Friday, May 30, 2014

A New California Adventure: Biking the 17 Mile Drive and the PCH


Now as you know I went to Anaheim, California last summer and did a lot of biking. What some of you may not know is that afterwards I packed my Bike Friday into its suitcase and deposited it in the trunk of a rented convertible. It didn't emerge again until days later, when my wife and I arrived in San Francisco for our flight home.

Yeah, I know: renting a convertible to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway is a cliche, but it is a cliche for a reason. 

I did feel as though I was slighting The Sunshine State by not biking in more parts of it - especially since this journey originated in a such a car culture centric place. The autos-first mentality extended into what's called the '17 Mile Drive' which my wife and I didn't do in our rental car.

But I was left with a question: can one bike the 17 mile drive? Lucky for me, we returned to California again (this time to Monterey) so my wife could participate in  PleinAir Magazine's (sort of the Momentum Magazine for painters) Third Annual Plein Air Convention, which I occasionally visited to take photos.


Some of you may recognize this as an umbrella like the one I used when I was in Red Hook, New York to volunteer for the Bike Rodeo. As for the rest of you: I want to believe.

Monterey California is a good place for cyclists - and it has already been discovered by cyclists. The Sea Otter Classic is held there (I tried to get a press pass since it was going on while I was in Monterey but I didn't hear back in time) and the town features a bike and pedestrian trail that runs right by the water. 


There are a couple of bike rental places along the trail (and Bay Bikes in Monterey for buying things like chain lube and a pretty nice T-shirt). 

Of course since I was riding along the water while the Plein Air convention was going on, there were a lot of painters about blocking my view. But the farther away from town I'd ride, the fewer of them I'd see.


If you ride with the water on your right side, you'll eventually pass Cannery Row (Steinbeck!) and will leave the path entirely. At least one sign points the way to 17 mile drive. Being a cyclist, I didn't have to pay the fee to get in, and over the first couple of miles I thought I had found the road biker's paradise.


I was also glad we hadn't done the 17 Mile Drive in a car: on the bike I could hear the water and even pick up some chatter among the golfers talking loudly in Pebble Beach.

But the silence a bicycle provides was the main reason I enjoyed the experience - especially during the climbs when I rode into the fog and into the trees. I half expected Puck and Oberon to sidle out from behind the trees to plot some mischief.


After a couple of climbs - one of which took me past the famed Lone Cypress - the 17 Mile Drive was over and I was back on the roads pointing back to Monterey. It was easy to tell when I was getting closer to town.


Now the thing about California - especially this area - is that it really does favor cyclists since there are massive stretches of road and path that don't have any stoplights. So I poured on the miles - I'd finish the trip with 180 miles ridden over five days -  and headed in the other direction on the shoreline trail (putting the water on my left) where I eventually found a new path.


It made me wish for a path alongside of I-95 or, better still, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. 

It was from this path I could see Isidro's Taco Shop, where I stopped to inhale lunch.


Afterward I continued on until the path ended at Del Monte Boulevard and Lapis Road, then turned around and headed back to Monterey - this time diverting through Ford Ord Dunes State Park. This featured a road that ran almost parallel to the trail I had been on, but it also leads to a very cool switchback (yes, the little fluorescent dot way out there is a cyclist).


The next day I headed off toward the 17 Mile Drive again - only this time I diverted into a town called Pacific Grove, where I literally followed the smell of pancakes to Holly's Lighthouse Cafe.


Fueled by a great breakfast and better coffee, I decided to revisit the Pacific Coast Highway and ride up toward Big Sur. 


The drive I took in the convertible a year before all started to come back to me. If I had been in better shape and had more time I would have attempted a century. The key word here is 'attempt:' even though stoplights, traffic and stop signs were absent, the hills feel different in a bike than in a car. But riding up the hills myself, feeling the acid in my legs and my heart try to punch through my rib cage, made the views all the better.


Passing the Bixby Bridge (one of several bridges built in the 1930s along this stretch) I kept climbing and revisited a key feature of Big Sur: the fog.


Last year my wife and I joked that a postcard from Big Sur could just feature white space and the words: 'Greetings from Big Sur!' because of the poor visibility in the area. As the fog got thicker I'd have to sneak in views whenever I could. 


Wanting an even bigger payoff for my efforts, so I kept hammering the pedals and soon reached Hurricane Point, where I leaned the bike against a rock and looked out over the cliffs.


Waiting for my heart rate to return to normal, I looked for a break - any break - in the fog so I could take a picture. This ended up being my best shot.


Just when I was getting ready to turn back (I had to meet my wife at a certain time late afternoon) a big Harley-Davidson pulled up with a couple in their sixties riding it. The man riding in front had a GoPro mount on his helmet and asked me if I had been able to see anything. 

I told him I had been there for ten minutes and hadn't seen much, and when he asked if I knew when it would burn off I told him I was from Connecticut and didn't know.

"I thought you would know," the man laughed. "You look like a local!"

And, with that, I had my payoff.

I thanked him for the compliment and told him and his partner to ride safe, and in moments they disappeared into the fog.

I topped off my tires and blasted back down the climb I had ascended where the fog, predictably, began to lift.


I stopped for lunch at the Rio Grill and enjoyed their pork quesadilla special. Later I stopped at a Nothing Bundt Cakes location for a cupcake (a chain I don't see in the Northeast) and made it back to Monterey as the sugar high wore off. 

The following day's cycling adventure was very short as my wife and I went to Pinnacles National Park (which, if you've never heard of it, is America's newest national park) for some hiking and light spelunking. It's a very tranquil place. My photo doesn't do it justice, but my wife's sketches did.


As the Plein Air conference continued, I kept riding - I even did the 17 Mile Drive one last time by bike and had another interesting experience I'll write about later. But for now, I can only recommend a visit to California: you may need a car to get to where you're going, but try to use a bike when you get there - if nothing else you've got something to do while your spouse is at the Plein Air Convention. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.


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