Words: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Photography: Brian Vernor | Date:
Unshaven and smiling, and leaning back into a chair with his feet up, wearing only bib shorts and a dirty cycling cap, Ryan Thomson knocks back a shot of Laphroaig. Aaron, on the phone with his wife but watching Ryan, grins big. Greg, still on the floor where he woke up, quietly stretching his neck and his hips, is well impressed. I look up from my socks and a William Eggleston book, Cole continues singing from somewhere in the back of the house. Hahn walks in from outside with a bag of Crimpys. “I thought we’d celebrate with pastries on account of needing to ride so far, for so long, up a hill that Vernor (ride photographer and host) claims is the worst and meanest on this continent, but shots it is then.”
Outside, the porch is soaked in dew and littered with bicycle apparatus, various tools, and someone has left their shoes out. A helmet, a new grey leather Brooks saddle and locked to the railing, four exhausted Rapha Continental bikes. Meanwhile, on the worn, slippery stairs that lead to the day and the ride, a floor pump sleeps standing up. Beyond it, sunlight, low and diffused, has the town of Santa Cruz surrounded.
Later that morning, settling into our legs and the idea of a long century, speed bumps and mist dole-out our slow roll through an old neighborhood on the edge of town. We coast into the marina. Hundreds of naked masts stick like push-pins from a stand of boats beached near the waters edge. Like the bay, the wind is down and flat. Nothing moves, except a sand covered volleyball some college kids play over a slack and weathered net. We stop for a coffee, and so Aaron can eat one more pastry. Cole reads the newspaper.
Back in the saddle, the coastline passes like postcards lined end to end. Surfers paddling, bobbing and trimming. Parked cars, wedged tight and colorful on the edge of the road, make a seawall mosaic. The fog, heavy and banked, is slowly forced by the ratcheting sun over a cliff, down the beach and out to sea for the day. Waves build, crash and foam. Dogs bark, kids shout and beach cruisers coast by. We continue south through Seacliff State Beach and past the Palo Alto cement shipwreck.
Strawberry fields forever in Watsonville and it smells like sugar and manure. Large semi-trucks laden with produce rumble by at speed, but it’s okay because the shoulder is wide and we’re going downhill and it’s all working nicely. Soon, it’s flat and the road heads in among mile-long, perfect squares; row after row of green, leafy, irrigation-wet food, growing out of the rich dark-brown ground. We zigzag through it all in right angles in a pace line and when the wind plays-up, in echelons. It’s sunny and warmer, and like us, the clear visqueen greenhouses are sweating now too. Pick-up trucks stacked with wooden crates plod and sway down the lesser dirt roads leading into the fields.
Part 1: Superette
Inland, the first set of rolling wooded hills are shallow but persistent and steep. We stand and sprint and shuffle through them. Eucalyptus crowds the narrow pavement. We come to the Elkhorn Superrette and reprovision under the low light and the flicker of fútbol on tv. Back on the road, we watch for several hundred yards as two kids ride a burro down a gravel road parallel to ours. We spin and stare as they bounce and bob, and laugh for the fun of it. Then six, maybe seven miles go by in tattered flags, busted cowboy-style ranch signs and driveways lined with machinery and trucks in various stages of disrepair. Small pockets of caravan homes, chickens and tricycles scatter the hills off to the side.
Past ‘The One-O-One’ (HWY-101), its volume and noise are trumped only by the act of crossing it. The countryside is open and uneven and mostly empty of much but the occasional farm and gravel turn-out. Smaller roads periodically join ours from adjacent hills and valleys. Telephone poles and the long, lonely sweep of their cables race us.
On a rangy section of road, now headed into the deepest valley in sight, we are joined by two gentlemen riding a brevet. The tall one, on a homemade fixed gear, coaxes, pounds and wills his bike up the hills. Down the hills, he chases and furiously pumps the ex-10-speed threatening to buck him. Before reaching a dirt passage, the only way over the steep grassy ridge now dominating the horizon, they turn around, lost. We continue on past the gate as the climb quickly switches back and forth, leaving the occasional oak and its shade for a washed-blue sky and the rocky, grassy pastures flanking the hillside. Our dirt road is narrow and covered in sand, gravel and weeds and rattlesnake tracks. Elbows and knees jut one direction, hips swing and hump another, as we body-english, as much as peddle our way to the top.
A perfect line separating the last of the hilly green farm country behind us, that world, and the infinite hot, sandy-brown valley before us, this world, runs right between our feet. We drop in, gritting and baring our teeth and forcing our arms to go supple. Down the fire road, fast and blasting, the hillside unfurls in a series of sweeping, washed-out turns and washboard straights. We trust the drift, hover over our bikes and let our knees take the big hits.
The valley shimmers and worbles and carrion birds circle above on our way to the main event. We climb, the temperature climbs. We ride harder, the road gets steeper. We ante and Fremont calls, hinting and hiding at the pain to come.
Part 2: Fremont Peak
The lower third of the 12-mile climb is shaded and hot but cooler, much cooler than what’s to come. Growing views of the valley below fade and pop. Moisture is sucked, stolen, lost. We are riding into the sky on a metamorphic path edged in craggy granite and marble. T i m e b e g i n s t o d r a g a n d b l u r w i t h n o e n d i n s i g h t. Cruel double digit grades rush to one-up each other with each next pitch. Tick-tack, pant. Greg and Ryan head off. Greg is riding like a champion. Unstoppable. Graceful, fluid and heroic. Aaron chases after them. Hahn and Cole, like a cruel carrot, float ahead then sink back, ahead, then back. It’s not a mountain it’s a mount, this climb is a pilgrimage. A paved catharsis.
The top comes slowly, so slowly, on the far side of several false flats and a number of misleading descents. It’s crowded with trees, covered in shade and teaming with mosquitoes. But going down is a rush, like learning to fly or skiing for the first time. An hour of torture and hallucinations for this 10-minute bobsled plummet, full of rushing camber, bank and twist. The thinest of snaky roads between you and hundreds of miles of valley stretching out in every direction thousands of feet below you. Is worth it.
Part 3: Mount Madonna
On the far side of the village, on our way home now, we pass through fields and farms and chaparral-covered hills on our way into Mt. Madonna. Near the top of a ridge the trees grow massive and line our passage like watching Ents. When it drops down, the road changes to hard-packed gravel – fast, dirty and fun.
Miles and miles of agriculture, nurseries and shifting winds sometimes lead and sometimes follow us west. It’s mostly flat until a deep green hill covered in trees and shrouded in thick fog signals our imminent return. Back in the world, we make our way north in a trance, past the cars and business and schools and centers and communities. It’s growing dark and things are strange but good with us as we quietly march on the promise of food and hot water.
On the porch we leave everything; shoes and bikes, empty wrappers and bottles, helmets and gloves. They have been our sole possessions for the last day – it feels like a week. Covered in salt and sweat and dirt, they are abandoned for the moment.
Inside, at the table, Ryan pours another shot and passes the bottle and we all sink into the furniture, smiling. Happy Birthday, Ryan.
Part 4: Cue Sheet
Click cue sheet for PDF version