Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bicycle Adventures 2010: Big Sur

Our 5th Bicycle Adventure in as many years was the new Big Sur plus tour offered by our favorite outfitter, Bicycle Adventures of Issaquah WA. The planning for this trip actually started for us during last year's Volcanoes of Washington tour. We've sort of made this an annual excursion. BA tours are reliable and a great value. They have many choices of tours, as well as a wide selection of dates available. It Is something we look forward to all year. We set this one up for a littler later in the year from a combination of factors, and it all came together beautifully.

We picked the September 26th departure. This 7 day tour departed from San Jose, CA and we met the van right on time at the Marriott by SJC. Getting to that point had a few twists, as we are a little attached to touring on our own bikes. Cindy's fits her Cervelo perfectly, and I just invested in a custom Seven Alaris that I am pretty proud of. Originally BA was going to transport our bikes for us on the van from Issaquah as that is only a few miles from our home in Seattle. Right before the trip, BA rescheduled the vans, so none was going to CA. I was able to score a couple of new bike boxes, but it was the first time we'd travelled on an airline with them. I'd never disassembled a bike an packed it up. My custom 64cm Alaris just fit in the case. SWA charged the customary $50 fee for each of the bags each way, but it all turned out in the end. It's a little scary taking your bike apart the first time, but the learning curve is steep. And I now have 2 bike boxes to rent to others.

Bikes assembled and ready to roll, we met the first of our fellow travelers at breakfast before the van arrived. The biking gear is a giveaway. We met Steve and M(ary) B(eth) from New Jersey. They had travelled with BA before as well, and we asked them about the Santa Fe trip we are considering for next year. After breakfast, we moved the gear to the front door to meet the van, and met up with a few more of our group. Chris from Toronto had his own Specialized out of the box and ready to go. We also met Daniel and Judith from New York. They had been married less than 48 hours-this trip was the first leg of their honeymoon

The van rolled up on time, and we met our guides, Mark Wojhan and Marty Andrews. We'd travelled with Mark before, and knew him to be one of BAs most experienced guides. Marty was clearly in the perfect employment-it's a little odd how you can instantly see when someone really enjoys their work. Marty jumped into meeting up with everyone, and his huge smile and eagerness was apparent. It's a little hard to describe, because that enthusiasm can really be overdone. Julie Your Cruise Director gets annoying real quick, but Marty is genuine and there to serve. It is really assuring to watch these BA guides make an in promptu team with synergy that makes you instantly comfortable.

And bang, within seconds, you're on vacation, and BA is taking the stress from your life as effortlessly as they load your bags and rack your bikes. A mere look from sansei Mark makes the stress simply hit the trash can, and you say to yourself, "damn, this is worth every penny."

We had one more pickup to make in San Jose. Ron and Kai from Connecticut were the last couple to pick up from the Crowne Plaza. With that, we had the perfect sized group of 9 plus 2 guides. The 15 passenger BA van fit perfectly with no need to stash extra cycling gear in the trailer.

As with all BA trips, you ride on the first day. We set out after a short drive toward the coast and the departure point on Seaside. The weather was sunny and would stay that way all week. Yes, it got hot, but really, it's California. I live in a rain forest, and it was time for some sunshine. By the time we got out to the coast, some fog had rolled in, but after we got the bikes down, changed and ready to roll, most of it had burned off.

The traditional route talk meshed with our printed route directions. Mark gave us the cautionary safety briefing, and it was nice to see that all of our group were like minded conservative bike handlers. No daredevils here.

A few twists on the trails took us along the coast. It was all just like the brochures! I had the usual thought of "why don't I do this more?" Our ride to lunch at Bird Rock took us along the famous 17 mile drive. It really is a nice route. We opted out of the visit to the aquarium, and I'm kind of sorry we did - it sounded really nice from those that did go. But it seemed a little busy, and I didn't feel much like being inside with crowds. By the time we got to lunch, the fog had rolled onto the coast again, so it was a bit chilly. A jacket chased away the cool weather, and this was the last time I'd need it. Mark had made a gourmet lunch with fresh bagels, salmon, salad and all kids of munchies. Food on BA trips is a highlight. Guides make not only great tasting lunches, but it all looks really fantastic. You arrive at a set picnic table with real linen tablecloths, real silverware (no plastic) and food served on platters. Now think about this: most picnics I go to has food served out of the bags, fruit simply piled in a heap, and make your own sandwich out of the little baggies of lunchmeat. It really is a pain in the tush to set a real table, but it is routine for BA, and is one of those little things that makes this a real vacation.

