Customer ride, California, February 08
It’s nearing 8:00am in an industrial parking lot in Sausalito, two days before Stage One of the Tour of California. Aaron Erbeck, in a helmet and bib shorts, is scrunched-up and peeing into a bush watching the traffic on Bridgeway Drive. Behind him, a first ever Rapha Continental ride with customers is about to begin, the 105-mile ‘Gentlemen’s Race’. Inspired by Stage One of the ToC, we mapped a route promising miles, scenery and climbing, hoping to deliver some mid-February glory. Twenty-six Bay Area customers and friends are standing around a red sixteen passenger van with arm warmers on, water bottles topped-off, messenger bags and backpacks tossed over seats, helmets located, pockets stuffed with fig newtons, wives kissed and dinner plans foolishly made – quick introductions and light conversation, all coming to a hurried finish. Mingling among them are the ride’s hosts, four West Coast Rapha Continental Team riders and the first member of the East Coast Team, Slate Olson the new general manager for Rapha, two local riders, Kathryn and Murphy, and Rapha’s creative director.
Slate gathered everyone around – “Ok, so the ride starts by going up the side of Tam on a gravel section that shouldn’t be a problem, then we take Seven Sisters down to Alpine Lake, then up through Fairfax and Nicasio Valley to Marshall Wall, up the One to Coleman Valley Road until dropping finally into Occidental. It’s about a ten thousand foot day and a little over a century, so pace yourself and stay hydrated so you don’t get weird on us. Some of you are turning around about half-way and riding back to the City. The rest of you, put whatever you want in the van for the ride home. Murphy and the Continental guys will lead us out. Keep your helmet on and don’t get lost.”
Clack and clip-clack-clack, clip-clip-clack, the parking lot is empty.
Twenty suburban minutes into the ride and the group approaches a gate and the first major climb. Old Railroad Grade is a six-mile fire road with a short descent at the end before reaching the top of Mt. Tamalpais. It’s rideable on 23’s and nano-technology but it does require skill, some luck and a lot of determination. And, as if to deter everyday roadies from a truly hardman experience, it starts sharper and rockier than it really is. Once into the body of the climb lines are easily found and the gravel thins to hard pack dirt. The glory of riding road bikes up Tam, the birthplace of mountain biking, was palpable, and our hearts would warm with each passing down-hiller on a full-suspension rig and full-face helmet. That said, one of us went down hard and we lived in fear of flatting. Towards the top, we left the trees and overhead cover for a classic California fire road scene – endless khaki switchbacks and big views of the valley and Golden Gate Bridge and Pacific Ocean below.
“It took a few minutes for the reality of the first hour to sink in. I’m not sure why it surprised me so much; I’d enjoyed reading about the unpaved sections the Continental guys had ridden in Oregon. I guess I just didn’t think it would happen to me. And now, I know you can ride a road bike just about anywhere if you have to.”
– Michael Robertson
“I’m just really glad that Ira flatted. I’m confident I would have caught him regardless but it’s nice when you’re handed the advance and you don’t have to hurt for it.” – Cole Maness, Rapha Continental Rider
“We ride this section all the time on our road bikes. It’s THE way to climb Tam and sure it’s rocky in places but epic doesn’t come out of a machine for fifty cents, you don’t get epic free with a car wash. But seriously, it was a pleasure to lead a bunch of roadies into the dirt.”
– Murphy Mack
At the top, eight miles into the ride with wheels firmly planted on pavement, we regrouped, watered and dropped into a road that instantly opened on the left to views of the Pacific and on the right, rolling light green grassy ridges and hillsides. Ahead, Seven Sisters (aka. Seven Bitches if you climb it in the opposite direction), a series of major rolling drops, undulated downhill along what felt like the world’s tallest retaining wall. We all dove like racecars, one after the other, in the drops and leaning to the left, in the drops and leaning to the right, again and again. The combination of salty air, color, and scale made the surroundings appear fake and too perfect, almost like a massive movie set or model and the sun was shinning on us as if on cue. Then with a blink, we all disappeared into the darkest and densest of forests imaginable. Our eyes adjusted on old growth cedar trees and a mossy patina covering everything. The road was suddenly rippled and busted and covered in branches and leaves. One at a time, we all blew through the apex of the first dark and sketchy turn as we began our three mile descent to Alpine Lake.
