From the shadow of mount Tam to the coastal plains of Santa Barbara exists a quilt of broken earth. An underlying structure of torn apart geology transported hundreds of miles from where it was originally emplaced. A Mediterranean climate of warm summers and cool wet winters that becomes progressively drier towards the equator. A diverse floral assemblage stemming from the eroded remains of rocks past and present harboring condors, salmon and mountain lions. From North America’s largest estuary reflecting pastel sunrise to the sandstone peaks of the east/west transverse ranges gleaming pink and orange as the sun sets over the pacific.
This could easily be another long hard bike ride, but that isn’t my story to tell. I simply want to help make the subtle obvious, to enrich others experiences, to justify preservation through appreciation. To describe more than pedaling circles or grinding uphill, rather thoughts on nature and what creates the topography to grind along. There will always be value in hard rides, in athleticism, and in adventure, however you find it is what makes it special.
Three days were spent with the ocean aside my right shoulder, spinning with a destination in mind but without haste. Testing tires across weathered pavement, wildflower covered landslides, and dirt single track-etched into outcrops of rock. Testing my will to keep going when I got tired, when the light faded, to see more than just the road ahead. To see the story left behind by time.
This ride really starts 200 million years ago as granite hardened underneath the southern Sierra Nevada. Another hundred million years of stress built up from slow tectonic forces and mountain building events culminated in the San Andreas fault shearing this granite from its home, carrying it north and west, muddling blocks of solid stone into vast seas of sediment referred to as the Salinian block. These rocks make up parts of the Santa Cruz, the Santa Lucia, and the Santa Ynez mountains, merging with ridges of marine sediments lifted skyward by smaller faults.
If these rocks make up the fabric of this quilted landscape the many rivers, past and present, act as its stitching. The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers feed the San Francisco estuary, while the Salinas feeds its sediment into Monterey bay. The Santa Maria and Santa Clara bookend this journey, bringing nutrients to the California bight. Only 14000 years prior these rivers flowed tens of miles further west as the coastline receded 130 vertical meters thanks to extensive glaciation. This dry climate and led to the formation of sand dunes and inland sediments along these rivers leaving much of the loose dirt we ride today.
From this dirt plants arose, from ferns and firs to chaparral and oaks, their roots following specific nutrients and leaves reaching for desired climates. While 30 inches of precipitation a year may fall around SF, the southern coast may only see 7. The westerly winds and lower latitudes raise temperatures by 10f on average. This gradient and its interwoven microclimates leaves a patchwork of ecosystems from woodland to scrubland to temperate grassland. Within each exists a smaller system reliant on symbiosis and unique fire recurrence from stem regrowth to cone pollination.
These are the things I see as I ride bikes. From squiggles in rocks to gnarled tree branches nature hints at its past. Observing these stories provides a connection to go alongside the relationships and memories tied to places through adventure. Small stories and connection build slowly until one sees that everything is tied together under one web. Appreciating this leads to seeing oneself as part of this system and perhaps to seeing our part in nurturing it. Next time you find yourself traversing a mountain range, stop and appreciate the resemblance to crumpled construction paper, the swirling lines only exposed in relief by setting suns casting warm sepia tones, the way plants follow stone and ask why it is so.
Day 1: SF to Monterey 234 km 2500 m // glaciers and rivers
Day 2: Monterey to Morro Bay 274 km 4200 m // mountain and ocean
Day 3: Morro Bay to Santa Barbara 210 km 1800 m // soil and preservation
Waking up and putting on lycra in the dark, rolling down through Mill Valley to a cup of coffee. Mt. Tam stands sentinel as I roll into the sunrise across the Golden Gate Bridge. A large chunk of marine rock and serpentine draped in manzanita above a lower cloak of chaparral falling away into bayside marshes falls away into the skyline behind me. Passing over the bridge the saline waters of the pacific intertwine with the sediment-laden waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, playing host to the largest estuary ecosystem in North America.
Across the bridge and alongside the Santa Cruz Mountains my legs seemingly realized the task being imposed upon them, slowing a bit in an attempt at conserving energy for long days ahead. It took much of the first day for my mind to disassociate the countless team kits on the coast ride from the act of racing. This was a chance at luxury, to have nothing to do but ride bikes and enjoy landscape and company. I took the opportunity to consider the granite in the hills beside me. Emplaced 200 million years prior somewhere south of the modern Sierra Nevada, transported north a hundred million years later along the San Andreas Fault, pulled apart and emplaced amongst marine muds and sands gluing onto the North American continent as the Pacific Plate slid underneath.
Coffee and artichoke bread were consumed in Pescadero followed by rolling back roads passing farm fields rich in soil derived from wet foggy climates and mineral rich geology. These rolling hills fell away into flat steppes as we rolled into Santa Cruz. Marine terraces, the result of changing sea levels and coastal faults, make up the structure of the Santa Cruz region, with each flat terrace providing a soil of a different age allowing for a natural skyward procession of ecology. These terraces continue laterally until they are eroded by Salinas River, south of which exist plains of rich farm soil and long sand dunes. The Salinas Valley is etched deep into the landscape on account of the last glaciation 12,000 years ago, which saw the Sierra Nevada covered in thick ice sheets and sea level 120m lower than today. That lower sea level led to a coastline 20 miles further west from Monterey, leaving behind a canyon hidden under the waters of Monterey Bay. These thoughts of undersea worlds and km thick glaciers kept me company along the last kilometers of sand dune covered bike paths into Monterey.
