September 28, 2016

September 2016: Cycling the Northern California Coast

The Team
Nate and I are finally competent touring cyclists. We’ve ridden over 1000 miles, camped a dozen nights, and learned a few bike repair skills. We’re no experts, compared to the riders we meet along the trail, but we have a system that works for us. Instead of the usual day-by-day play-by-play, I hope the following stories will be more interesting.

The Route
Our 2010 ride finished at the Oregon-California border, and our 2014 ride began in San Francisco. We did Washington last year, so the route choice this year is easy: OR/CA to S.F.
It happens to be the longest section of the coast, at 465mi, which takes 7 days at our preferred pace. It also has the most elevation undulation, at 30,000’ of gain. The route follows highways 101 and 1, and uses surfaces streets and bike paths wherever possible.

Off the highway. Route finding.
The Preparation
A long adventure often requires some suffering. In cycling, it’s a badge of honor, something to brag about, to go for a sufferfest. Your ride is too long, too hot, too hilly, too hard, and your butt hurts, your legs cramp, your neck aches, and it’s completely miserable until the end, when you get to tell everybody how much fun it was. Wait, what? It wasn’t fun during the ride, but it was amazing afterwards? That’s what we call Type II fun.
To prepare for a Type II adventure, it’s best to practice a little Type II fun. I rode my bike 40 miles uphill, from 600’ elevation to over 6000’, on one continuous climb. Near the very summit, the ride downgraded to Type I/II, where it was still uncomfortable, but the stunning views put a smile on my sweaty face. The downhill was Type I fun, the whole way down. That’s where it’s fun throughout and you never want it to stop.
I did a few of those rides this summer, including one monster in Washington with Nate. There’s an event that Rides Around Mount Rainier in One Day: RAMROD. It’s 150mi with 10,000’ elevation gain. Nate did one short ride beforehand, but mostly did it ‘off the couch’. It was a 10-hour pedal, with a few lunch breaks in between. We got tired at the end, or maybe closer to the middle, but we finished with smiles, despite my route error that cost us a few miles and some hills near the end. For me, it was barely Type II, but I think Nate might disagree. He did, however, climb Rainier the following day, up above 14,000’. Off the couch to a 150mi ride and a 14k summit? He’s Type Two Tough.

RAMROD was in July. It was Nate’s only training for the September tour.

Rainier in a day.

The Gear
My steel touring bike is a beast. It’s strong and tough and hasn’t had a flat tire in 1500 miles. Still, it’s heavy, and the route has enough hills to warrant a gear diet. I slough as much weight as possible, including the front panniers, my fenders, most of my camera gear, and, of course, half of my clothing. Two shorts, two jerseys, three socks, one set of pants and shirt for camp, a puffy coat, a rain coat and a warm hat is all I need.
Okay, three pair of socks, for those keeping score. Also, if I'm desperate, I can turn my chamois shorts inside out and it counts as a fresh pair. So that’s really four shorts. Only kidding, I only do that trick with underwear.
People often ask, “how much does your bike weigh?”

I answer, “Enough.”

Importantly, and gratefully, Nate does bring bike lube this year. We both use it on Day 2 and are squeaky-free the rest of the trip.

Heavy enough.
Just add more grease and call it good.
It wouldn't be an adventure without a broken spoke or two. It's so easy now it's hardly noteworthy.
The Logistics
The OR/CA border is not an easy place to reach. From my house, I use Uber, a plane, a taxi, a shuttle, and my pedals to get to the starting line. Seven days later, I use BART, Amtrak, and a car to get home. Nate’s travel is similarly full of planes, trains and automobiles.

Here, and now: lunch.

The Weather
Picture your perfect day on the northern coast. It starts cold with a bit of fog, but rises to t-shirt weather as it burns off by late morning. It’s warm in the afternoon, the skies are clear and the wind is gently at your back. In the evening, it’s cool enough for pants, and at night you are happy and warm in your 30-degree down bag. You wake with the sunrise, dry.
Copy-paste that day 6 times and you have the weather from our ride. Perfect. Picture perfect.