“That descent felt like an abandoned theme-park ride from a long time ago. You know, dangerously fun and a more than a little creepy.”
– Aaron Erbeck, Continental Rider
“Did I just ride through Lord of the Rings on the way to a lake?”
At the bottom, the trees opened to a picture perfect lake which our shaded road skirted for half a mile until crossing over a dam with a two hundred foot drop on one side and the lake lapping away inches from our feet on the other. We caught-up, ate-up and warmed-up in the sun before riding up a smooth and consistently hard grinder out of the valley. Thirty minutes later, with the lake behind and below us, we rolled over a ridge, then another, and then another, before finally descending into Fairfax.
“I’m behind Aaron and Cole and we’re really putting it down, after that climb I’m so ready for it. Then suddenly, my nose is a half-inch away from buzzing my front tire. Figures, I’m feeling great and we’re all attacking off the front, playing pro, and my bars slip.”
– Jeremy Dunn, Continental Rider
Twenty-five miles in, in a parking lot in Fairfax, everyone is taking stock of the day – fitness levels, the distance to go, average speed. Half of us are queued up across the street for the bike shop’s toilet, and Luke and Sebastian are patronizing a drive-thru espresso stand with a few others. Meanwhile, at the other end of the parking lot, thirty to forty mountain bikers were getting ready for a birthday party ride, that or a Shriners function – they all wore colorful pointy triangular hats strapped to their helmets. It was a beautiful moment and the last time our group was together.
“The mood in that parking lot was so upbeat, it was irrational exuberance. We were all friends and talking and everyone was feeling great. What did it matter that we were less than a quarter of the way in?”
– Slate Olson
The ride out of Fairfax was steep and straight and long enough for the group to get strung out again. The road crested for a second and the descent began immediately. A mile further along, near the bottom, Ira, Cole and Jeremy blew by the left turn Murphy had cautioned us not to miss. With the exception of those guys, everyone stayed together for a collective turn onto Nicasio Valley and the next stage of the ride through ranch lands, hill country dotted with rocks, cows and sheep, Nicasio Reservoir and the Cheese Factory. At Point Reyes Station road, about half way in, the half-day’ers split off from the main group and turned around for the ride back into the city. Led by Slate, the main group continued on to Marshall Wall and ten miles of bucolic wonderland. Just before the final three-mile climb out of the valley, Ira and gang caught the main group and blew right by, like a lost but very strong and hopelessly eager half locomotive, half Labrador retriever. The top was windy and golden and briefly flat before falling, the best descent of the day, into the Pacific.
Back on HWY1 we regrouped in a small market whose door opened literally onto the freeway. Cokes and chips were eaten in the parking lot wedged between Tomales Bay and the road. The distance and the climbing were starting to show with everybody visibly looking for a second wind, rubbing hamstrings and trying to keep the conversation away from the eighteen miles left before Coleman Valley Road, the KOM of Stage One and the ten mile climb to Occidental. At about this point, we realized that Luke, Aaron and a two others were missing. We decided they must have turned around and ridden back to SF.
Half-way through the next hour-and-a-half on a fast and not very private stretch of HWY 1, featuring miles of cresting rollers, spectacular coastal views, blooming hillsides, and a constant stream of large trucks and loaded station wagons, the cracks began to show.
“I was cramping so badly, I just didn’t have anything left, when you guys pulled up and handed me that salt tablet out of the window I knew I was done. Once you start hitting and pounding your legs, it’s just a matter of time.”
