I awoke on the morning of day 4 in Westpoint Union State Park greeted by a classic California coastal scene visible outside of my tent. From the seaside bluff where my campsite was set up, light fog drifted lazily up from the beach below, cresting in slow motion wave over my campsite. The warmth of the morning sun poked through the fog here and there, but it was still a little cold and damp at ground level, so I stayed under my vestibule as the morning grew warmer and my tent dried off.
I was pretty excited about the route that day. This was another relatively short day and I planned to take my time riding bike only coastal trails and spending time in the scenic towns of Fort Bragg and Mendocino, among others. I got packed and I was riding early as usual.
The partially collapsed road that runs through Westpoint Union State Park used to be either the main road through the state park or Shoreline Highway itself, I was not sure. But the California coast was having its way with the road. The steep cliff down to the ocean was advancing inland over time, causing the road to either break apart as the land underneath it shifted, or completely fall into the ocean dozens of feet below. Where the road was completely gone there were hiking/biking trails to skirt around the missing sections.
As I continued down the road I discovered the park had another section of campsites. The camp host had instructed me to stay in the section where I had stayed. But maybe some of the other riders that I had hoped to meet had stayed in this last section. The park did not have any specific hike or bike spots as far as I could tell. This other section was bigger and had more people camping there, but it was still primitive, pit toilet only camping.
I eventually had to get back on the main road, which meant the occasional fast vehicle that did not move over for me at all, but they were few and far between.
The little village of Westport was the first bit of town of any kind that I had encountered since early the day before. The quaint little hotels were abuzz with activity and people coming and going. I stopped at the market in town and ate a hobbitesque second breakfast since my supplies from the day before didn’t go far enough. The market was a meeting place for people in town and local gossip was flying fast and thick while I was there. They were very familiar with seeing people riding the coast on bikes and were ready with sandwiches, water, candy and other goodies.
Back on the road, the rolling terrain to south clung to the ocean cliffs at times, then it wandered inland to ranches, hilly estates and groves of eucalyptus and birch trees. In a few places the trees covered the road in a full canopy, windswept and leaning inland, looking like they were planted that way intentionally to serve as a windbreak.
I was enjoying the scenery so much that I missed my “exit” in the little hamlet of Cleone that lead me down to a beach trail identified on the map as “Mackerricher State Park Road”. But it was a paved bike trail. I doubled back on the trail and rode the section I had missed so as not to miss any of it.
It was great to be down at the ocean level for the scenery as I rode, but it came at the price of a steady headwind. The trail that began in Cleone continued into Fort Bragg. It actually did too good of a job of keeping riders away from traffic because I missed the city of Fort Bragg completely. So I detoured back into town to make a few planned stops, including a sporting goods store, a bike shop and the Skunk Train. I wanted to stop at a deli for lunch, but the directions and recommendations I got in town were confusing, at least to my hungry brain, and there was a big construction project on the main street through down. I decided there would be plenty of other opportunities to grab a sandwich farther down the road, so I continued south out of Fort Bragg.
The little town of Caspar turned out to be a cute little village worth a visit. A little market nestled in the Caspar Headlands State Park was where I stopped and ate. As usually happened, getting some calories in me revived me and I was ready to push on. I kept off the main route and headed to the Cabrillo Lighthouse, which still has a spinning lamp atop it, a shop in the bottom, and homes that were once residences for lighthouse operators that are maintained and can be rented out for a stay.
Mendocino was the next and final town of the day. This was my night to stay in a hotel. I plan my trips with one night per week in the luxury of a hotel, it is a good chance to get me and my gear really clean and dry. Mendocino is an absolute gem of a town. Like Fort Bragg, the bike paths between the town and the ocean are not to be missed, even if they are not the most efficient way to travel through the area. The coast there was rugged and windswept with few, if any, sandy beaches.
Riding into the village itself, I rode up and down the streets of the downtown area, not wanting to miss any of the quaint shops, museums and restaurants. I eventually wound my way up the hill to my hotel for the night, and it was a welcome sight indeed. It had no on site restaurant or laundry. So I rolled back downhill to the local market for what I needed. The locals all knew each other and used the market as much as a meeting place as a place to buy food. No one seemed to be in a big rush. Back in the room I used the bathtub as a wash basin and hung everything out to dry around the room. I even had internet quality cell service, something I did not take for granted anywhere during the trip. I did my daily check in with my family, enjoyed the food from the market, and even did a little video streaming, but I did not last long. Sleep came fast and easily as it always does while bike touring.
It has been a while since I have blogged on a ride, but certainly not since I have ridden. I busted out the camera for a blog and it’s time to share a few local secrets from this gravel ride.
My current gravel steed is a Diamondback Haanjo Carbon 7c. It is not included on most lists of gravel bikes to consider and that is a shame, but it is OK by me. I have updated most everything on my ‘jo, giving it a Di2 drivetrain and a second wheelset: a 27.5s with NoTubes Crest Mk2 rims and Project321 hubs with magnetic pawls. The frame is worthy of the good stuff, and the bike surprises me with how light it is every time I portage it over a stream. The hubs have so little spinning resistance they feel like they actually accelerate for a moment when I start to coast. The Schwalbe Thunder Burt 2.1 tires are the absolute biggest you can cram into the frame and fork, and I don’t recommend them for when it is mucky out: there is so little tire clearance that the abrasion of normal amounts of mud against the frame/forks would be worrisome. But for a dry dusty ride like this one they were no problem, as long as your wheel dish/truing is spot on. And since I build my own wheels I make double sure it always is.