Fueled up, Cindy and I opted for the route to Jacks Peak, a climb of reasonable difficulty. It was steep, but the road good. The directions were a little complicated. Sure would be nice to have the turn by turn directions on my Garmin 705, but I've blogged that before - I might write to BA and invite the owners for a cup of coffee some day to chat about putting ride direction files out on a web server behind a password for guests. Jacks Peak was a good ride, but the hills are steep, upwards of 10-12 %. As it turns out, this was going to be a good warm up. Sadly, no real view from the top, but a fun ride

Rolling back out, we mostly retraced the route in, but opted to add the rest of the 17 Mile Drive. It really is a great ride. Some of it is in some residential areas (at least I think all those multi-million dollar houses are residences and not museums) with some traffic. They were mostly respectful drivers; they seemed accustomed to having bikes around. We rolled past the famed golf courses, and the route took us right through the Pebble Beach Country Club, perhaps the most famous of them all. We headed in to Carmel by the Sea, and with a little twisting and turning on some steep hills in town, found the Tradewinds. The van and all the other travelers were gathering around the Beer Cooler

Tradewinds is a really nice properly, with a really nice layout of the patio area. It has an outdoor fire pit with lots of water features and greenery. The rooms were really nice, complete with 2 chocolate dipped strawberries as a treat. This was perhaps the most plush of the accommodations on the trip, and it was a little disappointing we couldn’t stay longerBut we didn’t sign up for a bicycle adventure to sit in a hotel room, however appealing that might be. Tradewinds does have wifi in the rooms, but it was a little weak and spotty. Nice to have some connectivity on travel, but of course it is nice to disconnect too.

After the necessary showers, we met up with Mark for a quick run down of the entire route for the week. He had a great map showing the entire coast and what each day’s ride was going to be. It matched every expectation, and added a lot of details. Dinner was at Casanova's, a restaurant in town that was really really good. Only a few blocks from the hotel, it was in a rather eclectic building that had lots of history. They claimed many thousands of bottles of wine in their cellar. The filet mignon was excellent. As was the case throughout the trip, we all easily fit around a single table. It was easy to chat with essentially the entire group, enjoy dinner and not feel rushed. This was just the right sized group. Bigger groups seem to be overwhelming, particularly for some restaurant staff. Did I have dessert? Yeppers. It was chocolate and yummy.

After a really great sleep at Tradewinds, we rode out directly from the inn. For reasons I still can't understand, my garmin 705 didn't reset for the next day's ride. It recoded ok, but there if only one .tcx file for days 1 and 2. (A note on the Garmin Connect links: if you go to these pages, you'll find the stats on my ride, as well as the GPS tracks. The site will allow you to view or download the tracks in any format you wish.) I just didn't notice. There is a way to force it to reset, but I didn't discover that at first. Oh well. Anyway, turn by turns would be really helpful getting through Carmel, as the road name signs there are hard to read. The actually riding was magnificent, as the road led us out to Hwy 1 and the coast. More multimillion dollar properties lined the chamber of commerce views

Day 2 was something of a rolling day. The historic Hwy 1 is in great shape, and mostly with good shoulder. We passed over the iconic Bixby Bridge that is something of a fixture on the Amgen Tour of California. We went slower than the peloton does.There was significant traffic along the highway, but even with the twists and turns along the coast it never felt dangerous. There was one patch of redwoods to cycle past - huge trees that reminded me of our first BA trip in the northern CA redwood forests. There was one longish climb out of Big Sur before lunch. It's a little steep and one of those twisty roads that never let's you see the top. Just as I was about to the to the crest, some guy in a race kit went past me, only to circle back to drop down it, presumably to do it again. A pro in training. We pressed on to Julia Pfeiffer Woods state park for lunch.

