Last weekend I rode the Big Sur 600K: ~375 miles in 28hrs and 15min. It all started with tacos.
After taking Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to Santa Barbara and squeezing my bike into the belly of an Amtrak bus, I reached Salinas just in time to check in to my hotel and wander down Kern St to the fabled taco truck, “El Grullense.” I hadn’t eaten all day, so in my broken Spanish, I ordered 6 tacos and a burrito. The lengua was great, but the carnitas…oh man, probably the best I’ve had. The pescado burrito was a bit dry so I drenched it in salsa verde; for veggies, I scooped up a big helping of grilled jalapeño and onions, and pickled carrots.
Soon after I wandered down to West Salinas (i.e. the “good side of the tracks”) where everybody else on the ride was staying. I said hello to the other riders, letting them admire my scar and hearing the admonition to “keep the rubber side down” from all quarters…then I joined a few fellow randos for yet more dinner, ordering grapefruit juice, a 20oz Negra Modelo, hash browns, and pumpkin pie. I guess I was being a bit too liberal in my interpretation of “carbo loading” because when I rolled out of bed at a quarter of 4AM the next day, I was feeling a bit sour and green. The front desk clerk and security guard were incredulous to see me leaving so early, my voice shaded with trepidation when I explained where I was going. The nausea didn’t abate when I got to the starting line. Lucky for me, Shaun (riding his fixed gear of course!) gave me a Rolaids which seemed to do the trick.
There were 33 other riders at the start, having come from Florida, Kansas, Oregon, and even Japan for the chance to partake in the journey. As we gathered at the start, here on John St., Steinbeck’s fitting words came to mind:
“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – Travels with Charley
As soon as we started riding I was feeling much better, so with my annoying bell announcing every pot-hole, I went up to the front group, hoping to stick with JV and whoever else was up there to avoid having to do much navigating until I got to HWY 1. After a while the lights behind us disappeared, and there were three ‘bent riders and me, getting as low as I could in the drops to hang on to their wheels. We were able to chat a bit on the climbs – introducing myself to John and William – but they would fly by me again on the downhills. We leap-frogged this way for quite some time until somewhere outside of Big Sur (the first control of the day). On one of the longer descents I lost sight of JV and John, and on one of the subsequent climbs, Willie dropped back; he pulled in just as I was readying to leave the Big Sur General Store; I figured he would catch up with me eventually, but I never saw him again.
In fact, for the rest of the ride, except at a few controls I never saw anyone again – unable to catch JV and John, I was in “no-man’s land” for the entire time I was on my bike. While this presents additional physical challenges (since there is no one to draft or trade pulls with), the mental challenges of not having anyone to converse with or help keep the demons at bay were themselves formidable. At night, I saw the ghostly silhouette of a figure along the entrance to Point Lobos – looking back, the shadow had gone. Further up the road, a strange (seemingly covered in spines) animal clambered off the asphalt, just outside of my peripheral vision. The bushes rattled as I passed, teeming with nocturnal life:
After the climb towards Ragged Point, HWY 1 heads back down hugging the pastures full of Hearst cattle – the beef from which you can have in the form of a number of great sandwiches at a little store in San Simeon, across from the entrance to Hearst Castle…that is, if you can get over the off-putting stench of the elephant seals basking in their preserve. They seemed so lethargic, but riding a few miles further, I saw dozens of them bobbing and diving for fish – and began to realize how agile they are.
I pass quickly through the central coast, pausing near Harmony when I see a pair of young women getting off of their bikes. I’m about to ask if they need any help, when one of them turns brandishing a hand-written sign: “Hugs 4 Sale!”
“Free for you!” one of them says. I laugh nervously as I notice they have both stripped down to their bras or bikinis – and pedal on. It is starting to warm up, and my light-weight wool jersey is encrusted with salt. Hot winds are blowing across my body, slowing my pace substantially – it’s time for suffering not for affection.
Cayucos, Morro Bay, the Montaña de Oro – all frequently foggy and chilled, today they are windy, dry, very warm, and full of traffic. With this section, and the desert winds blowing across Moorpark, I think of all of us riders and remember Kerouac’s fearful thoughts in Big Sur:
…I suddenly notice as if for the first time the awful way the leaves of the canyon that have managed to be blown to the surf are all hesitantly advancing in gusts of wind then finally plunging into the surf, to be dispersed and belted and melted and taken off to sea –I turn around and notice how the wind is just harrying them off trees and into the sea, just hurrying them as it were to death –In my condition they look human trembling to that brink –Hastening, hastening —In that awful huge roar blast of autumn Sur wind.
When I finally pull into San Luis Obispo, it’s at Vickie’s place – and I’m met by her husband who invites me in for lasagna, chocolate milk, V8, and rest with the same kindness and efficiency as he did when I was here for the 300K earlier in the year. JV and John haven’t left yet, and seeing them tells me I’m making good time even though they will leave before I’m ready to follow.
I sit for 15 minutes or so, cooling down and re-hydrating as best I can…then I’m on my way. By the time I reach Guadalupe, I’m starting to flag a bit, but I’m only half-way through the ride. I decide to try an iced coffee to see how that sits.
