Escape to NorCal

As part of the creation of our new online home at ToBeDetermined.CC some of our favorite images and story from our prior team were lost in translation. But with the cold winter months in NYC reducing our riding time we're slowly bringing these tales back to like on the TBD Journal under the Archives category. This post, entitled Escape to Norcal, originally spanned multiple entries recounting seven days of riding just south of San Francisco in early 2015. Looking back on it now, when we have spent the years following exploring the world via bike including trips to Italy, France, and Colombia, paints NorCal in a less adventurous light. But 'Escape to Norcal' certainly featured its share of 'oh-shit' moments, particularly when we ventured into the California backcountry on trails that most certainly were not meant for road bikes.

Escape TO NorCal (Circa 2015)

In the past few years I’ve been fortunate to spend a bit of time each spring evading the cold grays of late winter in New York City for a bike based pilgrimage to warmer weather – certainly too leisurely to be called a training camp, so perhaps bikecation is the more appropriate term for these annual escapes. Two years ago it was Venice, CA where the weather was stellar and the inevitable trip to Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles was a secret highlight, but long garbage miles on the PCH bookmarked each ride with a somewhat sour note. As a result, last year we booked flights to Barcelona just 7 days in advance and found ourselves on staggeringly good roads. It was an incredible experience from start to finish, particularly the Spanish food and wine, but in the spirit of finding new roads, we decided to make it three destinations in three years.

Thus, with slightly more advance planning for the 2015 edition we settled on NorCal for our 2015 bikecation destination. Having watched an array of New Yorkers make the move west, including Evan Murphy, our former teammate Josh Rovner and of course Specialized Women’s Stephanie Kaplan (who still uses the handle @gritsinnyc, despite, you know – not being in NYC), we figured they were onto something. Work commitments kept us from joining Dan Cleiman on his February journey through Cali from SF to LA but with the usual fanfare of cancelled flights and a late night packing rush, we found ourselves headed West on a Friday morning in late March with a vague sense of a plan.

That 'plan' had us spending our initial nights with a relative in Palo Alto, who through the wonders of the internet, it turns out doesn’t have a single glass in his entire kitchen, nor food in his fridge for that matter – apparently there are start ups that can provide for all of your bodily needs if you reside in Palo Alto. Since we never actually utilized any of these services, we spent our first two meals out on the town and I spent my first evening building up my Louis Garneau Gennix R1 team bike.

For our opening ride on the left coast we were joined by Stephanie as our unofficial tour guide and greeted by blue skies as we started through a deserted Stanford campus – Spring Break – and headed for the hills. On a day where it was cold and snowing in New York City with the CRCA season opener once again being cancelled due to weather conditions, we partook in a popular ~75 mile loop extending from Palo Alto to the ocean with a mandatory pitstop for artichoke bread before a long-climb back over the mountains on narrow roads bordered on all sides by redwood trees.

After a long and hard winter, with countless hours spent on the trainer staring longingly out the window at a frozen city or perhaps waiting for the inevitable race cancellation notice, it’s hard to describe the sensation of blue skies, bare legs and amazing roads. With a deep rooted sense of excitement we quickly tallied several thousand feet of climbing on classic NorCal roads that are familiar to anyone who has ridden in the region – Old La Honda, Alpine, Tunitas Creek – each seemingly surpassing the former in quality.

We encountered a few cyclists interspersed on our route but for the most part the ride was nothing but sparsely driven roads that featured either (a) massive plains of open farmland (b) sweeping ocean views or (c) towering forests – not a bad set of options to choose between. With great weather and some absolutely monster descents, it was the perfect opener for a West Coast bikecation that would ultimately come to include nearly getting stranded on the back trails of Henry Coe State Park with no one for miles in any direction, a bit of spearfishing in Santa Cruz and of course lots of incredible miles on the bike. More from the rest of the journey soon. 

If our first day in Northern California was the epitome of blue skies and sunshine (and artichoke bread), our second day in NorCal opened with the exact opposite conditions. Having relocated the prior night to Morgan Hill – home of Specialized and our gracious host Stephanie – Sunday morning greeted us with grey skies and a chance of precipitation in the forecast. Combine the forecast with a bit of fatigue in our legs from the prior day’s 7,000+ ft ride and it was well past 10AM before we hit the road. Our timing coincided perfectly with the first drops of rain falling on mile three of what would be a long day in the saddle.

If throughout the prior day we had a general sense of route and direction, on Sunday we had absolutely no concept of either. With Stephanie playing tour guide, we meandered through various backroads, past vineyards and farms before hanging a left with a warning that the road was going up for the next few miles – just as the rain picked up its pace and the clouds seemed to close in on the hills around us. As pavement turned to dirt and the road narrowed to little more than a single lane with redwoods towering overhead, it became apparent that the weather was absolutely perfect for this climb.