I once again plotted out my ride using RideWithGPS. I had a few goals: a lot of dirt, climb on pavement and descent on gravel, and stop at Docent Brewing in San Juan Capistrano, adjacent to a groomed dirt trail near the end. Consider it crushed.
My climbing took me through Rancho Mission Viejo and on to Rancho Santa Margarita including the Patronnes Parkway bike lane. The lane is a mixed bag: it is a bike only route, but it is adjacent to a road that is for all practical purposes a freeway and separated by only a low cable fence. I had no problem with it, but it may not be for everyone, I get that. The main climbing was complete somewhere along Meandering Trail where I “summited” and descended quickly to Arroyo Trabuco.
During the drop into the arroyo a mechanical issue reared its ugly head. Under hard braking the fork got into resonance where it shook violently. It was easily remedied by lifting off the front brake momentarily and getting back on it a little lighter. It was manageable but far from optimal. I checked the adjustment of the thru axle and headset. It did not feel like those issues, which I am familiar with, and those adjustments were just fine. I was pretty sure it was a brake caliper/pad/rotor issue. The fork has been fine and the front brakes squeak for a moment when first applied, and that indicates vibration and less than optimal braking. I could have stopped and adjusted the caliper position but it was not worth interrupting the ride: I was in a good place and riding a wave of positive energy. I was not going to let an edge case brake issue get in the way. [Note: I discovered that this was front brake pads when I got home and swapped in a new set.]
There are several ways down the Arroyo. I chose the less technical route which allowed me to make a relatively easy stop at Starbucks. I am stuck on Nitro cold brews right now. I had a different brew planned for later.
After ‘bucks I crossed the arroyo and dropped back in at my now-not-so-secret entrance, which gives access to more nice gravel riding. It used to be more straight up gravel riding. Then a season of rains caused the road to get washed out by Trabuco Creek that flows at the bottom of arroyo. During the rains it swelled into raging torrent and rearranged the landscape. An army of bulldozers attempted to tame the creek and put the gravel road back in place. It worked for a while. But the little creek had other plans and it shifted again, taking out the new road. Fortunately riders, hikers and equestrians have rerouted the path through the area and it is great fun now, with maybe a few patches of deep, loose gravel across what used to be a road, or a streambed or whatever. All great fun.
I continued south out of the arroyo and made my way to the Oso Creek area, which is another local secret for gravel riders. I entered at the Saddleback Church campus, which is a lovely, green, shaded and historic. The trail through the Oso Creek basin passes along an area that I am pretty sure is going to calve off like some kind of glacier and drop a huge section of real estate into the creek. The trail follows a crack that goes deep and then the terrain slopes downward toward a cliff at the creek. Time will tell. Oso Creek merges with Trabuco Creek (the little untameable bitch of stream from earlier), then that merges with Horno Creek. And along the banks of the San Juan Creek trail is where I stopped for lunch at Docent Brewery.
I finished the ride at a slower pace after Docent, but it was worth it. The ride along the beach is a circus of humanity and full of riders, runners, children, skateboarders, drunks, you name it. It is best to take it slow through there. The final leg back home is familiar ground, of course. As usual when I complete a big loop like this I want to make a few changes and ride it again soon, which I am sure I will.
On Day 3 I awoke to an empty campsite, though there had been another cyclist there the night before: Reuben. But I knew that Bigfoot had not scared him away during the night. Reuben had left camp early for something far scarier: the climb from Leggett.
To be fair, Leggett IS the biggest climb along the Pacific Coast Route. Accounts of cyclist tours often portray it as truly horrific. But I looked at the elevation profile before my ride and I saw that Leggett was smaller than the big climbs you encounter on most tours in the US. The elevation profile showed two separate climbs, so it is broken up into pieces as well. How tough could it be?
I got a relatively early start and stopped less than a mile down the road in Cooks Valley for supplies and “breakfast”: an egg panini, virtually identical to dinner the night before. My meal planning was not the best and was a result of me not stopping for food in Garberville the day before as I had planned. It was nice to know that I would survive if I did not stick to my super detailed plans. My plans were not meant to be rigid, but rather to keep me from ending up without a source of water for a day and a half or similar crisis.
The approach to Leggett was full of smaller hills and a steady uphill grade that started tenderizing my legs before the main course of the day. But the views of the lovely Eel River and heavily forested lands made it worth it. One of the frontage roads that would divert me from the freeway was closed, keeping me on the official route. It did have the benefit is shaving off some miles from my planned route.
It was here that I noticed I could not trust the elevation profiles that my navigation software generated, and that was a good thing. I planned my ride each day and made a GPX track and elevation profile for it. While I am happy to change my route on the fly, the courses give me a baseline to work from and know what to expect. When I first looked at the elevation profiles for the ride I was a little overwhelmed. Many days called for over 4000 feet of climbing, which is on the high side for me on my loaded touring bike. But when I looked closer I could see something was not right. The elevation profile was full of impossible spikes up and down. Passing over a very high bridge that day I discovered one of the reasons for this: the elevation profile did not recognize the bridge and showed the elevation as if the road went all the way down the huge valley and back up again. Elevation data was also thrown off by roads that ran along the top or bottom of a steep cliff, occasionally reading the elevation as though the road went up and down the cliff. So it was mystery solved, and I dreaded the climbing on the days ahead a little less.
The day was not without its tourist stops. Confusion Hill is a gravity gone wild kind of place. But they were not quite open when I got there which was fine by me. I did not need anything to make me any dizzier then the terrain doing already. I took a brief stop with good cell service and returned to the business at hand.
The little hamlet of Leggett was the namesake of the climb for the day and the last place I could get supplies, which meant carrying the extra weight of dinner over the hill. It was also the location of THE drive through tree, the Chandelier tree, which warranted a short side visit and a little messing around.
