A Coastal Excursion

A Tour down the Central Coast of California

Rob Hawks
rhawks at lmi dot net
April 18 to 21, 2002

Ok, the trip is over, so I can say without fear of jinxing it that we had tailwinds. Or, should I say TAILWINDS! On thursday, April 18th, our group of 13 riders and Leslie, our van driver left San Ramon, the last riders a few minutes before 8:00 am with the day's destination of Monterey ahead, but with the ultimate destination four days and about 440 miles later of Malibu, California. I only really knew one of the other 12 riders before the trip started, but had met one other briefly at the Grizzly Peak Cyclists Individual Time Trial a few years back. By the end of the trip of course everyone knew quite a bit more about each of the other riders. Long days in the saddle and huge shared meals at days end will do that.

Pre-history of the ride:

This ride is not an organized, commercial ride. In more humorous moments, I think we all might say it's more disorganized than anything else. Really, what it is is a multi day ride that several current and former Pac Bell employees and friends have been doing since around 1990. This year, after skipping the ride in 2001, the group was 13 riders, with only five riders who had done this ride before. Before each ride, in February, someone steps forward as overall coordinator (Shelley this year), and shakes the bushes for people to fill in roles such as food buyer, lodging coordinator, transportation coordinator, etc.

The plan was set for four days of riding, with stops in Monterey, Cayucos, Goleta, and the finish at Pepperdine University where we would unload the van that followed us from the start, and we would repack it with all the bikes. The return to the Bay Area would be either by the sag van, a rental mini-van or a flight from Burbank Airport (usually a few people volunteer to do this which reduces the size of the return vehicle). This has largely been the routine on all the coastal trips the group has done.

Day 1: San Ramon to Monterey

As mentioned, we rolled out just before 8am, after gathering in the Pac Bell parking lot at Bishop Ranch in San Ramon. From the moment I hopped on my bike, every inch of this ride was brand new territory for me. The day would take us through alternating segments of urban, rural, urban, rural, and urban roads. At days end I was surprised to find that we had climbed 5,000 feet for the day (Note: any elevation figures I give are going to be rounded figures based on data from different models of computers. Heck, this stuff is never 'exact' anyway), when the only climbs I remember were Calaveras Road and Hecker Pass, and the very long, very flat stretch between the two climbs. The forecast before the trip was for clear and dry weather, with afternoon winds out of the northwest. For the first day anyway those winds were predicted to include local gusts of over 30 mph. It was just that wind that caused my big mistake the first day, but more on that in just a bit.

The 'San Ramon and immediate south' part of the trip was complete with morning commuters, but the roads led us more and more into rural areas. Ron and his friend Bruce were riding Easy Rider Gold Rush recumbents, with fairings and full body stockings, and on the flatter early sections they pulled ahead of us. Later we found out that they had gone off route, and we didn't see them until lunch in Morgan Hill. I had never been on Calaveras Road before, and it was a treat. The climb itself was not too stout but it did manage to break us into two groups (actually one group of four had left an hour ahead of the main group, and with the two recumbents on a different route, the remainder to be split was just seven riders) of four and three riders. A planned rest at the top gave me a chance to enjoy the scenery, which in mid April was quite green. A few miles of undulating terrain preceeded the screaming descent into Milpitas.

Now began my least favorite part of the first day's ride, the schlep through suburban San Jose. After heading south for a bit, we turned right and west on Tully through stop and go riding, and just as we neared a freeway overpass I got the first flat of the tour. This should have been noticed for the omen it was for me, but I hurried through the tube change as three other riders waited for me. I was happy to leave the noise on Tully, and if not for the tailwind I'm sure Monterey Highway would have been just as noisy. Instead though, it was a blast. Lee, Shelley, Yehuda and I easily managed a pace over 20mph, and after awhile the intersections and stop lights became very infrequent. Traffic was still such that we had to ride single file, and the scenery was nothing to look at, so we put our thoughts and efforts into getting down the road and to lunch.