The 15 miles to Lompoc are surprisingly hilly, and I have to pull over at the top of one to put my reflective gear back on. Passing by Vandenberg I have a weird bout of dread mixed with desire to see a missile launch, but I reach the overnight control without any drama. JV and John are there, freshly showered and munching on snacks. I decide to just stink ’till the end, and load up on soup. I have a nice chat with Kathy Twitchell who makes sure I have more than enough food, and Errin’s dad is there as well, looking both patient and mildly anxious. I wait a good 30 minutes before leaving to do the 40 mile loop to Buellton, and I roll out as a few other riders (including Bill from Oregon I think?) trickle into the control.
I was sort of annoyed to see this little loop on the route sheet, thinking it would feel like I wasn’t making any real progress since I wasn’t jetting down the coast; instead, this was one of my favorite parts of the ride, as it was pitch black and nearly car-free on Santa Rosa Rd. Moderate steady climbs were punctuated by deer dancing off into the bushes as I passed, and the whirr of my chain was like the steady respiration of a machine. I remembered Wade Baker dropping me on this road on the 300K – Bruce saying we need to keep our voices down because one of the residents (an older woman) doesn’t like cyclists. Before long I was in Buellton, drinking another iced coffee across the street from the looming Pea Soup Anderson’s sign. Heading back to Lompoc on HWY 246, there were yet more hills, not to mention quite a lot of traffic, even late at night. A rumble strip bit into the shoulder and you had to concentrate carefully so as not to veer on to its bone jarring footprint. When I reached Lompoc for the second time, many more riders had arrived, most staying over for the night. I enjoyed a bit more soup, grapes, and an oatmeal/chocolate bar, talking to Errin and Shaun a bit before I was ready to confront the rest of the ride.
The bulk of the climbing was through Big Sur, but there was one sizable obstacle before I could get back down to the coast. HWY 1 ascends the San Julian grade at this point – a (I’m guessing) 7 mile climb that while not terribly difficult is relentless none the less. I settled into a pattern of climbing out of the saddle, then downshifting a bit and sitting to spin – taking a long pull from my electrolyte drink each time; I managed to stay in my middle ring this way and never cramped. The cool night air felt wonderful, and if the cars had cleared for a long enough time I had an unusual companion. Just overhead, I would occasionally see (and almost feel!) wings flapping slowly and purposefully as a great owl would soar past slowly, tracing the path of my front headlight to hunt for field mice.
At the very end of the climb, the road pitches up slightly, and I shifted into my “granny gear” to spin up this last rise, cresting the mountainous ranch region that serves as a sort of gateway into the Santa Barbara area. The descent was 2 miles at 7%, smooth and straight. While I don’t think I hit 50mph, I’m certain I was in the mid to upper 40s for some time. The road spits you out onto the 101, where I was greeted with a tail-wind which hurled me southward at a remarkable pace. I passed by all the hike-and-bike campgrounds that were my Plan B if I got tired along this section, not feeling that I needed them at all. The rumble strip and traffic returned, and negotiating each exit on the freeway was enough to keep me on my toes. When I reached Hollister Ave, on the outskirts of Santa Barbara my confidence began to grow, despite the fatigue setting in. I had one more iced coffee and began to ride through the city. This section was a bit difficult to navigate, as I had to stop often and check the route sheet with my flashlight to make sure I was still on the right track. Cabrillo, Castillo, and Carillo are all roads that run close together in the heart of Santa Barbara, and I managed to mistake one of them for one of the others. Luckily a group of cab-drivers was refueling at a Chevron, and were able to confirm my hunch that I could just shoot down State Street to the water and then get back on track from there. This worked well, but soon I was lost again, as one of the turns lacked a street sign. I was tired of skirting the 101, and after climbing half a mile up a hill I didn’t need to, I decided to just get on the freeway since I would have to in about 3 or 4 miles anyway. My speed picked up considerably, as I was anxious to get back on route before a CHP pulled me over or somebody driving home from a bar drove up onto the shoulder.
I rejoiced when I got past Carpinteria and reached the bike lane in Ventura, but I paid for my elation almost instantly with a flat tire. I managed to change it out fairly rapidly, but I knew my chances of finishing under 28 hours were diminishing at this point. I was spinning a lower gear for a while along Old PCH, enjoying the sound of the waves lapping the shore just beyond a long line of silent RVs. I took the bike path into Ventura, and then pushed on towards Oxnard with renewed desire as the sun was back in the sky. I stopped at the Oxnard control briefly, chugging chocolate milk and juice, laughing at the conversation I had with the clerk:
“Where you coming from?”
“Salinas…been riding since yesterday morning”
“Whaaaat the Fuuuu…?”
The fragrance of strawberries intermingled with the stench of the waste water plant nearby, and I dodged dirt clods and migrant workers on the shoulder on my way up the false flats leading towards Moorpark. There was a slow burning constellation of pain throughout my body, but I knew if I pushed as hard as I could for a while, I might meet my time goal. I dialed it back down when a few drops of vomit slipped out (the juice and the electrolytes weren’t mixing well anymore). It was growing warmer (it would reach 98ºF for some riders out here) and it took a tremendous effort to maintain even 15mph.
The final stretch is generally uphill and full of stop-lights – both of which seemed to conspire against my forward rush. I finally pulled into Greg and Lisa’s place 15 minutes later than I hoped, but pretty happy to have finished my first 600K in decent shape.
After showering and changing clothes, I stumbled around like a zombie, alternately eating fresh pizza (made in the back yard in a massive woodfire oven), chatting with JV, John, Greg, and Lisa, or falling into a strange stupor – neither asleep nor awake – my mind adrift while my torso hummed with the memory of the road.