The end of the cycling season is the perfect time of year for us to reflect on our most memorable rides of the year. One ride stands head and shoulders above all others for me this year: the California Coast Classic, which I did in September and was meaningful and memorable in so many different ways.
I hope that in sharing some experiences from my ride you might pick up some tips that are useful in your own riding future, and maybe be moved to try a tour or do something you've never done next year. I wrote a column last March called Riding with Purpose about adding purpose to an activity we already love by doing charity rides and the like. This was the pinnacle of that pursuit for me.
Why the CCC?
The CCC is an 8-day, 525-mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, primarily following the Pacific Coast Highway (the famous Highway 1), to benefit the Arthritis Foundation. The annual ride, which just completed its 11th year, brings together up to 300 riders from all backgrounds and skill levels, from all over the country (and a couple, I believe, from New Zealand), who raise at least $3,000 for the Arthritis Foundation and its critical mission in order to do the ride.
So many different types of people support the cause because arthritis is a disease that does not discriminate: in its many forms, it strikes children and adults alike. 40 million Americans suffer from the disease, which can cause debilitating joint pain and numerous types of disability in its worst forms. It's almost impossible not to have a friend or family member with the disease. (It runs in my family, with my Mom and sister having suffered for years; while I thankfully don't suffer chronically, my AC joint was destroyed by osteoarthritis after a bike crash nearly 3 years ago.)
Like many others who do the CCC, often year after year, I wouldn't be completely honest if I didn't say that is was the combination of the purpose of the ride, along with the chance to tool down one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, camp every night and meet new people, that captured my imagination and drew me in. (Pretty sure that's why it's not the California Desert Classic!)
Packing, Bike Shipping Concerns
I arrived in San Francisco the afternoon before the ride, checked into my room and registered. I also checked to ensure that my bike had arrived -- via FedEx in an Air Caddy box. It did, in perfect condition. (For anyone looking for a relatively easy way to ship your bike, I'd recommend checking out an Air Caddy among your many options. Before the ride, I asked for RBR reader input on bike shipping options and provided a rundown of your feedback in Issue No. 494). A friend had an Air Caddy I could use, and I'm happy with the decision to go that route. [I have since shipped my bike in a regular old bike box -- the kind new bikes are shipped in -- via FedEx. That also worked out just fine.]
At registration, each rider received 2 identification tags, one for the front and one for the back of the bike, which included the rider's name, rider number, and ride year (how many times he or she has done the ride). The purpose of these laminated cards is three-fold: 1) to easily track each rider and to record the rider at the daily checkpoints along the route (with up to 300 riders on course each day, riding at their own pace and making stops along the way, this is a vital requirement for the safety of all participants); 2) for fellow riders to easily identify and greet each other by name on the road (and get to know each other a bit as they chat); and 3) to easily recognize the "rookies" and the "veterans," who have in-depth knowledge of the course, the workings of the ride — and, naturally, the best taquerias on the route!
There are 2 options for overnighting during the CCC: staying in hotels along the route, or the more popular camping option. Indeed, it was the camping part (really, the packing part) that had me most worried before the ride began. This is the type of tour in which your bags are schlepped from point to point, so you don't have to ride with saddlebags. Everything you need for 8 days and 7 nights on the road, including your camping gear, had to fit in your "carry-on."
I packed one medium-sized duffel bag. In addition to my camping gear, I kept it to the bare essentials, knowing that there would be laundry facilities every 3rd day — 3 full kits, arm and leg warmers, an extra jersey, socks and gloves, a pair of compression leg sleeves (key!), a hat, one pair of shorts, one pair of long pants (never wore them), a couple of T-shirts, plenty of underwear, my toiletries, a roll of quarters, and a light fleece pullover for those chilly California evenings. (The ride provided a windbreaker, so I chose not to bring any rain gear.)