After getting my fill of tourism I was back on the road, and there was no avoiding it: Leggett was next. The hill is significant, and is really two hills that I will call Leggett major and Leggett minor. Major is first and bigger of the two. Leggett minor was shorter, but its grade was steeper and unrelenting. All the other cyclists I would talk to about the climbs agreed that the two hills were the about the same difficulty.
The road has a shoulder of varying width, not always a big enough for a touring bike. The scenery was a continuation of the redwoods, especially in the valley between the two climbs.
The transition to the rugged Pacific coastline was sudden and dramatic. The coast was drenched in sun, but the pounding waves were sending up a mist into the air, giving it a surreal look after days of clear air inland with the Big Trees.
The campground I stayed at, Westwood Union, was quiet on a Monday. I was the only one there on a clear bluff of treeless campsites overlooking the ocean. Hours later a lone RV joined me. None of the other riders I had hoped would be there showed up. It remote: water spicket, pit toilet only, and almost no cell service. I looked forward to my hotel stay in Mendocino even more and made due with water I heated up myself in lieu of a shower. The coastal wind was not what I expected or what was forecast. It was a heavy ocean breeze from the southwest following the common pattern of shifting direction late in the day. I fully staked and guyed out my tent just in case. And the wind died down in the evening as usual. After a day of big climbs and with the sound of the crashing surf below, I slept well on the bluffs above the Pacific.
Day 2 was the day of my tour where I had the least amount of riding planned. I normally covered about 50 miles a day. If I rode at that pace I would pass through the redwood region without spending much time there. Riding less would allow the day to be a sightseeing tourist day. Oddly that is a challenge for me physically. I can ride long distances on my bike but stopping for long breaks and starting up again is hard: I would rather only take a few short breaks and get in all of my riding in one session. That may seem counter-intuitive, but I picture my body like some kind of flywheel that takes a lot of energy to get rolling, and once it is spinning it does not want to stop. But alas, tourist traps and natural wonders are not distributed according to my riding preferences.
I am an early riser, and waking up in a silent campground in a place like the Burlington campground among the huge redwoods was a delightful experience. I prepared breakfast in my vestibule as usual, which allows me to get started slowly without getting out and setting up on a picnic table. Being an early riser also gives me the advantage of uncontested access to restroom and shower facilities.
Other riders began to get up and prepare for the day ahead. I said my good byes and a rode every bit of a few hundred yards next door and stopped at the park’s visitor center. It had a lot of history told in images and artifacts accompanied by detailed information and narrative. It included the “Travel Log”: a camper/RV of sorts made from a downed log of a tree estimated to be over 4800 years old.
After so many miles riding along the banks of the Eel River I finally took the opportunity to pull off the road and walk down to its banks. The crystal clear water held up to close inspection; I have seen manicured ponds that did not look as pristine. And the water was warmer than air temperature too. As I rode through the park that day, I saw many people setting up day camps along the river, usually in one of the few areas where it was deep enough to swim in.
Farther down the Avenue of the Giants I encountered the village of Meyers Flat and the Shrine Drive Through Tree. There were multiple drive through trees in the area. This one was privately run and a bit campy, but still fun and an interesting experience. While I was there several cars went through. One driver pulled up and decided that they might not fit, so they backed out and did not go through with it.
I bought a deli lunch at the Four Mori market in Meyers Flat so that I could take it with me and have lunch in a redwood grove farther down the Avenue. The nice lady running the place shared the location her favorite spot just off the road in the direction I was going, which proved to be a very nice place to have lunch. She also hooked me up with a small bag of ice, which I really appreciated. Ice is the one luxury that I cannot easily pack while riding. Coolers or thermoses that could handle ice are too big for me to deal with. In many locations ice is only available in bags too large to carry. I have gone so far as to buy a big bag of ice and throw most of it out. But the lady at the market was nice enough to open a bag of ice and let me take a small amount in a plastic bag, which was perfect for my beverage at lunch.
All of the villages along this section of the route were picturesque and nestled among the redwoods. Miranda and Phillipsville were both scenic and busy on a Sunday morning.
The nature of the towns changed as I went south, however. As I approached Redway I saw a man walking along the shoulder of the road. I presumed he was a rare hiker that might be traveling along the same route. As I passed him I said hello. But his look back at me was strange and he was filthy and not equipped for a long journey. Just down the road I saw a blue tarp covering a tent house just off the road, and I added it up: he was homeless.
I don’t want to dwell on the homeless situation throughout my blog, so I will cover it once here rather than bringing it up each day. I feel I should not ignore the issue. I encountered a lot of homeless people during my tour. Many were living along the bike trail in Eureka the day before and through the Redway/Garberville on this day of the ride. I saw more of them as I traveled south. In the city of Oakland and during my train ride home south from Oakland I saw numerous large encampments throughout the state. Bike trails and railways are where many homeless seem to be able to get away with living illegally without being evicted. The number of homeless people is a chronic problem in the nice weather of California historically, but their numbers have exploded in recent years due to many factors, the rise of Opiod abuse among them. Unlike the small numbers of homeless people I am accustomed to, the new larger groups make no effort to hide themselves. They gather, sleep, and build dwellings in very visible public places, and cities and the state seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it. While they are not all violent or criminal, some of them can be. Touring cyclists are not afforded the protection of an enclosed vehicle, and further, our bikes are target items of theft for the unscrupulous among the homeless. The topic of the homeless came up every night at the hiker/biker campsites, and all of us took extra precautions to protect our safety and belongings in areas where the homeless population was visible. Alison at Burlington campground was a social worker very familiar with the situation and I learned a lot from our discussion. No place was worse than Redway/Garberville, where the homeless seemed to outnumber the rest of the people. I had planned to stop and get food in Redway. There were dozens of homeless people in and around the market, nearly all of them staring at me and my bike as I locked it and went in for supplies. After a few minutes in the store I decided better of it and left quickly without buying any necessary food. I was watched closely as I unlocked my bike and rode away. I was so unnerved by this that I forgot to stop for food at the next village of Garberville also, where the homeless situation was similar. I was able to find supplies in Cook’s Valley just past my destination that night at the state park. I don’t want to discourage people from riding through this area. No cyclists I spoke with had any first hand experience of any direct problems with homeless people. And the homeless are not a problem in the remote camp areas where I stayed. If you ride through the area, be aware of the homeless population and avoid the large groups, especially if you are riding alone.
