Following a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, Rapha Prestige returned last year with twelve event locations around the world. Dillon Osleger designed and hosted one of the events in the Los Padres National Forest outside of Santa Barbara, CA. Accompanied by imagery from Jordan Clark Haggard, Dillon describes the Prestige ride along his untraditional route that became an expression of a special place, of its varying ecosystems, unique culture, and epic vistas.
I’m not sure how many events I’ve been to over the years. Ski competitions at resorts, mountain bike enduros abroad, gravel races across a host of North American surfaces. After each, I’ve wound up back home, working my job and training again. Some events leave a resounding feeling of community and place that compel shivers down my spine for weeks, that evokes a smile years later. Others fade from memory, a sea of faces, a hard effort, a win or loss, no different than the others that they join in an amalgamation of a racing career. It is at home that I think about the above, that I digest how I felt and what I’ve been left with. I wind through mountain ranges, trace the Pacific coastline, and kiss the Mojave Desert on a weekday ride, thinking of places far away. This is the place I call home, a place where I can get lost, where I can find intimacy and connection with the land, where my repeated rides aren’t meant to charge forward, but to go deeper with each pass.
Winter ocean swells are fading as I sit down at my computer with salty hair. A simple email greets me – “We’re planning to host a ride in Santa Barbara in the Fall, would you be available to answer some questions for us?” The folks at Rapha are friends, and with complete transparency, sponsors of myself and my work. Most often, when a brand queries my availability, it relates to racing and creative projects, not event planning, however I’m not one to say no out of hesitancy or inexperience. A few emails back and forth, and I had a ridewithgps file I felt confident in.
At the time, how I got to that route was not quite apparent even to myself. Over ninety-eight miles, it traversed two mountain ranges requiring climbing 14,000 ft. It passed several hot springs, a wilderness area, and a Civilian Conservation Corps era dam, finally descending to a coffee shop nestled by the ocean. Split evenly between pavement and dirt, I had designed a route based on my personal understanding as to what gravel bikes were designed for. Truly, I had designed a route based on what makes this place special to me. A route that was simply an expression of the place that has given me so much.
My work entails the restoration of trails and public lands within the Los Padres National Forest. I have travelled each dirt road on this route before, but on a mountain bike laden with tools. I have stopped to marvel at the strata of 80 million years of geologic time making up these mountains, sat in the hot springs and listened to coyotes howl, swung tools with care to avoid disturbing horny toads, rattlesnakes and tarantulas hidden under agave and chaparral. I have put blood, sweat, tears and years of my life in this landscape, leaving behind only sinuous corridors of dirt for others to experience it for themselves.
Loading a Strava heatmap, the many forest service roads I used for work interconnected, and thus it made logical sense that gravel bikes should be no less valuable a vehicle for experience and understanding. The route for the Rapha Prestige was never meant to be a racecourse, it was an experiment in community, self, and what it means to feel lost. It was meant to lure folks off of their coastlines of certainty, to set sail into uncharted territories within themselves, to evoke a feeling that lasts forever and translates to anywhere.
Leaving from Santa Barbara at 8:00am amidst a blanket of fog, 140 riders drifted up the 3500 ft climb of Gibraltar road. Veering East along Camino Cielo Road, one’s view was split between Channel Islands National Park and the Los Padres National Forest, pulling focus away from an undulating road ahead. Ducking under a rusted forest service gate, tires met dirt and we pointed due North. 2500 ft of descent wove us into the fabric of the Los Padres, past fire burn scars, landslides, cacti, and oak groves. We paid for this entry in sliced tires, a few washouts, and an acknowledgement of having to climb out with only the water in our bottles and food in our pockets. Along a two track road, red from oxidized sandstone, we paralleled the Santa Ynez River at 30km/hr as the sun arced overhead.
As we neared the long abandoned Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, the route showed its true colors. A ford across a dry riverbed, single track sections between cement poured bridges built a century ago, another gate with a sign indicating the delicate nature of the place with regards to Red Legged Frog. Beyond that gate, nature had been allowed to take its course, working with forest fire, erosion, and weather to reclaim a once paved road into what one might generously describe as a wide trail. For an hour our tires meandered back and forth on steep uphills, through pockets of loose shale, and between tall reeds. In order to feel truly lost, it is best to feel a little uncomfortable. It was back here that leaning on another could be as necessary due to emotional need rather than for fuel or kit.
Atop Camuesa Road, a limestone and sandstone based fire road, a 2000 foot descent lay in the way of the aid station. A sense that civilization was close, even if it couldn’t be seen. If one arrived here before 2pm, a 3000 ft dirt climb and descent awaited them before continuing the course, if not then a 3000 ft paved climb still lay between tired legs and town. Bottles topped off, I struck off, up Arroyo Burro road and back to Camino Cielo, riding through leg cramps and the desire to descend down into the fog where Santa Barbara lay. Turning North again, back into the Los Padres, back into the heat, I fell into autumn colors of maple leaves and the smooth dirt of Angoustera road. Once a route to transport water from Gibraltar Reservoir to mission populations in town, it has since been replaced by a tunnel blasted under the mountains themselves.
Two hours after last seeing the aid station, I arrived again to weary bodies laughing while strewn about the grass under gnarled oaks. Everyone had arrived out of the backcountry, most seemed to have forgotten the concept of racing, already telling stories to others well before the finish banner. As I completed the course, up Stagecoach Road, down Painted Cave and Old San Marcos and into the parking lot of Handlebar Coffee Roasters, a glance at my Wahoo noted 7 hours and 13 minutes of moving time. For once, I didn’t feel cracked, I simply felt grateful.
Thankful that everyone had a good time, not only that, but thankful to those who gave their time and energy to share a day with me. Their hours getting lost, feeling alone, and sometimes scared are no different than the hours I have spent, as they all culminate in knowing a place. I sat with a plate of food from Matt Accarrino, smiling at each individual as they rolled in, some shortly after me, others in the pitch dark of the night.
An event needn’t be a race to have meaning. I won’t pretend that making one course makes me an expert, but to see what makes a place special, the far corners, the varying ecosystems, the culture and the dichotomy feels like a path forward for a sport that focuses on riding in circles of varying circumference. Come get lost, I promise you and I both will leave with more questions than answers, which is as it all should be.