The faster riders, Bill, Kent and Shawn were just finishing up their lunch and just as we were getting our sandwiches Ron and Bruce showed up. That was a bit of a surprise until we found out why we hadn't passed them and were actually ahead of them. We started out from lunch in the same subsets as before, but Lee and I were getting into riding with the fierce tailwind. Neither of us noticed when we passed our turn on Watsonville road and it wasn't until we passed the city limit sign to Gilroy that we began to think about why we hadn't yet seen our turn. I had mistakenly read the cue for the next line down so instead of turning after just two miles, we were seven miles down the road. Ugh. That wonderful tailwind was now our curse and we struggled to keep up a pace that was half of our speed going the other way.

Ten miles out and back and we were back on course but close to an hour behind after stopping several times to figure out just where we should have turned. Watsonville road led us to Hecker Pass road and up Hecker Pass. The county line sits atop the pass and there was the van waiting for us. We found out we were 45 minutes behind, but Lee's knee had begun to hurt him, so our pace had slowed a bit. The road over the pass drops down into Watsonville. I didn't mind too much that the cue sheet had a mislabeled road and turn because it gave me time to stop and inhale a candy bar after finishing a power bar. Once we were through Watsonville and onto Highway One, we had to deal with a very strong cross wind. Lee was somewhat familiar with the route, having ridden the Aids Ride in the past. That familiarity led us to a road side vegetable stand where Lee had what he claims are the best artichokes on the planet (I can't disagree), while I called into our driver to let the group know where we were.

The early group, and the fast group had both finished and were scarfing chips and sodas while they waited for us. At that point we were about 16 miles from the end. A long stretch of bicycle path, through Marina, CA and into Monterey led us to the hotel section of the latter city, and a few blocks easy climb and we were at the hotel, a scant 10 minutes behind Shelley and Yehuda. It wasn't until we finished that we got to meet the four other riders that left early: Don and Joanne, their son Curtis and his friend Tom. After unloading the van and checking into the motel, we all crossed the street to a Mexican restaurant where we stuffed ourselves. 125 miles, 5000 feet of climbing.

Day 2: Monterey to Cayucos

Friday was again a work day so the early morning portion included lots of commuters. We didn't have any traffic while wending our way to Highway One, but once on the highway there was quite a bit of cars. The traffic didn't let up until just after the turn off for Carmel. This day the route was strictly Highway One until we reached Cayucos, so I had much less chance of getting off course. Again, some riders left earlier, some later but this was by design as we were to meet the van at a predetermined point and time and the staggered start would allow us to arrive closer together. The route south of Carmel just became more and more dramatic, and this day's ride included the longest sections free from towns and developments.

The coast line in Big Sur is much photographed and odds are if you've seen a photo of Big Sur it is of the Bixby Creek Bridge. There is one smaller but similar bridge to the north of Bixby Creek and the route crosses both. We paused there briefly, and exchanged jokes with a motorcyclist who was teasing us about the climb that was in sight ahead. Uphill sections of roads that you can see ahead usually look harder than they turn out to be. For me, the harder ones seem to be those that you can't see well, or that offer false summits,so this one seemed relatively easy. We would have some of those other kind later in the ride.

Nearer to the two state parks in Big Sur the highway leaves the coast and an uphill ride allows you a few miles of thinking time and you slog away at the hill. At the top, somewhere between 30 and 40 miles out was our rest stop. Bruce was out ahead but Don and Joanne on the tandem were waiting, and within minutes the fast group showed up, and then the van. Most of the riders were shedding the outer layers that wouldn't be needed after that point, and we all filled up on water, re-applied sun screen and snacked a bit. Lee showed up last, and with his knee giving him fits, he quite wisely decided to hop in the van. He did get to ride the most scenic part of the most scenic day in my opinion, but I'm sure we all know that it's hard to enjoy things when your body is rebelling.

Shelley, Yehuda and I left the stop first, but in very short order the fast group passed us. No sooner had they done so, then Kent's front deraileur broke. All manner of on the road fixes were attempted, but it was the electricians tape that seemed to offer the most hope. When they were ready to ride off I hopped on the bike too, but Shelley and Yehuda didn't ride off immediately. I kept expecting two things to happen soon. One that I would get dropped by the fast group and two that Shelley and Yehuda would show up, it was just a matter of which would happen first. Surprisingly, neither happened. The fast group slowed down just enough for me to keep up, and happily for me didn't mind me sucking wheel. I have not enough experience riding in packs so I was a small disaster in that regard, but it didn't phase Bill, Kent, and Shawn, as well as Curtis and Tom who were with them today. Curtis and Tom had had a very easy first day riding with Curtis's parents but this day were riding a bit faster. Tom would lead out frequently on the uphill segments, and I sort of moved up in the pace line but would drop out before I neared the front. This was due to two reasons. The first is that I'm terrible at being the lead goat. I tend to speed up too much and cause a gap, and I also use up too much energy. In this instance I was also worried about slowing the group down to an uncomfortable pace. I also was still convinced that I would be dropped soon anyway and it's less disruptive to be dropped off the back of the pack rather than making everyone pass me at some point.

