Thursday, January 26, 2012

Keep the Ocean on your Right: The Coast Ride

Published in 3/GO magazine: Click here

There’s no more iconic starting point to an epic adventure than the Golden Gate Bridge. Riding my bike 370 miles from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to downtown Santa Barbara in three days counts as epic in my world. This is The Coast Ride.

The Ride was scheduled over a three day weekend, taking advantage of the Martin Luther King holiday to be absent from my job as an investment manager without taking a vacation day. On Saturday morning, my husband Rich, a couple of overnight guests who had traveled from San Diego and I caravanned to the Ride’s start point at the Golden Gate Bridge. Even as an 11 year San Francisco resident that rides across the bridge on a regular basis, seeing the tawny red paint of the bridge and the lush green of the Marin headlands in the background, brought a smile to my face. I was excited for a *destination ride*… three whole days of cycling that would not include a loop, a lollipop or even worse, the dreaded out and back route!

There was plenty of excitement and buzz among the 70 or so cyclists assembled to start the Ride. As professional triathlete, Beth Walsh notes: “I do The Coast Ride because I love incorporating adventure and life experience into [triathlon] training. I love to blur the line between vacation and training and get the best of both worlds.”

After handing off our backpacks containing post-ride clothes and fresh cycling kits to the SAG Monkey (a company that describes itself as a “personal bike concierge”), Rich was anxious to start riding and so we made a quick exit to avoid being at the tail end of a pack of 70+ riders, when the group pushed off moments later.

Knowing I had 370 miles of riding ahead of me in the next three days, my plan was to ride within myself, but hopefully stay with a group of riders in order to conserve as much energy as possible. The first few miles from the bridge are fairly hilly – think Escape from Alcatraz bike course – and not the smoothest of pavement. As I descended towards the landmark San Francisco restaurant, the Cliff House, my wheel hit a pothole and I heard a clattering of metal. My rear light had fallen from my seat post and skidded into the middle of the road. I rested my bike at the side of the road and planned to dash into the roadway to retrieve it… but first I had to wait for the entire peloton of 70+ riders to pass me by. It was mile 3 and I was already off the back. Not the way I wanted to begin this adventure. Luckily for me, a fellow rider and friend, Monica, had an early mechanical that put her towards the back of the group. She saw me at the side of the road and slowed her pace to allow me to catch up. I cannot lie… while I was thankful for the company, I was annoyed that my husband was at the front of the large group and our little group of two was bringing up the rear. The law of numbers pointed to the fact we would only get further behind as the miles wore on.

And then it struck me… I was so focused on my *destination ride* and how quickly I would reach the *destination*, that I was forgetting the journey aspect of my adventure! I needed to reframe things in my mind otherwise it would be a long 20 hours in the saddle to cover those 370 miles over the next three days

The journey on day one of the Ride would take us from San Francisco to the coastal town of Seaside on the edge of California’s Monterey peninsula. 125 miles that would largely hug the Pacific coastline. The best phrase to describe the first 75 miles of day one would be “Surf’s Up!” The cycling route takes us past some of the best surf beaches that Northern California has to offer, including the world renowned big wave break, “Mavericks”, off the coast of Half Moon Bay. The waves were drawing big crowds on this sunny Saturday morning and cars lined both sides of the road as we passed the main beach in Half Moon Bay. Surfers in neoprene with boards wedged underarm were jogging across the road and down the beach. It made me consider the passion and focus that surfers have for their sport, not unlike our little group of cyclists. It was heart-warming to see so many people outdoors, enjoying what they love to do.

The 75 miles to the Davenport lunch stop passed quickly as Monica and I swapped updates on family, work, training and triathlon racing plans as well as enjoying the views. Her positive energy and enthusiasm were infectious, quickly dispelling any frustration I had felt earlier. In her words: “I love the Ride. I love just waking up, eating, riding, eating, sleeping, and doing it all over again without having to pack lunches for kids, get uniforms ready, carpool,'s 3 days of focus allowing myself to be alone and think, or to hang with a group of like minded individuals.”

