Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tour de Los Padres April 11-14 - Part 1

Los Padres: View from my camping spot, Sunday morning

The Tour de Los Padres is a new multi-day bikepacking route in Southern California, thanks to the scouting and planning efforts of Erin Carroll, a landscape architect in Santa Barbara. I was riding for four full days and it was a great excursion into surprisingly remote and isolated areas with great scenery. There were more than 2 days (days 3 and 4) when I saw no car and no other people (except two other cyclists who started at the same time), making it more isolated than any stretch of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route/Tour Divide (where I don’t think I ever had more than 24 uninterrupted hours alone).

I used my new bike, a titanium frame by Eriksen (the guy who founded Moots cycles) with a Rohloff hub, a 14-speed internal shifting system. Not sure yet what I think of Rohloff yet, needs a few more rides. A German engineering marvel, for sure, less sensitive to mud and difficult riding conditions, but also more sluggish shifting and more weight (but at more than $1000 for the hub, it lightens your wallet sufficiently to make up for its extra weight). On this ride and with those conditions, standard derailleurs would have worked better for me. I also changed the rest of my setup compared to Stagecoach: Much less need for water, but fewer resupply possibilities require more food. I traded 2 bottle holders for a frame bag with food. As the route stands, it is 4 full days of riding with the last commercial resupply in the afternoon of the first day (Ventucopa). To pack three days of food most likely requires a backpack for part of the ride. I put the backpack on top of the saddle bag (or inside the saddle bag or framebag) as soon as it gets empty enough - I hate having something on my back. But 3 days of food, even a narrow selection of dense foods, adds about 10 pounds and corresponding bulk. 
Break time at Miranda Pines, Saturday evening

Putting together a long connected route is a lot of work and on-the-ground time. Connecting just 100 km of mountain bike trails without getting on busy roads or trails of questionable legality is always difficult and often just impossible. Erin actually developed 3 alternative routes and documented them on his website ( I think the most attractive option is the 450km Frazier Park to Santa Barbara one-way route, which he labels the “race route”. Only about a dozen people have tried any of his routes so far, including a mass start with 9 of us this month. I was actually surprised that there have been so few takers, especially since Erin tried to organize a shuttle. In the end, it was better to test the route this year with a small number because it needs some fine-tuning. There are a few sections that need to be avoided, but Erin already has alternatives in mind. Check out my day 4 report for problem areas. 

Full moon over the Carrizo Plain

Full moon is always a good time for long rides that go into the night. Full moon also coincided with spring break and the Julian fiddle camp, which Anya had been eager to do. I took Anya to Julian at the beginning of the week, but was happy to have a more challenging activity later that week. On Thursday, I made the 5 hour drive from Julian to Santa Barbara to have dinner with Erin and his wife Molika, who have a condo in the city center just off State street. Claude Frat from Northern California arrived around the same time as me. We had pizza, beers, and swapped experiences. A bike mechanic from Ventura, Tristan Borgeson, stopped by. He had tried the route a week before us with a friend and they had a tough second day (I still could see evidence from their struggle, see the picture posted under day 2) and eventually ran out of time and stopped before Santa Barbara. 

Very early Friday morning, we piled into Erin’s Subaru Outback (Subarus have gotten a lot bigger since we bought ours 15 years ago, just like the clothing size inflation) and headed to Frazier Park.

Day 1 - Friday

It was chilly, but above freezing, for the Grand D├ępart. So maybe it wasn't that grand, but there were 9 of us. We all had spot trackers and it always is fun to replay individual locations on the trackleaders website: It was pretty obvious from their minimal gear that Blake Bockius and Erick Lord would battle it out in terms of speed, they carried hardly anything and their bikes were probably 15 pounds lighter. Somewhat of a self-commitment: if you have no sleeping bag, you’re not going to sleep in the mountains! (at least Erick; Blake said he had a sleeping bag). The rest of us had more standard setups for multi-day trips with dry sacks under the handlebars and a saddle bag. I expected 3 nights out there, some at high elevations, so I was prepared for very cold nights (it did not get particularly cold, though, so some extra layers were never used). 

Erick Lord on the far left, Black Bockius fourth from left. You can see from their outfits that they were ready to race from the start!  Erin (in the middle, behind me) and I even wore baggy shorts and didn't use cleats. Claude, on the right, is the senior citizen of the group and almost eligible for Medicare. From left: Erick Lord, Mike Abbott, Ty Hathaway, Blake Bockius, Erin Carroll, Roland Sturm, Jason Osborne, Art de Goede, Claude Frat.  

I usually dislike the stretch out of Frazier Park, narrow road and lots of fast traffic, but that's because I almost always have been on a road bike. There actually is a dirt path parallel to the road, so that makes the ride much more pleasant. Obin will recognize the store on the left from our ride in January, when we did a counterclockwise road loop (coming from the left on Lockwood Road and making a left). He ate 2000 calories at lunch to overcome his bonk to no avail.

Just before the road to Mt Pinos, the route turns away from pavement and there is a few miles of pretty single track (although some lifting over fallen trees) and an attractive (but still hard) dirt road climb). I definitely wasn't doing too well that morning (really all day) and felt the altitude. Of course, it could be not enough sleep or something else, but I was huffing and puffing. I also was a bit concerned about my left knee, which I hurt on Stagecoach (forgetting to readjust saddle height) and which was not doing well at all at the start. However, it didn't get worse and this first climb was a tough test.

