I suppose you could call me an Eroica California veteran, and maybe even an unofficial ambassador (although not in the social media sense of that word). In the four years of Eroica California’s existence, I’ve ridden every one. Something keeps bringing me back. It must be the wonderful people and bikes, the history, the culture, the oaks & grapes, the coastal mountains and dirt roads.
For 2018, I figured out a successful formula for the 90ish mile Coastal Route. I was ten pounds lighter, had a few thousand more miles in my legs, a bike with lower gears, and was rolling with riding partners mostly ten years my senior.
I departed with my friend and frequent Tucson riding companion, John Siemsen, and several friends from past Eroica rides. The group departing for the coastal route was large and took over the entire righthand side of the road. Rolling through Paso Robles, we cast long shadows in the early light, a sea of bobbing wool jerseys embroidered with the logos of European companies that make, or made, bicycles, sausages, espresso machines, and vermouth.
For me, there is a specific corner when the magic of the Eroica, California route begins to reveal itself. At the edge of town, a right-hander leads up a slight climb with a big oak tree on the left side. All of a sudden the ride becomes rural, quiet, with just the whir of old derailleurs and sounds of breathing, along with the “clunk, clunk” of a few riders missing shifts.
I lost touch with John’s group at this point, but rode alongside my friend Matt Pendergast from North Bend, Washington. Like me, Matt is a tall guy. Unlike me, Matt has a full head of hair and a salt and pepper moustache. Matt was riding a new Woodrup, complete with fenders, a front bag, and pillowy 38mm tires. Matt is the rare rider with both a keen cycling-style sense and formidable athletic ability. The first time I met Matt, he was riding a cream-colored Alex Singer, when he visited Tucson, he brought a metallic green Bruce Gordon. He sends me videos of riding through mountain passes where the road cuts through walls of snow. Last summer, he loaded up his Bruce Gordon and rode from Washington to Colorado to visit his son.
When the road turned to dirt, we spun along beneath oak canopies getting a feel for our tires on the new surface. Matt and I began the climb up Kiler Canyon riding side-by-side and chatting about our families, getting older, and our riding plans for the summer. We darted back and forth across the double-track dirt to avoid riders who had stopped to walk or fix mechanical problems. Our bikes ran quietly, and the shade on the narrow road was pleasant. As the climb steepened, I got in a rhythm, reminding myself not to go too hard because Kiler is only the first, and shortest, of the three major climbs on the route.
At the top of Kiler, I caught up with Santa Rosa framebuilder John Fitzgerald of Fitz Cyclez riding with Portland young gun Sukho Goff. Both of these guys rode fully-fendered and front-bagged 650b rando machines. Fitz piloting one of his own, a beautiful burgundy job with Hellenic stays, and Sukho on a hot-rodded Erickson with a Jeff Lyon fork. Cresting Kiler Canyon, the road becomes paved and twisty in a playful and mostly downhill run to the barn at Halter Ranch. In our group, we had father (whose name I can’t recall) and his teenage son, Alonzo, from Salt Lake City. Alonzo was at age and ability where he had begun to challenge his dad as a cyclist. We were riding pretty fast, and up at the front, John and Sukho pedaled with fluidity, practicing aero-tucking behind their handlebar bags and occasionally letting go of the bars to test for shimmy. We teased them a little about their dimpled fenders giving them an aero advantage, and suggested that they switch on their generator hubs as a handicap. Watching Fitz and Sukho gliding on a black ribbon of road beneath an oak canopy reminded me of a Bicycle Quarterly cover. Where is Jan and his camera when you need him?
We were the first group to roll into the rest stop at Halter Ranch, with its picturesque covered bridge and barn. Inside the rustic barn, we enjoyed Tuscan bean soup, spicy Doritos, wine (paired specifically for the Doritos) and bananas. At Halter Ranch, I made a decision to wait for John Siemsen and the rest of our original group. I watched Matt, and then Fitz and Sukho cross the covered bridge ahead of me.
After our re-group, we completed a newly added loop to the course, a silly tour of a miniature railroad newly installed at Halter Ranch, but one with one ridiculously steep short dirt hill that Oregon rider Ray Weekly cleaned with ease. Then we set out for the most challenging climb on the course, Cypress Mountain. 2018 marked my forth ascent of this hill. My climbing history of Cypress is as follows: 2015, walked part of it; 2016, rode it all on painfully big gears; 2017, rode it all, with near racing gearing at max heart rate, suffering like a dog. 2018 was the first year I significantly geared down. In years past, my friend and teammate Greg encouraged me to HTFU, but this year, I choose to STFU (Spin the French up). I put on a full French Huret/Stronglight 49d drivetrain on my Moto a couple of weeks before the ride. I had a 48/32 up front and 14-26 in back. It made the climbing more enjoyable and Cypress Mountain didn’t seem quite as brutal. In fact, for the first time, I can say I enjoyed the climb and the summit appeared more quickly than I expected. Going full French did attract some derision from some of my riding companions. Doc Mertes referred to my bike as “ your French disaster,” while others suggested, “at least it hasn’t surrendered yet.” I got some satisfaction in leaving them behind on the climb.