I had little to worry about this day though as I had some very patient fellow riders. When Curtis (who took more turns at the front than I did) and I would drop off the back on an uphill, the group would slow a bit, or in other cases wait at the crest. I felt great as we rolled into the lunch stop. Just north a state beach/park where lots of para-gliders frequent the thermals in the area, we had a roadside lunch overlooking the ocean, with fields and wildflowers all around. While the pace on the road was faster than I've been doing this spring, the pace at lunch was quite slow. All the riders arrived at different times and lunched together, however we all left pretty close to each other after pitching in to clean up. (The whole tour is a pitch in and help affair.)

Still convinced I would get dropped when the pace picked up I decided to ride off with the fast group once more. The tailwinds made the flat and/or straighter sections seem easy as we kept up a fast pace, often over 25 mph, and occaisionally over 30. A few times I simply ran out of gears and my cadence was really high. It was a re-education watching how the members of this group behaved in a pack. Frequently riders would be side by side and when riders got too close I'd notice a hand go up and touch on the shoulder of a rider next to them. I'd also see a rider place their hand on the shoulder of the rider next to them while they looked backward for one reason or another. While the wind was generally at our backs, we would find it more of a cross breeze now and then. Shawn would help me find the best pocket to be in to gain the most benefit from the draft. The stretches of 25mph+ got longer and longer, and my mental goal was to reach Cambria where we planned to search out a bike shop. Talk was of smoothies, and no one needed to twist my arm.

Along the way, we passed a beach littered with elephant seals, and an equal number of tourists gawking and photographing them. We also passed San Simeon and I belive I could see the castle up high on the coastal ridge as we rode by. There was also a sight you just don't see often in California: a herd of zebra charging across the field and veering uphil. Traffic was a bit heavier as we passed the San Simeon area, but not bad there.

We reached Cambria and about the 100 mile mark for the days ride, and boy howdy was that smoothie good. With that stop and the one at the bike shop we spent about an hour off the bike. We stopped in at Cambria Bicycle Outfitters in search of a new deraileur, and while I tried to give someone my money for an extra tube, one of the sales staff noticed the Inglis and Retrotec bikes outside. Curtis had built both of those bikes as well as his parent's tandem, and soon he was in deep conversation with the sales guy. Tom's bike was the Retrotec, and the design has strong elements of cruisers in it, and yet it is still a go-fast bike. Curtis's bike was more 'traditional', but included a sloping top tube, which seemed magnified by the size of the rider (Curtis is, well, a noticable figure at around 6'5" or more, I'd guess.)

My moment of reaching my threshold was met when we left town on the last leg of the day. With less than 15 miles to the end, I was still wondering if (read worried that) I'd be able to hang on, and through some quirk I did. Shelley and Yehuda were just arriving at the condo we rented as we rolled up too. They barely stopped in Cambria while we were dawdling. The recumbents were already in the garage however, and the tandem was not to arrive for some time. The house/condo was right on the water, but I totally missed the sunset. Shelley was on the beach collecting shells and things for his daughter and he and I went hopping across the rocks, getting a better view from the water of the house we were staying at. I did feel the day's effort when we climbed back up the stairs to join the others. What with a few missing items for dinner and a huge need for cold liquids as well we made a few short trips into town for supplies and by 8:30 we were all shoveling pasta into the old piehole, most of the others with more dignity than me. 116 miles, 8,000' of climbing.

Day 3: Cayucos to Goleta

While this day didn't have as much climbing as day to, personally this was a day I was up and down and up again mentally. The fog had come in overnight and before we could roll out of the garage Shelley had a tube failure. So far, every single mishap or injury had occured in my presence, and I didn't miss noticing that fact. On day two, Tom and Shawn both had flats and Kent continued to have shifting problems while I was with them. Sure enough, after about 15 miles what should happen as the fast group caught up that morning? Someone has a blowout. Curtis decided to ride with Shelley, Yehuda and me expecting the others to catch up.

