Riding from SF to LA on a Single Speed

At the back end of 2014 I was on the edge of uncertainty which pivoted around whether or not my company would be able to extend my visa. Fortunately at the eleventh hour they were able to put in for a 2 year extension, although it’s still pending, so I might actually be here illegally, in which case I better write this quick before I get busted by da Feds.

So in the weeks and months leading up to my impending doom I was hatching a plan. I’d never been to the west coast before and it’s a place that needs no introduction as a cyclist. Given I was pretty disappointed at the prospect of leaving, the plan became more and more audacious to counteract and solve my feelings of misery. Plus I wanted to see as much of America as possible before I was due to leave on the 12th of Jan 2015. Here’s how it went down…

A one way plane ticket to San Francisco was procured, flying out Christmas Eve. I took with me my banger of a Dolan track bike, drilled, hammered and held together with duct tape so it rode as a single speed road bike and not in fixie track mode. I had a little more than one change of normal clothes, a set of summer cycling clothes, a rain coat, basic camping stuff and other random stuff needed for travelling by bike. To add to the adventure funds were low and I’d have to wait a while until my next pay cheque. The rough plan was to head down the Californian coast to LA, make my way inland to Arizona then fly to Austin for the cross nationals. Easy peasy I thought.

I spent the first three days in San Fran catching up with an old high school friend. Sans my bike packing bags I made it over the bridge a couple of times for some of the best riding I’ve done hosted by some local clubs – mission cycling, Rapha and Strava were all representing well. A good slug of bullet bourbon at the top of seven sisters with clear views out to sea followed by the induced mellow decent being a highlight.

Goodbyes from old friends and new I was on my way south. I was rushed leaving work on Christmas Eve so my only route was a hurried Google maps print out of 900 miles worth of road from San Fran to Tucson. What could go wrong?

Day 1 – San Fran to Monterey 

STRAVA: 141 mi / 10h46m / 6,772 FT

Food Consumed

  • 2 cream cheese bagel
  • 2 coffees
  • 1 pack cookies
  • 2 bananas
  • 1 chocolate bar
  • 1 cycling bar
  • 2.5 liters of water
  • 1 massive plate of pasta

The STory of the Day

One hour before sunrise I departed the Mission neighborhood in central San Fran. After a few false starts of bags swinging uncontrollably and dopey navigation errors I was off to a good rhythm. Once out of the city navigating wasn’t too bad. I just kept the ocean to my right and didn’t stop pedaling until I needed to eat some cookies or disappear into a bush to answer the call of nature, well it was more a scream in some cases. Around each sweeping cambered turn I was greeted with what would become a familiar scene of empty white sandy beaches surrounded with crashing barrel waves.

When you’re sweating profusely and have obscure bags attached to your bike while manically shoveling coffee and cake into your mouth at an alarming rate, it was surprising how many people wanted to be your friend. Today I passed a few interesting minutes with an ex cyclist who was now a university professor, on his way to grade exam papers on the beach. Not a bad way to spend the day. I like California already.

Arriving into Monterey after dark and navigating sand filled bike paths with nothing more than a 30 lumen head light required some focused attention which made arriving at the hostel all the more reliving. Huge piles of pasta were consumed, conversation made with like minded pleasant weirdos and it was off to bed.

Day 2 – Monterey to San Luis Obispo

Strava: 143 mi / 11h00m / 9,157 ft

food consumed

  • Oatmeal
  • 1 box of figs
  • 1 pack of small donuts
  • 2 freezer bags full of pasta
  • 2 cookies
  • 1 coffee
  • 6 granola bars
  • 1 bag of chips
  • 1 can of doctor pepper
  • 2 bowls of cereal with chocolate milk
  • 3 liters of water

Story of the Day

Yesterday was a big day with a good amount of climbing but today would see more again. I knew I had to be up super early and get a good start on the day. With a mild cold front hitting the west coast it was colder than planned. You lied to me internet! So the first and last few hours of the day were spent shivering which wasn’t much fun. Even given the change in temperature I knew I had to get a move on so to hit my required mileage I was up making brekkie at 5am with the kitchen hostel to myself. However I wasn’t the only one awake. An inquisitive, chatty, but sweet old lady who had clearly grown up in 60s California became intensely interested in what I was doing and why I was up so early. She went by the name of Cloud and had dyed red (actual red not ginger) hair. She covered an entire piece of scrap paper in scribbled notes from what type of gloves I had to the size of my inner tubes. If you see her on the road tell her I said hi.