At the top, I got to meet Otis Guy, admired his bike (Otis Guy, serial #1!). I drank my traditional summit Coca-Cola, which I’ve enjoyed every year. I also snapped a picture of my bike’s twin, another orange ’73 Motobecane. The trip down Cypress Mountain is filled with thrills, jaw-dropping beauty, and possible peril. John, Doc Mertes, Craig Montgomery, Joe, Alan, and I went down about as fast as middle-age guys with responsibilities dare. I ejected a bottle on the first dirt pitch; My stop to pick it up meant that I had to chase down the group for the rest of the descent.
We ate delicious wraps at the Linn’s farm stop in Cambria, where John’s wife Virginia was volunteering. She doled out some needed sunscreen and encouragement. The next leg, down the coast from Cambria to Cayucos, was all tailwinds and ocean views. There were some rolling hills, and John and I ended up at the front, eventually gapping the group. We figured they’d catch us at Cayucos. John was on a fantastic metallic blue Keith Lippy decked out with all French parts. I rode my 1973 orange and black Motobecane Super Champion. We decided that French parts are faster. Both of our bikes once belonged to a mutual friend and collector extraordinaire, Pat Moffat. We chatted a little about Pat, thankful for the chance to put a couple of his finds through their paces.
On the pier at Cuyucos, The face-stuffing commenced again. We ate chocolate covered strawberries, smoked salmon, and Spanish tortilla, and drank bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola.. It was hard to leave the sleepy little surf town, especially knowing we had to climb up Santa Rita pass next. On the paved run up to Santa Rita, we had Joe from Irvine on his sweet Peugeot PX10, Craig Montgomery in Suntour wool jersey on a Nishiki Pro, and John, and me.
More than any previous year, I was pleased with my form. I still had legs at the top of Santa Rita Pass, and it looked like I’d be able to sail down into Paso with gas to spare. I caught John, Sukho, and Reed Kennedy at the Santa Rita summit. Then pointed my bike down hill.
It seemed like the ride was all but over. But after the last rest stop and cheese spread at 15c in Templeton, where my camping neighbor Carlos downed a beer with fellow rider Ray Weekly and insisted I have at least half, I had a tiger in my tank and a cat on my tail.
Carlos Hernández, from Denver by way of Michoacán, is my same age, 51. Carlos is a father, soccer player, and a veteran of Ironman triathlons. His nickname on the football pitch is “El Gato” (the cat) and his Ironman prowess and svelte frame had me expecting a challenge on the climbs. To be fair, it was his first Eroica, and while he was riding a beautiful curly-stay Hetchins, it was perhaps not best suited to the course with both very high gearing and narrow high-pressure tires. Carlos had been hanging on at the back of our little group all day, doing just fine, but never being the tip of the spear.
The Eroica course has a bunch of rolling hills and spirit-crushing little climbs over the last 20 odd miles. Anyone who says, “It’s all downhill from here” at the top of Santa Rita Pass is spreading fake news. We were at that point in the ride where the remaining riders in the group could smell the finish and those with any vinegar left did a bit of sizing each other up. We started standing up on the rollers, and soon it was just me, John, and Craig Montgomery. Then just me and Craig Montgomery. Then, in a saddle between two rollers, I heard a rider coming up behind me, and I assumed John had caught back up, but I glanced over my left shoulder and saw “El Gato” giving it full gas. He got a little gap on me, then I pushed hard to get on his wheel.
The final leg of the route is on a single-track trail along a linear river park in Paso Robles. I had re-passed Carlos on a hill, but he was right behind me as we hopped onto the dirt path. I was going at a fast clip, liking how my 30mm tires felt on the gravel and pushing toward the fairgrounds. As I crossed the line, I turned expecting to see Carlos, but El Gato was nowhere to be seen. John and Craig arrived, and said they saw Carlos emerging from a bush amidst a cloud of dust off the trail. He arrived shortly, a little dirty, but unhurt and in good spirits. When the rest of the riders in our group came in, we took a photo and headed over to enjoy 805 beer and Santa Maria barbecue.