While making my way through Garberville I encountered another cycle tourist with his bike pulled off the road, all of his bags removed, and his hands covered in black grease. He was having a mechanical problem with his bike: he could not get his rear wheel to spin. I was worried the internals of his hub had seized up. On closer inspection I realized that his thru axle was not lined up right. I arranged everything properly and we got the wheel spinning so the hub was not the problem. But his bike had a strange thru axle I had never seen before, and neither of us could figure out how to tighten it all the way. It sounds odd and it was. After doing all I could, the rear wheel would not fully tighten and it had a lot of side to side play. The rider thanked me and said I was free to go. He was riding with a group and was in contact with them on his phone. I left without fully resolving his mechanical problem, but I did manage to help a little, and to the best of my abilities. Still, I am used to staying with people until they are able to get riding again. Fortunately I met him later in the day at the gas station/convenience store in Cook’s Valley and he thanked me and reassured me that I had helped a lot. I was happy to see him able to continue.
I stayed at Richardson’s Grove State Park campground that night: another lovely park set among the redwoods. My fellow cyclist at the site was Reuben from Sydney (Australia, duh!). He was a research assistant at the University of Sydney and later became staff, wearing many hats. He was riding the entire coast in one trip and we had the same destination in mind for the next day, so we would camp again if all went well. Reuben shared the story of staying in a campground where a mountain lion made the sound of a screaming woman in the middle of the night, which is not uncommon. It terrified some of the campers there including a couple of women cyclists who were unable to sleep for the rest of the night. Reuben, like myself, always slept with earplugs and an eye mask, so he didn’t wake up for it.
It was also Father’s day that day. I would have never intentionally scheduled a trip all by myself for Father’s day, but I messed up. My trip was originally scheduled for the end of May which is usually well outside the rainy season for the area. But the area was hit by a big rain storm that week. If I were riding for months I would have dealt with some rain, but I would have been riding in the rain for my whole trip, so I decided to delay the ride. I rearranged all of my travel, reservations and work vacation schedule in a bit of a panic and unwittingly scheduled it to include Father’s day. I realized it only after everything was moved and I decided not to move and delay it a second time. I enjoy time with my family on Father’s day and there were reminders that it was Father’s day throughout my ride that day. Each time I was reminded of it I felt a pang of disappointment for messing up my schedule.
The park had spotty, terrible cell service, but my daughter called me for a Father’s day talk and we spoke for a long time. It was a wonderful talk and it helped make up for my feelings of missing out on the day. My cell service seemed to fade just as we were finishing up our conversation anyway, and I was not able to make another call during my stay at the park, it was like a little bit of magic during my journey. I think service got worse because more campers were showing up and overloading the local cell tower, up but I am sticking with the magic narrative.
Reuben was a disciplined rider who was taking the next day of riding pretty seriously. The route would include the fabled climb from Leggett, which is the biggest climb along the entire Pacific Coast Route. He turned down my offer of cheap wine I had gotten in town and climbed into his tent early to get in extra rest and an early start for the next day. I had looked at the elevation profile of the day and read about the ride on social media and I was expecting a climb, but not like Reuben seemed to be expecting. He was a younger, leaner, stronger rider than me so I was sure he would be fine. I retired only shortly after him, leaving most of my wine untouched, so maybe I was actually looking forward to the next day with a little more trepidation that I was willing to admit.
Day 1 started as expected: in a cute coastal town with overcast damp weather. I was pleased to find that I had not forgotten anything, which I usually do on bike tours. I would not be 100% sure until I made camp for the night, but it was “so far, so good.” I made a quick stop at the local drug store for a few extra items and I hit the Waterfront trail. The trail kept me off of the roads and traffic of Eureka, but too well, so I took some detours off the trail to explore old town and have breakfast.
The first side trip I made was for the Carson Mansion, which is well worth a quick side trip to check out.
Farther down the trail, a visit to the old town area and breakfast were on the agenda. The Greene Leaf was having a gourmet brunch on Saturday, but I was happy with a classic egg combo. I leaned my bike against the front window and was able to see it while I ate. So far I had avoided locking my bike while keeping is secure.
Old town had a lot to see, even before most places were open, so I pedaled around the area to make sure I didn’t miss anything then continued my journey south.
I passed through so many other small towns that day: Loleta, Fortuna, Rio Dell, and Scotia. You can see most of them in my video. But somehow Scotia escaped all of my efforts to record it. It was a very well kept little town and it used the Eel River for industry – mining and logging. Logging trucks were very active along the roads I was riding.
Riding conditions that day were dominated by the tailwinds, which were welcome as always. Winds from the north are the prevalent conditions in the area, and they are why most cyclists riding the Pacific Coast Route take it from north to south. I passed a group of 3 riders that were fixing a flat while I was on a freeway section. I checked in with them and they said they had everything they needed.