Once finally on my way the miles came a little easier. No real navigation efforts were required and my paper Google route, folded into a small square tucked inside the leg of my bib shorts seemed to be doing the job. No Garmin cues here. The climbs were coming at a high frequency but never longer than 5 minutes or so. My heart rate barely into the threshold zones and was largely in recovery. My coach actually persuaded me to take my heat rate monitor to get the data to look at upon my return.

This was by far the biggest day of climbing but hill after hill you become used to the slow grinding slog. Plenty of false summits here too. Eventually it becomes not a test of your legs but a test of your imagination, how much and how deep you are able to day dream in order to forget you’re climbing. And soon enough you’re at the top of the climb. I’d love to have a Garmin for my brain to know what I was thinking at the time and to what song my brain had chosen to accompany that day dream.

Being stuck in New Yorker mode I was craving a bagel and cream cheese. Once I arrived in Santa Cruz I was entering a pretty decent bonk and some frantic searching for anything that resembled a deli commenced. By New York standards it was terrible but it was the best bagel I’d ever eaten. Santa Cruz is somewhere I’d definitely like to spend more time in. Who doesn’t want to bask in sunshine and go surfing all day? By complete chance I stumbled across the Santa Cruz bike factory which I was stoked about being a previous mountain bike nut. It’s these unplanned events that make bike touring so much fun. Plus the guy I chatted to inside fed me jolly ranchers and was off to cross nationals.

I originally planned on camping out this night however the cold made me wuss out which I was completely cool with. Having to be cautious with cash I managed to sweet talk the lady at the motel in giving me a discounted room. A quick stop at 7eleven for a dinner of several bowls cereal and it was bed time. Without doubt the best nights sleep I’d ever had.

Day 3 – San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara

Strava: 121 mi / 9h23m / 4,377 ft

food consumed

  • 2 bowls of cereal
  • 4 granola bars
  • 2 coffees
  • 2 packs of beef jerky
  • 1 chocolate toffee bar
  • 2 cookies
  • 1 chicken sandwich
  • 1 pack of small donuts
  • 2 bananas
  • 1 big bowl of pasta
  • Chips and hummus
  • 3 litres of water

Story of the Day

Falling slightly behind schedule I knew I needed an early start but it didn’t come. But without any accommodation or flights booked it didn’t really matter where I ended up. I had a sleeping bag and bivi to sleep in if the shit really hit the fan so I wasn’t worried too much.

Around 80 miles in my climbing progress became painfully slow. No matter how hard I pushed the pedals I couldn’t pick up the speed enough to be satisfied. A puncture on the previous day had meant taking the rear wheel out and, unsuspecting to me, pre-trip, the bearings were pretty worn-out making them very rough. I ride this bike every day to work and don’t really think much of needing to maintain it apart from keeping the chain clean. It’s around three years old and I’ve not replaced a thing. It’s seen the cobbles of Belgium, the climbs of Yorkshire and the levees of Louisiana. In hindsight I definitely should have given it an overhaul. Anyway I must have over tightened the rear wheel and it was dragging a fair amount. Not what you want with 300 miles in your legs in less than 3 days and double that remaining. I backed off the bolt on one side after feeling the hub and confirming one side was fairly warm indicating the bearings were rubbing. This helped a little but even when I picked up the rear wheel and span it must have only revolved 6 times. Oh well, better suck it up princess and get on with it. No bike shops for miles…

