The 500th mile of my trip led me neatly to a photogenic overlook of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was jubilant as I descended the hill, slaloming the camera-wielding tourists – whose one-dimensional view of their surroundings I pitied – before coming to a halt on the wood chip pull out, just another guy taking a photo of the bridge. Except I wasn’t.
That viewpoint was the reward for ten days of vigorous, sweat-laden effort, during which I’d transformed from a nervy novice tourist to fully fledged, confident cyclist. I’d cycled for over 52 hours, climbed more than 24,000 feet of elevation and hit a top speed of 32.8mph to really earn the sight of that iconic red suspension bridge. I celebrated with some Hershey’s chocolate, peppered beef jerky and a tin of sardines in mustard; and contemplated what I had achieved.
Ten days earlier, under overcast skies of the late afternoon, I had wobbled out of Venice Beach, on an unfamiliar bike with an unstable load in four pannier bags and one huge backpack across my back. (I haven’t quite gone from Backpack to Bike Rack yet.) I managed 25 miles before I stopped for the second time on the road side, lent my bike against an embankment and lay down – easing the burning pain in my lower back. I woke up half an hour later in almost darkness, crossed the highway to the state beach car park and unrolled my sleeping pad in an alcove behind the toilet block. I was 35 miles short of Oxnard, where I’d arranged a couchsurfing host for my first night. I’d drunk all but a dribble of my water so had nothing to cook my pasta in. I curled up under the stars wondering exactly what I’d gotten myself in for.
The next morning I was woken at 5.30am by a flashlight and a beagle. “It was my understanding that there was no overnight parking here?” He questioned rhetorically. “I had an injury so needed somewhere to crash.” I explained. “OK, I understand,” he sympathized, “just do me a favour, don’t get up or the dog will bite you.” “Thank you sir, have a nice day.”
I would’ve left there and then, but the gates were locked so I had to wait until 7.30 for the Rangers to come and open, so I just hid in the corner of the alcove, out of sight of the road, mulling over this true baptism of fire. “It’s alright, Al - just 3,975 miles to New York…”
Thankfully, Day Two was much easier on flat, quiet roads with a pleasant tail wind, so I made it my 50-mile average daily target in the early afternoon, and, confidence growing, pressed on to Carpinteria State Beach. It meant a 62-mile day, and I was pretty tired by the end of it, but it felt like such an achievement, and restored my belief that I would make it to New York. (As you can probably tell I was in a very emotionally-intense place in these opening days; overstating all these minor events in my mind.)
I took things a little easier on Day Three, stopping for an extended lunch break in Santa Barbara. The McDonalds meal came back to haunt me though as I had a horribly uncomfortable time trying to navigate my way out of the city. I ended up doing 7 miles in a circle on the peninsular before stumbling, with more luck than judgement, upon the coastal bike path. Then it began to rain, a true British downpour. Any lingering homesickness was washed away by the realisation that I needed to find a campground with showers quickly, or I was at risk of hyperthermia. Luckily it was only a rolling 10 miles to the El Capitan State Beach, by which time the storm had blown through and a glorious sunset could be viewed out over the Pacific. The wind dried my clothes on my shoelace clothes line, but without change for a shower, I had to stick my head under the hand dryer to warm up.
Out of El Capitan I headed for Lompoc, meeting English cyclist, Kate, at the junction between the 101 Freeway and Highway 1. She was the first the cycle tourer I’d met, and had plenty of advice, and a map of my route that she had just descended. Yes, I mean descended, for after Kate pedalled off I was left with a two-mile 1500ft climb into a bastard headwind. I crawled up it for three-quarters of an hour cursing the wind, bike, saddle, road, flies, birds, traffic and my own ridiculous notion to cycle from L.A. to New York via San Francisco – just a 1000 mile detour…
The euphoria of reaching the summit was more built out of relief than dramatic views or anything meaningful – though I was pretty pleased to have reached the top without getting off the bike once. Perhaps I’m a better cyclist than I thought? Lompoc was a bland strip mall city, but it did have a Subway and I began to incorporate a five dollar foot-long into my routine. The next day I pedalled through a semi-desert to Pismo Beach, but failed to find a suitable camping spot and cycled on to the superbly named San Luis Obispo.
It was getting late (after 6pm) when I stopped at Starbucks to use the loo - sorry, restroom – and fill up my water bottles. It was a warm evening, following a warm day, so I went back in for a smoothie. Chatting to the barista about my trip, he kindly offered me his couch for the night, so I hung about until closing watching Community on my laptop. I followed Garet back to his place (he was a cyclist too) enjoying the thrill of night cycling without proper lights, when I turned a sharp corner a little too fast and pinched both tires. It wasn’t until I got off the bike at Garet’s house that I (read: he) noticed the flats. I decided to sort it in the morning and we went to his friends’ house to watch 1981 sci-fi classic, Scanners.
Now, as a non-cyclist, it’s been a long time since I repaired a puncture. Thankfully, Garet was much more competent than me (I didn’t even know that I had to unscrew the Piesta valve on the tube first so was stuck trying to inflate a sealed tube for five minutes!) and we had bike ready to go in about an hour – we had to redo the rear one with a new tube after I pinched the repaired one again trying to put it back on the bike. At the last minute Garet remembered to reattach the brake, and I was on my way again.