When a day begins with a third bidon strapped to your bicycle with voile straps, way too many snacks packed away, and the sun is a way away from gracing the road, it is a safe bet the adventure you’re on is an un-advisable one. Pedaling east away from the ocean into the lower foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, I was happy to once again see the granite blocks of the Salian geologic block, knowing the decomposed remains of these formations is tacky and fast when wet. I would need that speed over this 170-mile day, traversing the range along Indian Ridge trail, up Nacimiento Fergusson road, and down the 1 into Morro Bay.
The ecology alongside the road shifted from coastal grassland to oak woodland as the road narrowed. From woodland to chaparral as the road narrowed into dirt singletrack. The cool fog that so often curtains these mountains had left behind snow several days prior to my arrival, wetting the dirt to perfection in places and leaving some tests in traction for my 32c tires in others. The rocky outcrops at the upper reaches of this range led to frequent crossings of rockfall and landslides interspersed with careful descending over thin beds of fine-grained rocks ready to pinch flat any unsuspecting tire. Finding the end of this dirt sector with only one leak put to rest with a few tire plugs was considered a success.
On Nacimiento Fergusson road, alongside the fault of shared name, the broken pavement wound gradually upwards for an hour before opening up into a 20-minute descent down a picturesque canyon to the coast just south of Big Sur. Along this road the flora shifted from oaks to coniferous, to a landscape as giant in its topography as in its inhabitants. Harboring endangered species including the California Condor, Steelhead Salmon and the Santa Lucia Fir, there is ample to appreciate in its intrinsic value. Reasoning shouldn’t be necessary for protecting the rarest fir in the world, nor the breeding grounds of creatures as magnificent as our own species, but we live in a day and age where some utilitarian value must be emplaced on them in order to justify their preservation. I can say, while I did not shed a tear due to cramps, miles, or mechanicals, I did in appreciation standing underneath a Santa Lucia Fir. They exist along this route; however, Ill let you find them on your own.
After a desperately needed food and water resupply at a gas station on highway 1 the cranks resumed their endless spinning. The sun set beyond the horizon; silence hung on the sound of crashing waves in the dark. Fast downhills into valleys were met with the mating calls of frogs, cresting sea cliffs with the bark of elephant seals. I’ll admit I considered trying to organize a rescue sag vehicle only 20 miles from Morro Bay, but I plugged onwards, envisioning Thai food and French fries.
It hurt to get out of bed, I rolled out a bit later than planned. By some form of luck, a fast group of friends rolled by on my way to coffee in San Luis Obispo, allowing me to surf their draft past wetlands and away from Morro Rock, a 26 million year old volcanic plug. I try to envision the volcano the size of Mt. Tam that used to loom behind my back, within which magma hardened to become the Morro Rock we see today after the remains of the volcano itself have eroded away.
After a coffee and scone, I find myself in the draft of a different group of friends. They read from a book of poetry while riding, their varied tire choices range from 25c to 40c slicks, they still leave me in the plains around Lompoc in search of their own gravel roads. Head down into the wind, not because I am in a hurry to get to Santa Barbara, but rather watching changes in the dirt beside the road. Eroded pieces of the Franciscan Assemblage that makes up the surrounding ridgelines, from sandstone to calcareous marine shale (the same that makes up the white roads of Strade Bianchi) the color is enough to distract me until I reach lunch.
Lunch is composed of a donut, French fries, peanut butter pretzels, ibuprofen and a healthy dose of laughter thanks to another group of friends. Friends make this whole riding bikes thing a lot better, whether to make the miles easier, the stories deeper or the smiles broader.
The last few miles were a blur, the Santa Ynez mountains gleaming pink and orange to my left, the Pacific Ocean and the setting sun to my right. Finally headed East along the transverse portion of the California coast thanks to the San Andreas Fault. North of the Santa Ynez lie 300,000 acres of sanctuary, home to oaks, cactus, yucca and black bears. South of the range lies the ocean and the Channel Islands, home to endangered humpback whales, southern sea otter, and red foxes. In Santa Barbara, my shoes come off for the last time and I eat more than my share of tacos and ice cream.
Bikes loaded onto the Amtrak train; I watch through the window as I reverse all the miles I just traveled. I didn’t really learn anything new about myself, I didn’t ride every dirt road I had planned. I did have a load of fun, saw some incredible places, and spent time with good humans. Unfinished journeys are just another excuse to go try it all again. We’re all naturalists, the identities of flora and fauna are incidental, their habitats and behaviors are of minor gravitas, it is the relationships between all things that inhibit our deeper appreciation. Through this appreciation, we may all see each ride differently and perhaps take action to preserve place, whether backyard or mountain range, for inherent value.