Sea meets sky.
The Food
It’s the usual fare of freeze dried bags of salt and carbs, Clif bars, dried fruit, trail mix, bagels and butter. The best addition to this tour is the abundance of local bakery treats. Cinnamon rolls, blueberry buckle, cheesy pastries, they all taste amazing, and make our backpacker snacks inedible by comparison.
If you’re in the market for some trail food, avoid anything Kashi. Even when famished, the Kashi oatmeal is cardboard and the trail bars are as delicious as sand, only drier.
One highlight of the food this year is Nate’s version of backcountry potatoes. We find a market that would sell us a pint of milk and an individual stick of butter. He adds the whole stick to our serving of instant mashed potatoes, despite the recipe calling for only a couple tablespoons. We steal salt and pepper packets from a salad bar in town and use them to make the best camping potatoes you’ve ever seen.
Of course we plan our market stops to coincide with camp, so we are able to have cold beer and chips, as usual, each night. This year we add cheese and crackers to our post-ride routine.
We sample local beer from breweries in Brookings, the North Coast, Mendocino, and add some Rainier Beer to reminisce about the previous rides we’ve completed.

Butter, with potatoes.
Tastes even better after a long day.
The Camping
Count the number of friends who’d share a two-man tent with you, for a week. For me, it’s actually not that many. Now, drink a few beers, devour a bag of chips, a block of cheese, add a backpacker just-add-water meal and a variety of other processed foods and wait for your stomach volcano to vent it’s sulphur gases into the tent. Count the number of friends who would share with you now. My number is down to one, but I bet yours is lower. And just to be clear, not even my wife would share that tent with me. As you’ve guessed, Nate is the one, the only. Since he ate from the same menu, we sleep with the rain fly off, to avoid suffocation.
Besides the tent, we share just about everything else at camp too. One night, we even share a shower. We don’t shower together, per se, but we take turns because we only have enough quarters for one shower. He takes the first two minutes, then hops out, while I run in to get the last two minutes.
You might wonder why we don't just get more quarters. That’s fair, but each night we do get more quarters, and each successive camp requires more quarters than the night before. Day 1 is 25¢ for a minute. Day 2 is 50¢ for two minutes. Day 3 is four quarters for five minutes. Day 4 is eight quarters for five minutes. We prepare ourselves to skip the shower on Days 5-7 because exponentially increasing quarters become very heavy.

Camp in the 'Woods.
The People
We meet some wonderful cyclists on the route. Some are solo, most are pairs, and all have grand stories to share. Across the board, everyone has more ambitious trips than ours. Some are riding the standard route, from Vancouver to San Diego, a mere 1857 miles, ho-hum. One pair from France had ridden from the Cape, through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, then flew to the States to ride another couple months. Another pair from England rode most of Europe, then Boston to Vancouver, then south to CA, and next they’ll head to Japan and New Zealand and then southeast Asia before pedaling home. Another couple from Switzerland on a recumbent tandem, which I’ve never seen before, is riding from Alaska to Argentina.
These riders are inspiring and their stories pique our imagination for further and farther adventures.

End of the day.
The Riding
It’s a challenge to put 465 miles into a sentence. It’s accurate to use the words long, hilly, beautiful, and amazing, but it’s insufficient. I should add the words pain, fatigue, and endless, but also exhilarating, breathtaking, and saddle sore.
It’s too easy to say you had to be there, so I’ll highlight the most memorable miles.

Navigating the hazards of road construction.
Looking at a 2000 year old tree takes perspective, in more ways than one.
On Day 2, we ride nearly 90 miles, finishing on the aptly named Avenue of the Giants in the Redwoods National Park. Simply exiting the highway and dropping into the shade of the Avenue is a special moment. The trees envelop me instantly. It’s a different world: cool, dark, quiet, and calm. The trunks grow inches from the gently winding road. I could touch them if I wanted, and I do. I stop for a snack amongst a few fallen logs, but the mosquitoes drive me back to the bike, where I find the experience to be better anyway. Removing my helmet, glasses, and gloves, I glide down the Avenue, just me and the trees.
Camp arrives too soon and we realize we missed our chance at cold drinks. We ditch the gear and ride 4 more miles to the next market, to grab a few beers before closing. We drink the beer, and guzzle the satisfaction of how far we’ve come. Literally, we’ve come 170 miles in two days, but figuratively we’ve come further. We’ve reached the point in our cycle touring that even after an 89 mile day, six and a half hours of pedaling, we still find it worthwhile to pop on down the road 30 minutes for a cold drink. And chips.

The Avenue.
The middle Days, 3-5, blend together in the metronomy of rolling hills. The pedals turn and turn, a geared metronome. Each small hill repeats the previous one’s monotony. Pedal hard up a hill, ease the effort over the crest, and glide down the other side. Find a rhythm and hold it for hours, then days.
I start doing math, because, well, why not? Let’s see here, we’re doing about 50 miles today, and we gained about 5000’ in total climbing. That’s about the same as my last Type II ride where I pedaled 40mi and gained 5000’. But then I realize on this day our net elevation gain is actually zero, because we start at the coast and end at the coast. So, for every mile of climbing, there’s about a mile of descending, which means we climbed 5000’ in only about 25 miles of uphill. That’s 4% grade, average. Most riders consider a 4% hill pretty stout, even if it’s only a mile or two. Try it for 25 miles, with a bike that weighs enough and the only way to get through it is to tune the metronome and embrace the monotony.
The last tip is to never pedal downhill if gravity will do the work for you. Whenever possible, sit back and coast the Coast.

