Friday, April 13, 2012

Skirting the storm

Last night I walked back from the Firestone Brewery under a black, star-filled sky. But change was on the way. Avoiding the next storm would require an early start.

Today is the longest day of the trip, 135 miles. It also has the flattest terrain but there is cumulative damage. My legs have more than 300 miles on them this week. And wind can make a huge difference.

On the California coast the prevailing winds blow out of the northwest. In clear weather it's possible to ride a powerful tailwind all the way to LA. You and the bike become a huge spinnaker, harnessing the air flow in the most optimal way. Your thoughts are blissful, meditative thoughts as the legs spin.

When a storm comes in from the Pacific, the wind reverses directions, blowing from the south or southeast. You'll find yourself hunched over the handlebars, teeth clenched, pushing hard and making little progress. Riding in the dark, in my case.

As a storm comes in it's anyone's guess which way the wind will blow. 3 Danish pancakes, 2 scrambled eggs, and coffee to start the day. On the road by 7:45. Early but will it be early enough?

Ellen's Pancake House in Buellton supports Route 66, a journey.
The weather also chooses today's route for me. The dirt surface of the usual favorite, Refugio, rules it out. Stream crossings, mud fest. San Marcos Pass is too high; the snow level today is around 5000 feet. So it's Gaviota Pass. Instead of getting right on 101 in Buellton there's a quiet back road from Solvang, Alisal. The last of the beautiful bike roads before riding on the highway and through densely populated areas.

Old sycamore on Alisal Road, Solvang.
Alisal's one flaw lies at the very top, on what is technically the Old Coast Highway.

The scenery on Alisal does not disappoint. My legs are slow but the little ring isn't needed. And at the top, the problem is waiting too. Since I was last here Caltrans has placed a continuous cement barrier separating northbound and southbound lanes of 101. A sign at the top says Right Turn Only. I need to go left.

I stand there at the top of Alisal for at least 5 minutes, heart in throat. Watching four lanes of semis and fast car traffic. Looking for patterns. Evaluating. Thinking about alternatives. Feeling trapped...

A light blue Prius spots me at the top and sings that friendly honk song as it crests the pass, heading north. Loosely translated, go-biker-go! Southbound traffic is light now. I scurry across the northbound lanes and lean the bike against the barrier. Lift the heavy thing over and lean it on the other side. Check north for cars. Vault the barrier. Get on the bike and ride across southbound lanes.

When the adrenaline wears off about an hour later, I realize that the encouragement from the Prius was what flicked the switch. At this point it's a jaunt down 101 to Goleta. Wind is from the west, a quartering tail wind down the coast. The clouds are heavier now, spitting rain a little. Looking east, Refugio is completely hidden in a mass of grey clouds. Alisal saves the day...

20 miles on 101. A wide shoulder and lots of noise from traffic. On the plus side no one can hear me sing out the words at the sign "Hollister Avenue, Winchester Cyn Road, 1 mile". On my right the Pacific is vast and grey under gathering clouds. Looking south toward LA the cloud mass is lighter over the ocean. Over my left shoulder toward the northeast, a much darker grey.

Almost there!
Santa Barbara has done a great job signing bike routes. Following surface streets, no need for a map. This frees up mental energy, allowing my focus to fix on the edge of the storm. It's actually visible over the ocean. This becomes the motivation to press south as quickly as possible.

On this route at least a dozen times, there are always new discoveries. For example, it's easier to get through the towns south of Santa Barbara than I remember. Another first - I'm actually glad today to ride a bike on the Ventura Freeway! Ventura, 35 miles south of Santa Barbara, means progress is being made. In places along the water it's so dark I don't need sunglasses. The last storm was big but this one is bigger, and it's a thunderstorm. Press on. Southward.

Harbor Boulevard heads west to Oxnard and Port Hueneme. It's a strong wind now, still from the west. A headwind that sets my ears ringing, as loud as the freeway traffic ever was. Everything hurts and the bike feels heavy. Every bit of relief is welcome. I am wondering what Pacific Coast Highway will bring. If the wind is like this I am in trouble.

Near Point Magu the highway turns east again along the coastline. The quartering tailwind is back. I'm pounding the pedals, standing as much as possible, leveraging every advantage. I'm crossing the edge of the storm, over to the lighter clouds. This morning started with worries about the top of Alisal, getting lost, and getting drenched. Now only one worry is left: traversing  Malibu in daylight. An unexpected boost comes from the beauty of this stretch along the Santa Monica Mountains. It's longer than I remember but serene and welcoming.

There it is, the edge of the storm...
At the first hill in Malibu, I think we're going to be spending the hour together, you and I. Malibu is like an advanced Spinning class. Later a sign says "Malibu 27 miles of scenic beauty". I think, Malibu Land of Endless Hills. Land of Speeding Cars Going Nowhere.

The hills are big. The cars speed. I see the same two sheriffs pull over 3 cars in 45 minutes. And yet, the dreaded chute at the south end of town goes without a hitch. Nowhere near scary. A beach town all relaxed and quiet, waiting for the storm. A late Thursday afternoon in April. Tail wind. There is a shoulder after all.

Just ahead the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier lights up the evening. The bike path takes me there.

They left the light on...
Here's a slideshow with more pictures from the day. (None from the afternoon as my head was mostly down during that time.) Enjoy!


  1. I'm delighted you've made it "to the start" of your ride. :) With a tailwind, no less!
    The speeding cars line made me laugh. Can't wait to see photos!
    Have I mentioned how impressed I am by your fortitude? You talked about 300 miles on your legs already - that's going to seem piddly in a few weeks, I think.

  2. Thanks for reading Rachel! Photos now uploaded. Slideshow coming soon (cross your fingers for WiFi bandwidth)...

  3. Go biker, Go! Wonderful slide show! :) Love, from New's Saturday morning!!

  4. Love the pictures and the slide show! Very proud. That is some impressive fabulous girl power.