California’s size and diversity make it a tough place to plot a working cycling trip, especially when you’re afflicted with FOMO (fear of missing out). You must pick destinations judiciously and strategically, or much of the trip may be experienced solely from behind the windscreen of a car.
Of all the states in the US, California is probably the most similar to NZ, boasting vast topographic variety filled with constant opportunity for surprise. We recently decided to take the NZ Cycling Journal on (and in some cases off) the road, chasing the summer sun and experiencing a sampling of California’s great bike rides.
Staring at a map, it’s difficult to absorb just how vast the “Golden State” truly is. It takes 15 hours of nonstop motorway driving—without any traffic—to drive from its southern border with Mexico all the way north to the state of Oregon. In between are the rolling farmlands, deserts, mountains, huge forests and sprawling cities that make California the world’s sixth largest economy. I’ve lived here for 34 years and have ridden across many parts of the state. Yet still my knowledge gaps are significant. To dig beneath the surface of the California experience, even superficially, would take the better part of six months.
Being the only California resident on the Journal team, I’m naturally tasked with planning this excursion. My soon-to-be traveling companion, Liam, lets his FOMO show quickly in the process, though. Points on the map become seductive, not-to-be-missed beacons for him. In one email, he asks, “I’ve been looking at the map. What if we start up here then bikepack down to your place in Los Angeles?” I’m quick to remind him, “First, that’d take three weeks. Second, we don’t have to do it all on this trip. It’s an easy 12-hour flight to come back. Third, your homeboy here doesn’t bikepack.”
Perhaps my refusal to bikepack is a character flaw . . . but I own it. The romance of pitching a tent after 12 hours of riding, heating canned beans or packaged ramen over a camp stove, not to mention digging my own latrine, is lost on me. Give me a proper mattress and tidy toilet.
A coastal ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles—along California’s Pacific Coast Highway—could easily fit the mandate: make it representative, make it epic. For a week of breathtaking scenery, challenging riding and diversity, it’s a ride that’s hard to beat. It’s the classic tourism board marketing poster of California’s greatest hits. Cycling along Big Sur’s dramatic precipice with the ocean’s crashing waves below is, for obvious reasons, a bucket list ride for many. Being iconic, that also means it’s been done and documented . . . countless times. We are in search of a more elusive experience.
Limited by time, along with unavoidable meetings and an immovable publishing deadline, we agree to pick a few locations and explore them deeply. The pull to explore, though, has a grasp that’s hard to escape. I keep having to remind myself, as much as I do Liam, that we can’t do it all. We decide to focus this trip on exploring three regions: the Coachella Valley (desert home of Palm Springs), Highway 395 along California’s rugged eastern Sierra mountain range, and the forested mountains that frame the city of Los Angeles. There are specific rides in each that offer that perfect moment, that striking vista, that ideal opportunity to look back and feel both cosmically small but still vitally connected to a special place.
For this trip, Trek has promised us three 2019 Checkpoints. An all-road bike designed for any surface, the Checkpoint is, at its heart, a gravel thoroughbred. Although California is not inherently a gravel mecca, it does have an abundance of discoverable and explorable fire roads. This means our “California Dreamin’” ride will get more than a little dirty.
Words: Bryan Yates
Images: Greg Erwin/Liam Friary/Bryan Yates
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