A few years ago – when the offspring was younger – the three of us did a couple of family multi-sport bicycling tours through Bicycle Adventures. We enjoyed them thoroughly, and early this summer, the wife and I were talking about the a summer vacation, and decided to do an adult-only bike tour (the offspring works the whole summer and then heads back to school). After checking into a few options, we decided to do the Monterey to Santa Barbara Wine Country Biking tour offered by Backroads.
This was close enough – California – that we could drive down, which would allow us to drive down, bring our own bicycles (we both like our bikes, and I have a PowerTap on mine), and visit my sister in Walnut Creek on both ends of the trip.
The trip is billed as one of their “Premium Inn” trips, and priced accordingly (though none of them are cheap). My well-known cheap (I might choose “frugal”) nature means that I’m not big into the premium hotel experience, but it was one of the best fits for our schedule.
We drove down over a couple of days, stopping in Klamath Falls for a night. I our younger and stupider days, we probably would have driven all the way through (13-ish hours).
In the following, all names except for the wife’s will be initials, to protect the innocent.
Day 1 – Monterey to Carmel
We left Walnut Creek early (as both of us hate being late) to the Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, the starting point of the trip. My sister dropped us off there (thanks Sis), and we put the wheels back on the bikes (two bikes fit in the back of an outback if you take the wheels off) and headed into the hotel. We quickly ran into other people going on the tour, so we talked, and we waited, and then we waited some more. Ten minutes after the scheduled departure time, and the backroads vans finally showed up. Our bikes were quickly loaded on top of the vans; I’m a bit paranoid about our bikes because it’s easy to damage carbon frames, but there were no issues throughout the trip. Backroads uses this neat system where they strap a tray to the bike, and then the tray slides into rails on the vans and trailers. This means they can do all the loading from the ground. Slick.
We head out towards Monterey, and there’s not much to say except that it took a 3+ hours to get there. We get to know our companions (which included two other couples from the Seattle area), and then finally pull into Monterey and pick the remainder of our tour members. After a few wrong turns, we end up at our lunch spot in veteran’s park near the top of a hill. The other van is already there, and we join the rest of the group standing in clumps on the grass. I’m hungry and thirsty ==> cranky, and it isn’t helped by the smell of the roast pig cooking in a pit about 40’ upwind of us. Eventually, our leaders call us over to where they have lunch set up.
While I looked at the food, the group did introductions all around. I think the demographics were pretty typical; people who could think about at least a couple of hours on a bicycle each day and could afford a guided tour. We weren’t the youngest people there, but we were pretty close. Since I’m just before the half-century mark, it’s not that common that I’m at the younger end of groups.
The food, when we finally got to it, was good – there was a nice variety of stuff, and it all tasted great. I’ll save some time here and note that the lunches were fine all the way through, though I would like to see more drink options. I didn’t eat too much at this lunch because I don’t ride that well on a full stomach.
Kim and I have had some discussions about what our philosophy is about riding together on the trip. Kim is in good shape and is quite athletic, but doesn’t do the kind of bike riding that I do, so I’m quite a bit faster than she is. We decided to take it on a day-by-day basis; some days we will ride together, some days we will ride part of the day together, some days we will ride separately. There is in particular one mountain climb that I’m sure she won’t be interested in.
After lunch, we get a safety briefing, and then a briefing about the route. I have the GPX files on my Garmin Edge 705 plus the paper directions, so I think we’ll be fine. I get a few things from the snack table (lots of fruit/sweet stuff, very little carb/salty stuff) – some pretzels, a bit of jerky, put some Nuun tablets in my bottles (Grape in one, Tangerine/Lime in another), roll my bike out to the road.
We mount up, and head out, up the 10%+ grade. This is a bit of a surprise on my legs, and I think it’s more of a surprise for the other cyclists, but we slowly climb out of the park. I wait for Kim at the top (well actually, I ride up and down a couple of times), but after a bit she joins me, we walk our bikes down a connecting path, and end up on the road we’re looking for. I do enjoy the descent part the follows, and after a few miles, we find ourselves out near the water, which gives us a very nice view, so we take a bit of a break and a snack. The pretzels end up being peanut butter-filled, which is not to my taste, so I have a bit of jerky. We’re not riding far enough for nutrition to be an issue.