We rolled in to lunch just as Marty was setting up yummy salad and tidbits. A cooler full of ice cold drinks was welcome, as the day was heating up. There are several nice trails out of the lunch area; one goes to the waterfall by the coast. I'm a little sorry I didn't opt for some of them, but I didn't want to go to the effort to change out of cleats. The shade was welcome and after lunch I felt a lot better

The ride out of lunch was really spectacular, with more views of the coast. A few rollers, but nothing severe. We rolled into the Treebones Lodge with huge smiles. Treebones is a unique place - a yurt village. The driveway in to Treebones is predictably steep, but you can't see it from the road. Shift down before you roll in.

At beer cooler at Treebones, I found that Mark and Marty had read my mind. They had stocked the chest with my favorite dark brew, Kona Brewing company's Pipeline Porter. Apparently this is a seasonal beer, and I've had a hard time finding in in Seattle. And there it was waiting for me on ice

The yurts are really, really nice. There is hot and cold running water in each, hard wood floors, and a comfortable king sized bed. The yurt has a heater, but today that was most superfluous. It had been hot all day, and we opened the skylight to help cool it off. Bathroom facilities at the resort are in the lodge. I hit the pool to cool down, and we left the yurt open to cool it down as well

A word or two about Treebones: this is a unique property. It is most certainly different than the usual inns and hotels used by BA. I was totally expecting it as it has a great website and I'd talked to the BA office about it. It is a self-sufficient village, as there is no power grid in this area. They generate their own power, and even have a garden for local veggies. The yurts are very comfortable. But the really nice thing about this location is the access to the riding over two days in this area. The pool and hot tub are really nice. The staff reside there, and are all helpful and pleasant. It is most definitely not "camping" even though it looks like you're in a tent. The lodge has good wifi, and the food is fantastic! They have a sushi chef on staff, and the selection is varied and large. Treebones is a place I'd most definitely like to go back to

After dinner, the yurt had cooled off significantly. It was still hot, so we left the front doors open when we went to bed. We could hear the surf rolling on on the beach. I woke up about 2am briefly, as it was cool enough to close the doors and actually slip under a light blanket. A very pleasant night's sleep.

The ride on day 3 was going to be a leg buster on Naciemento-Fergusson road. A true mountain climb, the lower portion promised to be steep. After a great breakfast of blueberry pancakes in the lodge, we loaded up on snacks, water and and sunscreen. The ride out of the resort then headed north about 7 miles to the base of the climb. Those 7 miles rolled a bit for a good warm up, and the coast was sparkling blue and calm (hence the term "pacific".) We got to the base of the climb, and geared down. Watch out for the cattle guard just as the road starts! Then it was time to find a rhythm and watch the pacific below drop away.
This is a great climb. The road is really good, and there was perhaps 3 cars that passed us. The bottom part is for sure the steepest - I saw an occasional 11%, but it is steady at 9% or so. I was glad I opted for a compact double on my Seven, but Cindy pushes a racing 53/39 in the front. The Velominati would most definitely approve. We concentrated on the climb, and the day was heating up. We got only a few hundred feet short of the summit when Mark caught up with us with the van to rewater. Since we were almost there, we told him we'd just head over the top and see him out on the road to the San Antonio mission, our destination for lunch. We topped out, stopped for a picture or two along with a snack, and headed down the switchbacks on the other side. The descent was quite windy, so there was a lot of brake pads at use. The road rolls through some nice forest and alongside a river. The road then flattens out some and comes out of the trees on to a military use area. We were told use of the road requires we stay on it, and really there was no reason not to. But it was really getting hot - upwards of 100 degreesF. We were watching our water level, but the road was bright and as it turns out, the climb had taken a lot out of us and had stretched our group out on the road a bit. Meaning...the van was a little busy. We decided to keep an eye out for shade just in case, but thought we had just enough water to reach the mission. And so we did. It was a little bit of a stretch in 100+ sunshine (and in hindsight might not have been the thing to do - a flat is easily fixable with what we always carry, but it might have occurred with no shade with limited water on board.) We reached the mission, sat down to rest, and before we could look around for water, the van arrived right on cue! 
Mark asked "how long have you been here?" "Oh, about an hour....hahahaha!" It was great timing, and I drank about 3 cold drinks from the cooler. Mark dropped off all the lunch supplies so he could head back out to give some support to the rest of the group. That was fine with us - we just wanted to relax in the shade. One by one the rest of our group rolled in. Mark and Marty set up the usual lunch. The cold watermelon and fresh pineapple was great! I think everybody but me visited the mission, and the report is that it was really pretty. The signs indicated it was put in about 1774. Very much a Spanish traditional building

