A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of American Randonneur.
Please also note the movie I made of this ride, which can be found here.
Above the coastal hills, the glider’s rainbow canopy traced a sunset moon. An hour before, visions of seals cavorting on the beach had yielded to the cliff-top spectacle of whales breaching the Pacific’s ripples. It could only have been the Central California Coast 1200k Randonnée (3CR).
In spring 2012, as the canted grades of the Big Sur Marathon reduced my gait to a weary plod, a single thought consumed me: “I wish I were on my bicycle.” The next summer, the spectacular Big Wild Ride 1200k in Alaska confirmed my love for pedal-powered epics, so when the Santa Cruz Randonneurs announced they were expanding their 1000k into a four-day exploration of the Pacific Coast Highway and the vineyards around Paso Robles, I couldn’t register quickly enough.
As the ride approached, though, I grew apprehensive. At BWR, I’d spent the last 55 hours alone in some truly remote wilderness. I’d become so sleep-deprived that I’d hallucinated an Imperial transport ship from Star Wars hovering menacingly ahead of me in the Denali dusk, and I’d been so desperate to stay conscious that I’d resorted to “rumble strip intervals,” shaking myself to the sinews. The morning after that ride, standing up had been a 15-minute ordeal entailing a plaintive crawl across the floor to furniture that I could scale inch by tentative inch as my limbs convulsed disturbingly. It was pretty special.
Having no desire to revisit that dark place, I resolved to do things differently. After all, I was heading to one of the most beautiful parts of the world; I wanted to remember every moment and to spend as much saddle time as I could beneath the California sun. I therefore planned to ride hard and sleep even harder. If everything went well, I might even get a normal night’s rest after each leg, which would be decadence manifest. Of course, such yo-yo pacing meant I’d likely spend most of the journey flying solo, casting passing pleasantries to bemused heifers, but that’s how I roll.
Day 1: San Jose to King City (230 miles)
Because 3CR comprised simultaneous 1200k and 1000k events, the pre-dawn scene at the starting line found a century of riders chatting amidst a menagerie of two-wheeled steeds, reflective piping popping in time with digital flashes.
The opening miles through downtown San Jose were a surreal parade of tires reverberating through dormant streets, though we were yanked back to reality by a string of traffic lights that flashed green only long enough for us to clip in before stonewalling us. Our fitful progress parsed the peloton into clusters, with mine well back of the front group as we cruised past Stanford to the classic Old La Honda climb, a 3-mile, 1300-foot spike with stretches exceeding 15% grade.
Consistent with my “ride hard, rest long” ethos, I put some effort in and soon found myself alone on the serpentine slope, witnessing the sunrise duel the mist over neighboring valleys. As one rider dryly put it: “This is nothing like Phoenix.”
The shade apologized for the arduous terrain, but the road was dangerously pitted in places; here I passed the lead riders, who’d stopped to true a wheel that had disputed a point with a particularly misanthropic crater.
Our time in the forest was too brief, as our path led to an agricultural expanse that was as scorching as it was flat.
Finally, after climbs, coasts, and cobblers, we snaked through a golden valley with nary a soul for miles, just a backdrop of mountains ignited by the evening sun and prefaced with plains of dried grasses.
My timing was perfect: I crested the final climb toward the overnight control as the sun dwindled, which meant I capped the day with a 15-mile, 2000-foot descent into western crimson.
Day 2: King City to San Luis Obispo (210 miles)
The pièce de résistance! The second day began with a spin northwest from King City to Carmel, where we’d gain the Pacific Coast Highway for 125 magical miles before alighting in San Luis Obispo. We’d been warned to get an early start in order to reach Carmel before the northwest winds picked up, so I trundled downstairs at 4:30 a.m. and looked around for the posse, only to find that, while I’d slept, almost every other rider had arrived, rested, and departed for Carmel. I sheepishly tendered my overnight bag to the volunteers, explained that I was in a secret Rip van Winkle division, and got a move on.
As it turned out, there was sense in lighting out for Carmel sub luna, as the first hours offered little to see besides sprinklers and the occasional crop-dusting helicopter.
I was feeling proud of having ridden 300 miles since the previous morning as I struck up a conversation with a solo rider hauling loaded panniers up one of the PCH’s initial grades. He asked where I was headed; I replied that a group of us had left from San Jose the morning before and were en route to San Luis Obispo. I then inquired from where he’d ridden: “Minneapolis — I just retired.” He wins!