Left, right, up, down, but never flat nor straight.
Day 6 stands alone as my favorite day of touring, ever. We eat the last of our breakfast, except for the Kashi birdfood, and pedal into the morning light. Usually me knees complain for the first hour of the day, until they remember that I don’t care what they have to say. Today, though, they only whine on the first pitch and remain silent the rest of the day. The rolling hills and steep cliffs resemble Big Sur from the past, but I’m stronger and tougher and now relish the metronomy. Light traffic, smooth roads, wispy fog, and a tail wind. The riding is as good as it gets. But then, it gets better. Nearing the summit of the day’s route, we break through the fog and the road gleams ahead of us. It’s a downhill from the Alps, winding banking turning switchbacks with the sun at our back and the ocean in front. We swing down the grade, braking around blind corners but otherwise simply leaning in and holding on, gravity’s passengers. On a straightaway, the urge to fly is irresistible. I release the bars, straighten my back and my arms become wings. 30mph and the only thing wider than my wings is my smile.
The rest of the day is the beautiful tone we know so well. Up down up down up down….
We can’t find a restaurant for our last night, which is one of our touring traditions, so we buy canned food instead, knowing darn well we have no can opener and not enough fuel to cook it. We do it anyway. We scavenge an opener and get to work. Pinto beans, corn, avocado, tortillas, tomatoes. The stove burns for three minutes before it putters out. We slap together our medium-warm burritos and it’s the best dinner of the week.
While eating we enjoy the company of two French cyclists. They passed us earlier in the day, on a bus, skipping the first few hours of the day’s riding. One mentions seeing a rider flying through the descent, arms wide as wings. The non-cyclists on the bus were panicked, but the French invented wing suits. Their envy is palpable. I’ve rarely been so proud of myself.
We collect a heap of quarters and prepare ourselves for an $8 shower, since it’s now 25 quarters per shower. I step in and test the knob. Hot water. Zero quarters.

Riding the fog B.D.E.
Coastal cliffs B.D.E.
Another B.D.E sunset.
The Numbers
I’m obsessed with numbers, and planning. Nate is somewhat the opposite. He lets me do the planning, he doesn’t have a bike computer, he doesn’t know how fast we’re riding or how far we’ve gone, he doesn’t know any more about the route than the signs on the side of the road. Only at the end of the day does he ask, ‘How far’d we go today?’ It’s a refreshing attitude, to just show up and be ready for whatever happens. I’d like to incorporate more of that into my own life, but right now I have a spreadsheet of times and distances to share. So first, the stats!

Garmin GPS computer.
Day 1: 85 miles, 6:33, 12.9 mph ave, 4,700’ elevation gain.
Day 2: 88 miles, 6:37, 13.4 ave, 3700’.
Day 3: 48 miles, 3:47, 12.6 ave, 3100’.
Day 4: 62 miles, 4:50, 12.8 ave, 4500’.
Day 5: 72 miles, 5:17, 13.6 ave, 5100’.
Day 6: 66 miles, 4:51, 13.5 ave, 4900’.
Day 7: 33 miles, 2:46, 12.1 ave, 1500’.

The precision is untrustworthy, and my other GPS app has slightly different numbers, so I round to the following totals:
465 miles, 35 hours, 13 mph average, 30,000’ elevation gain.

Best Day Ever.


  1. What a great story. The images are gorgeous. Happy you and Nate have such great adventures. Nice team: a planner and someone happy to follow it. I loved that I could pick you up at the train station after your trip. And loved being with Vanessa and they boys. Holding down the fort while you ride. MamaK

  2. Hi, J!

    How are you???!! It's been forever. :)

    I know this is so incredibly random that I'm writing you in this forum, but I didn't know how else to get ahold of you, and it's actually relevant.

    I'd like to ride the McKenzie River Trail with my dad. I'm not a cyclist by any means, but we'd like to do it! Curious to see if you've done it or heard anything, and if so, what do I need to know?

    Loved reading about your journey! I hope you're doing well!!!

    T. Pieper

    P.S. Email me at if you get this! :)