I finally arrived at the feature of the day, the Avenue Of The Giants: a presumptuously named road to be sure, but it lives up to its name. Going from the sunny warm open highway to the canopy of enormous trees so suddenly was overwhelming. I had to stop and compose myself and embrace the whole thing as I was getting downright emotional about it.
While Redwoods dominate the scenery, they are interrupted briefly and occasionally along the road by private farms, run down residences, RV parks and a few tiny villages. My plan was to get food at a market in the village of Weott close to Burlington camp. But all of the locals that I asked about supplies said there was no store in Weott. This in spite of the fact that I looked it up on line and even did a virtual drive by of the place. But Internet based information is notoriously inaccurate in a place like this where cell service, let alone internet access, was rare. So I stocked up with a sandwich early. The little market in Weott was there, however. and I stopped in for supplies. When I told the owner about how no locals seemed to know the store existed, her face collapsed. After recovering she thanked me profusely and grabbed a phone as I walked out of the place, I can only presume it was to call all of her local contacts and get the word out.
That night, as I planned, I camped among redwoods at the hiker/biker camp site at Burlington Campground. I was joined by many other riders including the three that a saw along the freeway. It is always nice to see riders that you encounter during the day with mechanicals join you at the end of the day. I had dinner with Luic and Alison. Luic is teacher from Quebec, a native French speaker. Alison is a social worker from British Columbia. We talked about a wide range of topics including the French language, homeless and the opioid problem, teaching/learning in a professional setting, accents, travel cooking, and the best route to take on a touring bike to get across Los Angeles. I am usually pretty talkative, but the beauty of the surroundings and residual endorphins kicked in and made me an even more enthusiastic conversationalist than usual.
As I set up camp I was very happy to discover no forgotten items. The campsite had good enough cell service for cellular data, so I cozied up after dark and streamed and surfed my way to sleep under a canopy of giants.
As I prepared for my trip to northern California it seems like I went over my checklist about a dozen times. Each time I found something that I needed to pack or change. Somehow I ended up feeling confident that everything was good to go. I packed my bike and gear into a bike box I got from a local dealer (thanks, “Buy My Bikes” of San Juan Capistrano!). I shipped it using bikeflights.com, which always ends up saving me a chunk of cash when I ship my bikes. I sent it to the Travelodge in Eureka on Monday who said they would hold it for me. Even though the tracking confirmed it, I called the hotel and they confirmed that it arrived.
I work about 3 blocks from the airport I was departing from (Orange County / John Wayne / Santa Ana International Airport), and my flight left at about 4:30 PM that Friday. So I worked a half day and walked to the airport. Everything was going according to plan, amazingly. The flight departed on time and I was off.
The flight laid over in San Francisco International (SFO) for a while giving me time to eat dinner at the airport and have a look around. SFO was actually a pretty interesting place, at least the part if it that I was in.
The second small leg of the flight was delayed a few minutes but they made up for it, and the small jet was very comfy. One nice thing about smaller planes is that there are no middle seats. I had the window seat. When I was not talking to the golfer sitting next to me I was in awe of the view as the clouds swirled around the mountains below and sun set the rim of the sky ablaze in a fading orange band.
If there was any snag in the trip, it was surface transportation from the airport to Eureka. Lyft/Uber showed there was service at Arcata airport on their websites. But the app told a different story. When I got on the ground and tried to get a pickup, neither app showed any service available to the airport. Lyft showed that I had to be picked up a half mile away in the middle of nowhere. Something was not right. There were cabs waiting outside the tiny, quaint, cold, dark terminal. I think if I had hacked at if for a while I might have gotten Lyft service within an hour. Instead I decided to use the warm cab sitting curbside. It cost me a few bucks more than the fare than the Lyft app showed, but I did not trust the quoted fare at that point. I was happy to get a ride to my destination.
I checked into the hotel, carried my my bike box to my room and did a quick assessment of my gear. All was well. The box had taken a few hits but it did what it was supposed to do and protected my gear inside. I waited until the morning to fully assemble the bike. I unpacked only what I needed to get comfortable for the evening and slept well.
My tour of Northern California starts in less than a week. I will be riding from Eureka to Oakland along Pacific Coast Route. It will take me through Redwood forests, right along the coast, across the Golden Gate Bridge, through San Francisco, and finish with a ferry ride to Oakland. I will be flying to Eureka and meeting my bike there which I will ship separately. Then I will return home with my bike on an Amtrak train to southern California.
Of course, I have a picture of all my gear, organized and ready to go! I have been doing my usual over planning that I do for these trips. Doing research and organizing is my way of dealing with the excitement and anticipation that comes before each trip, but sometimes I go to far. By that I mean that I can get a little pre ride burnout due to all the planning and the ride itself seems a little anticlimactic. But that is just an illusion. As soon as I start the ride I realize that all the preparation in the world is no substitute for the actual experience, and over preparing takes nothing away from the ride.
I also prepare a lot because I am a working stiff. I get a few weeks of vacation a year and I need to optimize it for family trips, romantic trips, emergencies, etc. So my bike tours are not done in what I call “nomadic” or “vagabond” mode. By nomadic I mean the kind of tour were you have a general idea of where you are going and how long it will take, but not a strict schedule. I look forward to the time when I can take a month or two and wander around the country. But for now I want to get the most I can out of one week. So I have identified all the sights I might want to see. I have my route and campsite or hotel picked out for each day. And I have made all the reservations I might need, all ahead of time.
