“When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.” ― Benjamin Hoff,
I had planned to ride the Corona 300k with the San Diego Randonneurs over President’s Day this year, but a personal crisis of epic proportions led me to want to be far, far away from San Diego that weekend and when Vickie Backman sent me an email saying “come on up and SLO down” with offer of a place at the Rando Hotel, I couldn’t refuse. Which is how I found myself two weeks later on a train bound to San Luis Obispo for a weekend of back to back brevets.
The train was such a brilliant solution I hesitate to write about it. For about $30 more than the cost of gas to drive 325 miles I got to journal, read, nap, chat with random passengers, and calorie load rather than sit in holiday weekend traffic through LA and Santa Barbara. I arrived in SLO rested and ready to help Vickie put the finishing touches on her already fabulously prepared brevet support which mostly involved moving a few items around her garage and slicing bagels.
While I was dubious about a 6am start for a 200k, the sunrise viewed from my rear-view mirror as we rode up the coast from Cayucos was worth the early alarm. The early morning temperatures were nearly chilly as we rode in and out of coastal fog banks. Route 1 climbs gradually but steadily with stunning views of massive surf through the misty morning, the changing light magically playing with the sea spray. San Simeon was completely socked in as we rode north, but Ragged Point was
clear and our first official stop of the morning gave us stunning views out over the Pacific before we flew back down the coast. Elephant seals, hundreds of gulls and egrets, and the glorious full wing spread of a turkey vulture gave us plenty to gawk at on the descent. As a slower rider, I had been concerned about spending two full days solo on the bike, but this group rode out at a reasonable pace and as we gradually sorted into the “faster” and “slower” groups I found myself with several companions who would end up being my buddies for the weekend.
We departed the coast and took Rt. 46 towards Paso Robles. The temperature climbed with the road and it was soon time to shed the extra layers I’d needed for the morning. Hal had already stripped down at a water stop in Cambria and he went on ahead as he was the slowest climber in our group. Nicole had her gear packed and was back on the bike while I was still wrestling with straps which were just a bit too short for the thickness of the roll I’d created, and she headed off to catch Hal. I was about 3 minutes behind and didn’t try too hard to catch up as I enjoyed gawking at the rolling verdant hills dotted with happy
California cows grazing along the road, their coats gleaming in the sun. As fate would have it, Hal had a flat and I caught them easily a few miles up the road. With his blessing, Nicole and I continued on up the hill, chatting while we easily matched paces on the climb. We stopped at the info control at Oak Creek Rd. and waited for Hal, but after 20 minutes went by we texted him and continued on for a glorious descent through the cottonwood and oak forested canyon which took us back to Cayucos.
We headed south on Rt. 1, meandering inland again. Nicole and I took a long stop at Micky-D’s in Morrow Bay, waiting for Hal who was about 20 minutes behind us. He would have liked a longer stop, but we were antsy to get back on the road and pushed him along with us, leaving him to snarf his cheeseburger while pedaling. Turri Road took us over more rolling hills into SLO, and we meandered through town back to Rt. 1 for the final 20 miles back to Cayucos. With the barn in sight, I got ahead on the climb up to Morro Bay and kept going, reaching the finish a bit after 4:30 – a daylight finish to a winter 200k! Nicole and Hal were less than 5 minutes behind, and we congratulated each other on a fantastic day of riding before they took off to clean up and I sat down to a bowl of chowder, some fantastic fish tacos, a few oysters on the half shell, and a well earned beer while Vickie waited for the last riders to reach the final control at the local chowder house.
The wind picked up overnight, waking me with its howling around the house and foreshadowing what was to come on day 2. 12 intrepid riders met for another 6am start, this time from Vickie’s garage. Hal had decided that one day was enough and dropped Nicole off with plans to have a leisurely morning and meet us towards the end of the ride.
We pedaled off as the first streaks of light graced the eastern sky. The morning air was crisp, dry, and breezy, the head wind hitting us as soon as we started up Rt. 1 towards our first stop at Cuestra College. This time the faster riders took off in a pack leaving me, Nicole, Mel, and Allen in our own little rando posse. We rode mostly as a group until the first control, but Nicole and I were well ahead of the others by the time we reached the “secret” control on top of the first mesa, 36 miles into the ride. Vickie stamped our brevet cards with valentine hearts while we stripped off some layers and filled our bottles. We were off in minutes as Allen rolled in, Mel somewhere behind.
It’s rare to find a person who rides exactly your pace over the distance of a brevet. I’ve been fortunate to have Road Pixie Michele as a brevet partner for the last year, and I found another perfect match in Nicole. We paced each other comfortably as we pedaled our way over rolling hills to the coast then south through Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Oceana, and more. We had a bit of a tail wind through here and we enjoyed cruising through the beach communities chatting as we rolled. We passed a beaver who had met his end on the side of the road – my first time seeing this variety of road kill. Next I spotted a coyote with its breakfast handing from its mouth. I was just far enough away that I couldn’t tell what creature had sacrificed its life to make this meal but it was clear from its full and shiny fur that the coyote was well fed.
