Our fifth day of riding at the California Coast Classic took us to Buellton. The turn inland delivered real heat and the notorious wall of Foxen Canyon, well-known to anyone who has ridden the Solvang Century. Suzy and Gail made an early escape and I rolled with Ashley and Noreen a bit later. Ashely lives in Los Angeles proper, not too far from downtown and frequently logs her miles in Griffith Park, a place I used to ride on occasion when I was still there. She’s bright and articulate, a fact telegraphed the morning I met her by the NPR jersey she was wearing.
The dash from Foxen into Solvang brought back memories of past editions of the Solvang Century and while I’m not big on nostalgia, I relished hitting those roads with someone new to them. As we sped past vineyard after vineyard I wondered what grapes we were seeing; Santa Barbara County hosts more different types of wine grapes than any other county in the U.S., save Sonoma County. There’s everything from Pinot Noir (world class, at that) in the Santa Rita Hills between Buellton and Lompoc, to Rhone varietals like Grenache and Syrah nearer Solvang, to Cabernet in the far eastern part of the county.
There’s a tranquility to riding past the ordered rows of vineyards that I still struggle to explain, but I’ve experienced it for so long and so consistently, I no longer question why. The rolling hills afforded ever-evolving views and just enough consistent loss in elevation to make the final miles into Solvang triumphant, the headwind notwithstanding.
California Poppies in September. I seriously thought this was impossible.
To the degree that any veteran could explain why they return to the ride year after year, one statement I heard on multiple occasions was that the CCC is a family reunion, but with the distinction that “you actually want to go back.”
I move in circles where for any number of reasons we speak of family of choice. Be it losses due to death, or estrangement due to family dynamics, we sometimes have to choose who the people are we will turn to in times of celebration as well as need. What I began to see was that the draw of doing charity work for arthritis sufferers. It’s easy for me to comprehend how the desire to do good on behalf of a suffering population would unite a group of people.
Frank Shoemaker, known for his involvement in Cyclocross Magazine, gets the award for the most whimsical kits. This was his first time riding; his wife, Asa, who I don’t have a photograph because she was working too hard, has been a beloved volunteer mechanic for the ride for some years.
Consider that more than 50 million people experience this chronic disease; that’s 15 percent of the U.S. population. There isn’t a person in this country who doesn’t know someone suffering from it. Even sadder is that more than 300,000 children endure arthritis. I’m told that 25 percent of all adults suffer from it and there are more than 100 different varieties of the disease. And for reasons that don’t seem entirely understood, an adult diagnosed with both diabetes and heart disease (two conditions that go together like third-world country politicians and corruption) has a 50 percent chance of being diagnosed with arthritis.
I suppose this is another argument for being active, but the choir is out on their bikes.
There’s some distance (maybe 3 ft.) between that sunflower and me. It is larger than my head, the largest sunflower I’d ever seen.
Our longest day of the tour was the 87-mile jaunt from Buellton to Ventura. We began with hills, particularly the climb up Figueroa Mountain. Something had changed in the 10-plus years since I last rode it; it used to go to dirt for a distance; alas, just as gravel riding became a thing, Alisal Road received a new asphalt jacket. What a lovely surprise.
The fresh experience of the day was crossing the 101 and then climbing and descending Gaviota Pass. For all the times I’ve traveled that stretch, this was my only time to do it by bike. The morning was cool and marine layer hung low enough at times it was better called fog. Eli, the director at Sentio, had encouraged us to space ourselves out and not to stop along the 101. For this leg, I paced Noreen and then rolled into the 900-foot drop over 4.5 miles. Our descent was interrupted by a rest area where we pulled off to hit bathrooms and top off bottles (I hadn’t touched mine yet) and, truly, to get a break from the traffic. We continued on the 101 through Gaviota and all the way into Goleta, only getting off the highway to use off ramps to keep us from the speeding vehicles.
Ashley, prior to her first century.
I didn’t see Ashley until the finish, when I learned that she’d rolled early and found a stretch of our route near Santa Barbara to double back on for six or so miles before turning around. Her out and back gave her a total of 100 miles, her first-ever century. Her smile said more about her accomplishment than her words could ever convey.
Our final day took us south from Ventura, through the farm fields of Oxnard and on to Pacific Coast Highway for the run to Pacific Palisades (essentially Santa Monica) and to our finish. It was the flattest ride of the bunch and as pretty as it was, this route was an also-ran to several other days, which is really saying something as the coastal stretch through Point Mugu is one of the most-often filmed reaches of coastal highway in the world. Watch half a dozen car commercials and you’ll see it used, I promise.
Breakfast and dinner each day were catered and not only delicious but included vegetarian and gluten-free dishes as well.
With a tailwind pushing us along the beach, the pedaling came as easily as my grin. Groups of us came together for brief pacelines before splintering for pictures or surges. Both were valid. Just as we got into Malibu, the once pristine pavement of the beachside icon had been strewn with a slurry left to harden in the sun. It was rough as chip-and-seal and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Malibu City Council hadn’t chosen to do that to be deliberately hostile to cyclists. Stranger things have happened in LA, I promise you. Even that couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for all the Laborghinis, Ferraris, Mercedes AMGs, schools of Teslas and the odd Bugatti.
We collected at Gladstone’s Restaurant where Sunset Boulevard meets PCH just as rain began to fall. Rain. LA. September. No, Virginia, the climate is not changing. Gladstone’s looks out on waves crashing onto the beach and serves an overpriced lobster roll that is so delicious it may not be overpriced. With no idea what was in store for us at the finish I may have eaten too many of their house-made potato chips.
As I looked around at my fellow riders all I could really record were smiles and ebullient moods. People grinned, joyed to have finished, happy to be with friends.
Amit, Noreen, Pricess Gail and Dave, just prior to rolling across the finish line, before all the smiles turned to tears of goodbye.
We waddled back to our bikes and wiped our saddles off just as the sun pierced the clouds. All that was left was the two-mile parade up to Palisades High School where our closing celebration was to be held. Everyone wore their CCC jersey or windbreakers so that a mass of green rolled into the parking lot and under the finishing arch. Then I discovered a feast awaiting us. Oh.
Tacos, beans, rice, plenty to drink, fun music. I began to meet the families of some of the riders I’d spent the week with. What surprised me was how supportive these people were of their family members taking off for eight days of riding. They seemed as happy about it as the riders. That surprised me. I expected some bike widows and widowers standing at the finish ready to pack and hightail. Not so. This was the event I was waiting for, the final hurrah for this bunch, and everyone who arrived to pick up their loved ones seemed just as excited about the festivities as I was. I felt like I was in a parallel universe, or that someone was pumping millions of cubic feet of oxygen into the campus.
The recognition lasted a good hour, with numerous nods and awards. And why not? The group had raised roughly $1.1 million dollars in just a year. Technically, they still have another month to accept pledges, but any number of them were ready to sign up for next year. I’d say the majority were, but I simply didn’t speak to enough people to make the claim. I can report that I didn’t hear a single person say definitively they wouldn’t be back.
I think it’s easy to underestimate the value of a hug, at least it is until you’ve given and received a couple dozen of them over 15 minutes. I felt lighter, but there was an ache of sadness that we were all setting off for home. Still, people were asking if they’d see me next year.
If they invite me, I don’t think I’ll be able to say no.