What can one say about the Pacific Coast Highway? It’s so magnificent that you’d better hope your camera eventually runs out of batteries or you’ll never reach the end. Riding southbound meant we had unobstructed views from atop cliffs to the crashing sea hundreds of feet below, and when crossing Bixby Bridge, I could almost believe I was floating.
The Big Sur control arrived 100 miles in, about halfway through the day mileage-wise. As I approached, I spied a line of 20 randonneuring rigs arrayed along the front of a country store, with a corresponding lycra-clad crowd enjoying lunch under the midday sun.
I’d finally overcome my indulgent slumber and caught the action. A note of agreement echoed through the smalltalk: Just then, none of us could imagine being anywhere else. We were riding through an issue of National Geographic.
With an effervescent spirit, I set off for Cayucos in the belief that the day’s toughest climbing — and, sadly, its most awe-inspiring scenery — were behind me. But I was wrong on both counts: The 50-mile stretch from Big Sur to Ragged Point resembled nothing so much as the cliffs of Corsica, with little separating the road from a precipitous drop to rocks far below.
The grades grew fangs, to the point that riders in passing cars looked at me with a mix of pity and alarm.
During this unforgiving stretch I chanced upon a stout fellow with a fully-loaded mountain bike, to which he’d affixed a large handwritten sign: “Riding with God.” A nice sentiment, I thought, though I pondered the theological significance of the fact that he was on foot, pushing the bike up an endless climb with a despondent expression on his face.
The miles around Ragged Point, a thousand-foot rock face jutting from sea to sky that marks the transition to the beaches of southern California, were otherworldly. The polygraphic elevation profile brought views that seized the breath at every hairpin turn. Toward the top of a 5-mile ascent, dozens of tourists stood atop rocks and shielded their eyes toward the sea, gesturing jubilantly. I joined them and immediately spotted a tail fin, followed by a telltale geyser of seawater that marked a whale luxuriating amidst the waves. It’s a rare ride that offers whale sightings without requiring one to unclip.
The final 60 miles, from Ragged Point to San Luis Obispo via Cayucos and Morro Bay, were a perfect dessert for a hard day’s effort. The mountains melted into beaches and surf, and we were ushered down the coast by a tailwind so compelling that a fixed-gear rider later said he’d had to ride his brakes to spare his knees.
I held 30 mph with little effort, though my progress was checked when road debris gouged my rear tire. Because it was set up as tubeless, I had to remove the indecently tight valve and nut from the rim, a 30-minute charade resulting in shredded fingers and splatters of sealant that doubtless contributed a certain je ne sais quoi to my portfolio of charms.
After wrestling my damaged tire into compliance, I joined the growing stream of randonneurs for the final stretch into San Luis Obispo. It didn’t disappoint. To the right, just off a horseshoe beach flecked with Frisbee-tossers, the massive Morro Rock, a 23 million-year-old volcanic outcropping, erupted from the water like a scene from The Odyssey.
To the left, a lonely hang-glider floated beside the full moon.
What a day — one of the most spectacular I’ve experienced on a bicycle. I checked into my delightfully seedy San Luis Obispo hotel knowing that, because I’d have to time my morning departure to find an open bike shop to replace my rear tire, a full 7 hours of sleep awaited me.
Day 3: South loop from San Luis Obispo (185 miles)
Because the most convenient bike shop was in a town 60 miles down the road and didn’t open until late morning, I reasoned there was little point in rolling out before dawn, which again meant I was close to being lantern rouge in the early hours. But no matter; there were vineyards ahead, as well as something ominously called “Gaviota Pass.” Groovy, baby.
Like the previous day, this segment revealed its charms reluctantly; the morning hours had us traversing agricultural tracts that appeared to contain all the dirt on Earth and little else.
It was a bit of a let-down following 125 miles on the PCH, but then anything would’ve been. At last the elevation profile began to track the rising temperature, and we scaled a few aggressive highway grades before arriving in Lompoc, where I successfully hunted the bike shop amidst a web of strip malls.
The climb to Gaviota Pass turned out to be a Wind Tunnel to Nowhere: 15 miles on the shoulder of a rural highway, churning upward straight into a 25-mph headwind as the sun bore down. There were moments when I could scarcely imagine any future other than climbing forever toward the apocryphal turnaround point. Worse still, a steady stream of randonneurs passed heading the other way, and I optimistically hoped each one signaled an imminent end to the suffering. Alas, no — those guys were a couple of hours ahead of me, even though they were close enough to touch.