Erin on dirt road climb up Mt. Pinos

The route connects with pavement near McGill Campground. All the campgrounds are still closed in April, so there is very little traffic or people. At this point, the route becomes a bit artificial as it is almost out-and-back, but it is worth riding up the extra few km either to the end of the pavement (a parking lot at the Nordic Ski Base) or even to the top of Mt Pinos. I didn't go all the way to the top, which would have been an extra detour from the route, but I have done it before and it is not much further. As there is a wilderness area (no bikes allowed in wilderness areas) past the top, there is no alternative for bikes than to backtrack. But there is a terrific single track trail from the Nordic Base parking lot down. The Mt Pinos single track trail is as nice as mountain trails go and I have ridden it both up and down before. 

It was a hard morning, only 3 hours in, but already well over 1000 m of climbing. The Mt Pinos Nordic Base is at 2500m. About 5 or 6 of us seemed to arrive at about the same time, just Erick and Blake were long gone. 

Campsite No. 1 at this hike-in campsite near the top

There was still some snow, but not much. Generally rideable, just a few short stretches of walking. 
Claude pushing his bike downhill

The single track down Mt Pinos is great, itself worth the climb. Flowing forest trail, not too technical, not too rocky, just fun to ride. I guess that's why I have ridden it up and down before....

Ty Hathaway doing trailside repair

Even such a nice trail can cause problems and I caught up with Ty Hathaway, who was using a tree as a work stand for trailside repair. He had a sidewall cut and while he was able to fix it temporarily and ride further, it was the beginning of the end of his trip. He has not had good luck recently. Last year, his frame broke on Stagecoach 1/3 from the end; last month he was too sick to start Stagecoach, and now another mechanical that early on a tour.  

Back to the main road for a bit and a quick ice cream, coke, chocolate milk at Pine Mountain Club convenience store. Then came the first dud of the route, Mt. Abel (the old name, after a local politician)/Cerro Noroeste (the current official name)/Campo Alto (campground name). If you look at the route, it is a little wart that sticks out and starts and ends at the same point. To do an extra detour, it should be something special. Well, memorable it was, but I have nothing good to report about this wart/loop. It was a tedious pavement climb, followed by an atrocious hike-a-bike down. The view climbing up was nice and there were no cars as the road was still closed to cars for the winter. Fine if you want to train on a road bike, excellent even for that purpose. The top would be a nice spot for camping, but the best way down is the same road. Instead, the route started to use a trail built by downhill riders. It is manageable at the top, but pretty soon it was just walking downhill and eventually bushwhacking or trespassing (the latter would have been a better choice). In any event, it is not worth the effort and I never intend to do this section again. There is really no alternative approach as Cerro Noroeste is surrounded by wilderness areas (no bikes allowed), so only hikers can connect Mt. Pinos and Cerro Noroeste directly.

Astonishingly, just as I started the climb up, Blake Bockius and Erick Lord came bombing down already. Given that this extra loop would take me a few hours, they had opened a huge gap by mid-afternoon! Packing very lightly surely helps (by now, they had done over 2000 m of climbing), but I trust they went too hard, testing each other and trying not to show any weakness. That pace must have made for a pretty painful first day, although Blake kept riding through the night. A very impressive effort, my ride would have ended here had I tried to keep with them at the start.

Once I got get back to the turnoff (tired, annoyed, and scratched), it was a long and easy dirt road downhill (Quatal Canyon) to Highway 33 and a few houses called Ventucopa and I cheered up. I stopped at the one restaurant that would be open on a Friday at 6.30 pm, I think it is called "The Place". There aren't too many alternatives at any time - a dinner date/winery place and the outlet of the Santa Barbara Pistachio company. Claude Frat and Art de Goede were having dinner there as well and we left together from the restaurant, just a bit before sunset. They rode the rest of the route together as the Produce Train: Both are in the produce business (Claude exporting California fruit and vegetables to Europe; Art managing a fresh produce warehouse). I ate/drank too much to really pedal hard immediately, so the Produce Train pulled away into the headwind.
Art and Claude taking off towards Carrizo

I let the produce train go and enjoyed a sunset ride
Highway 33 isn't so bad in the Ventucopa area, it has a shoulder and traffic was light. The stretch on 166 is not pleasant, although again there is a shoulder and it only is a few km. The big trucks also gave me a lot of room, many moved to the other lane, a pleasant surprise. Still, I was very glad to turn off 166 at the abandoned gas station and roll into the Carrizo Plain National Monument, just as it got dark. 

I had planned to get through the Carrizo Plain and camp a bit up the next climb into the Caliente Range after getting water at Selby Campground, but I had not felt great all day. I was more tired than expected and my knee had some disconcerting twinges. So when I saw an interesting area on the right side of the road - looked like a mini Grand Canyon - I stopped early and called it a day, about 9 pm. Yes, that is all there is to my camp, toss the sleeping bag on the ground and be done. The only trick is that I need to find a spot without rocks because I don't bring a sleeping pad. About 140 km, 2500 m of climbing. 

My first night campsite in the Carrizo Plain. 


  1. Sounds like a fun ride. Great write up. I'm thinking about doing a portion of it.

  2. Just watch out for water, it has now become a constraint. See my report from this year, even in April it was already sketchy with otherwise reliable sources no longer flowing.