After lunch, I joined a group of riders which included my husband. The route south from Davenport pulls away from the ocean, through downtown Santa Cruz and smaller neighborhoods until buildings start to thin out and the road flattens. The land wedged between Watsonville to the East and the Pacific Ocean is predominantly farmland. In the summer, you’ll find yourself riding through strawberry fields but in mid-January, it appeared that kale or another dark, leafy vegetable was the crop of choice. At this point in our ride, the wind had picked up and was coming from the southwest, causing a challenging mix of head and crosswinds for those seeking protection in the group. Sitting third wheel behind two Cat 1 guys, I was able to take advantage of the wide shoulder to position myself in echelon to the left of the rider ahead and remain protected from the wind. Those positioned further back in the group were less fortunate. With the boys in front pushing a strong pace and me hanging on for dear life, our group of fifteen splintered into two groups, with just four of us left up front. By the time I realized this we were less than ten miles from our destination and our route had realigned us with the ocean on the right-hand side. We soon exited the main road and jumped onto Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Trail for the last five miles into Seaside. Rolling along the bike path was the perfect cool down to a 6 hour riding day.

The SAG Monkey had arrived with all our gear and the goal now was to check into our hotel room and begin the process of recovery so we could do it all again tomorrow. Typically, my recovery comprises chocolate milk, some nutritious food, compression socks and chilling out on the couch for an hour or two. However, Rich and I were lucky enough to be testing some “Recovery Pump” boots ( so by the time I was finished with my shower, he had hooked up the boots, switched on a sports channel and was officially recovering!

After a good night’s sleep, the alarm sounded at 5am the next morning. Having spent about two hours wearing the recovery boots the evening before, I was excited to find my legs did not have that heavy feeling typical of the morning after a long ride.

The journey on day two would be the longest and hardest day in the saddle: another 125 miles with 8,000ft of climbing. With my legs feeling quite spritely, I was anxious to get going and navigate through the town of Monterey and get a start on those hilly miles before the larger pack of cyclists. I convinced Rich to push off in the dark about 30 minutes before the main group’s planned departure. Why else had we brought our bike lights if weren’t going to use them?

The first 15 or so miles are a little tricky, until you join highway 1 in Carmel. A few miles later we reached the Carmel Highlands and the ocean was once again on our right. At this point, and for most of the day’s ride, the shoulder would be almost non-existent so I was thankful for the early morning sunshine to enhance our visibility to motorists. The 90 or so miles that comprise the Big Sur coastline not only offer breath-taking views but also leg-breaking terrain for cyclists. There are just two Category 3 climbs in those 90 miles, so the 8,000ft of climbing comes largely through a relentless succession of rollers as Highway 1 clings unsurely to the jagged coastline.

Rich and I were trading off pulls consistently every mile, though he would let me to set the pace on the hills, lest I fall off his wheel if he were climbing upfront. As we ascended a small climb, he called me to look to my right towards the Pacific Ocean. I was ecstatic to see a small group of whales a couple of hundred yards offshore. January is in the middle of whale-watching season in Big Sur as California Gray Whales migrate south towards Baja California from their summer home in Alaska. I have cycled these roads numerous times but seeing whales was a first. The excitement re-energized my legs and we soon reached Ragged Point near the southern end of Big Sur for a well-deserved lunch break. I devoured the saltiest, grilled ham and cheese sandwich, I have ever tasted. Washed down with a diet coke, it hit the spot and I was ready for the final 45 mile run-in to Morro Bay.

The rollers taper off after you descend from Ragged Point and the visible landscape widens out. Combine that with a steady tailwind and the first twenty five miles from Ragged Point are fast and fun, a welcome boost to our average miles per hour. While less dramatic than the Big Sur coastline, the scenery remains appealing including an entire beach of sunbathing sea lions north of Cambria, just before the road heads inland for a few miles. The ocean is on your right once again for the final 10 mile push to Morro Bay. You immediately notice the town’s distinctive Morro rock, a 500 foot volcanic plug that sits at the harbor’s entrance. I was excited to see the rock but its sight belied the remaining distance. The last 10 miles seemed to pass by slowly. Rich and I were surprised that the large group had not yet caught us as we rode into town in search of our hotel and the SAG Monkey with all our gear. Next door to the hotel was a small taqueria so we delayed checking in for 20 minutes while we replenished with some fish tacos, chips and guacamole and some ice cold Tecates.

