I’m shivering and sweating and occasionally vomiting at a Holiday Inn in Solvang, California. Since I can’t cease any of these three things I can’t really begin to sleep, so I have an entire night to ponder: was “rare” the wrong answer when our waiter asked how I wanted my hamburger? Or have I reached my limit? Was the meat bad, or is this my body’s way of saying “No more. I quit. You’re a dumbass.”? After four days of riding mostly all-day-long, it was a toss-up. Either way, I suppose I deserved it–I’d gotten greedy.
But let’s start at the start; I believe the hierarchy of adventure routes can be reduced to three basic levels:
1: Out-and-Back adventure.—50% of trip is not adventure, but merely retracing one’s adventuresome steps. Retreating from adventure then. So safe, but not very adventuresome.
2: The Loop—The lure of this type of route and it’s reward of constant new horizons makes it the standard bearer for adventure–and the main reason for most people getting lost and dying in the woods when they should have gone Out-and-Back.
3: Point-to-Point—The highest order of adventure starts and finishes in two separate places. The most difficult type of trip to arrange and organize, this trip begins and ends at the very frontier of the adventurer’s knowledge of the world. Every step taken is one towards a destination that is in front of, and not behind the adventurer.
A corollary: The less that is known of the route, the more there is to learn. And the more exposed to risk one becomes.
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that I had the great IDEA to jumpstart mytraining for the coming race season by bikepacking from my house in Bend, Oregon to Barry Wicks’ house just outside of San Francisco. So I called Barry. And he said “totally” when I asked if he wanted to do it. And then the next day, Barry called back and said “Dude, there’s gonna be f***ing hella snow between our two houses in March. Let’s ride to the ProXCT (a big UCI Olympic distance XC race) at Bonelli Park from my house instead.”
Because Barry Wicks talks like that. And because he was right; there was going to be too much snow. And we both needed to be at Bonelli Park anyway. So I said “totally”.
So the plan was set. We were going Bikepacking from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We’d ride as much dirt as we could, camp when we wanted, and visit friends along the way when we didn’t. We were going to #ridetotherace. And in the parlance of my new partner, Barry, it was gonna be “hella sweet”.
Now, Barry and I have both ridden a lot of miles to get where we are as professional cyclists. And we’ve both spent a lot of nights on the ground in mummy sacks. But neither of us has really ever been “bikepacking”–that oh-so-hot-rightnow bastion of the bearded hipster, the hardened loaner, and the survival gear connoisseur. So upon this commitment to ride, we both set to work trying to figure out just how, exactly that is done. And since I despise wearing hydration packs or any other type of backpack while riding, I decided I’d ride this 600 mile route without one. Fortunately, I happen to ride for Giant Bicycles, and they sell just about every cycling nicknack and doodad you can imagine. Unbeknownst to me, they also sell a line of bikepacking gear called Scout and they were kind enough to send all the bike packing essentials I’d need: frame bag, bar bag, seat bag, and bento box for atop the top tube. To this I added a couple of Revelate Feed Bags to my handlebar, as my water bottle cages would have to go to accommodate the frame bag. All of these packs transformed my XTC carbon race bike (we were going racing after all) into a sort of end-of-days bug-out mobile. It was like making a switchblade into a swiss-army knife using mostly velcro. Gastly and beautiful at the same time. And It seemed like there was storage room to spare.
Until I began packing my stuff into the bags. That is when I realized why most all of the bikepackers I saw online (research!) were wearing backpacks. So I began making myself less comfortable in camp so that I could be more comfortable on the bike. I cut my toothbrush in half. I bought smaller containers for sunblock, chamois cream, tecnu, and vitamins. I borrowed a less puffy puffy-coat. I pared down to one pair of undies. One teeshirt. One pair of light pants. Two chamois (I’m not a Barbarian). I dumped my casual shoes in favor of flip-flops. Then I dumped my flip-flops in favor of paper shoes gleaned from a flight to China. And I started considering snacks in terms of calories/volume instead of the standard metrics of taste/price. The night before I left for Barry’s house, and with much cursing, I eliminated enough to close the last zipper. Almost all the way. I was ready.