Somewhere outside of SLO Nicole noted my rear bag had sagged down onto my wheel and was rubbing. A few other folks came along as we fumbled to fix the situation, and it wasn’t long before a few zip ties saved the day. No drag on the rear of my bike is a good thing, and we pretty much flew down the hill into the Guadalupe valley. We were quickly dropped by Kirin and her partner, Chris, and just as quickly dropped Mel and Allen. We never saw Allen again.
As Rt.1 headed towards Guadalupe we had our first real taste of what was to come. The wind hit us square in the face, and we found ourselves trudging along at 12mph. Neither I nor Nicole are fond of pace-line riding, but we took turns pulling, learning to trust each other. We were well matched as she doesn’t like someone right on her wheel and I’m not fond of being too close. We stayed just close enough together for the person behind to have a slight break from the labor into the wind. Mel passed us when we stopped for our first “attitude adjustment” of the day and a much needed opportunity to water some local bushes. We were grateful to arrive in Los Alamos and the ice cream bar I had
was a welcome treat. Kirin and Chris were still there, mumbling about the wind, and Mel came along in time to share some toffee cashews before we headed out of town.
Nicole is super efficient at controls, able to eat, pee, fill bottles, and everything else she needs to do in minutes. While I feel like I’m efficient, she was ready to go while I still had a few steps to complete. As the day went on, I got more efficient and we got better at tag-teaming things like obtaining receipts.
The wind was our constant companion, following us on the long climb up Drum Canyon. We climbed with care, picking our line through broken pavement as the views unfolded below us. Nicole urged me to make sure all my bags were securely fastened before we started the descent, and I was glad I took her advice. Although stunningly beautiful, this was one of the worst stretches of “maintained” road I’ve ever been on, with roots, potholes, broken pavement, and even cattle guards making me long for my full suspension mountain bike with squishy tires.
Familiar with the road, Nicole left me in the dust on the descent as I carefully controlled my speed and tried to pick a line which would not leave me needing carpal tunnel treatment. An awful rattling from my front end got my attention, but it took a while for me to figure out the cause – somewhere I’d lost the nut holding my front mud flap onto my fender, leading the flap to repeatedly whack my front wheel. There was no fixing this without a fresh nut, and I ended up having to loosen the fender to remove the mud flap before I could continue down the hill on cleaner pavement. As we turned onto Rt. 246 towards Lompoc we encountered the wind again, stronger than before. We ground our way up another hill, barely holding 9mph on a 2-3% grade where we should have been able to easily go 12mph. Finally we made the left turn onto the final descent into Lompoc and for a few short miles the wind was blessedly at our tail pushing us into town. We met up with Mel again at the Starbucks, Nicole and I pulling our tops off and handing bottles to the barista to fill with ice while we waited for our ice blended treats – molten chocolate frappaccino and lime spritzers gulped on the run as we pedaled out of town.
One would think that a headwind going southwest into Lompoc would reward us with a tailwind while travelling southeast towards Buellton, but Aeolus, god of the four winds, had other ideas and once again met us with a steady blow threatening to push us down the hill we climbed out of town. Thankfully we turned onto Santa Rosa Rd and the canyon gave us temporary shelter as we hugged the southern wall.
There are places in this world which are so incredibly beautiful they make your heart want to burst open so your soul can fly free to bask in the splendor of nature’s glory. The canyon which contains Santa Rosa Rd is one of those places. The afternoon light was perfect as we pedaled through vineyards and orchards slowly climbing and sheltered from the worst of the wind. Mel was with us for a time, but we pulled ahead as we got into a groove of perfectly harmonious pedaling while birds took advantage of the air eddies above us and cows and horses grazed the lush verdant fields. The sun was warm on our backs, the breeze cool on our faces, the riding effortless and we reveled in the moments before the full force of the wind hit us again as we turned the final corner and pulled into Buellton.
Buellton was not a soul-soaring kind of place, bringing us the first real traffic of the day with Valentine’s sweethearts intent on going nowhere in a hurry, pulling in and out of myriad driveways with abandon and lack of caution for two women on bicycles. We got out of there as fast as the wind allowed, heading up to our next stop in Solvang.
It was my first time seeing the “idyllic” village patterned after a Swiss town complete with European-style architecture and windmills. The town was bursting with tourists, every café overflowing, people strolling clogged streets, cars backed up nose to tail for the half-mile or so through town. In a word, it sucked. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go to such a crowded and contrived place and we couldn’t get out of dodge fast enough for either of us. Our control was thankfully at the far end of town which was far less busy. Eager to get through as much of Foxen Canyon as possible before dark, we kept our stop at the local grocery store short, staying just long enough to change to evening glasses, gulp down a snack, apply cream to our “bits” and grab receipts. Mel pulled in just as we were leaving and we left the last of our potato chips with him as we headed back into the wind.
