at this hour, is the most beautiful I've ridden.

            However, the hills, with a heavy bike and my out-of-shape knees, make it also the most painful ride of my life.
In 2010, I developed bursitis in my knee, causing shooting pain under the stress of pedaling uphill. It took 3 months to recover. As I fought my way up the Big Sur hills, I struggled physically with the same shooting pains in my knees. I struggled mentally with the idea that I was causing long-term damage to the joints. I feared that I was sentencing myself to a summer of rest and inactivity. It was painful, frustrating, even scary.
After 2 hours and only 20 miles, I near my breaking point. I consider the options: 1) quit and hitch a ride to the nearest train station, or 2) stop at the next available camp and spend the next two days limping to the next town. Either choice leaves us short of our goal. I am very stubborn, and I despise giving up, so instead of changing the plan, I ditch the plans completely.
Let’s just ride until you can’t ride anymore. One hour more. One mile more. One minute more. One more crank of the pedal. When even the smallest of steps becomes too difficult, I again throw out the plan. I curse the pain and something clicks: just do it. It’s no Nike slogan. It is just a realization that physical pain and mental anguish are temporary and beatable. I refuse to quit. Also, Nate is about a mile ahead of me. I can’t quit and leave him pedaling onward unaware of my absence.
Oh, I almost forgot, Nate is also now carrying the tent, my sleeping bag, my pad, my clothes, all of the food, and anything else we can strap to his bike. I can’t let him haul all of my shit up these steep-ass hills and then tell him I can’t do it anymore.

Ragged Point, 12:00pm.
I manage to drag myself up the last of the Big Sur hills and coast into a lunch break. In nearly 6 hours, we’ve ridden less than 50 miles. Again we discuss the we’re-not-quitting-but-we-need-a-back-up plan.
Can I ride 20 miles more? I’m not sure.
Could we make it another 60 to San Luis Obispo by the next day, to catch a train? I’m afraid to answer.
It’s still 180 to Santa Barbara. We’re barely halfway. We can’t quit yet.
Lunch restores our energy, our mood, our optimism, and our just-do-it attitude.

That is, of course, until the bike itself can’t ride anymore. Finally in a groove, making great pace along the gentler terrain, I hear an unwelcome sound: crack-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping. A spoke on my rear wheel finally gives out under the heavy load. Bike spokes provide tension on the rim of the wheel, distributing weight and holding its shape. When one breaks, the balance is lost and the remaining spokes take disproportionate loads. In practice, this means the wheel is no longer round, or ‘true.’ An un-true wheel wobbles and often rubs on the brakes. In my case, the wheel was so out of balance that it wouldn’t even spin.
We spent 20 minutes fiddling with the wheel, using inadequate tools, to straighten it enough to spin freely.

Another great thing about this ride is the beautiful road-side work benches.

I am impressed with our attitude. Instead of collapsing under another obstacle, we persevere again. Things are rolling so smoothly now that we forget about the back-up plans. We ride another 40 miles without a worry. Only 29 more to SLO.

Nearing SLO, we pass 100 miles on the day, along a winding country road.

After a quick stop for dinner, we press on to Pismo Beach. At mile 115, after sunset, we pass a campground that is unheralded in my guide book. We skip ahead to the next one, a few miles farther south. Upon arriving there, we discover it’s a total dump: 5 motor homes and a pit toilet. Back to the first campground, a few miles north, we discover there are no sites for bicyclists. Grateful to see a park ranger, he suggests an RV park down the road that has ‘limited space for bikers.’ We’ll take it! Another few miles south and we reach a mega RV park, poorly lit, with no instructions for cyclists. At mile 125, after 10 hours of pedaling, we’re too tired to go anywhere else.
Our luck finally turns when a local comes staggering through the parking lot, obviously well inebriated on a Tuesday evening. He guides us (See: bowling ball down a bumper lane) to a patch of dirt in the corner of the park.
Again, luck finds us when we spot someone exiting the pass-code protected showers. We revel in long, hot (and free!) showers.
We sleep soundly, despite being only 30 feet from Hwy 1.

