Not a Race, More Than a Ride: The 2023 Rapha Yomp Rally

The inaugural Rapha Yomp Rally took place in early May and saw nearly 100 riders embark on a 390-mile mixed-surface route, from Santa Barbara to Santa Monica, through the remote Los Padres region. Hailey Moore rode the route and provides a from-the-saddle recap alongside photos from Rugile Kaladyte, Sean Greene, Anton Krupicka, and a few of her own. Read on for reflections on the Yomp and non-competitive bikepacking rallies.

Even without the hoards of cyclists—shuffling around in the heavy morning mist, coffee-in-hand, giving last minute tugs to bag straps and donning or doffing final layers—Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Midtown Santa Barbara was a happening spot on a recent Friday morning in early May. The hundred-ish additional helmeted heads certainly added to the buzz of neighborhood regulars as the cafe’s adjacent patio and parking lot had been taken over as the “official” starting point for the inaugural Rapha Yomp Rally.

At 7am, the familiar hum of freehubs and freshly-cleaned chains cloaked the otherwise soft sounds of morning. There wasn’t exactly the same frenetic vibration of a race starting line, but as the different groups swept into the streets, there was a palpable sense of urgency. Every rider’s face seemed to read, “this isn’t a race but it’s more than just a ride.”

I looked down at my bike in dismay, like a disappointed dog owner who’s just come home to find a steaming pile on the carpet. But, just like the dog, it wasn’t the bike’s fault that we hadn’t yet joined the masses—I was the one who’d been too busy over the past few weeks and my bike was just in need of some extra TLC.

What’s a Yomp?

Rapha announced the Yomp early this year, positioning it as “a rally not a race; an ultra without the red tape.” The name, broadly, refers to a laborious long-distance walk or trek, undertaken while being fully loaded down, and has its origins in military terminology. There is a kind of slangy British brilliance to it; its onomatopoeic powers seem to fully capture the essence of a hard-charging slog, albeit one characterized by abundant PMA. (Plus, it almost simultaneously connotes the rebellious manginess of a close linguistic cousin, Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp!”)

The route itself was envisioned by Dillon Osleger and would travel nearly 390 miles with ~42,000’ of climbing through Southern California. As Rapha’s website description calls out, it would follow a roughly reverse course of “the path the Spanish Padres took in 1769 to create the California Missions, which could have been noticed all along in Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, New Cuyama, and Santa Paula.” Notably, Rapha also adds that, “Every inch of land once belonged to the Chumash people, and their influence is still felt in supporting many of the projects that steward these roads and trails.”

Due to the unprecedented amount of storm destruction wrought on California this past winter and spring, the Yomp organizer, Brandon Camarda (Head of Marketing, Rapha North America), recced the planned route in its entirety the week prior. After a stretch of soul crushing hike-a-bike, he decided to make some adjustments that would turn the circuitous point-to-point into a lollipop outside Santa Barbara, with a final spur south to reach Santa Monica. Rest assured, he did not, however, smooth out all of the on-foot difficulty.

While the event was non-competitive in nature, there was a slight catch that perhaps explains the aforementioned sense of urgency seen amongst the starters. Participants in the event gained the logistical benefit of Rapha shuttling their luggage from the start in Santa Barbara to the finish line at Rapha’s Santa Monica retail location, but riders would have just five days to complete the course in time for Rapha’s finish party. Essentially, that boiled down to logging ~80 miles/8,400’ per day—maybe you’re not racing, but you’re probably not relaxing much either.

Day 1

So, with plenty of hard miles ahead, what was I doing on the sidelines at Handlebar? After a late arrival the night before with Tony, and assembling my bike in a frazzled state that morning, I swung a leg over to ride down to the start only to find the handling was waaaay off. After some initial optimistic fiddling, we ended up taking the fork completely out again to find a headset washer was missing. Did we leave it at home? Did it fall out when TSA searched my bag? It didn’t really matter what happened but I knew I couldn’t ride without getting it sorted. We were able to rally down to see the starters off, then enjoyed a second cup of coffee as we waited for a bike shop to open.