This year’s trip has encountered some adversity already. I had originally planned the trip for the dates of May 17-27. That was the week before Memorial Day and give me a holiday to use instead of using a day of vacation. But, ah, the best laid plans of mice and men. Those original dates should have been well past the end of the rainy season along the route. As those dates were coming near I was watching the long term weather forecast just in case. Over planning, remember? And this year some late season rain hit Northern California. It was not a major storm, but I would have ridden most of the week in conditions ranging from drizzle to heavy rain.
So I was faced with a decision. I could take a little extra rain gear and go, or I could reschedule. My decision to delay the trip ultimately came down to the nomadic vs. limited time format. With only one week to ride, I wanted to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Were I in nomadic mode I would have taken a week of rain in stride as part of the bigger adventure. Plus, I also came down with a nasty infection the day I would have left. I spent a few days running a fever and taking antibiotics. So the decision to delay turned out to be a good one.
I have changed my gear around a little since my trip last year. I decided to allow myself to carry a little extra weight and I got a 2 person tent instead of a 1 person as well as a few other luxuries. Among them is a GoPro camera, and I plan to take some videos of my travels. I am pretty excited about adding them to my blog. And just like last year, I plan to make blog entry for each day of the trip. I will post them at some point after the ride is over. My blogs will include my routes, recommendations and other information. I hope other riders find it all useful and entertaining. Time will tell!
Ken is a great guy. He is the organizer of an occasional bike overnight camp trip in San Diego, using social media to make them happen. If that sounds informal, it is. I missed Ken’s most recent trip: a ride through Carrizo Plain National Monument at the peak of California’s wildflower bloom this year. But then he organized an overnighter on the Coast to Crest Trail in San Diego, and I was able to make it to that.
The Coast to Crest Trail is an ambitious project to link together and expand an existing trail network, creating a 70 mile continuous off pavement trail from Del Mar to Julian, CA. It is not your typical bikepacking fare. It is a credit to the San Diego area to establish a trail like this amidst the urban sprawl, groomed suburban landscapes, established ranches/farms and other infrastructure. At the time I write this, it is about 2/3 done. A section of about 3 miles had just recently opened. That was enough of an excuse to organize a group and ride the whole route.
After a series of emails, Facebook messages, text messages and the like, Ken put the plan together. A group of 6 of us would shuttle or get dropped off in the lovely mountain village of Julian early on the morning of May 5. So our version of the ride was the Crest to Coast trail (reverse of Coast to Crest, get it?), which has the benefit of being a net elevation loss. But even in that direction the trail still features plenty of climbing.
After a shuttle ride from the beach I met everyone in Julian staging for the ride. The weather was wonderful, everyone was prepared, and after some introductions we were riding.
The ride started well for me, I was feeling strong and climbing better than average. I like to think my recent cross training and weight loss were showing their affects. Early in the ride we made a detour for a photo-op at an entry to a wilderness area, which means by definition bikes were not allowed. But we stopped at the entrance sign then turned around. I must be some kind of local San Diego ritual, I guess.
We wrapped up the early pavement section by turning left into the Santa Ysabel Preserve, which was nothing less than resplendent as it was covered in far more green than usual, its streams flowed with water, and temps were ideal for riding. Which was good since the route did feature some climbing there. We navigated around sandy sections, ruts and cows as we went. I reached the top of one of the early climbs in time to take pics of everyone as they passed by.
We exited Santa Ysabel and regrouped in a meeting that included Carl’s family, which was utterly charming as his young daughter held a gate open for us and made sure Dad had enough water. From there the route took us along the paved Highway 79 and Mesa Grande road. They climbed steadily and did not always offer much of a bike lane or extra space for riders. But traffic was sparse and fairly polite. The paved section ended at a classic backcountry landmark, an abandoned general store in Mesa Grande.
From the General Store we struck out on Black Canyon Road. It is a wide fast gravel road that is covered in, ironically, white gravel. It was a long steady descent that gave us views of a rocky gorge with flowing water (a big deal in these parts) alongside the road in a few places. We regrouped at our right turn onto Santa Ysabel Truck Trail and decided to take a side trip to Lake Sutherland. This is where my energy level started fading fast. The rest of the group powered up the steady climb to Sutherland dam, but I made no effort to keep up. By the time I arrived they had had their fill of the scenery and were ready to head back down. I have seen the lake several times before with the assistance of my motorcycle. It is odd how climbs seem so much bigger on the bicycle.
By the time we hit the truck trail I was needing to get off and walk over the steep sections that trail is dotted with. The group I was riding with was great though. I was not the only one that was fading. Carl and Dan, who were still going strong, did a combination of waiting and taking more challenging options to keep the group together in spite of our widely varying speeds.
Day 1 ended with us setting up a legal wild / dispersed camp on Cleveland National Forest land. Ken had gone out the night before and buried a cache of water, beer and assorted other goodies that was much appreciated by all of us when we got to the end of the day.
We spent the evening drinking, cooking, and sharing food and stories. Interestingly, the middle of our camp turned out to have a hummingbird nest in it. My plan was to camp under the tree, but after the momma hummer buzzed me a few times we saw her tiny nest I relocated my camp site. The group gave the tree and the tiny mommy a little extra space.
While sitting around the campground that night, I casually mentioned that I needed to be at LAX the next day by 5 pm. To my surprise, that remark was greeted by confused looks from everyone. Once they realized I was not joking, they all said there was no way I would be able to do Sunday’s ride and get to LAX by that time. I had looked at the ride profile and figured that day 1 would be the hard day, and day 2 would be a relatively fast descent to the beach. But I found out that day 2 was more difficult than day 1.
