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FEATURE ARTICLE

BIG SUR - OLD COAST ROAD
MOUNTAIN BIKE RIDE

By Stan Delk

Big Sur is one of the most beautiful and most untamed areas on the Central California Coast or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. It's filled with stunning vistas at every turn. The daily fogs water the ancient redwood forests and keep the surrounding countryside lush and green for most of the year. There is an abundance and a variety of wildlife to be found in this wild and woolly section of craggy coast, towering redwood forests, and gentle meandering streams. From stunning mountaintop vistas, to shady glens Big Sur offers respite from the noise and crowds of the bustling cities to the north.

It's the rare and fortunate traveler who ventures off the meandering cliff-hugging Coast Highway to see the real magnificence encompassed by this mystical magical region known as Big Sur.

I can think of no better way to sample the variety of terrain, microclimates, and scenery that is Big Sur than by touring a lonely stretch of mostly unpaved road known as the Old Coast Road on a mountain bike. Though the road only traverses 10 miles linking Andrew Molera State Beach Park on the south with the Bixby Creek Bridge on the north, those 10 miles encompass what I feel is the absolute essence of Big Sur. The Old Coast Road was at one time the main throughfare in this part of Big Sur, but has long since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.

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Even though we saw some fool in a suit, accompanied by his "Bambi" girlfriend, driving a Caddy on this road, I wouldn't recommend attempting it in any auto without 4 wheel drive.

My good friend, Gene and I chose this trip for one of our weekend rides. After meeting very early in the morning near Watsonville we headed south on Highway 1 to Moss Landing where we had a hearty breakfast at one of the little cafes there. Knowing we'd be needing every calorie later in the day, we didn't hesitate to chow down on the scrumptious and potentially fattening fare of sausages, eggs, hotcakes with butter and maple syrup, and plenty of caffeine. About 5 hours later, I was glad I'd crammed those extra calories down my gullet because there's nothing worse than "bonking" when you still have 7 miles of highway to ride.

Motoring south past Monterey and Carmel and into the very heart of Big Sur, we crossed the world famous Bixby Creek Bridge (you may remember "Bronson" riding his motorcycle across it in the opening scene of the TV series of the same name. We continued approximately another 7 miles to the entrance of Andrew Molera State Beach Park. There, we gave our equipment one final going over, made sure we had plenty of water, snacks, and all the clothing we'd need for the day, and mounted our trusty steeds.

After a quick warmup tour of some of the park's beachfront trails, we crossed Highway 1 (yes, Mom, we looked both ways first) and proceeded up the dirt road. Right off the bat, the first climb was breathtaking. Or did it leave me breathless? I think it was both. With the cobalt blue Pacific Ocean to our left and towering hills looming on our right, we began what was to be the first of many ascents that day. Even that early in the morning, that first climb in the sunshine made me break a sweat real fast. Stopping at the top to catch our breath, we took a few moments to enjoy the view before proceeding down into the first of the many valleys we would see that day.

My first impression of this ride turned out to be way off the mark. On that first climb, all I could see was brown grassy hills without a tree in sight and I was afraid I was in for a boring day of ho-hum cycling through the "golden" hills of California. However, once we crested the first hill and descended into the valley below, the "Magical Mystery Tour" began.

The first descent took us into a forest of oak, madrone, and bay laurels. And it only got better after that. As we got deeper into the forest, those trees gave way to pine and clusters of redwoods nestled in forested glens. Not very far into the ride, we saw a small group of deer grazing in a meadow. There were many streams along the way and the stillness was broken only by the occasional call of a bird or our bike chains as we changed gears.

And so it continued throughout the day. At the bottom of a descent we'd take off our cold weather gear preparing for the steep climb ahead. At the top we'd have to put it back on again so we wouldn't get chilled by the perspiration evaporating during the quick descent. I don't know why, but it seemed all the climbs were in the sunshine and all the downhills were in shade. But, anything worth having is worth working for and those screaming downhills were definitely worth the effort it took to get to the top of the hill. There were no 15 mile per hour speed limits on this trail, so we let out all the stops on the way down.

About halfway into the ride, we reached one summit from which we could see several miles of coastline. What a view. After that, we would catch glimpses of the ocean as we peered down valleys that led to the sea. I'll be honest, after about 8 miles of these climbs and descents, I was ready to look for a trail down one of those valleys and a shortcut home. There was one spot which was especially intimidating to me. I could look down the valley and see the cool ocean below while up and ahead was what seemed to be an unending series of switchbacks climbing into the sun. Gene's not much younger than me, but he always seems to have the fitness edge. However, at that point, even Gene was considering a shortcut back home. Fearing failure more than exhaustion, we sucked it up and began what fortunately turned out to be the last major climb of the day. Exhausted, and our strength nearly depleted, we made our way down to Bixby Bridge. Wow, what a trip. I was bushed. And we still had 7 miles to go.

We rested up at the vista point just to the north of Bixby Bridge for about 15 minutes. Just as we were starting to stiffen up, we decided we'd better hit the road and head back to the car. So, off we went down Highway 1. I don't recommend that anyone cycle Highway 1 through Big Sur. It's dangerous. There are two kinds of drivers on Highway 1 and neither one of them knows what a bicycle looks like. One type is trying to see how fast his Beemer can take the curves and the other type has 6 kids yelling in the back of his minivan and is looking for a turnout to capture the perfect "Kodak moment". Believe me, neither one is conducive to safe cycling.

All that notwithstanding, we did make it safely back to Andrew Molera and got the bikes loaded up. After pooling our remaining cash we decided we had just enough money for one cool drink before heading back. We stopped at the River Inn which is a combination general store, dining house, cocktail lounge, gathering place. The rear lawn, which overlooks a stream, is a good place for an ice cold soft drink after a day of bone wearying cycling. They even have tables and chairs placed in the stream and the waitresses will wade out there to take your order.

What a way to end your day.

In summary, cycling the Old Coast Road is a physically draining, but emotionally rewarding mountain bike trip. Maybe you're in better shape than I was and you'll think it's easy. Maybe not. But, all in all, it was a wonderful day.

 



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