The next few miles were somewhat of a blur – a steep but manageable gradient became merely an afterthought to taking in our surroundings as the curves of the road ahead faded into fog. A bit of heavy breathing aside, we climbed mostly in silence, listening to the crunch of gravel beneath our tires. It was a remarkable few miles on the bike that will be hard to forget. Particularly so the summit: cresting the final few meters of the climb and emerging under the limbs of a giant tree – the mother tree – under which we paused to rest and watch the rain fall for a few minutes. 

Mercifully, on the long descent from the summit the weather broke. With the last of the rain behind us, we made our way to our first stop – a grocery store that apparently specializes in sausages – though we choose not to partake as we had another fifty or sixty miles to go, give or take.  With no sense of location, our second climb apparently took us in the general direction of Santa Cruz, ending with a long stretch of road adorned with potholes and cracked pavement – differing from our well traveled NYC roads in that the views easily made any asphalt imperfections negligible .  On one of our many descents we encountered a slow moving pick-up truck, honking loudly and screaming at us as we passed. Fearing an angry Californian with an intense hatred of cyclists, we paused momentarily only to discover that it was none other than former teammate and Santa Cruz transplant Josh Rovner. We were planning on riding with Josh the following day but somehow, on all of the roads in California, happened upon him as he limped into town with a flat tire. After catching up ever so briefly it was back to the bike – with a number of additional climbs and descents still to tackle. 

As the hours and miles ticked by, the weather only continued to improve – to the point that as we left the mountains behind and hit the valley floor we were greeted by that warm California sun. At some point in time during this final stretch I’m quite certain our circuitous route had even our tour guide slightly lost – as there were several stops to check phones and chart a course toward home.  In fairness, a rapidly setting sun added a sense of urgency to this routing, but we eventually regained our sense of direction and hit recognizable surroundings. A brutal headwind for the final miles pushed us toward utter bonkage but we managed to beat darkness home – taking in some incredible views along the way and closing out one of the best days on the bike I’ve ever experienced. 

The first weekend in California had thus far fulfilled all our initial visions of perfect riding conditions, climbs through the gorgeous redwoods, and an excellent tour guide to navigate the various terrain and rest stops. But alas, by Monday our guide Steph had to return to the working world, so she set us up to ride the prototypical Morgan Hill loop – what would be akin to a weekend jaunt to Nyack, only better – the Canada Loop. Being the ever vigilant guide, she warned us about lack of water stops – tasteless jokes on California’s drought aside, this is pretty rural California after all – and ensured we made a pit stop part way through at Harvey Bear County park.

The ride started out directly behind Steph’s house, but before we even left the compound, we were greeted by Peter the Peacock (real name redacted for confidentiality). Peter is the neighborhood’s domesticated Peacock that squawks loudly and often roams the streets at his own will. Matt was intrigued and wanted more than anything to pet Peter, so he offered him a blade of grass. As we attempted to get back inside to prep for our day’s ride, Peter followed us right to the front door where we had to create a diversion to get inside, only to have him peck at the window begging for food. Only in Cali!

Back to the ride, it began immediately with a feisty climb out of the gate onto picturesque landscapes of rolling hills, vineyards, and country farms (one which was equipped with two camels!). With each winding bend, we found more serene beauty, and of course pitstops for photos. This was anything but a mindless 9W ride to Rockland County. We approached Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Park, filled up for water, and decided to take a little peak inside the park. We knew from Steph that there were some fun little mtb trails inside, but we entered initially to get “just one cool picture.” This is how many adventures begin with Matt as your husband, so I thought nothing of it [keep this foreshadowing in mind for later in our journeys in NorCal]. One picture turned into some time spent covering several miles of double track as we looped through the entire park and got an aerial view of Morgan Hill spread out below. We did manage to have some fun testing our bikes on the gravel and dirt terrain – including some steep, barely rideable trails – taking a mid ride nap, and confusing the locals by whizzing past them on skinny tires. 

After three long days in the saddle onn the fourth day we rested. Which actually meant rising at the crack of dawn and hitting the road for the Santa Cruz beachfront where we had a date with former teammate Josh Rovner for a bit of spearfishing. Of course spearfishing isn’t exactly our area of expertise and with the water temps somewhere between cold and frigid we decided to cheer Josh on from the beach instead. Unfortunately the ocean wasn’t particularly productive on this morning so we ultimately resorted to a local diner for breakfast.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived back in Morgan Hill. As such discussion almost immediately turned to taking the day off the bike entirely (recovery!). However prior to falling into a state of total lethargy our official tour guide – who was finishing up the work day at Specialized – lured us back on the bike for an evening spin. As was the case with every other Steph led ride we had no idea quite how good this ride would be – of course somewhere between hitting the dirt trails and climbing to a scenic overlook with both lake and city views we started to appreciate what qualifies as an after work ride in MoHi. 

What do you do after a late afternoon ride in Morgan Hill? You go for Mexican food. And then you climb a mountain. Ok, so “mountain” might be a touch hyperbolic but after an absolutely massive meal at a BYOB Mexican joint (with obligatory beers) and with a backpack full of beer strapped to my back climbing to the summit of El Toro was not exactly easy. Easy or not, the summit was the destination and we weren’t going to open our beverages until we got there — and so up we went. Of course our plan didn’t exactly consider the fact that enjoying the sunset at the summit meant descending in the dark. But what the hell, just another day of adventure in NorCal. 