Along the way, I’ve been sampling the contents of my main water bottle, which contains the tangerine-lime flavor. At the stop, I share it with Kim, who describes it as “a tangerine that has been sitting out long enough to get fuzzy”. My description is “Possum, with subtle Meerkat undertones – the terroir suggests one raised on an east-facing slope slightly North of Yakima”. It’s quite nasty – I switch over to the bottle with Grape in it.
We continue to wind around through the World-Renowned Pebble Beach Golf Course on 17 mile road.
The scenery is great, and we are catching some interesting odors coming off the vegetation – there’s this sharp astringent one which I can’t quite place but is very refreshing, and there’s another one that I decide is best described as “used sweatsock with a haddock in it”. Coincidentally, we did this exact drive on a visit a few years ago, and it’s a lot nicer on a bike.
Eventually, we hit the Carmel exit gate (I toy with calling “Care-a-mel” for a while), and climb up a significantly steep hill, turn, and climb up another steep hill to the hotel, the Tradewinds Carmel. It’s a nice place with a great inside courtyard between the buildings, but apparently they do not attract a particularly intelligent clientele, and therefore need to lead said guests to their room and explain recent innovations such as light switches, closets, natural-gas fireplaces, and the existence of indoor plumbing. I turn off the fireplace, turn off the water feature on the dresser near the door, and we settle in. Dinner is at a nice restaurant nearby and I enjoyed the food and company, and my notes tell me that I was most impressed by the ice cream and sorbet I had for desert. It’s really a bit more food that I would like to eat, but it’s harder to eat well when it’s already paid for (most meals are covered in the price of the trip).
Day 2 – Carmel to Big Sur
After a quick breakfast (raison bran/toast/HB egg, which is just about perfect), we head out for the morning briefing. This is a pretty straightforward route down the coast, but I have decided to add in a pointless nasty climb along the way, one with advertised 18% and 20% climbs. There are three of us who decide to do this. I ride with wife through a bunch of turns back onto the highway and then head out, along with E (L1, who had also decided to do the climb, is not in this group). We roll along, and ride past the Point Lobos side trip. After a bit of discussion, we decide to keep riding on. Because it’s a longer day and navigation mode really sucks the battery on my Garmin, I’m not using it (this is a bit of foreshadowing).
After 13 miles, we stop by one of the ride leaders parked with the van, E drops off her coat, and we have a small snack. The ride leader asks us how far we have done, we say “13 miles” (well, I say it, because the cyclometer on E’s bike is only counting about 1/3 of the distance, so she says “4 miles”), and our ride leader says that she thought she went 15 miles. We pull out, and keep riding.
The route sheet says that we will be turning off on “Palo Colorado” at 19 miles. We do some climbing, and at about 17 miles we come to some bridge construction and a one lane road. We wait for traffic to go by, and then follow it up the hill through the construction zone. This is at the crest of a climb, so we descend down, looking for our turn-off, but we don’t see anything. Then we climb a bit, and descend some more. We investigate a possible road at 21 miles, but that’s not it. At 23 miles, it’s pretty clear that we’ve missed the turn. A brief confab ensues; if we continue on, we will be at lunch (which is on our own today) super-early. I’ve told Kim that I will eat lunch with her and E is up for some extra mileage, so we decide to go back, which leads to a 4-mile climb into a very stiff headwind. This is not a lot of fun; I’ve pushed my heart-rate way up, and have just decided to hold it there to the top. We finally get back to the construction, where they are pouring concrete and are totally shut down. We roll to the head of the line, sweet-talk the flagger into letting us go first when they do open it up (“it’s downhill, we won’t hold up traffic”), and 15 minutes later, head back. Descending, I see Kim on the other side, turn briefly ride with her to tell her we’re going back but I’ll still meet her for lunch (yeah, that doesn’t make much sense at this point), and we head back. Finally, after 7 miles of backtracking and about an hour late, we turn off on the Palo Colorado.