The next three days were gorgeous. I can’t overstate the beauty of the Pacific Coastal Highway enough. It’s staggeringly dramatic with waves crashing against jagged rocks a hundred feet below the cliff side road. The only way it could’ve been better was if the f---ing headwind had dropped for even a minute so I wasn’t pedalling downhill at 4mph – I was crying. The thing with touring is you carry all that weight up these climbs to be rewarded with an exhilarating freewheel back down the hill to repeat the process all over again. To get to the crest of a hill and then have to pedal back down again just takes all the fun out of it! And really zaps your energy so I crashed early at Big Sur, just doing 25 miles to the summit from the spectacular Kirk Creek State Beach that morning. It was a climb of 2600ft so I had earned my rest, and blew my $15 daily budget on a ham sandwich and pastry at the Deli for a bonus treat.
?Descending out of Big Sur towards Monterrey and Marina was fantastic, I reached my fastest ever speed of 32.8mph as I tore over the amazing Bixby Bridge, squeaking to a quick halt at the far side to get some picture postcard shots. I restocked my food pannier in the Walmart at Marina, maybe going a little bit over the top with the French onion dip and two loaves of bread – but I was starving, and need to replenish some of the 6000 calories I burn each day. My bike was a state with shopping bags tied all over the place, so I pushed it to the Marina Dunes RV Park, where they tried to charge my $35 for a tent spot. I refused and took up refuge on a sandy path to the beach. I was just minding my own business, dipping some bread in the French onion dip, when a man and his son walked past and casually asked how I was. For once, I told the truth.
“I’m pissed off. There’s no way I’m paying $35 for a camping spot. I’m just a cyclist, travelling across the country on $15/day – there’s no way I can afford that. So I’m going to sleep here tonight, or maybe just rest a while and cycle off again in a bit.”
“We can’t have that. We’ve got some space next to our RV, would you like to camp in that?”
“Seriously? That would be fantastic, thank you. I won’t disturb you; I’ve got everything I need right on the bike.”
“Don’t mention it.”
So I spent the night with Colin and his son Berkeley, drinking a couple of their beers and enjoying a warm shower. After Garet in San Luis Obispo, my free lunch in Morro Bay, of course, Lynne back in L.A, and countless others who helped me out as I made my way north; my interpretation of Americans was certainly different to how they are portrayed in the media back home. So generous and hospitable. Maybe it’s because I’m on a bike, maybe it’s the accent, maybe it’s my boyish good looks and charm. Either way, the people have been great.
I left Marina before 7am the next day and was already in Santa Cruz by 11am. This was meant to be my stop for the night, so I found a café and relaxed, gorging on a blueberry muffin. It got to 3 o’clock and my feet got itchy, so I studied the map (and its elevation profile) and aimed for Pescadero State Beach, just before a major incline, where I assumed there’d be camping. Naturally, there wasn’t. So I pedalled on into the headwind and growing darkness all the way to Half Moon Bay. That was an 89-mile day, setting up my tent in pitch black, cooking my instant (slower than normal) pasta dish in the tiny vestibule of my tunnel tent that offered slight respite from the wind. I was exhausted, miles 77-79 had been a 6% gradient climb, but I was only thirty miles from San Francisco now.
That Marina – Half Moon Bay ride could turn out to be one of the most influential of my trip. Firstly, I rode 90 miles into a headwind. I’m now confident that if I needed to I could crank out some serious mileage to make up time if I needed to. Secondly, those last 15 miles, including the major climb, were ridden despite suffering some gearing issues that meant on every sixth pedal rotation the chain would slip, crunch or grind. It didn’t sound healthy, and made my progress even more remarkable in my eyes. Thirdly, I met some wonderful people whilst riding that day.
In the morning, not long after a breakfast stop for oatmeal, I met Mike and Eddy who were cycling to L.A. from San Francisco. Like everyone else I meet, they are a lot more knowledgeable than I am, and after a quick discussion about my future route, they agreed that I wouldn’t be able to do it on my current gearing system. In fact, they were amazed that I had ‘made it through Big Sur on that drivetrain’.
Eddy said: “when you get to San Francisco, go to Roaring Mouse Cycles, tell them where you’re going and they’ll sort you out. Tell them to put it on my tab.” I was stunned, but did head to the shop after a couple of days in the city. The owner, Chris, explained that whilst I had 18 gears, they weren’t 1—18, they were more like 14-32. No wonder it had felt like pedalling through treacle even in the lowest gear! I knew it was hard when I was pedalling painfully slowly up those inclines, but I didn’t expect that I’d been making it harder for myself. Chris fitted a triple crank and a new rear cassette which effectively doubled my gearing capabilities. (Note – having ridden on it for a while now, I really appreciate Eddy’s generous gift!)
In the afternoon, I pulled in at Swanton Berry Farm (as it was advertising free samples). There were two cyclists in the driveway, one of which was Phil, who has since been an oracle of information about cycling in Eastern California, Nevada and Utah. (His tip of free hot springs off the highway at Mammoth was just perfect after a hard week’s cycling round from Yosemite.)
The thirty miles from Half Moon Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge were some of the hardest I’d faced. Not because of the distance, but because of the heat (what’s thirty miles? I don’t need to do them early, I’ll have a lie in…) and the sheer steepness of the roads. I stopped paying attention to my computer after it told me I was going up a 13% incline. (Note – looking back with the gearing knowledge I have now, it’s insane that I managed to get up that climb into Daly City!)
So after three punctures, a dodgy rear derailleur, a couple of computer glitches, some pressure sores on the hands and arse, and thousands of gorgeous coastal views, I ate my sardines looking at the Golden Gate Bridge a very proud traveller. Actually, I should say a very proud cyclist.
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