The route took us through San Luis Obispo where we left Highway One and went away from Highway 101 as well. The route back to the coast went through some hills but we didn't have to climb much at all to reach Pismo Beach. Just as we passed the city limits sign we had another mechanical failure. Shelley and I got Yehuda's saddle back on in the only way we could and we limped into town to look up a bike shop. The only shop was in the next town over, a short 5 mile ride. Being honked at and yelled at by Yahoos only worsened my mental state, and as I sat outside of the shop listening to the crap yelled out by the teenage occupants of passing cars I thought about the fact that it was after 11 am, we had only gone 33 miles and we had over 90 miles to go before we reached the end of the ride that day.

The only way we would all reach the end before the early arrivers went nuts with starvation was if we sagged ahead. What with all the stuff in the van already, there was only seating for two but that had never occured to me. I just wanted to ride and burn off my crummy frame of mind. Shelley called ahead to Leslie our driver as I rode off. A nice long, flat section allowed me to get up a good head of steam as I left Grover Beach behind and climbed up the butte toward Guadaloupe. The wind was gusting across the road and I had to keep that in mind, and the down hill let me maintain a good pace.

I had passed the van on it's way back and picked up some fig bars and water so I was set for a while. The wind shifted to a tailwind and I left Guadaloupe behind on my way to Lompoc. It was good to see the van pass me later as that gave me an indication that if I was lost, I had company. Well, I did get off track shortly after that, but I didn't find that out until I was a mile and a half from the scheduled lunch stop. The route had reunited with Highway One, but I kept on the highway later when I should have cut off on Highway 135. Little matter, as I got in just as much climbing and four extra miles. Of course, the proper route would have been much more scenic than the divided highway that One was at that point. I stopped in Vandenberg Village, just south of the Base entrance and called Leslie once more. We found out I was almost within spitting distance and I rode off. Shelley and Yehuda had sagged ahead some 20 or 25 miles and they had arrived at the lunch stop near when the fast group had arrived. The group could see me down the hill where Highway One passed by and Tom was ready to ride off and chase me down if I missed this last turn. Clearly I had a reputation that I could not live down. Even with all the delays I was only 30 minutes behind every one reaching lunch, but I ate too fast and wasn't ready to ride off when they all did. So I hopped in the van with Lee and Leslie and we drove up 10 miles where I got out and rode off with with the fast group.

I'll say it was riding those 40 miles solo that took the wind out of me, but really it was the fact that I'm not that strong a rider. Curtis and I were lagging and dropped off the back. We found we matched each others pace pretty well, so we finished the ride together. South of Lompoc Highway One joins Highway 101, and after a climb over a small pass it travels along the immediate coastline. While the view to the right was of the surf and occaisional beaches, to the left of us was a stream of cars making the noise of cars travelling at 65 mph. Bikes are legal along this stretch of limited access highway, but we still had to be cautious near the off and on ramps. I guess the day's ride wouldn't be complete without another flat, so my rear wheel obligingly picked up a roofing nail. Curtis happily sat and watched as I changed out the tube and pumped up the tire and without too much delay we were off to complete the last few miles.

The fast group, the tandems and the recumbents were all waiting in the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel and we were all quickly downing cold sodas and beer and emptying out a couple of bags of chips. Kent and Bill tried to ease my mind regarding the Hawks Jinx, claiming that they had flat tires in my absence. Nice try guys but I just don't believe you. My own adventure was not over for the day however. The sink in my room was clogged and after the front desk handed me a plunger I was on my way toward the stairs. I had not yet removed my riding shoes and when my heel hit the painted cement at the bottom of the stairs my feet went out from under me and I was airborne. My key and my pride went flying away, but even after hitting the railing with my chest I still held on to the plunger. I suppose that was necessary for comic effect. The judges did not award top marks for my ariel maneuvers, but I didn't wait to dispute it.

The old codger that warned that you shouldn't eat anything bigger than your head must not have been a hungry bike rider. We ordered piles of salads and pizzas and made them all nearly disappear and then retired for the night after putting the leftovers in the cooler for lunch the next day. 115 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing.