So I changed my plans. I would ride with the group for the first part of the day on Sunday, then break off and finish as a road ride into Solana Beach. That would give me more than enough time for my scheduled arrival at LAX.
The next morning I saw once again that we were a pretty compatible group of riders. No one got up super early, waiting around impatiently. And no one had to be awakened while we all stood around geared up and ready to ride. Nice.
Day 2 continued on the Santa Ysabel Truck Trail, and true to my plan, I said good bye to the band of merry men at Highway 78 and continued to Solana Beach on the road by myself. The route I took was gorgeous, but Rancho Santa Fe’s beautiful wood lined rural roads have zero room for cyclists. I should have made my way to a familiar route that included San Diequito Road. But the route I took did feature a lot of new scenery for me so it was good for that.
Also on the ride I encountered the famous Belgian Waffle Ride that was taking place that day. I was not impressed. I was riding in the Lake Hodges area where there were families, children, elderly, etc. The Ride is a race, and not a closed course race, but racers were mixing it up with non racers anyway, and the racers I saw had zero regard for anyone but themselves. They kept going full speed through crowded areas, yelling at other trail users to get out of their way. I didn’t see anyone get hurt and I am sure many of them posted personal records to Strava.
The road into Solana Beach finally sprouted a bike lane, and I descended into the cool sunny beach town where my car was waiting safely in the parking lot where I had left it. Mission complete.
This ride was, among other things, a shakedown for my tour starting June 15 in northern California, including redwood country, Pacific Coast Highway and San Francisco. I presumed that if my bike and I could deal with an off road ride, then we could deal with a road tour. And deal we did. I look forward to that ride now feeling well prepared. And to the next local ride with a bunch of new friends.
Adventure / touring / gravel bikes are great, aren’t they? They allow you to get out on the road and almost hang with the best road bikes out there. They also let you depart from said road and nearly keep up with the best cross country mountain bikes around. This is a great fantasy except for one little gremlin that messes it up. And believe it or not, it is not tires, suspension or geometry. It is gearing. It would be great if there was a component group that offered gearing nearly as tall as a 53/11 road bike group and at the same time offering a granny nearly as low as a mountain bike group. That is a big ask, to be sure. But if you are willing to tinker a little or get out there on the edge, it can be done.
Before going any farther, I admit to being a Shimano biased amateur bike mechanic. I will touch on SRAM a little. Campy does not make an MTB group so they don’t really play in this arena. So I may miss some options, but I am pretty sure this covers most of the bases. But if not, please feel free to let me know.
In the distant past there were various ways to make a wide range drop bar group. A triple road group, i.e. with a 3 chainring crankset, was one way. Mixing and matching road and mountain bike components could also be part of the solution. These options worked great up through 9 speed Shimano. Starting with 10 speed, Shimano began to break this compatibility between its road and mountain groups. Road bike 10 speed shifters did not work with 10 speed mountain bike derailleurs anymore. They could work with a 9 speed MTB rear derailleur, but that meant using older components in the mix. When Shimano went 11 speed, compatibility was nearly gone. No road shifters worked with any MTB derailleurs, and high end triple road groups were gone too. Admittedly the loss of road triple was not a big blow: it was possible to get the same range with new 2×11 speed groups. This was all happening at a time when gravel/adventure bikes were rising in popularity, creating a demand for a wide range group that was no longer supported. It seemed that component makers were caught off guard .
In order to understand compatibility between shifters, derailleurs and gears (cogs/chainrings), it is helpful to break down compatibility into three categories: cable pull, gear capacity and max gearing.
Cable Pull This is the amount of cable movement needed move a derailleur enough to shift one gear. The amount of cable pull that a derailleur needs and the amount that the shifter delivers must be the same. If not, derailleurs will not position the chain centered on the gears.
Gear Capacity This is the sum of the range of gears of the cassette and the crankset, expressed in the number of teeth. For example, a compact 50/34T crankset has a range of 16T. An 11/28T cassette has a range of 17T. Used together on a drivetrain they have a capacity of 33T. A wide range drivetrain will have a greater capacity. The chain must be long enough to wrap around the big/big gear combo. When you shift that chain into small/small, there is chain slack to take up. The wider the gear range, the more slack must be taken up. It is the job of the rear derailleur to handle that. The cage (the plates that connect the derailleur pulleys), must be longer to take up more chain slack. Long cages slow down shifting, add weight, and stick out to interfere with the world, so you don’t want a longer cage than needed. Shimano makes 3 cage lengths: SS or short, GS or medium, and SGS or long. In general, SS is for tight ratio road race bikes. GS is for normal 2x gearing, and SGS is for 2x wide range or 3x gear ranges. In the current lineup Shimano offers SS and GS for road and GS and SGS for mountain. They have never offered an SGS rear derailleur for a current 11 speed road group, and that limits the gear range of drop bar groups.
Max Gear Size and Range Rear derailleurs have limits on the max size cog they can handle. SRAM’s commonplace 42T big cog will not work with older derailleurs, for example. The mech simply cannot pivot out far enough to reach the bigger cogs. Sometimes you can make move them out farther with adapters or by using long “b tension” bolts. But that can mean the derailleur will not be able to get close to the small cogs and compromise shifting in that range. Front derailleurs are a little different. The curvature of the shifting plates is designed for different sizes of chainrings. Shimano’s road derailleurs accommodate this. For example with the newest Ultegra R8000 band mount front derailleur is offered in L (large) and M/S (Medium/Small) options.