It’s a small one-lane road through dense woods, up and down over little hills (hillets?) and back and forth through the trees. All along the side, there are lots of tiny cabins. It’s mostly been relatively easy – about a 5% grade with lots of short steeper parts. After about twenty minutes of this, we get to the first steep pitch, which starts at 11%, kicks up to 15%, and then gets nasty. I’m in my lowest gearing (30/28 IIRC), and I’m tacking all the way across the road. It’s an honest 20% grade, perhaps a tick higher. And it’s in full sunlight, there’s no breeze here, and whenever I get to the right side of the road, a guy hands me another rock to carry to the top. A few minutes later, I finish and rest in the shade; E finishes 30 seconds later, heads over to the fire station to ask for some water, meets a nice fireman, and comes back with water. As we are sitting there, one of our vans heads by; I put out a fist in the “please stop” sign, and the van just goes right by. We don’t need the water and I think we’re mostly okay on food, but since we’re off the original plan it would be nice if our leaders knew what we were doing, but whatever…
At this point, the road descends a little, but unfortunately the daily instructions do not include the profile of the route, so we don’t know how much descent there is in store here. The descent tips up to about 15%, I stop and ask E if she wants to climb back up it on the way back. The consensus is “no”, so we turn around. The 20% slope is a pain to descend, and the road through the woods is dark and torn up, so we have to come down pretty slowly. Eventually, we hit the highway again, and head south.
(Later on, we talk to L1, who found the turn, but ended up turning back before the end because of huge swarms of bugs, so apparently we didn’t miss much).
At this point, I want to fly a bit so that I can meet with Kim for lunch (or, more realistically, not be super late). We get back to the construction zone, where the workers are on their lunch break, so traffic is on automatic with traffic lights. We wait until the traffic goes through, then as the light turns red, a worker waves us through. I climb hard uphill, but I’m only about two-thirds of the way through before there is traffic coming towards me. I move to the side for one car to pass, and then find a bit of shoulder to wait for the rest to pass me by. E has to get off her bike and walk to get up to me, and we journey on. Just a little bit of extra fun. We then get to do the descent with the tailwind again, and we make good time, pass our previous forward point, and continue on.
Things get a bit hazy here – the hard ride back into the wind and the tough climb have taken a bit out of me – but after quite a while, we roll into Big Sur (literally, “Big south”), and stop by the van and some of the other riders at a restaurant. In the morning, Kim and I decided we would meet for lunch at the Bakery, which is a bit farther on (this is a “on your own for lunch” day). Though it wasn’t really made clear in the morning briefing, on the way to the bakery there is a significant hill; 500’ at a steady 7% gradient, and I’m hungry and cranky. We finally pull into the bakery:
I’m ready to apologize to Kim for being so late, but she was visited twice by the flat fairy, and has only been waiting there for about 20 minutes. We order sandwiches, and while sandwich is on fresh bread, it isn’t particularly memorable.
After lunch, Kim, E, and I head back down the hill a bit to a road that takes us to Pfeiffer beach. At the parking lot, we run into guide J with a van, waiting to shuttle a couple of riders up to the hotel. We leave our bike under his watch, on the agreement that he’ll be heading back as soon as the other riders are ready to leave. Since Kim is going to van up as well, I’m not sure why we have to hurry back, but apparently that’s what we have to do, so we head out to the beach – which is very nice, and well worth the trip – but we only stay about 10 minutes so that we can get back.
E and I grab our bikes, and start the climb back out.
With the exception of one 17% section right at the end, the climb to the highway is pretty easy, and we head back up the hill towards the bakery. That part is easier than the first time (the sandwich has helped quite a bit), and we keep climbing until we hit the entrance to the hotel. We’ve been told about the steep climb there, and we climb up that to the restaurant, only to have to descend a bit to cross a small gulley for the final climb up to the Ventana Inn. We pull in, drop our bikes off, and check in. I head off to meet Kim, who is already here.
Given that Big Sur has been a counter-culture mecca (interesting combination of terms there…) since the 60s, I expected it to be a bit different and it did not disappoint. The rooms are in separate cabins and the one we were in (Ridge House) was built out into the canyon, so it’s a bit like being in a rustic but luxurious treehouse. After I cleaned up, the wife and I headed to the Japanese hot baths (the eastern ones, not the clothing-optional ones on the west end (not that there’s anything wrong with that)), and spent a bit of time soaking. Nice. I feel better.