Day 4: Goleta to Malibu

At the end of each day and the beginning of each morning, my legs felt just great. This was true at first on Sunday as well, but about 2 miles out my left achilles tendon felt odd. It didn't hurt in the same way that tendonitis I've had in the past did. I just couldn't pinpoint the exact place it hurt. The pace was easy as we went through and around Santa Barbara and I took what opportunities there were to massage the leg. With this on my mind I really wasn't noticing much of the area we passed through, but we were never very far from the shoreline. On the southern side of town we rolled past a public beach and marina and many people were setting up stands, tables and booths to display their paintings. Stopping at a light at one point though I found that if I massaged my calf I could relax the muscle and I was without the tightness I had been feeling. I'm guessing it was better to have a cramping calf muscle than achillies tendonitis, at least that's how I reasoned it. I made it a plan though to assess the situation when we stopped for lunch, and if thumbs down, I'd get in the van.

Once again the route took us onto Highway 101 (did I mention I hate riding next to a freeway?), where inspite of the divided highway, there were bike lanes painted on both sides. Those lanes were full of riders going each way too. The cramping was at the annoying level, and not any worse so I was able to spin with the rest of the group. Happily, Lee had recovered enough to be on the bike that day and he rode with our group, spinning and avoiding grinding. Of all the days, this had by far the lowest amount of climbing. We didn't find any of the remote sections like on any of the previous days, and for the most part we were always in urban or suburban areas or near camping areas filled with RVs.

We rode on bike lanes and bike paths, and back onto bike lanes as we went through Ventura. Those disappeared as we went through Oxnard and it was pretty much suburban streets as we made our way to lunch at mile 48. It was Thumbs down on the calf muscle as it just kept cramping. I made what I felt was a wise move and I loaded my bike into the van for the last 32 miles. The wisdom of this move was confirmed on Monday when I was able to ride to work by bike with no tightness at all. Alan, a veteran of the ride from years back, who now lives in SoCal, had ridden up from Malibu and would ride back with the group, keeping the number of riders at a dozen.

At that point I had an extra four miles for the whole trip on all the other riders, having craftily added and subtracted a bit each of the previous days, and altogether I had 404 miles at that point. Over the magic number perhaps, but then my odometer always reads about 1-2% less than everyone elses on all rides I do, so it was just a number, and my true total distance was probably a tad higher. Yehuda also got in the van and we mosied along the coast, passing the other riders. We stopped once to get a half flat of strawberries and it was at that point I found out that the others had a whole flat at lunch the day before. They had gotten down to the mutant strawberries that no one would eat before they realized I would probably want some so they hid the evidence. I would never have known if Leslie hadn't stopped on day four to buy more strawberries and then spilled the beans. We put the fruit on ice and went to get more sodas and chips and we just pulled into the parking lot on campus a scant 2 minutes after most of the riders had finished.

A mini party in the parking lot as we unloaded the van, sorted equipment and bikes and ate what ever food we could see. Kent found the strawberries and asked if we had stopped. I casually said that no, those were leftovers from the day before but his smirk let me know he got the joke. 48 miles and 2000 feet of climbing for me, 80+ miles and 3000 feet of climbing for the rest of the riders.

Wrap up and epilog:

After all the cleanup and packing the shuttle van picked up most of us and took us to the Burbank Airport, and we began the drive home up I-5. After being off the bike a few hours, my leg began to loosen up. Bill and Yehuda flew home, Don, Joanne, Curtis, Tom and Ron drove the van, and Kent, Leslie, Lee, Shelley, Shawn, Bruce and I drove home in the mini van and another rental car, and we only stopped once to eat before we reached San Ramon and the trip came full circle. On monday, as I had mentioned above, there was no trace of my calf muscle cramps. Better still, I had no saddle soreness or any other aches or pains, and while I was tired and would crave sleep the rest of the week after, I felt a strength in my legs I hadn't noticed for many years. This was a great trip and I enjoyed great company along the way. It was cool to have the recumbents along to get a different perspective on the day, and I felt it was unique to have the builder of 3 of the bikes along on the ride. Now of course the wheels are turning in my head about an Inglis frameset, but that may be off in the future a ways.

If you have comments about the ride, or questions about biking in the Bay Area, feel free to send me email at rhawks at lmi dot net.