We stopped for another attitude adjustment in Los Olivos, sharing some gummy fish to give us energy for the climb into Foxen Canyon. We kept telling ourselves that the wind would die down as evening fell, but if anything the falling sun brought stronger gusts. 11% grades into a screaming headwind while desperately needing to pee was not our idea of a good time and we took turns yelling f-bombs as we climbed onto Zaca Mesa, our curses promptly carried harmlessly away. At the top we stopped to turn on lights, pull on leg warmers and jackets, and empty our near-busting bladders before continuing on. My chest was feeling tight and I ignored the sensation, hoping the continued pedaling would open the airways and I could avoid having to use my asthma meds. Roller after roller through wine country finally took us over the ridge and around a bend and suddenly we were descending on smooth pavement with the wind blessedly at our tail. It was an absolutely glorious west-ward descent with the sky painted in shades of pink, yellow and crimson against a background of ever deepening blue. It was full dark by the time we reached the manned control in Sisquo, and there was Hal waiting with bags full of turkey sandwiches and fresh water. We gratefully handed over our bikes and threw ourselves into the chairs which were waiting for our tired behinds. I was having difficulty getting enough air to talk and took the opportunity to suck on my inhaler, waiting eagerly for it to take effect as I gulped down a sandwich and swallowed water not laced with some variety of sports drink or Starbucks concoction. As much as I wanted to linger, we were quickly getting cold and there were still 42 miles to go. The next stretch of road held the ghost of fellow randonneur, Matthew O’Neill, and both of us were eager to get past the scene of his fatal encounter with a teenager in a truck.
As we reached the outskirts of Santa Maria the wind grew even stronger. We passed through areas of swirling sand, the particles in my headlight making clear why my lungs were so irritated. We alternately fought cross-winds strong enough to push us across the road and headwinds which threatened to stop us in our tracks. I tried to hold my breath as we passed through clouds of dust, dodging tumbleweeds and other flying debris. We hunkered down, each of us deep in our pain caves, holding onto our handlebars for dear life. The wind howled around us, making eerie moaning sounds which engulfed us in their ghostly embrace. Time stood still as we focused on making the next pedal stroke, and the next, stringing the strokes together into slow forward progress which was difficult to see. As we came into town, the wind was replaced by hostile edginess of angry drivers locked in gang warfare and oblivious to the cyclists eager to be gone from their city. We got out of there as fast as we could, preferring the fight with the wind to the seemingly bigger danger of men encased in 2000 pounds of steel.
I gratefully sucked down a cup of Mexican hot chocolate at our final control in Nippon. 23 miles to go, we could do it. The wind returned in force as soon as we passed out of town, Aeolus making it clear that we would be firmly in his grip until the very end. Corbett Canyon is probably stunning in daylight, but that night the constant rolling hills taking us steadily upward into the wind wore on my patience. Once again we took turns shouting curses only to have them blown mercilessly from our mouths, as effective as raining blows on a giant. The half moon lit our way as we got ever closer to our final goal. We took a final attitude adjustment moment where Corbett Canyon met Rt. 246, then made the turn which would finally take us into SLO. A few blocks further and there was another brightly lit cyclist clad in reflective gear. Hal had ridden from Vickie’s house to meet us for the final four miles of our 190 mile odyssey.
We pulled into Vickie’s driveway exhausted and elated, 16 hours and 43 minutes after we had begun, greeted by homemade pulled pork and chicken burritos, guacamole, freshly baked key lime pie, and a most deserved beer. The warmth of the garage was a welcome shelter from the still howling wind and the food restored our spirits. Mel pulled in about 30 minutes after us, joining us for a victory beer and agreeing to join us for breakfast the next day
At some point after I went to bed I woke up to the scent of pulled pork. It turns out Allen from Phoenix, the Lantern Rouge, made it in around 1:30am, completing the final chapter of a successful brevet weekend.
Many thanks to Vickie Backman for your hospitality at the Rando Hotel, transportation to and from the train station, and two flawlessly run brevets. Thanks also to Nicole Honda for sticking with me for two hard days of riding. It was a blast riding with you, and I don’t think I could have finished Sunday’s ride without your companionship. Suffering is always better with friends! Another thank you to Hal who was our savior on a windy night, bringing sandwiches to a control where we really needed a boost and riding in with us at the end. And a final thank you to my bike angel who kept us safe despite rogue tumbleweeds, flying debris, and the wrath of Aeolus. None of this would be possible without your support, and I am once again eternally grateful to have such amazing people in my life. Next up, 400k in March!