For dinner, we walked over to the restaurant. We aren’t eating as a group tonight, but the dinner is included, so we just show up. We got the four-course menu which normally runs $70/person. The meal was underwhelming; our appetizers were meh, the risotto that I waited nearly an hour to get wasn’t fully cooked and was therefore gritty (this is not rocket science to get right), and the chicken entrée that Kim got paired very bland white meat with a still-raw thigh section. The cobbler for desert was okay.
I had originally planned on recommending the Inn but not the restaurant, but then I happened to see the room price on the website, and I think that even with Big Sur prices, you can do probably do better than $800/night.
|Strava Score||130 (Tough)|
Day 3 – Big Sur to Cambria
This day is a simple straight shot down the coast in three sections. It is billed as:
- 31 miles with 3700’
- 16 miles with 2300’
- 11 miles with 1000’
Kim is going to play this by ear; she’ll ride the first section, and then decide what to do with the later sections when we get to lunch.
The logistics required us to check out of the hotel, walk over to the restaurant with all of our riding stuff, van back to the hotel (to save time), and start riding. This was more convoluted than it needed to be, but we ate our okay breakfast buffet, and headed down to start riding at 8:30.
I rode with E and L2 on this section, and working together, we rode the first section to lunch in just over two hours, getting there at 10:40.
When we arrived, we got told “Lunch isn’t ready yet, you’ll need to wait, it isn’t scheduled to start until noon, but it will take at least 20 minutes until its ready”. I take a quick look at my Garmin, and see that the morning only had about 2200’ of climbing in in, which is about what it felt like.
Since lunch isn’t ready, we walk out to the beach to look at the water, we sit in the sun to warm up, we talk, and by about 11:20 lunch is ready. We eat, I talk to Kim a bit when she rolls in, and she says that she is going to van the next section but hopes to ride the last section. I tell her that I will wait for her there, and we (E, L2, and I) head out to the really tough section. These are real climbs (6% on the first one, 7-8% on the second), but the weather is decent and they only total around 1200’ in total, so it’s really not that bad. I crest the top of the second climb in the lead; E rolls in about 30 seconds later, and L2 about a minute after that. I have cleverly deduced that this is the top of the second climb by the spray-painted mark on the side of the road that says (“all downhill from here”), and, after another quick snack, we roll down to the second stop at Ragged Point.
I trade $2.50 for a small Coke Zero and settle in to snack on dry-roasted peanuts and wait for Kim while E and L2 head off on the last part of the ride.
Kim shows up about 20 minutes later, waits for her bike to come off the van, and then we head out on the last section. I’m expecting that I’ll be doing the ride leader thing and spending my time breaking the wind for this last section. There’s a nice descent and then the road is flat to rolling, and we are making good time. We take a short break to rest on the beach:
And discover that we are making good time because there’s a consistent 15 MPH tailwind. The road is new chipseal and is pretty rough, we stop to let some air out of our tires and it’s much better. Our tires had gotten pumped up by our leaders at some point. Though I’m not sure in retrospect because it’s very hard to judge pressure by how the tires feel, I thought at the time that they were about 120psi.
We barely miss the turn to the hotel, turn around, ride a bit next to the water, and pull into the hotel.
We chill out on their decklet while we wait for the bags to make it to our rooms, then Kim and I take a walk on the boardwalk before dinner. Dinner is in town and very good; I have an excellent heirloom tomato salad with arugula and peaches, a very nice duck breast, and chocolate for desert. I plan to eat only half the chocolate and fail at this completely.
|Strava Score||102 (Tough)|
Day 4 – Los Alamos -> Los Olivios
Today will be a transition day; after breakfast we will get in the vans to skip some boring country, and head into the interior wine country, starting out in Los Alamos. No, not that one, this one. We get there, get everybody unloaded, and head out.
Today it’s about 20 miles to lunch, and then another 15 to the hotel – or, if you want more distance, you can ride more in the afternoon. We are about 5 miles into the ride when we come across a guy standing outside his truck, and he tells us that there is a rocket launching in a few minutes out of Vandenberg AFB, a Delta 4 Heavy carrying a classified payload (this means “spy satellite”). They launch out of Vandenberg because they need a polar orbit, and that puts the launch track over the ocean. This is currently the biggest operational US booster, though the upcoming SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch about double the payload.