– Cole Maness, Continental Rider
“You’ve got to know your limitations and mine was apparently 65 miles.”
– Michael Robertson
Further up the road, ninety miles in, and the group, down to five now, Ira, Slate, Jeremy, Aaron Hulme and Lander, made a right onto Bay Hill Road, “the four mile short-cut.” The sun is low and everybody is crusty and faded. It starts with a steep mile long section through a weeping tree tunnel and lots of conversation. Nobody wants silence and the climb to really begin, but eventually there’s nothing left to say. As the road continues broken, steep and quiet out of the trees into an open misty valley, Ira once again moves off the front with Jeremy close behind. The top is nothing but rolling hills, the odd farmhouse and another flat for Ira. Aaron, Slate and Lander clear the top just as Ira is slamming his wheel into place.
“Is a shortcut a shortcut when it adds 900 feet of climbing?”
– Ira Ryan, Continental Rider
“That was the fastest tire change I’ve ever witnessed, ever. I think he knew that nobody was gonna wait for him and it was starting to get cold. I would have waited, probably.”
– Jeremy Dunn, Continental Rider
After a beautiful, twisty old-world decent on chip seal, wooden fence posts and monolithic rock mounds blurring by, the ride regrouped back on HWY1 for the two mile approach to Coleman Valley Road.
“The right off the One was drive-way steep and I could tell there was nothing coy or misleading about this climb. It was a bitch from the start and we were already ninety-five miles in to the day.”
– Ira Ryan, Continental Rider
From the start, it was a short, steep and mostly straight grind to the base of a wall. Then the road switch backed left a hundred and eighty degrees up the side of a vertical rock-face gaining hundreds of feet in seconds. More like a goat trail or hidden path to a lost temple, Coleman Valley Road was close to disrespecting gravity and civil engineering full stop. It was like that for two miles, and around every corner was another determined and nauseating double-digit left or right, smiling at its private soul-crushing joke on you. Inspirational messages written in paint in the center of the road, iconic European style, helped a bit, but even better was the running shove everybody got from the support crew at the top of the top. Even a couple of teenagers making-out in a van in a turn-out thirty yards down the slope got swept up in the moment and would beep-beep every time one of the group rounded the last corner into sight.
“I can’t believe Ira took a push”
– Daniel Wakefield Pasley, Continental Rider (turned Driver because of flu)
The road on top of the world continued rolling and lightly climbing as seven miles of Irish hillsides and Scottish highlands, from shaggy foreign cows and magically diffused sunlight to moors and forty-four shades of green rolled by. The group was totally broken-up at this point and the last forty minutes into Occidental in the fading sunlight was a solitary proposition. First Ira, then Jeremy, then Aaron, then Slate and Lander rolled down the last hill into town, through the stop sign and across the street to the side of a building, where everyone stayed planted and cold except for frequent visits to the market around the corner for beer, fluid replacement drinks, beef jerky and more chips.
Luke, Craig, Sebastian and Aaron were still nowhere in sight. By this point, we knew that they were in fact behind the group climbing Coleman Valley in the dark, and not in a bath with a martini back at the hotel in San Francisco as we had assumed. It turns out that we missed them in Tomales Bay when they stopped for oysters and champagne and we didn’t. But now it was dark and very cold and they were somewhere the other side of the meanest climb in five counties. It was decided that our support vehicle should head out to find them. About four miles out of Occidental, we rounded a tight left turn and caught them, like lycra-clad deer, in our headlights. They were descending, blinking and reflecting their way steadily along with Trystan’s van lighting their way from behind. We turned around, gave them a poor man’s after-dark mussette bag of beer and jerky, and drove back into town to alert the others. In what felt like minutes later, but was actually another three and half miles for Luke and his gang, the whole group was back together again, on the side of the building – talking, drinking and comparing notes and stories while we loaded bikes in the vans to head back to Sausalito.
photos by Chris Milliman