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The Escape From LA: Stage 4

by Anthony Little |

STAGE 4

California is a place of contrast, even at its periphery along the coast. The transition from what's colloquially known as Southern California to the great lost innards of the Central Coast is subtle, yet jarring at the same time. Jagged topography populated primarily by rocks and scrub oak gives way to rolling hills, meadows, and trees. The shift isn't only found in the landscape, though - the mentality of its denizens is a marked shift from the full-gas lifestyle of the Southland. A rural attitude takes over, and life deviates into the tranquil, into the relaxed. Nowhere is this truer than in the host city for the start of our fourth day on the bike: Cambria, California.


DAY FOUR: CAMBRIA TO BIG SUR - 191KM / 2750M

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Unfortunately, this attitude of tranquility also extends to the hotel situation, where our booked accommodations proffered the worst beds any of us had slept on since stage racing in Central America, akin to thin cardboard with bouncy springs sandwiched between. Did we mention the day before was Election Day? In addition, in a moment of severe miscalculation, the route we'd settled on really began some 25km/16mi south down the coast in the town of Cayucos, requiring a backtrack down the coast into a pillorying headwind. We are in a sour mood, and my legs are grumbling about turning. Fatigue aggregates faster than compound interest during multi-day sagas on the bike, and the Escape is no different. My normally hummingbird-speed heart is lethargic in beating, and seeds of doubt are sprouting in my mind. Are we flying too close to the sun? Is the proverbial wax melting from our wings? It's been a long time since I'd put my body through this kind of punishment, and I'm beginning to doubt my abilities when it comes to finishing the remaining two days, which are coincidentally the largest in terms of riding volume. The other two Escapists seem in a similar mindset. We ignore the magnificent wind-driven breakers offshore, praying Nick will take pity and give us a motorpace from THE VAN. He doesn't.

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Mercifully, we swing inland in Cayucos, towards Paso Robles wine country. After a quick rise, we find the first real section of destapada of the trip: Little-known Santa Rita Road, a 400m/1300ft dirt rise off the coast, one I'd first experienced at Eroica California. #roadbikesoffroad is definitely a thing, and we find our missing energy along the narrow, winding road flanked by chapparal and coast redwoods.
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As we crest the edge of the Central Coast's range, the guttural interior of California shows its splendor. San Luis Obispo County's wine country is a relatively unknown plethora of quiet rolling country roads dotted with vineyards and farms. Our route avoids any major population, granting us seren solitude as we march north towards our destination, the southern reaches of Big Sur. The temperature creeps up, and in response we stop to take more bottles, and Nick's omnipresent ham/jam/cream cheese/Hawaiian Host sandwiches keep our respective body fat percentages steady.

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Splendor gives way to remote desolation as the vineyards vanish. We are visiting a part of California relatively unknown. None of us has ever been here, and we do not know what to expect. Lake Nacimiento lies ahead, its barren and dystopian visage reinforced by its mercury levels. Signage warns against consumption of fish from the reservoir thanks to runoff from abandoned nearby mines, a reminder that no matter how far we think we can get from humanity, we are still on road bicycles. On roads.

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Our terrain turns flat and bleak. The sweltering, dry waves of thermal energy become overwhelming. We increase our pace, trading pulls on the front while inching farther foward on our saddles and into our bikes, eking out extra watts in a desperate attempt to burn up as much pavement as possible. Our insatiable need for hydration forces another stop in front of a lonely C-Store outside of the tiny burg of Lockwood at 135km/84 mi in. It will be the last time we see publicly-accessible civilization until we finish, and THE VAN fetes us with Cokes, Twinkies, IPAs, and the bottomless stock of Randy's Donuts apple fritters. Shortly thereafter, Tony flats, in typical #OatmealPrincess fashion.

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Our route back out to the coast cuts through Ft. Hunter Liggett, a US Army base used primarily for live-fire training exercises. Vehicle traffic, save the occasional deuce-and-a-half or armored personnel carrier, drops to nil. The base itself is surreal, surrounded by vast expanses of widely-spaced oak, we assume to make room for tanks manuevering during training. Hordes of tarantula spiders are crossing the roads. The sun is dipping, its light soft and warm. Euphoria at our surroundings is beginning to set in, spaced between warning signs about live ordnance and later, closed campgrounds. We hit the climb to the Nacimiento Peak saddle - hard. I take a beer handup. We're giggling.
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Arcing over the top of the peak like a bolt of lightning, we're stopped dead in our tracks by what's in front of us. The sun is beginning to set, and the Pacific lies 800m/2600ft down one of the most spectacularly dramatic roads any one of us has seen, one that pirouettes and spins its way across the contours of the rippled doorstopper to the sea. Daylight is quickly incinerating, but we ride up and down the bends of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road with abandon, both to get THE SHOT, and to soak it into the deep memory banks of our neural nets.

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We leave THE VAN on the slopes dropping into the southern end of Big Sur as light fades. The vegetation changes again, coastal ferns and shrubs greeting us at the end of almost seven hours of pedaling. We are absolutely crushed, and grinning. #getinthevan. Tomorrow, our final - and longest - day awaits. Santa Cruz is calling, and we must go.

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