He’s a bit off on the launch time, and most of the group heads out to ride, but we figure out the right time through the wonder of smart phones, and a few minutes later we get to see the launch, and, a few minutes after that, we can hear the low rumble of the engines. At 15 miles away, it’s not as intense as the shuttle launch I took the offspring to a few years back, but it’s still great to see, and it’s Kim’s first launch experience.
With the unplanned festivities out of the way, we head off to climb the first hill, which is a bit of a bear. Both Kim and I are having trouble with the heat, but eventually, we reach the top, get some more water from our van, and continue. We’re only able to ride for short stretches of time before I get too hot, so we ride for a few minutes, rest in the shade, and continue this pattern as we slowly climb to our lunch stop. I am really not having fun in the heat, and at lunch it’s pretty clear that I’m not going to do more than the 15 remaining miles to get to the hotel.
After a nice lunch, a bit of liquid, and modicum of procrastinating, we head out, start climbing again, and soon hit a steep 200’ hill, followed by a descent, and another 200’ hill. I’ve been riding on ahead on the hills and while waiting for Kim and the top of the second one, I feel something hit my hand, brush it away, and end up with a bee sting on my left index finger. I gingerly remove the stinger, making sure not to squeeze the venom sack, and the pain fades after a few minutes; apparently there’s enough of a callous on that finger that it didn’t get very deep.
We finish the ride in, drop our bikes off, check in to the hotel, and then luxuriate in the coolness of our room. Dinner is on our own, which is great as we have more control in our restaurant choice – we share salad, pizza, and a nice burger. Oh, and a nice local IPA for Kim, and a very good Hefe from Germany for me.
|Strava Score||102 (Tough)|
Day 5 – Mount Figueroa loop
Today is a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while.
The plan for today is simple; we – and by “we”, I mean the nutcases in the group – E, L1, and I – are going to climb Figureroa mountain, a 4534’ summit, while others in the group take a more leisurely trip through the countryside, stopping to sit in the shade and taste a nice Syrah.
We head out a few ticks after 8AM so that we can get as much riding as possible before the heat gets bad, and after 8 miles of warmup, we turn onto Happy Canyon Road. After a 7 mile intro which is pretty in a “horse ranch” sort of way (and not pretty in the “lots of cattle guards” way), we hit the meat of the first climb, which will take us 1200’ up over the next 3 miles. The grade kicks up to 6%, then kicks up to 8-9%. I ride with L1 and chat, and while it’s not what I would describe as cool, it’s not hot yet and it’s mostly in the shade, so it’s okay, and the pavement is just a few years old and in great shape. We hit the crest (or, perhaps I should say, the first crest…) and begin working ourselves up the sunny side of the ridge.
Then, not unexpectedly, something happens to the pavement.
We refill our water bottles from our handy support van (I’ve gone through about a bottle and a half so far), and tackle the unpaved section. It’s pretty rocky in places, so we work back and forth, picking our way for the line that is the least rocky and we make steady progress, finally coming to a steep section without a great line. I stand up very gingerly, try my best not to pedal smoothly, but still spin the rear up a couple of times. No harm and no flats, however, which makes us all happy, and we hit the top. We descend about 300’ into the next canyon.
We start to climb gently through some woods, pass over a couple of very minor steam crossings, pick up some really annoying bugs, and then the climb begins in earnest. The grades are in the 12-13% range, we’re in the full sun, and there is no breeze here. I try to hang with L1 for a few minutes, but my heart is making a thumpity-thump sound that tells me I should back off a bit. I tack back and forth gently to reduce the grade a bit, and continue to progress at about 6MPH in my lowest gear. In two miles, we climb about 900’, which doesn’t sound that bad – only about 9% average – but it includes my tacking back and forth, so it’s more like 11%+. I finally hit the saddle (Cachuma Saddle, as the next picture tells me) where L1 is waiting, and E rolls in a minute or so afterwards.
We take a few minutes to rest and hydrate, and then it’s time to tackle the final pitch.