I followed some great advice and packed each day's complete kit (actually all my clothes) in large plastic zip-lock bags, so all I had to do was grab one each morning and get dressed. No frantic searching for lost socks or headband. And zip-lock bags allow you to roll up and squeeze all the air out before sealing, which takes up less space in your gear bag. I also kept all my on-the-road gear — chamois cream, food, glasses for extended stops, a rag, etc. — in a small cycling backpack that I could just grab and go. I called it my "granny pack," but it worked great, and I always had what I or a fellow rider needed.
Ride Highlights & Learnings
The CCC organizers smartly make the first day one of the 2 longest and hardest, at 85 miles, with almost 4,000 feet of climbing. The adrenaline, the excitement, the newness of it all keep riders pretty well juiced for the entire, long haul from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Part of the excitement is the breathtaking scenery you take in spinning past the Golden Gate Bridge (miraculously not fogged in for the first time in days!), through the Presidio, and down the ocean side of the city. Glancing to my right to see surfers at play, and the undulation of the ocean, started the process of taking me away from my everyday concerns and transporting me to a place of serenity that only a week on the bike can achieve.
Each night, a large tent village popped up in the designated public park or private locale that ride organizers had secured. Waiting at each campsite for riders completing that day's course are a bevy of volunteers and tour "roadies" (in the Rock'n'Roll meaning of the word) who work daily on the numerous infrastructure details necessary to keep this rolling caravan fed, hydrated, showered, powered, massaged and tech'ed. Thanking these folks on a regular basis became a routine for the riders. They were great!
Just as I had hoped, the camping and camaraderie associated with it, was one of the high points of the ride. On the 2nd day, I met a few guys I hit it off with — and we also happened to be pretty well-matched in our riding ability. All first-timers, we rode and camped together for the rest of the ride. Instant friendships were made, and Team Ein Bier Bitte was born. Shout-outs to Scott, Mike and Paul! We had as much fun off the bike as on. (If you ever do a tour with a choice to camp, unless you have a physical reason not to, choose the camping option. It's great fun and cements the bonds you make on the road. Besides, one of the best things about riding is talking about it afterward. Especially over a beer or glass of wine that is well-earned.)
Sometimes, it's the little things that make the biggest impression. As we rolled slowly through Santa Cruz to start Day 2, we shared the side streets for a while with a couple of Roller Girls. I had great fun talking to one as she skated beside me. Her "stage name" was Nemesis Nik, and her friend's was Pippi Hardstocking! It was the first, and quite likely the last, ride I'll ever do on which I chat with a Roller Girl!
The ride from Monterey to Big Sur was spectacularly beautiful, with rocky vistas seemingly around every curve, towering bluffs interrupted only by Monterey Cypress trees majestically silhouetted against the deep blue Pacific. Cycling through Pebble Beach and Carmel, and over the famous Bixby Bridge, was thrilling. It was a day of many stops for photos, and a day chock full of quick glances to the right to soak up the amazing best of what nature has to offer. (Notice I said quick glances. Riding 300 feet above the Pacific is no place to lose your focus and test the guardrail.) The day's journey ended with a beer in hand, butt in Adirondack chair, and feet in the Big Sur River, followed by camping under the starriest canopy I've ever seen in Big Sur State Park. Fantastic!
You're likely to find beauty and enjoyment in situations you least expect. Waking up in Big Sur to a foggy morning was not unusual. But the fog lasted the entire day. It was a 63-mile day with 5,000 feet of climbing — and a number of miles on Highway 1. At first, I was disappointed that I could hear the Pacific waves crashing hundreds of feet below me, but I couldn't see the ocean at all. However, from the moment I began the almost 700-foot climb right out of camp, I realized I was having one of those rare days on the bike where I felt perfect. I soon came to realize that I was thoroughly enjoying the new experience of cycling up and down the day's many climbs, into and out of fog banks. On the two big back-to-back climbs of the day, known as the Twin Sisters, the climbs up into the ethereal fog clouds — with no end in sight — were among the most fun climbs I've ever done.