I had planned to ride back out the way we came, but the heat prevented any of us from doing so. Total distance out to the mission was about 34 miles, and the climb back out would be much less steep. On a cooler day perhaps doable, but we all opted for a van ride back to Treebones. It was actually very nice to ride in the a/c van and see the road again from a different point of view, even if this was the only offered miles of the whole trip I would miss. One thing you have to keep in mind while touring placed like this- be sure to look over your shoulder. The place you rode past looks remarkably different from a different point of view. As we dropped back down to the coast off the pass, the temperature dropped dramatically. The thermometer in the van showed a drop of about 30 degrees, from 105 to 75. The blue pacific stretched ahead as we twisted down to it. "We rode up this?" Yup.

Back to the pool at the resort, and then a change before dinner. Tonight was much cooler, and the sunset was spectacular. Dinner was again great, and by bedtime, I had to crawl under a light blanket. Very pleasant in the yurt.

Again we rode out of the inn in the morning. This is a nice feature of the Big Sur trip: there was only one van transfer the whole trip. The van is comfortable, and with only 11 travelers, there was plenty of room in it. But I'd rather ride my bike than ride in a van. The van transfers are done only when unavoidable to bypass "dead miles." Very few of those on this trip

Rather than breakfast at the lodge, we rode a very short distance to the Whalewatcher Cafe in "town." the menu offered more choices, and food was big and yummy. The cafe is a maritime themed place, and pretty neat. It was even cool enough now for a light jacket, even though the sun was out.

We headed down the coast on Hwy 1 toward San Simeon for lunch at the Hearst Castle. We passed the elephant seal preserve, and stopped to chat with a volunteer and take some pictures. It appears life as an elephant seal is a good one indeed, as there were several hundred lazing about on the beach in the sunshine

We met Mark in the van just outside the castle. I didn't even notice it until Mark pointed at it. We rolled into the parking lot at the visitor center, and Marty had a great lunch in progress. Fresh sandwiches, fruit, and canapés! We changed into non-ride clothes for the included tour. We took in the movie about the castle, and then loaded on to the tour bus to go to the "little ranch" that William Randolph Hearst created.

If you are in the area, make a point to visit this attraction. It is thought provoking. The castle is now a historic place, owned by gift to the state of California. The tour is well run, and our guide Dianne was a pro. She conducted the tour for the participants, always soliciting questions. My initial impression was "gee...why would anyone want something like this?" The movie tried to answer than question, but it seems to me that WRHearst merely had so much money he had to have some toy box to spend it on. Why not? Today's uber rich buy jets and cars that seeming serve no purpose, and one can see why a meeting place near Hollywood in the 30s might be made over the top. That it has become the proverbial white elephant to the state seems reasonably predictable. Guess I will need to read more about Patty's grandfather to decide if he knew that would be what would become of his little ranch.

We changed back into ride clothes for the ride into Cambria. Dropping down to the highway (I sure would like to ride the climb to the castle, but sadly it is closed to all but the tour busses) we had only a short way to go. And then came our only mechanical of the trip - my rear tire went flat. I popped the wheel off, had the tube out, when Mark appeared in the van. We got it fixed together, but it always seems the van is nearby just when you need them. We rode into Cambria to stay at the Pickford House.

