Sunday, August 28, 2011


(Imagine the title being said by Mr. Bill.)

My recent reconnection with cycling was really driven by a desire to do more hiking. There's a particular trail that I most often hike these days, starting at Sneath Lane and crossing over Sweeney Ridge, then down to Sharp Park and the Pacific Ocean. It's a great hike, but (I reasoned) it could be even BETTER if I didn't need to drive the ten-fifteen minutes to the trailhead. Walking would technically be feasible, but would require me to devote an entire day to the endeavor. But, what if I could ride my bike there? In fact, since the trail is paved, it would even be possible to ride from my home all the way up to the top of the ridge, to the missile silo site; then, I could stash my bike, and do the dirt trail to the coast and back, then coast all the way home. And, if I started on wheels, then maybe I could even do a true bay-to-ocean thing by working in a brief loop out to Bayview Park or something.

After a few attempts, I decided to give up on it; I just wasn't able to easily scale any of the ascents up to Skyline from here. However, as I kept searching for better ways up the ridge, I eventually discovered Crystal Springs Road in San Mateo and, well, that's been the gateway to everything else I've ridden since then (not counting the commute). My rides each extended on the ones before, taking climbs that I knew I was capable of and had done a few times, and adding on an extension that seemed within my abilities.

The latest iteration of this was my first-ever ride to Pescadero. I'm not sure when the idea first popped into my head, but there's a nice inevitability to it. Pescadero is my favorite place on the San Mateo coast, a small hamlet with an absurdly strong and broad food lineup: world-famous olallieberry pie and cream of artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern; California's best fish tacos (per the New York Times) at the local gas station (!); and two bakery/groceries that put out great food. Keep in mind, all of this is in a single block that, to the untrained eye, is the entirety of Pescadero. Most times that I have visitors out here, we're able to work a trip to Pescadero in at some point, and despite a dozen journeys by now I've never gotten sick of it.

I love destinations, and there seemed to be more sense in riding to Pescadero than in the more-or-less arbitrary intersection of Old La Honda and 84. From my recent riding, I knew I'd be able to make it to Pescadero - the challenge is getting over the range, which I've done before, and from then on it's primarily downhill. My only concern was getting back home again. Could I climb from sea level to the mountaintop twice in one day?

I poked around a bit online and found some good resources from people who'd previously done the ride, and often had amusing stories to go with it. I played around with Google Maps and tried to visualize the trek. Given the destination, what would be the easiest way to do a first ride there? I'd initially assumed that it would make the most sense to cross over Skyline on Old La Honda, go down to Pescadero, and then return the way I came; the OLH summit is only about 1700 feet above sea level, while Kings Mountain summit is well over 2000 feet, so my net elevation gain would be lower. However, while studying the elevation profiles on one of the web sites, I saw that the descent from Old La Honda actually contained two noticeable peaks. Returning back up Pescadero Road would require climbing, then descending, then climbing again (repeated a few times). In contrast, the ascent I was worried about, Tunitas Creek, was a straight climb - that sounds like a bad thing, but I tend to be attracted to those, since I don't feel like I'm "wasting" a climb by recovering from a descent.

Given that all of the routes I'd seen did it as a loop, and adding the fact that I do love loops, I nervously decided to give it a go. And so, the morning of, I rode out at 7:30 in the morning. I had slightly modified my equipment. In addition to my standard water bottle, water refill, energy bars, spare tube, and tire tools, I also tossed in my Kryptonite lock, only because I couldn't clearly remember what kind of bike facilities were in Pescadero. I knew that I was a bit short on food, but that was the whole point - in Pescadero, I'd get GOOD food, FRESH food, and then I'd eat it!

I rode normally into Woodside, continuing on Canada past Roberts Market. I kept going straight on Mountain Home Road. This is the reverse direction of one of the loops I enjoy doing; I hadn't done the ascent before, but it went well, it has a nice reasonable grade and light traffic. I took this road all the way to the end, where I turned left on Portola, then right on... well, technically, I guess Portola, but I think of it as Sand Hill Road. I was now on uncharted territory. This section of the road didn't have the wide-open expanses of the lower part of Sand Hill, but it's just as bright and wide, which is nice. (Woodside really is a great town to ride in, if for no other reason than the strong variety of environments you get to ride through.) Soon I came to Old La Honda and started climbing.

I was a bit surprised at how much auto traffic was on this road. Granted, it wasn't much - maybe a half-dozen cars over the half-hour or so it took me to ascend - but that far outpaces the total of two cars that I've seen in the six or so times I've ridden the other side of OLH. Fortunately, everyone's pretty careful and calm. You have to be - the road is barely one lane wide. After I got farther up, I started really enjoying the atmosphere. There are more homes on this side than on the ocean side, and some folks were out walking their dogs. Plus, I had finally broken through the clouds and fog, and was enjoying my first direct sunlight of the day. Oh, and this is also where I stopped for my first break. I usually force myself to stop, eat something, and have a drink at regular intervals, starting at about 90 minutes and then repeating every hour. On my standard long trip my first break is usually at the Country Store at Kings Mountain and Tripp; for this, there was an entrance to a youth camp a little ways up from the start of OLH.