We did eventually get rolling—shoutout to Velo Pro Cyclery for the parking lot fix, half an hour before open!—and I was almost more glad to embark on the initial 4,000’ climb away from Santa Barbara in isolation, rather than amongst the giddy masses. There was so much to take in. The flipside of the record snow year and countless atmospheric rivers California has faced in recent months is this spring’s superbloom. We climbed through lush coastal groves—streets lined with nasturtiums, cosmos, succulents, and more—into the sage-laden hills and mountain chaparral where a veil of clouds gave occasional views back west to the sea, and, to the east, teased the immensity of the Sierra Madre.

For the first several hours it felt like nearly any other tour that Tony and I have taken together, lapsing in and out of easy conversation, pausing for a few photos. It wasn’t until the first prolonged dirt stretch and numerous washouts of Refugio Road that we started to catch up to a few of our fellow Yompers. Then, at the first resupply stop of Santa Ynez, we found quite a few more riders with the same idea we had—a well-deserved lunch stop!

Somewhere in the pastures at the base of Happy Canyon, Brandon and Shaun Daley, who were rolling around the course in a sponsor-supplied Rivian, found us (“You guys made it!”) and it was fun to pause and chat with them. Brandon’s smile stretched to its limits when we told him how impressed we were with the route so far, and Shaun, who’s primary form of communion with the natural world is surfing, seemed appropriately amused by this whole bikepacking thing.

Last light found us on the Happy Canyon climb, on the slopes of Mount Figueroa, and the illuminated clusters of yellow Flannelbush gave new meaning to the term golden hour. We whooped through the Fig Road descent in velvet twilight, rolling into Los Olivos a mere 10 minutes after the R Country Market had closed for the night. No matter, at 87mi/ 12,500’ for the day, we were ready for some shuteye.

Photo: Anton Krupicka 

Day 2

As we were all-but-pacing outside of the R Country Market at 7:05 (advertised opening of 7am), we realized that we’d missed a whole bunch of riders that had stopped to camp partway down Fig Road the night before. As such, it was no surprise when Jeff Kerkove and his Yomp comrade, Kyle Stamp, and a few others rolled down to the market. As we were packing up what we hoped would be enough calories for the next ~150-mile stretch, I congratulated Jeff on his recent blazing time at Ozark Gravel DOOM. Brandon and Shaun also arrived just as we were leaving and I was impressed at their early start and dedication to checking in on everyone.

It was also entertaining to hear the update from Brandon on others’ approach to the event: apparently, Chris Burkard and Lael Wilcox—who have both publicly announced that they’re racing the Tour Divide this year—had shot off the front early in the ride and had ridden through the night!

Zippers bulging with snacks, we finally pushed off to officially start Day 2 about 8am. The early miles went quickly and before long we found ourselves turning off on the Old Sierra Madre Ridge Road. This would start the most testing stretch of the route—85 miles of steep dirt, rough double track, and an eventual half-hiking/half-riding climb through deadfall and rubble to reach the route’s high point on the shoulder of Big Pine Mountain. The ensuing nearly 5,000’ differential between the high point and a river crossing that marked the return to civilization would also be painfully slow going through rock slides, stream beds, and loose chunk.

We wouldn’t reach the high point on the flanks of Big Pine until midday of Day 3 and in the blazing hours of our second afternoon, as we crept and crawled up and up, I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of these hills. Having just spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the Sierra Madre felt like their taller, drier, west coast cousin, with bigger views but where the horizon line also continuously undulates though it’s hard to detect a distinct point of marked prominence. It just rolls and rolls forever.

Through here, we leap-frogged a few times with Jeff and Kyle and two other guys riding Moots. Six bone-shaking miles on the most pitted cow track I’ve ever ridden felt like a mental nadir and served as the price of entry for an up close look at the incredible and improbable rock formations of Lion Canyon and Painted Caves.

Day 3

Hoping to catch some morning sun, we spent our second night tucked off the road just before it changed directions from east to south: 92 miles ridden and 11k’ of climbing. We awoke to extreme damp and a clinging humid cold—we were back in the clouds. We had taken stock of our dwindling calories at “dinner” the previous night and knew we would’t be able to stay adequately fueled for the remaining 60+ miles out. We got rolling without breakfast, hoping to start making ground early as the calorie clock was ticking.