Day 4: Pismo, 6:30am.
            We awake in the dark, again, to begin the last leg of the tour: 100 miles to Santa Barbara. I continue to push through the knee pain as the miles roll by. This day, it’s Nate who seems to be dragging. After 2 hours, he is spent. I’ve never seen him like this. I know my pace is mediocre, and if he can barely keep up, something must be wrong. We break for a snack, back in our pedal-pedal-pedal-eat rhythm, only to discover that he has broken a spoke.

            His wheel has been rubbing all morning. For 25 miles, he’s been riding with the brakes on. We were too tired to notice. Usually a mechanical breakdown like this might lead to a break down of a more emotional nature. Instead, we embrace the difficulty of the day, we flip the bike, we fix the wheel, and we celebrate the realization that the riding will get easier (now that the brakes aren’t engaged). We get back to pedal-pedal-pedal-eat, and summit the Purisima hills nearing Lompoc.

Lompoc, 11:30.
We stop for lunch in a vacant corner lot. Or, is it an art garden? Who cares. Let’s eat.

            We summit the last hill of the trip, at 1:30pm, with only 40 miles to Santa Barbara. I text my SB friends to proclaim our success: “Only 40 miles to go. All downhill and downwind. See you in a few hours.”

            Oops. Whether you believe in superstition or not, it’s clear that a big adventure isn’t over ‘til it’s over, and it makes no sense to get ahead of yourself.
            At the bottom of the hill, still 30 miles out, I blow a tire. I squirm the bike to a safe spot and take out the repair kit. A new tire. A new tube. Tire irons. A hand pump. A CO2 pump and cartridge…. While we’re at it, we true Nate’s wheel again. Other cyclists pass us while we work.

            We know the repair is not perfect. The tire pressure is insufficient. I ride gently, but cannot avoid the bumps in the road. Five miles later, over a bridge, I blow another tube. So much for “downhill and downwind.” We stop in the shade and I whip another tube on the wheel. In my haste, I scrape knuckles over metal and blood runs down my hands.
            Nate and I take stock of our gear. We have a tire and tubes remaining, but no more CO2. My hand pump proves worthless, which means the next flat might sink the trip.

            El Capitan State Park (off-ramp), 4:00pm.
            By now, you might know where this is headed. We ride a few miles more and Nate pulls off the road ahead of me. Flat tire. We try to fix it, but we’re short on supplies.
            At mile 383, it’s finally time to call it.

As if in a tv gameshow, I use my call-a-friend lifeline, and a truck arrives 45 minutes later to take us to town. Our heads held high, we do not admit defeat. We rode 383 miles in 4 days, and there’s no shame in saving the last 20 for another ride.

Route Maps
Day 1: 93 miles, 12.4 ave, 5300’ elevation gain.
Day 2: 85 miles, 13.1 ave, 4700’ gain.
Day 3: 125 miles, 12.3 ave, 9200’ gain.
Day 4: 80 miles, 13.5 ave, 4000’ gain.
Total: 383 miles, in 30 hours of riding, average speed 12.8 mph, 23,000’ gain.
95 miles per day.

Thanks to Nate for his relentless positive attitude, and for hauling my gear through Big Sur.
Thanks to Nate Tang for guiding us through SF.
Thanks to Adam for skipping out of work to pick us up on the side of the road.
Thanks to Adam and Lindsay for hosting us in SB.
Thanks to Steve and Melissa for joining us for celebratory burgers and beers.
Thanks to Kimber for the ride back to Oakland.

Thanks are also due to the songs in the above videos. I put a play list on during the painful climbs and it helped boost me up the hills.
Pumpin Blood - NONONO
I Love It - Icona Pop
Closer - Tegan and Sara
Miles Away - Years Around the Sun
Get Some - Lykke Li
Leave the Lights on - Meiko
...and more...