The good news was that the tailwind-assisted descent back down from the pass was a joyride, and with our dues having been paid, we reached wine country. I certainly knew of Napa’s legendary vineyards, but I hadn’t realized that central California’s inland regions were basically Italy, all rolling hills striped with rows of grapes and the desert-like climate to match.
The vistas were tremendous, but they brought heat that seemed to radiate from the rocky soil. It beggared belief that any plant could make juice in a region that seemed designed to suck every drop of moisture from living creatures.
Relief (physical and comic) came in the form of Solvang, a Danish town complete with traditional half-timbered architecture, decorative windmills, and women in barmaid garb. As tempting as a stein of beer sounded, I confined myself to ice cream before resuming the self-powered wine tour along Foxen Canyon Road, site of the Blackjack Ranch famously featured in Sideways.
The winemakers blended the functional with the aesthetic. Miles of crisp white split-rail fences were festooned with blooming roses, which not only provided a pleasing backdrop for touring wine-tasters, but also acted as canaries to alert proprietors to bugs encroaching on the vines.
But some winemakers’ tactics were profoundly weird: one had hung several white human-sized dummies by their necks from the tops of the vines, and the disturbing result was best described as “voodoo chic.”
I don’t know if it prevented animals from pestering the grapes, but it certainly repelled this cyclist.
Eventually, as we graduated from the Solvang wine region back toward San Luis Obispo, the scenery morphed into an oak-speckled valley backstopped by hazy peaks.
The mercury retreated, and the vacant roads lent themselves to quiet contemplation of the setting sun. Not that we were entirely alone: In the closing miles, a grinning dog bounded ahead of me, where he trotted along for several miles as Virgil to my Dante, looking back every few moments to ensure I was keeping up.
I rolled back into the San Luis Obispo control at dusk, noting happily that I had 27 hours to cover the final 200k.
Visions of Chipotle danced in my head.
Day 4: North loop from San Luis Obispo (125 miles)
The victory lap! As I thanked the volunteers on my way out, I learned that a local rider had finished his 1200k the previous afternoon, chalking up a scarcely believable time of 57 hours. Amazing.
For us mere mortals, the final day recalled the highlights of everything that had come before: Spins along the coast, grueling ascents, immaculate towns, arid vineyards, and views forever. After retracing our path to Morro Bay, we launched up the most difficult climb of the ride, the 1700-foot Old Creek Road, the grades of which asymptotically approached absurd. It was a demanding chore for tired legs, but waves of coastal mist cooled our burning muscles and panoramic views of Whale Rock Reservoir distracted us from the task at hand.
A meandering descent to the east led back to wine country and a leisurely breakfast in Paso Robles, the sort of postcard town in which bobbing fluorescent flags chart the progress of elderly couples riding recumbents to brunch.
Mid-day brought us amidst the vineyards to Mission San Miguel, an arcade of a dozen graceful arches erected in 1797. With only 70 miles to go in 12 hours, a celebratory mood graced the staffed control, with icy Coke the toast du jour.
Retracing our route back through Paso Robles and over the ridge toward the coast presented us with the ultimate reward for a 730-mile effort: A 10-mile, 2000-foot descent with views that stretched to the ocean, where Morro Rock loomed behind the foothills.
After cruising for 20 minutes without pedaling a radian, we achieved the coast and regained the tailwind we’d enjoyed two days before, slaloming through seaside towns as dogs frolicked in the surf.
It marked a fitting end to what must be the most striking randonnée in the contiguous United States. I finished with a smile in about 82 hours, wanting nothing more than to head out for a second go-round.
As rewarding as my ride was, the experience took on a tragic aspect at brunch the next morning, when the ride organizers told everyone what a few already knew: On the third evening, Matthew O’Neill, a 33-year-old rider who was a mainstay of the local randonneuring community, had been struck by a truck and killed as he returned from Solvang along Foxen Canyon Road.
There is little I can say about this that hasn’t already been said — by those of us in tears on the Amtrak ride back to San Jose, by the dozens of riders who attended his Life Celebration in Chula Vista, and by those who took part in the memorial ride in early September. It is utterly gutting for such a senseless, preventable tragedy to strike someone in his prime, a rider doing what he loved and embracing life’s magnificent journey with every ounce of his being. Rest in peace, Matthew; you’ll always have a place in our peloton and our hearts.
Thanks to Lois Springsteen, Bill Bryant, and the countless other volunteers from the Santa Cruz Randonneurs for putting together an unforgettable adventure that every randonneur should experience. It sets a new standard for beautiful rides. To see it in action, check out the movie here.