The first miles of the trip were the most timid and some of the most informative. Riding a bike that weighs 40+ lbs takes some getting used to. Piloting a tandem bike without a stoker is an apt analogy. Riding wheelies came pretty easily, but to ride no-handed proved nearly impossible. 15mph became the new 20mph. Standing to accelerate felt awkward, the wallowing weight of the bike working against pedaling mechanics entrenched in muscle memory. The nuances of bike control were dulled by the extra mass as well. The movements resulting from inputs always a fraction less or more than desired. Bunny hopping became a game of inches and not feet. But we quickly learned that the laden bikes were incredible at carving paved descents. The floating weight of the bags serving as both damper and stabilizer, boosting confidence almost immediately on high speed stuff, while quietly pulling the rider down the hill with more urgency. Perhaps this is what it feels like to weigh 200 lbs on a bike. Almost all-the-time it feels terrible–but there are moments when the weight is working with, instead of against you and it’s intensely gratifying.
By the end of Day One, we’ve already seen dirt road sections that few cyclists ever will. We sneak into the North end of Big Basin Park and the Redwoods there, avoiding banana slugs on steep and greasy dirt road climbs among the giant trees. The descent into Santa Cruz is on buff single track. We’re riding somewhat recklessly to travel moderate speeds. Lots of big smiles and nervous laughter. A group of college girls we encounter on the trails tells us our setup is “super cool.” They seem sincerely jealous. Bikepacking. So hot right now. We stay at an old friend’s house in SC for the night.
The second day is a big one. About 112 miles, with ample climbing and more good dirt. We traverse Fort Ord and ride fun trails that neither of us has ever seen before in our combined 30+ years of racing there at the Sea Otter Classic. It’s a great reminder of why we’re doing this–to see what’s beyond the boundaries of our normal routine. Late in the afternoon, we rendezvous with a good friend on the road near his home in Carmel Valley. He has cold beer and two happy dogs and we sit on the tailgate and talk about life and poison oak and the 90 miles since breakfast and the 20 left before dinner. We’ll camp off of Arroyo Seco road and I’ll build a fire and be strangely proud of having a Campfire Permit from the State of California granting me authority to do so. We’ve ridden for 8 or 9 hours. Food tastes good. Sleep comes easy.
By 10am on day three, there’s a 6′ tall, life-sized green plastic army man looking angrily at us from a house’s second story window. Out front, there’s a Buick Century with no doors and a crumpled Honda Goldwing lying on it’s side. We’re 2 hours into a dawn-to-dusk day of bikepacking and we need to keep moving, but I desperately want to stop and explore. We pass another makeshift village and I stop pedaling. “Dude this place is crazy. Let’s stop for a second and check it out.” Barry doesn’t stop pedaling. “No” he says. I know he’s probably right, we’re on Hunter Liggett Army base land, and though there aren’t any signs yet telling us to keep out, the indications that we don’t belong here are many: a wide gravel road meanders through simulated villages used for training exercises while the occasional old military tank looks down from a nearby hilltop. Fenced areas are marked with warnings of live ammunition use and there are other warnings that “Non-Civilian swimming is prohibited” when the road begins to follow a clear-running creek.
Google maps has led us this way. When we asked the shortest route to “Walk” to San Luis Obispo, it quickly routed us through this military area and into the coastal mountains south. Time to destination: 3 days, 2 hours. So it was surprising to us when, well beyond the point of reasonable return, we came to a rusty barbed wire fence marked “No Trespassing”. The road continued on, and Google told us to follow it. What is the old saying about begging forgiveness over asking permission? We pushed on.
Instead of crossing a piece of private property and returning to Public Lands though, the next fence was taller. And the next gate was bigger still. The “No Trespassing” signs were gone. We were in deep. The road was a fire-break. And it was incredible. Untracked spring-fresh grass (the product of a wet, El-Niño winter) covered the roadbed, and you could see the Pacific Ocean from some of the ridgelines. But the road was relentless in its steepness, as fire-breaks often are. The diesel Caterpillar cares not whether the pitch is 5% or 25%, but the weary bikepacker cares plenty. Stopping to lift our heavy bikes over yet another gate-some of them six or seven feet tall, was a pleasant break from grinding up these terrible hills on this beautiful road.
