Text : Craig Fellers
Photos : Andrew Shimizu
With smoke from the Camp Fire blanketing California, The Mike’s Bikes gravel weekend was pushed southward to Santa Cruz where the off-shore breeze allowed for a bit of fresh air even under an eerie red glow of the sun on the horizon. In the off season, many of the elite team riders grab for their Diverge for a little change in scenery. After doing hundreds of laps on our favorite local roads, it is refreshing to branch outwards. For many of us, this starts with a few hours hunched over a laptop scouring google maps. Does this little one actually go through? Let me check satellite view. Can I cut across that field to the fire road? That cluster of trees looks a lot like a pot farm. (I am in Santa Cruz afterall) When is trimming season anyway, will I get chased off by dogs? After planning a route, you should always remember to pre-load the map onto your phone. Any self-respecting gravel ride will put you waaaay out of cell service. A blue dot on a low resolution green splotch doesn’t do you much good unless you enjoy the excitement and adventure of orienteering.
My ‘fun rides’ often spiral out control and leave us coming home in the dark, which may be why Andrew was the only one to join me for this weekend’s adventure. Together we are a rag-tag group of roadies looking slightly out of place preparing for a ride on the dirt. Andrew Shimizu goes for the full spandex with the evade. While looking cool comes naturally (at least to me :) on the road, I feel a little silly getting dust on my neon S-Works shoes. But that is the thing about gravel. Anything goes. We hop on our bikes, knobbies whirring a little more than we are used to as we aim for the hills.
We break the weekend into 2 segments. Day one is an exploration of Nisene Marks Park. We angle in from the North side of the park which puts us through 4 river crossings before angling upward to the summit. On gravel the 100 vertical feet per mile rule is no longer relevant. It will be 150 or even 200 for a serious day in the saddle. People designing these fire roads don’t care that cyclists riding a 42/40 still have to do an awkward dance between sitting and standing fighting for traction while bogging down to glacial cadence. When the option is to start pushing up the hill in road shoes, you pedal just a little longer before giving up. At the summit, we cross paths with a few mountain bikers sitting and looking at the view. Either mountain bikers enjoy views a lot more than road bikers or they just really like to rest. Either way, I dig it. It’s very Zen to be in the moment and enjoying the surroundings. Plus, damn, the view really is stunning. We stop (just trying to fit in) and soak in the redwood forest flowing through the valley all the way down to the ocean.
The decent is a bit bumpy, but we survive. Watching the group of us head downward must be a scene. Some legs come out steady the drift, others take the more conventional (boring) approach of trying to retain control. Both strategies elicit some yips and yells which harmonize with the squeal of dusty disc rotors.
Not to bore you with the details, but a gravel mile is a lot more tiring than a road mile, and by the time we get back we are knackered but excited for day two.
Now that we are getting the hang of this gravel thing, we continue our journey South into Big Sur. Andrew has done the groundwork for a new loop that neither of us have ridden before. You couldn’t imagine a prettier backdrop to explore. In a maneuver that I may never forgive him for, Andrew drove straight past the Big Sur Bakery and some lucky tourist is probably eating my almond bear claw right about the time we kit up to ride. I had a feeling that I might need those 1200 calories. A mere 49 miles stretched ahead, but I am still planning on 5 hours in the saddle. As we start the climb, an endless banter bounces amongst us, our legs still feeling fresh and our minds are light and nimble. As the climb continues, the chatter fades away as I crane my neck to look around each turn to see if it might be the top. Nope.
It is an odd sense of serenity out here. It doesn’t take too many miles to get out of the tourist radius and soon we feel very alone and isolated. It is a unique feeling that you don’t get too often with all the hustle of daily life. As the talking fades out completely, the only thing to break the silence is the creak of the chains and some heavy breathing. I can not remember the last time I truly experienced serenity. No barking dogs, no traffic noise, no radio. I feel like John Muir, oh, yeah, he didn’t have a $6,000 dollar bike, but same idea. He also probably wasn’t an asshole.
Just as the off road climbs seem endless, they transition very quickly into descents and then back into to climbs. There is no respite and your mind must always be engaged. As one climb leads to another I looked down at my Garmin which read 14 miles and almost 2 hours. It reads mileage and time. That is it. Nothing else matters on the gravel. TSS, heart rate, power, that is not what gravel is about. The only reason to have a Garmin at all is to make sure you will be able to make it back before it gets dark. At an average speed of 7 miles/hour, we better keep at it. As the sun moves along it’s low winter’s arc, we keep at it, forearms vibrating and lower backs cramping. It is a pleasure to be out here with great friends feeling a part of the forest. We are in Big Sur. I spend a minute just letting that though ruminate in my head. How lucky we are to be outside in one of the most gorgeous places on earth doing what we love. The Mike’s Bikes Elite Gravel team is going to have some great days ahead. The thought that we are just getting started gives me pleasure, and I look forward to spending many a long day with the team.