Monday, July 02, 2012

So much for the leisure tour

One of my favorite things about bike touring is its ability to bring out my rare superpowers of sleep. You see, I'm a sometimes insomniac who often dreads crawling into bed at night. And when I'm in endurance mode, whether riding or running, I'm often so strung out that I can't coax my body to shut down at all without the help of powerful sleeping aids. But under the influence of more reasonable activity, I can drop away from consciousness for hours, double-digit hours, without even getting up to pee. I love this. Leah was probably less thrilled when she crawled out of the tent at 6:30 a.m. and waited for me, and waited. Finally when I rolled out after eight, I said, "I forgot to ask you to wake me up in the morning. Tomorrow you should throw water on me or something." I'm my own principle of inertia. When I'm moving, I like to stay moving. And when I'm asleep, I like to stay asleep.

I also have eating superpowers, at least when sugar is involved. In endurance racing, eating is such a distasteful chore. Stuffing even simple carbs into a sour stomach is just about the worst self-punishment there is. But bicycle touring revs up my appetite without cranking it into overdrive, and the result is a wide-eyed appreciation of edibles everywhere — especially calorie-dense sweet edibles. Our first stop of the day was Honeydew, just eight relatively flat miles from breakfast. But when I discovered the general store sold homemade baked goods, I immediately had to try ALL OF THE THINGS! Sugar mania led me to buy up as much stuff as I could fit in my frame bag, but restraint kept me to eating only one Honeydew Hummer before we hit the road.

We turned up Wilder Ridge Road and began the long up-and-down grind through the King Range. Leah had issues with her panniers, in that they wouldn't stay hooked to her rack during the jolting descents. She finally found extra straps to tie them down, but the multiple breaks were a good opportunity for me to stuff more sugar into my mouth. Despite the difficulty of our route, I'm pretty sure I still managed to inhale more calories than I burned. Given how I often feel under my usual activity-induced deficits, this was a welcome indulgence. So much sleep! So much food! Oh, and we rode bikes too.

The King Range surrounds the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in California, often referred to as "the Lost Coast." The mountains themselves are mostly conservation area, where Douglas fir and Redwood forests are vibrantly working to fill in the scars left behind by decades of aggressive logging. After a dozen miles, I found it difficult to believe we were still so close to California's coastline. The region feels very wild and remote, even by the standards I came to appreciate in Alaska and Montana.

The King Range Road dealt our first real lesson in humility, when even I — with all of my snow-biking-Tour-Divide-forged expectations of difficulty — had to accept that we were going to work a lot harder and move a lot slower than we expected. The problem wasn't overall climbing, of which there was plenty, or road surface, which was not bad. No, the problem was excessively steep grades, and the fact that mashing a loaded bike up a twenty-percent grade at 2.5 mph is more rapidly exhausting than, well, most anything else I've tried in my repertoire of activities. Coasting down similar grades also doesn't pay real dividends, either, because we had to apply the brakes considerably just to stay in control. At one point during a climb, I watched my GPS speed display drop below two miles per hour. Yes, I was still turning pedals. Later, when my heart rate dipped below 180 and I caught a bit of breath, I said to Leah, "Guess how slow we've been going?"

"I don't even want to know," Leah answered.

We descended a fun and brief section of pavement on Chemise Mountain Road. Then came the Usal Road, adorned with multiple warning signs such as "Closed to Through Traffic," and "Use at Own Risk." Of course, I was still thinking, "Aw, it's just a dirt road. How bad could it be?" Thanks to a lunch break ("We're touring, right? We're allowed to take lunch breaks!"), we didn't reach the Usal Road until after 3 p.m. Leah noticed a mile marker indicating it was 26 miles to the end of the road, where we anticipated stopping for the night. Leah already suspected our pace was not up to snuff and asked how long that might take. "I'll be honest, we're probably averaging about five miles per hour," I said. "We can probably do it before dark, but we can't dawdle."

So much for the leisure tour.

Here's a little background info about Leah: She's a cyclocross racer, a fast one. She's good at holding the red line and staying competitive in one of the most painful bicycle racing formats yet devised. She's also an enthusiastic mountain biker. I believe she's dabbled in a few endurance events. I don't think, however, that she's spent that much time truly slogging. Slogging is really my specialty. I try not to drag others into my madness because even though I enjoy it, I wouldn't expect anyone else to feel the same. There's really no reason why riding bikes at five miles per hour on dusty, steep, clay-covered roads should be fun. But Leah had a smile on her face the whole time, even when every tiny break invited a swam of mosquitoes, and even when the sun drifted low on the horizon while we were still miles from camp, and even when the coastal fog moved in and dropped the temperature into the low fifties. I wish I could be like that and be fast when I want to be. Leah is awesome.

The Usal Road largely routed through densely forested hillsides — sun-filtering oak trees at higher elevations, and a Jurassic-Park-like density of redwoods and ferns near sea level. Occasionally we broke out into a brilliant view of the Lost Coast, vibrant and blue on a rare clear day. I loved it. Even at five miles per hour.

We hit Usal Beach five miles earlier than we expected, which was lucky, because given the major climb one mile later, there's no way we would have made it to the end of the road before dark. We wrapped up our day at 53.3 miles and 8,535 feet of climbing, with a solid eight hours of time in the saddle and an average moving speed of 6.7 miles per hour. I think Leah would agree it was a tough day. I later found a detailed description of our basic route whose author also acknowledged the difficulty. "If you are used to 100-mile days on a road tour, expect only 30-mile days on the Lost Coast," he wrote. I concur.

We set up camp in the eerie remnants of a closed state park campground, shut down due to budget cuts in California's parks and recreation department. At least it was quiet, save for the antics of some ATV'ers up the road. Back in Honeydew — that place where I wanted to buy ALL OF THE BROWNIES — I also managed to purchase a container of Cup Noodles and a tin of herring for dinner. As I dug in to the styrofoam container of yellow noodles with chucks of gray fish skin floating on the surface, my eyes widened again. "Wow, Cup Noodles are way better than I remember them being," I said.

"Yay for bike touring," Leah replied.

I concur. 


  1. You make a painful and tiring day actually sound fun...not that I want to do it.

  2. I will go on record saying that Jill can be fast when she wants to be. We hit a section of 101 with a closed lane that forced us into 65mph+ traffic and Jill totally dropped me before I realized what happened. Give that girl some motivation and she can sprint, no problem.

  3. Love, love, love reading about this. It is such a fantastic blog post. I am thinking you might want to start another business venture. You can start up a bike touring company because you have so much experience and then write books about your adventures while making money from both. It's a win win!

    Let me know when I can sign up. :-)

  4. So, I know the fact that you live in CA doesn't mean you know everything about every part of the whole big state, buuuuuttt... would you happen to know if there's any good running trails or parks in the Santa Barbara area? I'm not expecting that there really are, but I'll be down there for a few days and figured I'd look into it.

    Your bike trip sounds awesome. I'm always amazed at how beautiful the areas are where you recreate, especially being so close to San Francisco. Best wishes for the rest of your lovely trip!

  5. Morgan,

    The closest I've been to trails in Santa Barbara is Montana de Oro State Park, which is beautiful but perhaps a bit out of the way. There are some large coastal mountains just east of the city, the area where they hold the Santa Barbara 100 and other trail races. I've heard that region is rugged and gorgeous, probably readily accessible and worth checking out. You might even try Googling "Santa Barbara 100" and check out a bit of the course. That's about the most I can offer. That's actually one of region of California I haven't visited yet (among many, of course.) Still, this actually has been a fun state to explore. There's so much out there.


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