20 June, 2018

Big Sur

N.B. My Strava for this ride can be found here!

Over a tour of a few thousand kilometers, it's easy to lose track of a hundred or so as part of the accounting process. An afternoon spent on the beach or in the brewhouse is paid for on credit in the form of a hypothetical "double day" or "hundred miler" to be performed at some point down the line.

Needless to say, the future comes around quickly and (un)fortunately tends also to be filled with beaches and brewhouses, delaying the making up of lost time and continuing the cycle of pleasant tardiness.

With a flight home booked for June 15, I however had a hard deadline to hit. Because I'd slowed the pace through Oregon I was short on time and by the time I rolled in to the campground in Monterey (staggered would be a better word as it sits on a steep hill overlooking the city) I was facing a number of challenges as I prepared for Big Sur, the most famous section of Route 1.

Firstly was the 230-odd kilometers of sharp and towering road between me and the Train station in San Luis. I'd already decided not to ride all the way to Los Angeles as Santa Barbara marks the beginning of the urban sprawl of South California and San Luis is the start of the coastal rail link that runs to San Diego. With only 2 days of riding to go, I would need to average 115 kilometers a day in order to make it.

Secondly, Big Sur is largely undeveloped with only a few places to buy food and camp. This makes it beautiful but means that planning is more of a challenge as there are very few bailout options.

Finally, a huge landslide in 2016 destroyed a bridge and buried a large section of the road. The bridge has been rebuilt but the buried road is not due to reopen until September. I'd heard rumours around the campfire that the road was physically passable on a bicycle but the site was guarded during the day, making an morning or late evening passage the only option. The only alternative was an unscenic and hilly 100 kilometre detour that held no interest.

I made the decision to pedal to Gorda (the final hamlet before the closure) to assess my options. Big Sur begins shortly after you leave Monterey and almost immediately I was swamped by the damp Pacific fog as I trundled around the first few headlands. The houses bordering the road slowly disappeared and the fog have way just long enough to catch a view down the coast.

The scenery was the best I'd seen since beginning my journey. By now the sea is a deep blue and as you wind up the near-vertical peaks you can look down and see the fingers of mist below, curling around the headlands as they swirl in from the ocean. The cliffs are swathed in greenery and the harsh California sun paints the whole lot in sharp contrast as you sweat onwards.

After a few hours the road flattens slightly and turns inland towards the small tourist town of Big Sur. The temperatures soar further and I took the opportunity to stop for a sandwich and to fill my bidons for a long afternoon. Fully fuelled I began the major climb of the day, a steady 300 meter climb (of about 2000 meters of total climb) back towards the sea.

Skin slick with a film of sweat and grime, under the blazing mid-day sun I was finally greeted at the top by another glorious view down the coast. The constant rhythm of crest and trough continued for the rest of the day with narrow shoulders and a stream of tourist traffic demanding attention at all times to prevent an errant swerve. The riding was the most demanding I'd experienced so far but I drove on knowing that I had a long way to go.

I arrived at Gorda at 1700 and sat down to catch my breath and assess the scene. Barriers blocked the road and a robust man sat on a camping chair in hi-viz fiddling with his phone. A top security operation this was not.

90 minutes of waiting and he left to go home. I had been told that the workers were unlikely to still be around so I slipped past the barriers and rolled on down the quiet tarmac as the shadows grew around me.

The section of unimproved road was limited to a section of a few hundred meters near the start of the closure. Satisfied that there was no one around, I pedalled past the heavy machinery pausing only briefly to wheel my bike over a particularly rough patch.

The remainder of the 8 kilometer closure was silent except for the crashing of the surf far below. As the sun dived towards the horizon I had the coastline to myself and I climbed the final few hundred meters and swooped down the rollercoaster descents in total isolation.

130 kilometers after my start in Monterey I stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Ragged Point and watched the last legs of sunlight pierce the twilight haze. The mist began to roll in once again and I had just enough time to pitch my tent on a deserted beach in the valley below, still buzzing as I drifted off to sleep.

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