The climb was challenging, but probably easier than Kings Mountain. Which, again, makes sense, as it's several hundred feet shorter. At the top I stopped to sip some water and check my stats. I'd gone almost exactly 25 miles from home, in a bit under 2 hours. Not too bad! I crossed Skyline, and did the descent, still in sunshine.

At 84, I took a breath - this was my last chance to turn around and stick to a challenge I knew I could handle. Instead, I turned left, and started spinning down 84. This was a great descent - very fast, but much less curvy than the other side of 84, so I had a better feeling of control. I got passed a few times by both cyclists and cars, but for the most part it was quiet. At one point I ran into construction, where they close down one lane and use signals to control the other lane, and was delighted to finally have an opportunity to press a pedestrian crossing button to ride my bike through.

It took longer than I expected to reach La Honda, which seems to have some nice spots for refueling. I kept going farther and farther down. It was still sunny, but impressive cloud banks farther west were hiding the ocean from me. Still, I was loving the scenery - it's so green!

I finally reached Pescadero Road. It isn't very clearly marked, but there are so few intersections that it isn't hard to figure out what it is. I turned left, then went through a series of climbs and short descents. Finally, after cresting the last peak, I was ready for the race down that awaited me. The auto traffic had thinned out again, and there weren't many turns for me to worry about, just an exhilarating fast-but-not-scary zoom down to the ocean, under the bright morning sun.

I started passing farm houses and cottages as I approached the Pescadero city limits, including one very striking pink-accented home. I eventually re-entered cloud cover as I got near the coast, but there wasn't any fog this low. After riding past the Phipps Farm, I scooted over to North Road for the approach into town. I hadn't previously seen this part of Pescadero, and it was quite nice; this seems to be where everyone actually lives, and it's where some of the more town-oriented businesses are (nurseries and dairies and such). North drops you out on Stage Road just north of the "downtown" block, above the businesses and below the church.

I turned left and pedaled a few yards to Archangeli Grocery Store, where some cyclists were just leaving. I rode out to the back of the store, where there's a very nice picnic area by a creek. I propped my bike up against the fence, then walked (some might say "hobbled") into the store. I'd had in mind a banana and a pastry; they didn't have bananas, but I did pick up a ripe peach and two pastries: a raspberry croissant and a bear claw. (Ever since seeing the last season of Archer, I've been semi-obsessed with bear claws, but rarely have a sufficient reason to indulge. This was one occasion to do so.) I went back, sat at a picnic table, and devoured the peach and half of the croissant. I rarely get hungry during rides, so I wasn't able to finish it, but I knew that I'd be happy for more later, so I wrapped up the bag and stashed it away. I made use of the port-a-potty that they have there - that may not sound exciting, but on these roads, you can ride a LONG time without seeing anything that looks like an opportunity for relief.

I checked my statistics. I had ridden about 45 miles in a bit under three and a half hours. This immensely cheered me - when I'd laid out the route in Google Maps' cycling layer, it had predicted almost five and a half hours, which had seemed long to me but which I had been prepared for. The longer time would have meant getting home sometime around six-thirty - still within the span of daylight, but a really massive commitment. Now, I was on track for something much more reasonable. (I'm not totally sure how Google calculates their cycling times, but it's certainly got to be more challenging than auto times; you can usually assume that people are driving more or less the speed limit on a car, but on a bike, you have a huge range from casual riders on mountain bikes, through serious wannabe racers. Plus, add in extreme elevation gain or loss, and I can imagine their algorithm just throwing up its hands and saying, "I dunno, that seems hard!")

This was my last chance to follow my original plan of retracing my steps up Old La Honda, but by now I was feeling good about this new route, so I pushed onward. As one of the website writers had put it, "Sure, you could ride along Highway One, but why?" This next stretch was along Stage Road, which was just amazing - even with the heavy cloud cover, it was very pretty. This is definitely agricultural land, and I kept seeing snatches of bucolic scenes: a shepherd shearing a flock of sheep, while an Australian Shepherd lay with its head between its paws and watched; cattle grazing in a pasture; fields of hay and other crops.

This section is somewhat hilly; definitely not as severe as the stretches over the mountain, but with some nicely steep climbs. I don't think I passed a single car on the whole ride up to San Gregorio, just a bunch of bicyclists and one motorcycle.

In San Gregorio, I crossed Highway 84 and saw yet another cyclist gathering spot, a grocery store with a dozen or more riders clustered around outside. I kept heading north, and did one final climb before merging into Highway One.

I often drive on Highway One, and always see at least a couple of cyclists. My reactions range from "That looks exciting" to "That looks incredibly dangerous," more often trending towards the latter. However, this is one of the sections of the coast with a nice wide shoulder; even though traffic is doing 55, there's enough separation that it doesn't feel oppressive. Other than one or two parts where trees were overgrowing into the shoulder, I could mostly just relax and go. As a nice bonus, this stretch is entirely downhill, at a good grade (steep enough that you can go fast, but not so steep that pedaling does nothing).