Although we were only trading places with a handful of riders on the course, it was through the Big Pine zone that we started to see more signs of life from those we trailed. We rode next to the footprints of some poor soul pushing their bike for miles and, at one point, we spotted a 15-link section of abandoned chain. We’d learn at the finish that two riders had cracked their carbon frames on this raucous stretch (impressively, one would go onto finish on a rental bike he procured in Santa Barbara).

We finally made it down to the Santa Ynez River crossing, stopping on the shaded north banks to grimly eat the very last of our food. We weren’t exactly wasted, yet, but I think both Tony and I were bracing for the bonk that would find us on the final 3,000’ climb standing between us and the next resupply. Just moments after I had literally licked the last crumbs from my remaining gas station pastry package, Brandon came splashing across the river’s shallow crossing in Birkenstocks astride his Ventum, coming to tell us he’d set up a little emergency aid station just on the other side. Ever the caring course martial, he’d spent a sleepless night tracking riders’ progress through the route’s crux and knew that most everyone had underestimated its difficulty.

Later on, I’d learn that Brandon first started thinking about the Yomp back in 2019, while racing the Silk Road Mountain Race for the second time. By then, he had amassed substantial experience at the long stuff—racing, multi-day tours with friends—and was searching for a way to share, as he says, “that deep sense of transformation that you get from something very challenging.” But it wasn’t just the personal journey he was after; the bonds formed with others in endurance events were always a priority, and he wanted to facilitate, “the family that you build through sharing a difficult experience with others,” while “[stripping] out the nagging sense that you’re falling behind/need to hurry up/are competing with others and really can’t stop to smell the flowers. Those are the aspects I never loved while racing.”

During the pandemic-related uncertainty of 2020, he started taking on long, tough rides on his own—like the Colorado Trail—but realized “those rides missed the family aspect that you get from doing a mission with a big group of strangers.” Still, he’d always chafed a bit at the race-enforced ethos that prohibited riders from helping each other during these efforts; not being able to share an energy bar or tire plug with a companion on course felt antithetical to the community element that said races purported to promote.

As Tony and I gratefully partook in Brandon’s supply of watermelon, chips, and other treats, he reiterated that this was part of why he wanted the Yomp to be a rally, not a race. The course itself was challenging enough; if him bringing out some snacks meant that more riders got to finish and, in turn, feel a new level of accomplishment and agency, wasn’t that worth trading for a more purist approach? This, of course, is endlessly debatable as bikepacking has largely espoused self-supported and self-sufficiency ethos and for valuable reasons: there are plenty of times when there is no external recourse if you find yourself pickled in the backcountry (as a multiple-time finisher of the CT, Brandon knows better than some). Still, I’d say there is room for both approaches and for a non-race event, when there is no group-prescribed glory at stake so quibbles over fairness and what constitutes as support cease to matter, it felt just right.

I know that, for me, Brandon’s SOS service absolutely improved my experience on the climb back over to the coast; I would have *survived* it either way, but, damn, those chips and watermelon put some fresh vigor back into the legs. We regained pavement on the ridge overlooking Santa Barbara and reveled in the glorious, serpentine curves of Gibraltar Road as we closed the northern loop, with a dot-watcher in tow! We found an Italian eatery in Montecito and hit the co-op style grocery before putting in 20 more miles before bed. A roadside bivvy next to a swampy drainage served as our sleeping spot for the third night—it wasn’t glamorous but it got the job done.

Photo: Anton Krupicka 

Day 4

There is a mental shift that always comes on the last day of a trip—I think you push a little harder when you know the end is so close. And, after the arduous passage over Big Pine, it felt like we were flying. The morning started with an idyllic climb up, and joyride down, Sulphur Mountain; lunch was Jersey Mikes’ subs and McDonald’s shakes in Santa Paula; and the afternoon brought us through Toro Canyon to the coast. The final stretch followed Mulholland Highway, which proved to be just as spectacular as everyone says, for nearly 40 miles. The initial sustained climb felt purpose-built for cyclists before giving way to punchy rollers and then, finally, turned to dirt and sunset views down into the city. The last narrow ridge descent felt frenzied in the dark then, all of a sudden, we emerged into the ritz-iest neighborhood I’ve ever seen. Hello Santa Monica.

I love finishing long, multi-day rides at night—the demarcation between days provides such a clean break—and we rolled up to the Rapha store around 9pm. Brandon greeted us with hugs and congratulations and we settled into the post-ride, senses-ringing stupor of satisfaction.