I’m in reasonably good spirits; I know there’s a lot of climbing left, but we’re out of the “Happy Canyon” now and there’s a hint of a breeze. We head out; L1 in the lead, me in the middle, and E in the back. L2 soon pulls away; I’m having trouble with the heat and just can’t climb any faster. After a few minutes, I come to this sign:
Later I learn that California is strange in that there is very little public land; when it came from Mexico, virtually all the land was divided into private land grants, so this area that we’re riding through is, in fact, private land. Though I’m not sure who is going to be trespassing down into this steep canyon.
As I put my camera away, E rides around the corner, and I decide that it makes more sense to slow down a hair and ride with her than try to keep my pace. We are not climbing back and forth under a peak, we are working our way along a very broad ridge, which means we keep finishing one section only to turn the corner and discover there is yet another section. This happens at least 10 times along the climb, so we just climb and climb and climb some more. The surface isn’t great, but it’s fine for the speed we are travelling, and there is no other traffic out here. The gradient ranges from 8 to perhaps 13%, though at this point, I’m not paying much attention to my gps, and I can’t read it very well anyway because some of my sweat dripped on it and there’s a crystalline river of salt running diagonally across it.
We have been told there’s a steep section near the top, and as I near a gate that I hope is the start of that section, I stop so that we can “take a picture”, but it’s really to rest up before that last push.
And it turns out the last section is only about 12% and not very far at all, not really much of a final challenge. The section is punctuated by our support van driver catching up and passing us, with “Eye of the Tiger” blaring from the speakers. We turn the corner and stop at the top. It’s was a hard climb, but I feel pretty good at it; the heat did slow me down a bit but I was pushing 200+ watts pretty much the whole way, which is about 20% more than I pushed up Cayuse on RAMROD, and it is hotter here.
Left to right: E, Professor Snuggles, L1
We reload our water bottles; I get my hair wet and pour some water on my jersey, and we start the descent. The road ducks into the trees, and we’re treated to a road that looks like this:
We ride this very gingerly, but it doesn’t last for very long, and we are soon back to pavement that is mostly clean. Unfortunately, it’s pretty badly patched up in places, as steep as the side we came up, and just as curvy, so we aren’t able to go down it very fast; I hit 30 MPH at one spot, but most of it is at 20MPH, and there are a bunch of curves that require < 15MPH. Oh, and the random cattle guard, which is way more fun at 15MPH that 6 MPH. We spend a lot of time on our brakes, and have to stop twice to let our hand muscles uncramp. Not really the kind of descent you’d choose to have, but eventually we cruise down to the flat part of Figueroa Mountain Road, and we pull up to the van for one last water break. On the other side of the road, we see this:
This is the entrance to Neverland Ranch. People drive (or ride, I suspect) out here to have their pictures taken, but it’s just a gate.
We head out, and ride the rest of the route back into Los Olivios, and then out to our lunch spot at a vineyard. While I’m there, I take a quick picture of my helmet. Yes, I am a salty sweater.
|Strava Score||158 (Extreme)|
My first extreme rating on Strava, and on an HC climb. Yea!
Day 6 – Short loop through Solvang
Today we just have time for a quick morning ride before we check out and head to Santa Barbara and other places. This features a short climb at the start, and then a nice 1-2% downhill for quite a while through farms and vineyards. That part was very nice, then we climbed a short hill into Solvang which adopted Dutch architecture after WWII, and now has a decidedly quasi-Dutch feeling. Interestingly, in the late 1950s, a couple visited Solvang and decided that adopting an approach would work well for their town, which Washingtonians know as Leavenworth. My impression is that Leavenworth does it a bit better.
On the way back, I stop to take a picture of an important sign:
If you’ve ever ridden on an organized ride and followed markers painted on the road, you can thank Dan Henry for that.
A quick spin back to the hotel, shower, and we’re back in the vans heading to Santa Barbara airport, where Kim and I will get a rental car and head back to my sister’s house in Walnut Creek.
Summary and comments
It was a pretty good trip; the time we spent along the coast was really nice, in climate, in challenge, and in sights. I was less excited about the wine country section; I’m not a big wine drinker/taster at any time, and really not into stopping at wineries while on a ride, but I did get to spend a really good day on a serious mountain climb, which was nice, plus a rocket launch. A bit too hot for me, however.
Back in Walnut Creek, I managed to throw in another HC climb of Mt. Diablo (39.2 miles, 4164’) on Sunday to cap off the trip.
If you want to read my review about the trip, you can find it here.