Getting your bike fit dialed in and getting a tune-up before a tour can save you a lot of trouble. You might recall my column from this summer about my Felt frame cracking and being replaced. Because of the new frame geometry and the fact that I was ready for a slightly different setup, I got a professional fitting done at the same time at my LBS. It served me well on the CCC, and I felt comfortable on the bike. In short, my bike fit me perfectly and enabled me to ride well in all conditions. I also took the opportunity to upgrade the crankset and put on a new cassette and chain, so I was riding with a brand new drivetrain. Knowing you've taken care of your fit and your tech before a tour allows you to enjoy it that much more. You're far less likely to have nagging fit-related issues or injuries that are exacerbated by the buildup of miles, and you're much less apt to suffer a frustrating mechanical breakdown that could leave you on the side of the road waiting for the SAG van.
Meeting and talking with kids with arthritis along the route was priceless. The Arthritis Foundation had daily "ambassadors" positioned at rest stops and campsites. These outgoing, beautiful children were there to remind us of the purpose of the ride, and they did it with bells on. Literally. They cheered us and rang cowbells every time we rolled into a rest stop or camp, and they (and their parents) happily chatted with us. I was especially taken by 13-year-old Alexa, who impressed me to no end with her polished speaking skills and manner. I enjoyed the chance to teach her the word "poise," which I told her she had — but which she didn't understand. I later got a kick out of watching her climb a tree in the Big Sur River as the adults sat and rested after another day on the bike. Kids will be kids, and these kids were really special!
The great Satchel Paige once said: "Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching." The bike tour corollary might be: Eat like you don't care if you gain weight! It's hard to keep in mind the overdrive you put your metabolism in when you ride day after day after day (assuming you're not already used to it). You're burning serious calories and need to fuel the beast to keep it going and keep it primed for the next day's effort. We roadies are known for our calorie-watching ways. But if there's ever a time not to worry about what you eat, a multi-day bike tour is that time. (Especially if the food is as good as it was on the CCC!) So eat up. You deserve it — and you need it.
Almost anyone can train for and successfully complete a multi-day tour of this type. I saw riders of all stripes on the CCC: hard-core roadies on custom road bikes who were easily pounding out the miles; weekend warrior-types on flat-bar bikes who had to work much harder but got no less enjoyment from the experience; seasoned touring riders on bikes with a more relaxed geometry who rode like they could pedal for days on end. The point is that whether you log 10,000 miles a year, or 2,000, you can train yourself to meet almost any cycling goal you wish to take on. Feeling great riding the CCC has opened my mind to an array of tour possibilities. (Now, if I could just find the time! . . .)
You're likely to find both expected and unexpected benefits from a multi-day tour. New friendships, acquaintances, a wealth of cycling (and non-cycling) stories to tell. Great memories. Fantastic photos. Not knowing anyone on the CCC ride, I wasn't sure what to expect at the start. But I found all of these things, and much more. The joy of pedaling through fog and hearing, but not seeing, the ocean below me. The sheer fun and camaraderie of camping after a day on the bike. The implicit trust of a 25mph paceline among new friends. Eating fresh oysters at a picnic table in camp, and Guatemalan tamales at Wally's Bike Shop in San Luis Obispo. Hearing war and other stories from fellow riders. And actually losing weight after returning from the ride. It was a trip of a lifetime. And I can't wait for the next ride that earns that title!
Caifornia Coast Classic Ride Specs
Day 1 — San Francisco to Santa Cruz, 84.7 miles, elevation gain 3,900 feet
Day 2 — Santa Cruz to Monterey, 48 miles, 2,300 feet
Day 3 — Monterey to Big Sur, 46.6 miles, 3,200 feet
Day 4 — Big Sur to San Simeon, 63.8 miles, 5,100 feet
Day 5 — San Simeon to Oceano, 62.3 miles, 2,200 feet
Day 6 — Oceano to Buellton, 66.1 miles, 2,700 feet
Day 7 — Buellton to Ventura, 89.4 miles, 3,500 feet
Day 8 — Ventura to Santa Monica, 60 miles, 1,700 feet
John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he sees himself as RBR's Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR's great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.