In Closing

The finisher’s party the next night had a jubilant air as everyone shared stories of toil from the trail. Most folks were sunburned in some place or another but everyone seemed content. There were trays of hearty lasagna and an ice cream truck behind the store that wasn’t keeping tallies on how many cups you got. Brandon gave a heartfelt congratulations and thank you to all of us “inaugurals” who had joined in this memorable experience.

Although he wasn’t at the finishers party, I’d heard that Chris Burkard had pushed extremely hard to finish the course sometime Sunday morning and I reached out to him afterwards for his impressions of the route, and motivation to ride it single-push:

“It’s a beast of a route that requires the utmost respect and puts you into some true backcountry, despite feeling so close to LA, Santa Barbara, etc. I started the ride with more anxiety than I’m used to, given that I had no sleep kit and no backup plan other than to just keep riding.

I lined up at the Yomp starting line with a single aspiration, to push my mind and body through a long mountainous ride with the hope of a final training block for the Tour Divide. I was inspired to see so many fast, strong riders at the start line… but I had one very strong advantage. I knew the route well and I knew the terrible conditions it was in. For some, that reality fully set in [in the] Sierra Madre where they ran out of food; for others it was the snow and the miles of peanut butter mud. For me, it came [when] crossing the high point of the route, Big Pine, in the middle of the night seeing bear and mountain lion tracks in the snow. I was the first to descend and there was nothing fast about it.. the only thing pushing me to move onward was getting resupply in Santa Barbara.”

Like Chris, Lael had also chosen to ride through the first night and, given her wealth of experience riding and racing around the world, I also wanted to know what her mindset was going into the Yomp. She listed a few main reasons why she’d wanted to attend the Yomp upon hearing of it: 1) the non-competitive/do-what-you-want nature of rallies, 2) the event’s intentional 50-50 split between men and women, 3) having a chance to return to the area after bikepacking the Tour de Los Padres route in 2016, and 4) knowing that if Brandon was at the helm, the whole experience would be top notch.

With Rue on the media crew for the event, Lael admitted to having mixed feelings about how to ride the route: “I really didn’t know what approach to take for the ride. [Rue and I] usually ride rallies together. Going into it, I thought I’d take it easy and spend time with friends. [But,] the morning of the start, I was so excited I felt like I was going to blast out of my seat. Someone asked me how I was going to ride and I basically shouted back, ‘I’m going to ride as much as I want to!’ And that’s what I did. I packed a full sleep kit, but I didn’t use it. I rode the first 250-mile loop in one push.”

Like everyone, she found the Big Pine section notably challenging: “I was surprised how hammered the route got from last winter’s storms— the washed out roads definitely felt like racing across Kyrgyzstan.” And while she says she wished the roads were in better shape, I appreciated her framing of passing through, “it felt like I was learning something out there— watching the land transform.”

After battling peanut butter mud for hours on Saturday morning, she decided to lean into the rally format and stop for a rest—and a car wash-bike wash—in one of the coastal towns south of Santa Barbara. She finished out the route on the third day with another rider, Matteo, which felt fitting given the communal spirit of these events. Of the event format, she said, “I love rallies because everyone has their own experiences that might intersect. We’re all out there having fun and struggling and we can relate to each other. Generally, it’s not life or death. We can laugh when things go wrong. We can be proud of each other. It’s a real chance for camaraderie.”

Throughout the Yomp, I felt like the essence of the event was a perfectly-balanced scale, with camaraderie on one side and personal challenge on the other. While I think there’s a place for both, I do think that some events that overly prioritize community and camaraderie do so at the expense of providing a real challenge. On the other hand, as Brandon alluded to during our riverside pit stop, if challenge and competition are the primary focus, you can lose the opportunity for camaraderie. While this is certainly a matter of perspective, for me, having both in equal measure is what creates a durable memory.

When I asked Brandon for a finisher count, it seemed like that stat hadn’t really factored into his measure of success for the Yomp: “Everyone made it to LA! I’m not sure how many people did the actual course in full…some folks finished the whole thing, some cut sections to make sure they could get to the finishing party on time and celebrate with everyone—Everyone made it what they needed it to be.”