Eventually, the road improved and we were confronted by a teenage girl driving a white Ford pickup. She wasn’t at all angry, but told us we shouldn’t be where we were. Doubtless using similar words to her mom’s or dad’s when an interloper was encountered in the past. We acted lost (we kinda were) and played dumb (it wasn’t a stretch) and asked how to get to the highway. “Continue down this road past the cell tower and down to the park. It’s about an hour drive” was her helpful advice. As luck would have it, an hour’s drive out of those hills in an old Ford takes about 25 minutes of coasting and skidding on a Mountain Bike. As we lifted our rigs over one final gate, we turned to see the other side covered in several very stern warnings to stay out. “No Bicycling” being one of them. And possibly something about the shooting of trespassers. We were glad to be out of there. “Google made us do it” would make a shitty tombstone inscription.
Once on the road, the team time trial began. Barry out front. Me staring at his rear hub from behind, and occasionally taking a pull when my meager fitness would allow. Barry had been racing since February, and me, none at all. So the view on the roads was often the same from my perspective: a blurry white label spinning around Barry’s rear hub. We’d make it 120 miles that day and into SLO that night to sleep at a friend-of-a-friend’s house. We’d celebrate with a long walk (me in paper shoes) to a terrible sushi dinner. Great success.
The next day, we’d change our intended course to try to make time. We’d need to hustle to make a rendezvous with some guys from Giant that would join us for a day and night of our ride. So we rode pavement and we rode steady most of the day. As the sun started to sink, I sent a text message to the captain of the crew we were meeting about when and where we’d be meeting the next day. After a pause, a text message came back. “Dude, it’s Sunday. We’re meeting you tuesday.” Barry and I, in focusing only on sleeping and eating and pedaling, had already forgotten what day of the week it was. We immediately pulled over and ate candy in tall grass at the fringe of a quiet backroad. I lay on my back and looked at clouds as Barry searched for brewpubs and hotels nearby. We had time to burn. We could coast for a while. After 80 or 90 miles of pounding pavement, we arrived at that Holiday Inn. And then I said “rare” when I ordered that burger.
With no sleep and an inability to turn food into energy, we’d leave the next morning for our shortest day: 25 miles of mellow valley roads north of Santa Barbara. After a couple of hours of soft-pedaling and coasting anything that was coast-able, I had to take a break. I sprawled out on the asphalt and took a good rest. Eventually, I started sitting up and pretending I wasn’t dying when cars went by. It was awkward when they’d stop to offer help. We were 2 easy miles of pavement from our destination. I was an empty shell of a man. If I didn’t feel better the next day, I’d have to abandon the ride.
But my stomach turned back on that night, and I felt alright as we greeted our new companions for the 6th day’s ride. Their map showed two options: a dirt road that would have us in camp too soon, or a single-track trail that nobody in our group had ever tried. One that the forest ranger described as “possibly brushy” at the other end. A unanimous decision: we’d ride single track. And great single track it was, in due course leading to the ruins of an old mercury mine. But after exploring that mine, things slowly descended into a deeply unpleasant trail. “Possibly brushy” actually meant choked with poison oak. And then the trail became so hard to follow that we were walking down a poison oak-thatched dry river bed. Despite slow-motion branch-dodging moves reminiscent of The Matrix, I couldn’t avoid oak contact all over my bike and body. Meanwhile, Barry rode through these toxic quagmires at maximum speed–”The faster you go, the less time it’s touching your skin” he’d later explain. Dubious logic, I thought, but at least he was out of the trail and into camp first. That day was perhaps the worst mountain bike ride I’d ever done. But it was a fun night. Conversation around the campfire at Mono was animated. And the smorgasbord of freeze dried meals that the Giant guys brought with them was the closest I’ll ever come to my childhood dream of attending Space Camp.