On the fifth day we met back up with Josh somewhere between Morgan Hill and Santa Cruz for a couple hours in the mountains. It turns out that since moving out to Cali Josh went from fast to really fast. Thankfully he remains just as friendly as in his NYC days and thus was willing to take pity on his significantly slower NYC counterparts. It made for yet another great day on the bike, though it says something about the quality of the riding in California that we walked away from a beautiful day in Big Basin with just two photographs that made the cut.

On the following day - our sixth in NorCal - we officially had our oh shit moment. And it all started so well – after playing in the dirt repeatedly and successfully in our opening days in NorCal we figured, what’s the worst that can happen? The answer it seems would be winding up in the backcountry on road bikes with inclines so steep that shouldering bikes and hiking was our only option, all the while wondering whether we could escape to the security of paved roads before the sunset. But hey, at least the first part of the ride – the long climb up to Henry Coe State Park under blue skies and warm California sunshine – was enjoyable.

Steph had warned us that morning that Coe is “REALLY BIG” but with a plan to skim trails along it’s western border we ignored the “all backpackers must register before accessing trails” signs – we weren’t backpackers after all! – and hit our trail of choice. It was at this point we passed a parking lot bound rider on a downhill mountain bike.

So in summary, yes, there were plenty of warning signs we probably should have heeded at the summit, but out of the gate the riding was spectacular: a wide and smooth dirt trail with remarkable views extending in every direction. It was everything we could have hoped for having left cold and snowy NYC for NorCal. Sufficiently awesome that Lisa dismounted her bike and danced in one of the many huge fields – before being reminded of snakes and tarantulas and various other California fauna that we don’t have to worry about on the East Coast.

That positive mentality served us well for several miles, but of course pretty soon we hit a steep, rocky, switchbacked descent. On a mountain bike we could have railed it, but here we were the East Coast tourists on skinny tired road bikes, sketchily descending an incline so steep that braking was more of a vague hope as tires simply skidded on the loose and rocky trail. Of course this was the perfect time for one of the innumerable loose rocks to kick up and break my right pedal and leaving me unable to clip-in on one side.

No worries we said – this is still going to be awesome we said – the trail will level out and get back to the good stuff we said. Of course that proved optimistic as we hit yet another unmanageable descent, this time passing a couple of sun-ripened backpackers heading the other direction and looking disapprovingly at our road bikes as we drifted past them with unstoppable forward momentum.

At a certain point when it became clear that we were over our heads we contemplated pulling a u-turn and heading back to safety. Certainly that would have been the rational decision. But with all of that skidding downhill in the preceding miles any u-turn would mean a brutal climb – likely on foot – back out to our starting point. So instead – with some lingering and illogical pursuit of adventure in our minds, we continued on – assuming things could only get better from here.

As we were slowed by several creek crossings and the afternoon ticked by at an increasingly alarming rate, our math evolved from “it can only get better from here” to “hmmm, we don’t have any cell service, no one knows where we are, I certainly hope we get to the trailhead before the sun sets.” As this equation played through out mind, intertwined with Survivorman episodes, we continued onward. It was brutal work, at times carrying two bikes at once as we both struggled to hike mountain trails in carbon soled road shoes.

But as we suffered and struggled to conserve our limited food and water, while reciting lines from the Oregon Trail (You choose to ford the river; you have lost two oxen), we couldn’t help but observe that the scenery was beyond description – no trace of human presence outside of the trail, with every summit revealing hills as far as the eye could see. The pictures hardly do it justice.

The struggle was very real, and went on for hours. But eventually we made it out, just as our food and hydration was completely expended and as the rim tape in one of my wheels kicked the can, leaving me with repeated flats. It was an exhausting, unnecessary and slightly frightening experience, but in the end it became perhaps our most memorable day on the bike in NorCal. Moral of the story: keep doing stupid shit, but with slightly better planning.

We came to NorCal largely on a whim – booking flights with only a modest notion of where we were going to sleep at night. And after some remarkably good trips to Girona and Appalachia in recent years our expectations for the riding were admittedly modest. But somewhere along the way – whether it was climbing over the mountains around Palo Alto to get to the Pacific, ascending through the redwoods outside Morgan Hill in a downpour or nearly going full Survivorman in the backwoods – we realized this trip was something special, easily on par with our prior adventures and perhaps more memorable because we shared them with some New York transplants along the way (thanks Steph, Brian and Josh).

On one of our final days in California, before unwillingly returning to NYC and winter’s grasp, we tackled the long winding ascent of Mount Hamilton under a brilliant late afternoon sun. While we snuck in one final ride the following day, in many ways the Mount Hamilton was the final bookend for an incredible week of riding, relaxing and adventuring – the perfect conclusion to a trip that will be difficult to top.


The Rides