After 45 minutes in the recovery boots and a brief stop by the hotel’s *happy hour* wine-tasting, we joined the group dinner picnic tables assembled in front of the hotel and caught up with our fellow cyclists, swapping stories on the sights of the day: I caught up with a friend, Natalie, and she shared that “scarfing down a grilled ham and cheese at Ragged Point after all that crazy climbing was the highlight of the day!”

Day three brought the final leg of the journey: 120 miles from Morro Bay to Santa Barbara. I’ve done this ride before and while it’s the shortest day and the climbing is half of the day prior (4,000ft), it doesn’t feel any easier. What is more, the navigation is much more complicated and the route keeps you away from the Pacific Ocean for most of the day. The first 12 miles from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo (SLO) are spent on the wide shoulder of highway 101, a two lane highway that is open to cyclists. We left with the main bunch and the pack of 70 cyclists riding two by two down the freeway must have been quite a sight for passing motorists.

Many riders stopped for coffee and bagels in the cute college town of SLO but with more than a hundred miles to go, a small group of us continued on. As the day warmed up, so did the legs of the stronger cyclists and the pace began to quicken. I was determined to hang on as long as possible, even if it meant burning every match in my book. The group of forty quickly splintered but I managed to stay with the front group of 15 or so, in spite of seeing my power meter read 300+ watts more times than I usually find comfortable. While I could never spell out directions for The Ride without a map, I knew which way to point my bike at each turn… that was a comforting feeling since I feared being dropped by this group at any point!

After a water stop in the farming town of Guadalupe, we plowed on towards the designated lunch stop in Lompoc. About 15 miles in, a couple of guys that I didn’t know well, went to the front and pushed the pace on the increasingly rolling terrain. I quickly found myself unhitched from the group, staring down 20 miles of solo riding to Lompoc. I half-expected to be caught by one of the grupettos behind. Indeed, I half-hoped I would be caught as the terrain was hilly and I was feeling the accumulation of miles in my legs from the prior two days. Misery loves company!

I put my head down, reminded myself to enjoy the journey and was quickly rolling by the Lompoc city limits sign. I was elated to reach Subway and find a bunch of cyclists in line to order. I grabbed a quick bite of my husband’s turkey sandwich and, rather than take a leisurely lunch, the two of us jumped on our bikes to tackle the final 40 miles. We pushed off at an easy pace with another rider, professional triathlete Kate Major. However, our departure had prompted a few others from the group to rally and they quickly joined us to form a group of 10 or so. I was amazed to find that a few guys were still feeling frisky after 300+ miles and disappointed that my plan of a steady pace with just 1-2 other riders had been so quickly foiled. I was soon ejected out of the back of the group on another solo journey. It was now a familiar pattern. The next 15 miles included a steady, stair-step climb but with a strong prevailing tailwind, it seemed easier than any prior ride and I was quickly descending to the coast for the final stretch to Santa Barbara: a 20 mile sting on highway 101. Rich had waited for me at the rest stop just as we joined 101 and I was thankful not to be riding on the highway solo. It was great to have the ocean once again on my right and we enjoyed the last few miles looking out on the Channel Islands and counting the oil derricks off the Santa Barbara county coast. We reached our exit in under an hour – thank you tailwind! – riding through city streets to the hotel where SAG Monkey was waiting with some victory beers!

Three days, 370 miles and 19 hours of cycling. I had completed my fourth coast ride. I handed off my bike to the crew to transport it back to San Francisco, grabbed a shower and then loaded up the minivan. An hour later, we set off on the journey north, keeping the ocean on our left.