Bidding adieu to the short-timers, Barry and I made way for Ojai the next morning. What looked to be an easy day on the map ended up being a good deal of groveling at the foot of steep cat-track climbs. And it was hot. And getting hotter with every mile further inland we’d ride. Good Fortune and El Niño brought us to a couple cold-water springs at merciful intervals. I’d yell “Wet Teeshirt Contest” when we saw water and quickly drop my bike and do a “power pushup” to submerge my entire body. These respites and the views of some seldom-seen reservoirs gave some hard fought perspective: we’d travelled–by bicycle–from veritable rain forests to deserts in a week. And the desert, without water, is hell. By the time we rolled into Ojai, our bottles were dry and our heads were throbbing. The map had been deceptive. It was not an easy day at all.
From Ojai, the plan was to ride through the valley into Santa Clarita and ascend the Angeles Crest before making camp off some OHV trails in the mountains above the city. After 50 straight miles of staring at Barry’s hub, I took a 4 minute pull and delivered us to a restaurant there in SC. After lunch, as we began our approach to the large upheaval that is the Angeles Crest, it began to darken and then began to rain. We looked at our route and the elevation of our desired camp: 7000′. We were prepared to camp, and prepared to encounter some amount of weather. But the prospect of camping in wet snow and then descending 7000′ had both of us a concerned. So we re-routed, to ride just a little of the Crest, allowing us to check the weather and make a judgment later as to whether we could commit to more. As we climbed into the mountains, the rains started drenching us. Camping would be miserable at best, and dangerous at worst. So we descended back into the foothills of the LA basin and took refuge in a Starbucks there to lick our wounds and consider our options. Which really were only one: we needed to get to our destination. Our clothing and camp gear were soaked. We were in the biggest metropolitan area in the USA, and it was drizzling. It was 40 more miles to Bonelli Park, all on busy boulevards smothered with stoplights. We’d been riding for 6 or 7 hours and had covered 90 miles. And now our noble trip would come to an ignominious end. We ordered American sized coffees and multiple pastries. And we didn’t talk much as we slowly consumed them. A few hours, many track-stands, and several illegally circumvented stoplights later, we made it to a hotel near Frank G. Bonelli Park and the UCI race there. With a day to spare.
I’ve always liked the day that precedes a race–relaxing at a hotel, putting your feet up, watching TV or following the internet rabbit hole wherever it leads. At home I’m too absorbed in catching up with friends or projects in the garage to allow myself to waste most of a day.
But this day seems particularly wasteful. I feel good. My legs feel ready to continue our trip south. I’m half joking when I tell Wicks that I feel like we should be riding to Mexico. Two 8 hour days in the saddle would get us there through some pretty sweet mountains south of the LA basin.
Instead we load our packs back up and pedal the three miles to the venue, across the Puddingstone Reservoir Dam and into the park. We do a “laden lap” and are surprised at how accustomed to our bikepacking setups we’ve become. After we weigh our bikes, we strip them of their bags, and my race bike looks strange and sinewy to my eye. To see through the frame without the frame bag there feels like some kind of optical illusion. Mounting the bike to do another lap, unladen, the bike is instantly foreign and very very twitchy feeling. It takes a couple of laps to remember how to ride a bike that handles properly.
People don’t always understand that, for professional racers, many competitions are “training” ones. This isn’t to say that these races don’t matter, or that the effort at the race is less than 100%. But experienced racers know that they must “choose their battles.” You cannot prepare for every race in the same way if you are constantly competing, as performance will quickly trend toward mediocrity. No, the crafty racer will “train through” some races in order to hone their best form for a select few events. Barry and I had pushed the boundaries of this premise with our commute to this UCI race at Bonelli Park. But what would our legs feel like after such a beating? Often, my legs feel better with each passing day of a stage race. So was it possible that I’d have a good day against some of the World’s best after this grueling adventure?
In a word, no.
I raced like crap. But a good race there was a long shot. And later this season, I’ll probably feel good because of this trip rather than despite it. About that, I’m confident.
So thanks for the ride, Barry. That was a hella sweet trip. I just wish you’d have let me stop to take a selfie with that life-sized green army man.
Maybe next time.
Giant Factory Off-Road Team