One of my favorite stories from my bicycle tours comes from a ride I did circa 2007. My riding buddy Joe (which may or may not be his real name) and I loaded our bikes on the Amtrak train from southern California to Salinas so that we could ride back along Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We chose to go in the spring, before Memorial Day to avoid much of the traffic along PCH. Our route was part of the popular Pacific coast route that goes all the way from Canada to Mexico.
The train schedule brought us into Salinas late in the day. The station stop was minimal, without so much as a platform cover. Our bikes boxes were unloaded quickly and the train promptly disappeared into the waning daylight, leaving Joe and I with two disassembled bikes to put together as the sun set. I had planned the ride meticulously so I broke out my knife and mini tool that I had set out for just this task, and we made relatively short work of putting our bikes together and finding a dumpster to dispose of the bike boxes in.
We rode to the nearest hotel and checked in with at least partial riding gear on. The clerk asked us if we would be part of the “event”. I did not get details but there was a big run or ride or walk or something somewhere in the area the next day. I dismissed it figuring that would be the last we would hear of it. The area has a lot of outdoor activities and many great venues for them.
The next day we started the ride and I was very excited. I was familiar with most of our route having driven it, but riding a bike along the route was a wonderful contrast as always. As we approached PCH, detour signs, balloons and banners began to appear. It looked like the event that the clerk mentioned would be nearby somewhere. I hoped to get a look at it as we rode past. But as we approached PCH it became clear we would have a much more intimate encounter with it. The event was the Big Sur Marathon. It went between Carmel and Big Sur, which just so happened to be our route for the day. PCH was closed for the event. Along that stretch there is no alternate route. Even after all my ride preparation, I had not anticipated that.
Local car traffic was allowed through only in small occasional escorted groups. Not being part of the run, and not being able to keep up with the cars, I was not sure what we would do. The event was very popular and the bike lanes were filled to overflowing with spectators in many places. I felt uneasy about riding my bike along PCH during the marathon. But we took it a step at a time and kept going. We managed to get around the start/finish line and weave our way slowly through the spectators. As we rode, we noticed that there were other cyclists along the route, most of them there in support of the runners, and none of them had any problem making their way around the busy event. So we finally got off the shoulder and on PCH and rode it during the event with confidence.
It was wonderful and amazing riding Big Sur with no cars. But it went beyond that and into the surreal as we rode on. Our timing was more perfect than we knew. The runners and big crowds completely vanished as we rode south and the road remained closed. The event featured staffed rest stops under big canopies along the road, all of them with live music. They too were enjoying having PCH to themselves. They had turned up the music far louder than it ever would have been during the run. It echoed off the cliff walls and down the road toward us. A whole different festival atmosphere came to life. We rode from tent to tent, stopping briefly at some, waving at the musicians and everyone there. They had broken out coolers of beer and other refreshments not intended for the runners. It was easy to imagine that this is what the event was really all about: a sort of Woodstock along the cliffs of the exotic Big Sur coast. It went on for a delightfully long time.
But eventually we saw the rest stops start to fold up their awnings. And then the first oncoming traffic appeared. Then the traffic coming up from behind us appeared. Our mystical moment in a mystical place had come to an end. But we did not have far to go to get to Big Sur village where we would spend the night. We got an early start the next morning to avoid traffic. And it worked, there were not many cars. But it was not like having Big Sur PCH to yourself as a surprise, and even if we manage to time it and do it again, it will never be like it was that first time.