“Where are you heading?” one of two biking ladies in their sixties asked while I passed them halfway to Watsonville. “Big Sur!” I yelled over my shoulder, to which she responded: “Good for you! Have an Ambrosia Burger and a beer once you get there!”. It was close to lunchtime on the second day of my first multi-day bike touring adventure. I opted for a classic: cycling from San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles.
I had only picked up road biking a couple of years earlier but fell in love with the activity and way of traveling through the landscape. My confidence on the bike grew by doing increasingly longer rides, venturing out into new territory in the San Francisco Bay Area where I used to live. After completing a few organized century rides, I felt ready to take on the challenge of a continuous tour over multiple days.
I took the 50-minute train ride to San Francisco one Monday morning in late June. I asked a stranger at the train station to take an awkward departure photo before making my way to Ocean Beach. From there, the Pacific Ocean would stay on my right almost the whole way. Santa Cruz was my planned rest stop for the first night.
At this time of year, the wind would be mostly in my favor, and on a particular stretch, I felt I was gliding effortlessly on the black tarmac. I was overcome with thoughts of freedom and, dare I say it, happiness. The oneness with the environment, moving forward under my own power, and feeling the elements on my body. After passing the 100km (62 miles) mark, I took a lunch break at a pull-out next to the road. My feet dangled over the edge of a cliff overlooking a deserted (while inaccessible) beach seemingly stretching on for miles and miles. A little while later, I reached Surf City, just as planned.
Quiet residential roads, engulfed in morning fog typical for this time of year, took me out of Santa Cruz on day two. After the brief encounter with the two very fit older women on road bikes, I passed through the western edge of the town of Watsonville, a major producer of fruits and vegetables. I cycled through vast plots of farmland, spotting various groups of pickers hunched over the crops. Riding eight hours a day in a bicycle saddle seemed cozy compared to their kind of labor. After that, a dedicated bike path took me from Marina all the way to Monterey.
After coasting through Sand City, I reached the outskirts of Monterey, where I bumped into a fellow bike tourist going in the other direction. Ian, from Arizona, was on an even bigger mission than I was, biking from Tuscon to Seattle. “I rode for a bit in Arizona and then took the train to LA,” he admitted. “Wow, and you are also carrying a trailer!” hinting at the bike trailer he was pulling. “Yeah, I am carrying my 40-pound dog. He is an albino and deaf and blind”, he responded. This caught me by surprise. Part of me felt sad in light of the physical hardship of the dog, but Ian’s care and the value of his dog’s companionship moved me even more. We parted ways, him relaxing for a day in Monterey before heading further north and me heading downtown to find a good lunch spot.
After lunch, the route started hugging the coast and arguably the most scenic part of the trip began: from Carmel to the southernmost point of Big Sur. Covering a good chunk of it on day two, including scenic spots like the Bixby Bridge, I overnighted at a resort/motel just north of Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground.
The most spectacular riding awaited on day three, characterized by many rolling ups and downs around bends. Increased temperatures made the few significant climbs all the more strenuous, especially in the early afternoon with the fog gone and the sun out. The magnificent views made me forget much of the pain and strain on my body, with a photo opportunity awaiting pretty much around every corner.
At the end of June, I was far from alone on these roads. Hordes of tourists were my constant companions, luckily alert enough (most of the time) to not cause any accidents. After Big Sur, the scenery changed from a road that clung to the cliffs with seemingly endless turns and rolling terrain, giving way to a much flatter environment. The sight of Morro Rock closed out the day, knowing that I was more than halfway to LA.
On day four, my body quite vocally started reminding me what I had put him through the last couple of days. Pain announced itself in my knees and lower back. Traveling mainly inland and away from the ocean was a bit of visual deprivation compared to the breathtaking scenery along the coast the day before. The weather, likewise, decided to make things a bit more interesting. Overcast skies, significantly colder temperatures, and the wind hitting me either head-on or from the side. Lompoc, The City of Arts and Flowers, was reached late afternoon, the motel greeting me with a dark room at the back and a smelly bathroom, which the pool and jacuzzi managed to make up for.
Following Hwy 1 from Lompoc the following day, I was back by the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after merging onto Hwy 101, I faced a frightening downhill with cars speeding by at 70mph. Luckily the shoulder was wide enough to give me at least a vague feeling of safety. The ocean views helped to take away the stress from the increased traffic. Just before Goleta, the route directed me onto quieter local roads and, later, through the beautiful campus of UC Santa Barbara. Following a lunch stop by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, quiet neighborhood roads running parallel to Hwy 101 made for more relaxed riding in the afternoon. I eventually reached my last overnight stop of the tour at Ventura, home of outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia.
The sixth and final day. Oh, was I excitingly anticipating the end. A combination of bike paths and the ACA Pacific Bike route took me through the outskirts of Oxnard and eventually to Naval Air Station Point Mugu. I took a break to walk through Pt Mugu Missile Park, part of the Goleta Air & Space Museum. An array of missiles and airplanes tested at Point Mugu since World War II were on display.
I was back on Hwy 1 shortly after that and accompanied by overcast skies, I cruised through Malibu. The road was lined with affluent residences, homes to movie stars, and people working in the entertainment industry. With the finish line in sight, I covered the remaining twenty miles with additional urgency. Before I knew it, I was on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, which dropped me right at Santa Monica Pier, the imaginary finish line.
On this Saturday, the pier was filled with locals and tourists alike, soaking in the weather and finding entertainment from the various outlets. I stood by a metal railing facing south from the pier and engaged in some people-watching for a moment. Eventually, my thoughts drifted toward recapping the last six days, the things I saw, and my experience. And I knew right then that this wasn’t the last bike tour I would do. I was hooked and hungry for more.
Update: After completing this ride in 2012, I had the opportunity to share my attained knowledge and experience with audiences at local REI stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The slides for those presentations are available on slideshare.
The route I followed is a segment of the Pacific Coast Bike Route and is particularly appealing because of its scenic and natural beauty.
My particular itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1: San Francisco – Santa Cruz (84 miles)
- Day 2: Santa Cruz – Big Sur (77 miles)
- Day 3: Big Sur – Morro Bay (92 miles)
- Day 4: Morro Bay – Lompoc (71 miles)
- Day 5: Lompoc – Ventura (90 miles)
- Day 6: Ventura – Santa Monica (58 miles)
I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time (Sunnyvale), which is connected to San Francisco via Caltrain on public transport.
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, I luckily had someone give me a lift in a car back to the Bay Area. There are, however, other options:
- The Amtrak Coast Starlight runs from Los Angeles Union Station back to the Bay Area. Bikes can be brought on the train, either as luggage or in dedicated bike cars. It is best to check for details on the Amtrak website.
- Quite a few airlines run multiple daily flights from LAX to SFO. An alternative to bringing the bike as checked luggage (and potentially being hit with oversize fees) is shipping the bike to your destination either via BikeFlights or FedEx.
Generally abundant and should be no source of concern for people touring the route. There is a longer stretch along the Big Sur area where settlements are spread further apart. It might be wise to stock up on an additional batch of snacks for this section. With regards to water, there are plenty of refill options available along the route.
This having been my first bike tour, I used the road bike I had available at the time, which was a Specialized Secteur Elite Compact. Its aluminium frame has mounting points which I used to mount a Planet Bike Eco Rack.
My luggage choice were two Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic, giving me enough space to transport the necessities. Given that I had pre-booked motel rooms along the way, I did not need to carry any camping equipment.
For tyres I went with Specialized All Condition Armadillo Elite. Their puncture protection technology helped tremendously, being responsible for not having a single flat over the duration of the trip.