Rest stops at century cycling events bring together a whole bunch of different people. Almost like an airport. There is the dad with his two, thin-like-a-stick sons, all dressed alike in the same type of jersey. There is the retired woman who is helping out behind the table filled with trail mix, cut up orange slices, banana halves, salty pretzels and potato chips. There are the semi-pro riders on CervĂ©lo bikes in Garneau kits throwing around KOMs and TT times and discussing “Hitler loses his KOMs on Strava“. There are the older gentlemen that you admire because you wish you would be that active when you turn seventy.

The Great Western Bicycle Rally has been around for forty-nine years, originating in Solvang in 1965. It changed location quite a bit, before moving to Paso Robles in 1980. Personally, I had only signed up for the century ride, but after experiencing the Rally first hand, I almost wished I had come for the full weekend. Participants were camping on the Mid-State Fairgrounds and enjoyed various activities throughout the weekend that, besides various other rides, included a Best of Bicycle Show, a Wine & Cheese Tasting Party as well as Yoga Classes. Like at a music festival, there was something for everyone.

Great Western 100

A little late to the party, I showed up at the main gate of the fairgrounds around 7.15am on Saturday to find Chris Merrill, the organizer of the Rally together with his wife Angie, just giving out some final instructions and words of motivation to a group of cyclist about to head out for the metric century. It was overcast and fifty degrees cool, which would obviously change throughout the day.

Passing by countless ranches and vineyards, I rolled into rest stop no. 1 at the Lake Park in Atascadero after about an hour of riding. The rest stop was strategically placed before the first major climb up San Marcos Road to the top of the foothills, followed by an enjoyable descent down Hwy 41 into Morro Bay at mile 34. A bike path and back streets running parallel to Hwy 1 ensured that we avoided the main thoroughfare for as long as possible, before eventually merging onto it, riding on the shoulder towards San Luis Obispo.

Missed opportunities

Being so focused on my progress, I ended up missing rest top no. 2 at El Chorro Regional Park, which I only noticed after reaching the turn round point in San Luis Obispo. That was quite unfortunate because I had decided to not stuff my jersey pockets with an assortment of bars and gels this time in favor of really stocking up at the rest stops. So I had to pedal through some feelings of hunger until reaching rest stop 3 back in Morro Bay. Additionally I also had to fight against the very same wind now that pushed me forward riding south-east, which now worked very effectively against me.

Fortunately, and I say fortunately because of reasons that will soon become clear, I got passed by a red “Furnace Creek” jersey wearing woman, aerodynamically in time trial position on Los Osos Vally Road, just outside of San Luis Obispo. I was, however, able to hang on to her and she sort of motivated me, unwillingly, to battle the headwinds and the few climbs on the way back into Morro Bay. At a stop sign close to the town center she had to stop to put on her arm warmers and we exchanged a few words. It turned out she was probably twice my age.

“Wait until you hit that climb”, she warned me, referring to that dreaded ascent that everybody kept mentioning towards the last quarter of the ride. “You’re gonna hate life”. I was officially concerned.

Mister 400

We made it past Morro Bay and to rest stop 3 at mile 65 after about four hours of riding. Finally I was able to get some food in me. That was also where I met Olaf, a tall, older but thin and lean looking man with short grey hair, sporting a yellow jersey, who had driven up from LA at 2.30am to participate in the ride. “There was a moment when I asked myself: ‘Why am I doing this’?”, he confessed to me the thoughts he had in the wee hours of Sunday. “This guy”, pointing to his friend who had just gotten up from the picnic table to get some ice for his camelbak, “has done over 400 centuries”. “Wow”, was all I could say as I couldn’t quite process that information. Olafs friend was, like him, an older gentlemen, maybe in his sixties, but it was hard to tell under his helmet and sun glasses. I was inspired and impressed at the same time. “Usually I do about 15 a year. I have just signed up for the Death Ride for the first time”, Mister 400 said. By that point, I felt a little pathetic.

Leaving Morro Bay behind, we eventually reached the much talked about climb on Old Creek Road, which went on for about three miles and that I tackled completely in the lowest gear that I had. I was going so slow, a brisk hiker would have probably made it up to the crest ahead of me.

Everything, however, must end and so too did this climb. I got to rest stop 4, staffed by local Trader Joe’s employees, cheering on every rider coming in, ringing cowbells. I stocked up on water, had a few slices of oranges and then rolled out to tackle the last twenty-three miles.

Vineyards and no end in sight

Just when I did not expect any more climbing, there was another one waiting for me. The route made a left onto Willow Creek Road, quite possible the road with one of the worst surface conditions I had ever ridden my bike on. Additionally, it was rolling hills, slightly bringing you up higher and higher, passing vineyard after vineyard and being passed by people in sleek German SUVs on their way to the next wine tasting opportunity. Quite demoralizing, especially after having completed eighty miles.

After a right turn, I was on Peachy Canyon Road, which already sounded like another climb. And another climb it that was, however not so peachy. By the time I reached the top, I had seen enough vineyards for the rest of my life and was looking forward to the downhill. Not so fast though, since there was yet another little one mile climb between me and the finish line. I cherished the final descent and was never happier to see a city limit sign. Shortly after I rode through the main gate of the fairgrounds, officially completing the 100 miles after about seven hours of riding time.

The big 5-0

Because of it’s history alone, the Great Western Bicycle Rally is an event to at least try out once. If anything, if I were to come back I would probably try to stay for the weekend to enjoy the full festival experience and atmosphere. And what better time to do it for the big anniversary event next year? “If you have some ideas for our anniversary ride next year, send them our way”, Chris had told me at the first rest stop. No matter what they will put together, it will certainly be a blast.