I crossed a bridge, and then immediately turned onto Tunitas Creek - this is another intersection that isn't incredibly well marked, but where it's still fairly obvious. From my earlier research, I knew vaguely what to expect: a flat first third, followed by a very steep and long middle third, followed by an easy final third. The flat portion goes past some farms and houses which all looked quite nice; there was even one farm with a stand that was advertising fresh fruit, drinks, and picnicking. That looked like another nice cycling stop. I kept going inland, eventually leaving the clouds and rejoining the sunshine. It was coming up on 4:30 ride time, so I stopped and devoured the remaining half of my raspberry croissant.

The signs of habitation thinned out, the road met the creek, and the climb started in earnest. It was quite challenging; I think it's as steep as Kings Mountain Road, but since it's much later in the ride I had a bit less energy, plus it goes on for longer. This only makes sense; Kings Mountain Road starts after I've already been climbing for about 90 minutes, gradually working my way up from sea level, eventually reaching 2100 feet. Now, I was reaching that same elevation, but this time starting from sea level. That meant... well, a whole lotta climbing.

That said, other than the steepness it was about as good a road as I could ask for. The page I'd seen online had commented on how long it's been since the road was paved, but the surface seemed fine to me, without real noticeable cracks or potholes. The presence of the creek lent a nice soothing noise and environment. Very few cars were driving along the road. And, the heavy forest was providing some welcome shade now that I was entering the hottest part of the day.

My main goal was simply to make it to the top of the mountain in one go. I didn't care how long it took, and I didn't mind that I'd be in my very lowest gear for pretty much the whole way; I just didn't want to walk my bike or take a break. I felt like pooping out at a few points, but was pretty good at settling into a rhythm - to the untrained ear it might sound like gasping for air, but I was steadily performing and just letting my body go on auto-pilot. Mentally, I was either counting out numbers - "One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand..." - or else running through snatches of music in my head; this day's bizarre collection of earworms included "A Prayer for England," the inane "Pururin" theme song from "Welcome to the NHK", and (briefly) Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean."

Eventually, I realized that I wasn't working as hard as I needed to before. It was still mostly uphill, but I did get one or two rare flat or downhill stretches, and even the climbs were much more reasonable. I was also getting passed much more often, presumably by riders who had been less damaged by the climbs and could switch their turbo back on. I contentedly pedaled along, happy in the thought that I would accomplish my goal.

Altogether, the climbing portion took me about an hour. I finally emerged at the intersection of Tunitas Creek, Skyline, and Kings Mountain Road. I always see at least one or two groups of cyclists clustered around here when I ascend from Kings Mountain, and I could tell better than ever before why: it's a good stop after Kings Mountain, and a necessary stop after Tunitas Creek. I found a shady spot, got out my bag, and devoured half of my bear claw. Mmmm. Rawr! Bear claws!

I'd felt my phone buzzing a few minutes from the peak, which surprised me, since I had turned it off before starting my ride. (Obviously, my route takes me through a lot of places with poor or no cell signal, which eats up the battery. I always bring along my phone, but keep it turned off so it'll have juice if I need to use it.) I guess the jostling must have powered it on. Anyways, I read texts from my brother and sister (sis had just landed in San Diego at the start of a half-week trip), replied to her, and packed my stuff back up. I was more than halfway done with the trip, and from here on out, it would MOSTLY be downhill.

The first hill to go down: Kings Mountain. This was a total blast. I've climbed up it quite a few times over the last several months, and it's always the most challenging climb of a ride. I see lots of other riders struggling up, and a few lucky ones sprinting down, going by in a flash. It felt great to be a flasher for a change. It's steep, and fast, and curvy, and woodsy, and all in all just a great time.

On the way down, I tried to decide whether I should return back to Woodside so I could stop at Roberts Market and pick up some more supplies, primarily something like gatorade and maybe a banana. I decided that I'd be fine - I had a full water bottle left, and half a pastry, plus an emergency Clif Bar. So I continued on my way, doing the reverse of my normal ride: down to the bottom of Kings Mountain, past Tripp and the Woodside Country Store. I had to keep my eye open for Albion; I'm used to coming out of it, but wasn't used to approaching from this perspective. I managed to spy it, turned left, and worked my way back along Manuella and Olive Hill. It was fascinating to do the ride from this direction, and it felt like I was seeing totally different scenery. This is basically a cutoff to the standard Canada - Woodside intersection that most people take; it's quieter, goes by some really pretty estates, and lets you avoid two stop signs and the attendant Woodside cops.

After a left turn on Canada, I was back on autopilot for the rest of the ride back; even the last couple of climbs I need to do (Ralston Bike Trail, Crystal Springs, and the last mile of Sawyer Camp) breezed by. I reached the southern entrance to Sawyer Camp right around 6:30 riding time and polished off the rest of my bear claw. By the time I made it home, I'd traveled 89.28 miles in 7:17 riding time; counting all my stops, the total clock time was almost exactly eight hours. I can't even begin to guess how much total climbing there was... but it must be many, many thousands of feet. The ride was tiring, thrilling, exhilarating. I'm sure I won't forget it. I can hardly wait to go again.

1 comment:

  1. I've said it before, but it bears repeating . . . I want to ride these roads and hills with you!