The Pickford House is another really nice place. It is a rental to groups only, so all us BA travelers had the place to ourselves. There's a nice bar/lounge on the first floor, and BA had arranged a wine and cheese party. We cleaned up, and relaxed a bit before dinner. Pickford is a nice, comfortable place, but unlike the yurts, I would rather expect an inn in southern California to have a/c in the rooms. It was a little hot. Still, the inn had good wifi, but I didn't turn on the tv. Nothing remarkable in that- I don't turn the tv on at home either.

Dinner was in town at Robin's. Cambria appears to have a pretty active arts community, and we passed by lots of galleries and shops. It would have been nice to explore a few, but Robin's was a great place to relax and enjoy great food. Can't say I'd ever had a lobster enchilada, but the one at Robin's was tops. The sashimi was fresh and delicious. And of course, more dessert involved chocolate and ice cream. Yum. The room had cooled substantially after dinner, and the king bed was comfortable.

Breakfast at the inn was continental style, but all fresh. We stopped at a coffee shop in town; fresh pasties and coffee drinks for the one van transfer of the week. We loaded up and headed to Santa Maria. We changed at a nice park and got ready to ride. There were a couple of options for routes and (predictably) we opted for the longer ride out hwy 166 to a climb up Tempusquet road. The rest of the group rode with Mark, and we had van support from Marty. The hwy 166 route had great new pavement and good shoulder. There was some high speed truck traffic, and here is one place where you might want a rear view mirror. After the turn on the climb though, we saw no traffic and brand new pavement. The only vehicle was Marty and the van. Great blacktop, and a steady climb. We watered and fueled up again at the top of the climb, and rode a smooth straight descent into lunch at Rancho Sisquoc wineryCool drinks and another beautiful lunch table set by Marty awaited. We relaxed in the shade (this is vacation, after all) then headed out the road again. A short rolling ride took us past many wineries. We stopped at Fess Parker's. A beautiful place for tasting; we got a Pinot that was yummy

A few more rollers took us in the sunshine to the Ballard Inn near Los Olivos. I really like the Ballard Inn. The a/c was welcome, as was the pitcher of lemonade on the porch. The front of the inn is decorated in beautiful flowers, and the staff was very friendly. They provided snacks and wine inside, and we hit the shower before relaxing on the porch. Mark offered some van transport into town for dinner. BA leaves one night to "dinner on your own" so you can pick your own restaurant, and if you like, get a little time on your own. We selected a Greek place in town, and it was good food. Mark picked us up to return to the inn. The Ballard inn is really comfy, and was another layover location. Fast and reliable wifi as well. Inn to inn travel is great, but a layover is nice too. You don't have to pack up in the morning. The bed was comfy. The Ballard inn even provided bedtime chocolate chip cookies. Yum!

Friday was to be the "queen stage" of the trip: the Mt. Figuroa loop ride. Due to the nature of the road, the van would not be available for support, so we had to carry extra water and fuel. We stopped in Los Olivos for extra water bottles, and loaded up for the big climb. Only Marty joined us for this ride, and he is great company.

And a big climb it was. After passing Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch (no sign of MJ) we hit the bottom of the climb and said goodbye to the big chainring and most of the right side of the cassette. The bottom greeted us with upwards of 15% grade. The road was new in places, and there was no traffic. But to get up those steeps, you have to stand on the bike. And that means my heart rate jumps to a point where the only way to recover is to just stop. So...we did. It is a vacation, not a race, even if the pros train on these climbs. We'd grind out some climb, then just stop and enjoy the view. It was hot, and I drained 2 liters of water on the way to the top. We passed a tarantula on the road up. That's a big arachnid. But we did get to the top.
The descent was nice, but the road down not quite as nice as the road up. There was one unpaved section of about a mile. Just take it slow. Our 23mm tires were put to the test, but there were no mishaps. The descent is long, and Cindy overcooked what was nearly the last switchback. Fortunately she was almost stopped before rolling across the ditch, and got only a few scrapes and a bruise. But hey, she's an épéeist and tough stuff. No damage to her or her Cervelo. We are going to look into replacing her STI levers with short reach ones to give her a little more stopping power.

