Say the name “California” to an outsider, and the conjured mental images are almost universal. Movie stars, beaches, the Golden Gate Bridge, progressive politics, perpetual sun, and the unending freeway-driven sprawl of Southern California percolate. But, for those of us who live here, there is a vast, unexplored middle between — and around — the sometimes-dueling dual capital cities of the mighty California Republic. Los Angeles and San Francisco — two great cities, the crown jewels of the coastal empire. At the edge of the Pacific, they’ve long served as a gateway to the Far East, places of mystery and intrigue, of new beginnings and of wide-open spaces. The destination of millions of migrants, their strength and their draw, at the beating heart, lies in their place, places of awe and grandeur.
As the crow flies, the two polestars are a mere 560 km apart, joined by a spider’s web of roads totaling far more in distance. Local cyclists have long called on the point-to-point route between the two urban cores in an annual pilgrimage known as “The Coast Ride”, a three-day journey shunted to the brink of the sea by towering oceanside peaks and jagged cliffs. Starting in San Francisco, the route takes the path of least resistance with prevailing northerly winds from north to south, to the outskirts of the Southland’s megalopolis in Santa Barbara. It is flat. It is the first level of exploration. Unfortunately, we are Above Category, and we do not take the path of least resistance. Welcome to the Escape From LA, a five-day, three-rider saga into the depths of coastal California’s finest roads, a personal stage race, our own take on what we think the Tour of California should be.
840 kilometers (523mi), 15,240 vertical meters (50,000ft). Five days. Host cities include Wrightwood, Santa Barbara, Cambria, and Santa Cruz.
Tony. Commonly known as @palicci, or "Oatmeal Princess". An accomplished mountain bike racer, Tony claims he’s introverted when it comes to competition, yet is capable of breaking the legs of the local Cat 1 hitsquad. Famously indulgent in fizzy water, espresso, and oatmeal. The most aero of the Escapists, Tony is riding a maddeningly-fast Trek Madone RSL with SRAM Red eTap and Zipp's new 454 for his breakout.
Kemi. Former pro bike rider. She’s blonde, has braids, three teenage boys, and drops most of the guys, most of the time while driving them mad with how nice she is. Has a penchant for ice cream and pumpkin beer. Kemi is piloting the lightest bike in the group, a 6kg Trek Emonda RSL also built with eTap and a pair of Zipp 202s.
Nate. Also a former pro bike rider. Was never any good. Addicted to pain, self-loathing, and his big hair. Trains on tubulars. Drinks beer midway through seven-hour rides. Also, your humble author and route architect. Nate is riding the reddest bike of the trio, the cobbles-proven Trek Domane RSL with aggressive pro endurance geometry.
Photography. Because we always have to get #theshot. This means that we must always be accompanied by our versatile and talented imaging entourage, Mr. Embry and Mr. Erik. Which means we must always be accompanied by... The Van.
Deftly piloted by the esteemed Nick of SAG
, THE VAN
is a 2013 Mercedes Sprinter. It is two-wheel drive, approximately 3.5 tons, and cannot squeeze through gates, be hefted over fences, or outrun rangers/angry property owners. Thus, we are often confined to pavement instead of singletrack.
Ourselves. We are all three uncertain of our ability to complete the route. Thus, we eat with reckless abandon.
Time. It is almost winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and we're playing with limited amounts of daylight, as well as a six-day allotment. Also, Tony's propensity for running things over (see: flats) and insistence on oatmeal for breakfast every morning (see: time) has a habit of chewing through our daylight allowance faster than we like. Happily, we have THE VAN and Nick, allowing us to transfer nightly and cut out a significant amount of junk miles.
DAY ONE: PHIL'S FONDO. 183KM, 3392M
Longtime friend, occasional competitor, and newly-minted Strava KOM Hunter
Phil Gaimon is throwing a fondo-turned-retirement-from-pro-bike-riding party. This was the genesis of our excuse to go ride bikes for five days, as well as run the adventure from south to north. Phillip, soon-to-be-former professional cyclist, likes to climb, and lives in Los Angeles. Mr. Gaimon understands the concept that Los Angeles is, in a word, misunderstood. A microcosm of the United States' diverse melting pot of ethnicities and culture, the equivalence of its varied society is also found in its riding. Yes, LA might suck for cycling (see ironic-not-ironic hashtag), but it's also home to some of the best and most varied road routes in the world. Endless climbs from sea-level to 2800m up. Slightly-less endless climbs. Ragingly-fast group rides and ripping flats. Nonchalant drivers. Terrible air quality. Abject lack of cycling infrastructure. Incredible taquerias. Boundlessly-pleasant weather for 11 months out of the year. LA has it all, including all of the people. For a professional cyclist, it is an undiscovered playground.
The Santa Monica Mountains are a road cyclist's dream. With endless roads, thanks to endless amounts of people flooding the Southland's sun-warmed contours, the Santa Monicas provide pavement in places where normally would only exist scrub oak and lizards. Barren gullies, canyons, and crevasses transformed into paved thoroughfares snaking their way to the craggy coastal crest, only to drop the other side into tamed suburban enclaves with idyllic names like Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. When it comes to hosting 1000 other bike riders of vastly varying abilities, there are few better places.
Since we are Above Category, we opted for the most difficult route offered. At 183km with more than enough vertical gain, we applied the governor to our efforts in a slightly-competitive field who treated the ride as more of a full-gas road race than a friendly gathering. The next four days would be a test of our endurance alone, and to burn all our matches on Day One would be a folly. The course was as difficult as imagined - a sampling platter of up, down, and very little modulating the two aside from some twenty miles of coastal, windblown flats. We rejoiced at the sighting of obscure sports cars of decades before our youths, and chortled when told by other riders about how "Above Category sleeps on mattresses of cash" (if only). We ripped Rock Store. Ascended Encinal. We were treated to mid-ride espressos and Clif products from our friends at Pedaler's Fork
and Ten Speed Coffee. We spent our final hour well within exhaustion-induced delirium, as is the tradition of post-centurion centuries, contemplating what lay ahead. The fondo was, in a word, fondo-ey. Not quite a race, not quite a ride, not quite at our own pace - some sort of unhappy medium, like being half-wheeled for six hours
. A proper amuse bouche to what was to come later in the week - four days of what could be a torturous hell, self-immolation on two wheels.
The transfer to our second day of anguish took us around the towering San Gabriel Mountains, to the tiny burg of Wrightwood (pop. 4525). Midway to our destination, we staggered into a strip mall in the exurb of Santa Clarita (but not before a Whole Foods in Simi Valley, because #tourdewholefoodscalifornia), seeking the best Yelp could offer at 9PM on a Sunday: Umaichi Ramen
. Such broth. So noodle. Much worth it. Five stars. Thank you, Mr. Yelp.
NEXT: STAGE TWO. The Escape crests the most unheralded road in California, then thinks about stopping at Neverland Ranch. But doesn't.