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Cycling Adventures in a Distant Land

Written by Patrick Stelte - November 2017

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As the mountain forest gave way, the road fell like a blown ribbon across the golden, rolling landscape that was known as “The Seven Sisters.” I had been climbing for over an hour and gazing up at the short, but steep slopes; my brow glistened from the warm sun. I looked to my right and saw the Pacific Ocean far below lap at the jagged edges of civilization. On my left was the tree line that hid my switch-back travels of pain. I was on an adventure courtesy of a cycling friend from San Francisco. We were in an area north of the Golden Gate known affectionately as Mt. Tam, short for Mt. Tamalpais: a destination for cyclists to prove one’s muster and conquer the beauty that hurts so good. The sisters were the end of that crusade. Locals had Strava’ed the sisters with names and KOMs. All I wanted to do was survive. Much like the previous climbs during my week on the coast, I would crest one and groan at another in the distance.

The adventure this day was tinged with a bit of outlaw behavior. The road had been closed for fire precaution. Our reason to continue was born from the logic of any cyclist, “Road closed means no cars.” However, our trespass wasn’t un-eventful. As we free-wheeled downhill around a curve my friend almost ended up in the grill-work of an on-coming fire truck. The obscenity emanating from the cab made us sit up with caution. Danger was now around any corner and we skedaddled off the mountain top. Nine miles back to the car, we descended the Pacific Coast Highway, twisting and turning at 30+ mph using the whole lane to stay ahead of traffic - European style.

My trip out west was planned around family (celebrate a nephew’s first birthday) and to ride Levi Leipheimer’s Granfondo in Santa Rosa - an entry on my bucket list. Levi did not disappoint. Santa Rosa is somewhat of a mecca for cyclists. Often, well-known professionals will train in the area and some have homes. The town is surrounded by vineyards and mountains. The ocean is twenty or so miles away and the climate is hot and dry. The roads on the other hand, are known for being testy. Chip n’ seal is California vernacular for “Hole” yelled over and over. The mass start corralled 4,000 enthusiasts on a cool, foggy morning. Five distances were offered and I chose the Medio, a metric century that took me to the coast and back. The roll-out was accompanied with thunderous cheers and I rode the first few, flat miles faster than I expected. As my voluminous group began a rhythmic long climb, the riders around me thinned to a reasonable gang. The five mile decent however, was a free-for-all. Bombing on dodgy roads makes me queasy. Keeping my shorts dry while dozens of others flew past me with a purpose was my primary goal.

The best part of the day was riding along the ocean on the PCH. Morning sun lit the ocean mist as waves rolled over the rocky outcrops and curvaceous beaches. A coastal SAG stop allowed for a few pictures before the penultimate climb inland just down the road. Life was good and Levi was worth the price. I kept telling myself this when the sound of my breathing drowned out all surrounding noise shortly after I began my ascent on Coleman Valley Road. One and a half miles to climb 810 feet. Legend has it that Lance Armstrong trained on this road. Some riders around me tried tacking the road: zig zagging back and forth to cut down on the grade. They did not like me telling them, “On your left.” Inevitably, a gear crunch sound would accompany a discernable grunt from the despondent. This was the hardest climb I have ever done. Switch-back after switch-back on a crappy cattle ranch road that seemed not to end. As I reached the summit and looked back to the coastline, I held a thought between joy and pain: beautiful.

Being a cyclist means taking the road less traveled. We are adventurers. We can survive and thrive in the cracks of the pathway. We test to prove something we can grasp and lose in a moment or a day. What lies beyond pushes the body and mind; and after, we can’t stop reliving it and planning to do it again. The seasons are changing, but the passion burns for tomorrow. Enjoy your winter slumber. The call will come soon enough for what’s down the road.