We rolled back to the Ballard Inn on great roads, but wound up pushing some wind for a while on some rollers. We got back to the porch where lemonade awaited us, and had just enough time to clean up then have a short van ride down to a bike shop in Santa Ynez to pick up our "I rode the Fig" t-shirt. The local bike shop guy mentioned to Marty that the counterclockwise route might be preferred, as that way you climb the unpaved section, rather than descend on it. I wasn't about to go ride it again to verify. I'm not sure climbing on the dirt on 23mm would be better, but that seems to be the conventional wisdom

Dinner was at Mattei's, an old stagecoach stop. This was a really nice place, and they even gave our group our own separate room. The prime rib was big and delicious. After dinner, Mark treated us to a slide show of all the pictures he and Marty had taken of the trip

As is always the case, it was a little sad to know this was going to be our last dinner together. We has such a great group, and each night's get together was always fun. Our group was full of interesting and entertaining travelers, and it was something special to spend time with all of them while partaking in all the great rides and great adventures.

Breakfast at the inn was again good and big. The last day's ride was out from the inn to the beach on the ocean. It was marvelous! We passed a herd of bison and another tarantula on the road. Great roads again, and we even went past a English walnut grove. Stately trees all in a row. I was reminded that agriculture in CA is different than in WA. It's hard to describe, but WA has huge water projects that don't seem visible in CA. Not sure why, as all these hundreds of miles of grapes surely need lots of water. There is a science to it all for sure, even if I don't find it obvious. I can say that rolling past it on a bike, a seeing it all firsthand is one of the great pleasures in life. See it grown in the field, then sip it from a bottle of poetry in the evening.

Arriving at the beach, we were a little pressed for time. BA sprung for the famous Jalama Beach burgers. Added to the icy beer cooler provisions, this was a nice change of pace for lunch. CA seems to have all these beach camping places along the coast. This one was a little crowded on a sunny early fall weekend. Do all the girls in CA look like that? And do they live in bikinis? Ah, the Big Thoughts(r) I have on vacation. ANyway, we were done riding for this year. Total stats: 340 miles, 26k feet of ascent, about 29 hours of riding, and 23k calories. Fun.

We loaded up for the last transfer to Santa Barbara for everyone to catch their connecting transport out. We had no schedule to keep, so we tried to stay out of the others' ways. Everyone made their drop off points, and as we had planned, we stuck with Mark and Marty for a lift in the van back to San Jose. A longish 4-5 hour ride back, both Mark and Marty made for interesting conversation. We talked about the trip, others they had done, and all kids of other adventures they had been on. It was a relaxing ride.

After a week of looking after all of us, you'd expect the guides to be really tired. I am sure they are, but here's the deal on the BA guides: this bunch is the Gold Standard of adventure hosts. On each of our BA trips, the guides were the focal point of the whole trip. They are like the perfect butler or waiter: there for anything you need, anticipating what you might need, invisible when not needed, yet appearing magically when you do. This appears to be a combination of preparedness and experience, and resulted in perhaps the smoothest running vacation we've been on. Never a hiccup, and even had there been, the guides would have simply ... handled it ... with a smile and aplomb as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. A BA trip is never ordinary, but you would think the guides are used to providing a level of service that is extraordinary. It is just what they do, and when it becomes so ubiquitous, you just realize your vacation is being professionally managed. Smitten? Yeah, I suppose I am. A BA trip is the vacation you know you wanted - it comes with a sense of accomplishment done in a way that is eminently relaxing. For a week, you don't have a care in the world, and nothing to worry about or need to do but enjoy the pure pleasure of riding a bike while being Taken Care Of. The guides make you feel like a king on earth. Worth the price of admission, and then some

Mark and Marty dropped us off at the same hotel they picked us up at a week before. It sure seemed like more than a week after all we had seen and done. It was a little late, and both Marty and Mark had a next trip to get ready for within hours, but I watched in amazement as they schlepped our bags again into the hotel for us at 10pm. Where do they find the energy? Not sure, but it keeps us coming back for more. BA is the official vacation supplier to our household.

We'll be back for more in 2011. The Big Sur trip is highly recommended; perhaps a dead heat with the GBJ trip from a couple years back for the best one. So far. Thank you all to the BA staff, Mark and Marty, and all our fellow travelers for a "lifetime of memories."

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