Other Compatibility I am going to focus on shifter/derailleur/gear compatibility, but that is not the whole picture. As if it were not enough to get the components all working together on paper, they must all work together when bolted onto a frame and under power. Putting a modern road bike crank a mountain bike may not go well. Integrated spindles may not be wide enough. That can be solved sometimes be using older BBs / cranksets where the spindle was part of the BB, like good ol’ square taper or Octalink. Putting a road bike crankset on a mountain bike may work at the bottom bracket, but the frame may not have enough clearance for the rings or a good place to mount the front derailleur. Road front derailleurs are bottom pull only, so keep that in mind. Chainline is another matter. The width of the spacing of the bike at the rear may move the cassette inboard or outboard far enough to make cross chaining even worse than normal and even affect 2 or 3 gears at the extremes. If you start to consider plus side tires or fatbikes, you may have tire clearance between the chain and frame to consider.
So for the options below, let’s presume you have the other compatibility issues sorted, i.e. just look at shifter/derailleur/gear compatibility. I have built bikes using options 1-4 below, so I know they work.
#1: Make a Franken-derailleur. I have found two ways to do this. Number one: hack a Shimano 105 5800 rear derailleur and a Shimano LX T670-SGS rear derailleur. This is documented well here. Remove the long cage from the LX and install it on the 105 and voila, an SGS 11 speed road derailleur! That solves the cable pull and capacity issue. To solve the max gear issue you may have to use the upside down b-tension screw trick, or use a derailleur hanger extension like the Wolf Tooth Road Link. Number two: Same hack but mix a Shimano GRX rear derailleur with an M8000 XT SGS long cage. I have not tried this one myself, but it is demonstrated in this video.
Pros: Relatively simple, no adapters needed.
Cons: You may have to tear apart a derailleur in ways you never have before. The older derailleurs have no shadow low profile or adjustable clutch, so for off road use you might get a lot of old school banging around of the derailleur. Small cog shifting feels numb and slow. And the derailleurs are a little on the heavy side, if that matters to you. The newer GRX/M8000 looks more promising.
#2 SRAM To The Rescue! SRAM offers a clean solution: Their 11 speed drop bar shifters are compatible with their 10 speed mountain bike rear derailleurs and 11 speed mountain bike front derailleurs. I had SRAM Rival shifters, an X-9 10 speed clutch rear derailleur (a rare beast), and a GX 11 speed front derailleur and it worked a charm. Other combos will work. If you are not trying to make existing Shimano components work and you can go all SRAM, this is a good option.
Pros: Lots of options for components, easy compatibility, no hacking or adapters needed.
Cons: Limited to 10 speed rear derailleurs, not the latest and greatest.
Pros: You can use any 11 speed MTB derailleur you want which means current models.
Cons: Adapters do add complexity to the cable routing. Surprisingly, if there are no other problems in the cable run, they do not affect shifting. But any problems, like kinks in cables, gunk or corrosion in the cables and housing, etc. will all be magnified by an adapter. I like the Tanpan better. The set screw and internal routing keeps the cable from unwinding in the adapter. The adapters are not cheap, but most of these drivetrains means some added cost.
#4: Go Electronic. Shimano allows mixing road shifters and mtb derailleurs with their Di2 groups. SRAM may allow the same, but, well, I am a Shimano guy, remember? 2nd Gen Di2 did not initially allow the mixing and matching of components, but a later firmware update added that ability. You are limited to making both derailleurs mountain bike components, i.e. you cannot use and Ultegra front derailleur and an XTR rear derailleur. I am not sure about first gen Di2 either, if you want to consider that you have some homework to do, sorry.
Pros: Di2 shifting. If you have not experienced it and you don’t have the money for it, do NOT ride Di2. Electronic shifting is not a gimmick or small evolution over mechanical shifting. It is a true game changer.
Cons: The same con as always for electronic shifting: the price. Now that we have 2nd and 3rd generation electronic shifting systems, some deals can be had on older parts or bikes if you are patient. That is how I did it.
#5 Lose the Brifter Presumed in all of these options is the use of “brifters” (combined brake shifter) and indexed shifting. If you consider bar end shifters that offer a friction mode, you open a whole new world of options. You need to keep them in friction mode all the time. That means losing the clicks in your shifting and learning to shift by feel: a skill that has been lost in the history of cycling for most. But considering the way you might want to use a bike like this, it does have its appeal. Almost any shifting problems you encounter with a friction shift bike can be overcome by your own skill, on the fly, anywhere in the world, without special tools or parts. Sounds like an adventure bike spec to me.
Pros: Eliminates the cable pull issue completely and with a simpler drivetrain.
Cons: Friction shifting is not for everyone.
#6 (ish) Hope for other options. If Shimano offered a long cage GRX or Ultegra derailleur that would be the de facto way to go. We can hope. Shimano has also introduced 12 speed mountain bike groups, but not 12 speed for road. Yet. Perhaps when they do, the cable pull of the road shifters will be the same as the MTB derailleurs and we can have the mechanical mix and match nirvana of 9 speed. Farther out on the horizon, maybe a 1x group one day will deliver this kind of range. But we are talking about maybe a 9/60 cassette with 13 or 14 speeds (in order to get decent gear spacing). A new player on the component scene, Rotor, has introduced a 13 speed group. And Shimano has patents on 14 speed components.
So one thing is a constant going forward: change. Fortunately, amidst all of the turmoil of the ever changing bike drivetrain technology, there is usually a way for us outliers to make a group that gives us all of the features we want.
I am going to join the Ride For Rwanda this year as I have for many years. For more info, see https://rwandaride.com. For some charity rides I participate in, I create a “virtual flyover” video using a handful of tools at my disposal like Google Earth, a video editor, some free music, etc. They are fun and easy to make, and they event coordinators always seem happy to have them. So for this year’s ride, check out the video!