Fortunately after this climb there was a huge section of descending which bought me back onto the coast and within striking distance of Santa Barbara. A large group of people and their cars had congregated by the road side, for whatever reason I was unsure. Coming closer I could see they were looking at something on the beach. Hordes of elephant seals were wobbling? bouncing? Doing something anyway to get around the beach. Having never seen one before this was pretty cool. I also met a friendly German chap called Mark who’d been cycling around the world for three years and he looked exactly how you might imagine.
I rung a hostel and managed to get a room for night. The prospect of arriving at my destination before dark spurred me on. I didn’t arrive before dark… Regardless of this I put in a good effort and reached the outskirts feeling pretty fresh all things given. Googling a local bike shop I managed to get a load of lube sprayed around the rear axel in an attempt to relieve the dragging. Even if it did nothing I felt better about it. After a good chin wag with Steve the bike shop proprietor I had about 10 miles to the hostel. It’d started raining by this point but I really dug deep and smashed it as hard I could on the flat terrain run in imagining I was in my own little Milan San Remo.

Day 4 – Santa Barbara to Santa Monica –

Strava: 93 mi / 7h52m / 2,776 ft

food consumed

  • Bowl of cereal
  • 2 coffees Coffee
  • Chips and hummus
  • Bag of pasta
  • 2 chocolate bars
  • Beef jerky
  • 2 liters of water

Story of the Day

I awoke at 5am, again keen to get a good start. I had gone to bed the night before fully committed on doing 160 miles to Lake Piru in northern LA to get me back on track, ride through the desert and finish in Tucson a few days later. I managed to get rolling not long before the sun came up. What soon became depressingly apparent was the brutal headwind I was now facing and given I was heading in roughly the same direction all day I would have a full 160 miles of it. I was also suffering from a sore belly after consuming so much food. Even so I still felt each day started with a calorie deficit and it was always a game of catch up. Once I reached Ventura I knew I had to make a decision on whether or not I was going to leave the coast and cut inland. The temperature nor the headwind improved and within about 30 miles of leaving Santa Barbara I decided to call it quits. I called a hostel in Santa Monica and they confirmed they had a bed for the following two nights. I went straight ahead and booked myself in. I had no idea if I would be able to make it Tucson or even Austin at that point but I didn’t care. I’d made it this far so I knew I could figure it out. With no map or route planned for Santa Monica I sort of made it up as I went. Following the ocean to the right rule worked out alright.

After a bizarre lunch sat behind a mock anti aircraft missile display, sheltering from the wind and spying into a naval base, I was confronted with a road block. Turning on my phone and consulting Google maps it was clear there would have to be a massive detour to get round. Chancing my luck I rode through the barricade only to be halted after several hundred feet by a workman climbing out of a SUV. The recent storms had caused a landslide further down the road and it meant an eight mile stretch was now closed as they were clearing it. Bummer. However the kind dude took pity on me and knew the detour would be a big effort and providing I stayed clear of the excavators I could pass through. How awesome it was to have a complete highway to yourself after riding on busy ones on and off for the past few days. As it turned out there was only a small section I had to shimmy around the excavators so all was good.

By now I was on the outskirts of Santa Monica and entering Malibu. The sun was out and I was finally warm enough to take off my jacket. It was New Years Eve. I knew I would reach my bed before sunset and have a chance to walk around in normal clothes to soak up the remaining sun of 2014. Needless to say I went out and partied with a load of strangers from the hostel and ended up in a British themed pub until my memory no longer recalls. Once I’d uploaded all of my Garmin files late (very late) the following day and let Strava calculate the total miles for the Festive 500 challenge I was happy to learn I’d come 8th out of 8800 in America and 89th out of almost 50,000 in the world. On a single speed. That didn’t really work properly. Carrying camping gear I never actually used. What a plonker.
I did finally make it to Tucson but you’ll have to wait for that story…