Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tour de Los Padres - Part 2 (days 2 and 3)

Day 2 - Saturday

Today will take me through the Carrizo Plain, over the Caliente Range, across the Cuyama Valley, and up into the Sierra Madre Mountains. This is the afternoon view back to the mountains and canyons that kept me busy all morning. 

View from Sierra Madre Mountains in the afternoon: Cuyama Valley and Caliente Range
As I stopped early in the evening, I still had much of the Carrizo Plain (2 r’s, one z, I always get it wrong) ahead of me this morning. The Carrizo Plain is an 80 km long valley that follows the San Andreas Fault and one of the most accessible places to see surface fractures of the San Andreas Fault. The best spot would not be on the road I was riding the morning (Soda Lake Road), but along a parallel one. At Wallace Creek, a big quake in 1857 moved the ground by about 10m and the offset is still clearly visible (I visited that on another bike ride a few years ago).  Bordering the plain to the northeast - on the right as I was riding towards Soda Lake - is the Temblor Range (and beyond those mountains is the California Central Valley). On my left is the Caliente Range, which will be the next climb. This is the Temblor Range:

View of Carrizo Plain and Temblor Range from around Selby Campground
The Carrizo Plain is, well, plain. Although it has a reputation for wildflowers in the spring and there had been some recent rain, none were seen. It is a seemingly endless dirt road. While it looks very desert-like, technically the Carrizo Plain is semi-arid grassland. But no trees grow here and rainfall is minimal. The Carrizo Plain is now a National Monument, administered by BLM, and looks like all those public lands in the South West: Whatever vegetation may grow is used by cows (although maybe the farmers here, unlike some farmers in Nevada, pay for grazing their cows on public land), and there is an abundance of abandoned oil wells (no commercially viable oil has been found here). 
Soda Lake Road in the Plain Carrizo Plain 

My morning ride is quite enjoyable (not hot, no cars) and fast, partly because there is a slight downhill gradient going this direction even though it appears flat. Riding the opposite direction can get tedious (I remember that from a few years ago). The downhill gradient was enough that I was going too fast last night to ride just with moonlight, so I used one of my two front lights at a low setting.

There are two primitive campgrounds in the valley. I made a little detour to the KCL campground (the campground is visible from the road) to top up my water. However, the only water available was a cattle trough with lots of algae. No flowing water to filter easily. So I went on and made a second detour to the Selby campground, which had a water pump. The water should still be treated, all water is “livestock use only”, although I think it probably would be fine to drink as is.

The climb out of Carrizo into the Caliente Range is surprisingly hard, even though this is not much of a mountain range: The Plain is around 600-700m and Caliente Mountain (the highest point in San Luis Obispo county) is around 1500m. The climb out of Carrizo is very similar to Bulldog road in the Santa Monica mountains: Steep dirt road, fully exposed in the sun, and a loaded bike makes it even harder; hard enough that I got off the bike a couple of times to push. Just like Bulldog, not a problem riding it up in one take fresh on an unloaded bike, but it feels different on a multi-day trip. This stretch would be very tough in the summer during the day, an important consideration for planning (including water needs), but in the morning on a mild spring day, it just was a hard climb. 

The view back, just after starting to get out of the Plain:
Starting to climb the Caliente Range, looking back at Carrizo Plain, Soda Lake, and Temblor Range
And the view back about halfway up the Caliente Range (time for a breather anyway)

Soda Lake is really big (mainly salt, I think, there wasn't much water)

It does not take too long to get to the top and one can see Cuyama valley and the Sierra Madre Mountains on the other side of that valley. However, it will take several more hours to get to the Cuyama valley because the route goes in and out a number of canyons on the way down, like this one: 

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There are many ups and downs after the main climb that will take much of the day, making it important to plan water supply. Water can be found, but this is a dry area, so advance planning is needed. Of course, it is nothing like real desert. On Stagecoach, I road the first day with 2 gallon capacity and largely filled up whenever I could. Los Padres, I had three bottles only without problems (plus a 2l bladder just in case, but I never filled it and it stayed folded the whole time). However, if you go in the summer or in the fall (when seasonal water may have dried up), you probably want to have more than 3 bottles. You get an idea of what is available in the Caliente Range from these two pictures of Gillam Springs. Yes, it has a name and is shown on maps. Looks a lot like a cow trough to me. It does have flowing water (a trickle out of the pipe protected from cows with barbed wire) and that makes it a good water source. 

Ambitiously named Gillam Springs

Gillam Springs

The morning and early afternoon was not an easy ride, but I had a good time and would be happy to do this part again. Some small stretches are technical single track that are perfectly rideable, but can be a bit risky on a loaded bike because it handles differently, so I got off a couple of times just to be on the safe side. It also gets greener the closer it gets to the Cuyama valley. 

It is important to pick the right weather. Summer days will get way too hot, fall may be out of some water sources (and still hot). Some winter days, stretches in the Caliente Range can turn into very sticky mud with rain (and snow at high elevations). I had very good trail conditions here, but two guys went a week earlier when there was some rain and their foot and tire prints documented a struggle. 

These are not long stretches, but something that would have taken me an hour may have taken them 4 hours and sapped their energy and morale. I saw them walking even when it was flat. Over the whole distance, this is not much of a delay, but it can throw off a schedule. Technical downhills are better left for the day, long climbs with sun exposure for early or late in the day or even the night. 
Easy ride on a hard surface, but two people were struggling with the mud monster a week earlier
Eventually, by mid-afternoon, I crossed the Cuyama Valley, which is the (literal) low point of the route prior to Santa Barbara. Immediately after crossing Highway 166, there is a long, long climb up into the Sierra Madre mountains. Although probably the longest climb and largest altitude gain, it is on Sierra Madre road, which is a smooth dirt road with a gentle gradient. About 2/3rds up (and a 2 hour ride at a steady effort) is Miranda Pines, a beautiful official camp site. Erin's wife Molika and friends were up that weekend camping and they were the only group. While I had enough food with me, just to be safe, it was nice to switch out a few things and have some things that are too heavy to carry (like chocolate milk). Usually, there is nothing available after Ventucopa.  There is no problem to carry enough food on a bicycle for many days, but it does add weight quickly. A minimum of 2 pounds per day are needed and that would require very dense foods only (like nuts, 500-600 kcal per 100g), 3 pounds is probably most reasonable, and 4 pounds per day would give good variety, but gets heavy. 

Molika told me that Erin was only an hour or two behind, so I decided to take a long break to wait for him, and enjoy the scenery and a beer, my first PBR actually. Despite its legendary reputation for generic American Beer, I've never had one before.  A luxurious break that normally is not an option. Can't carry stuff like that: only about 30kcal per 100g and doesn't taste good warm.

Erin came just after sunset, looking strong despite a very long day (in order to make it, he started riding at 4 in the morning). Miranda Pines became a midpacker meeting place and Claude and Art camped there. 

After a long break (really much too long, but I enjoyed the break), I took off for an evening ride to finish at least the main climb (another 300 or 400m of altitude gain). Perfect time and place to ride in the moonlight, it was a smooth dirt road going uphill, and I like moonlight rides. I didn't go on for too long, probably less than two hours, and when I saw an attractive spot to sleep I stopped. At Miranda Pines, I had 2500 m of elevation gain for the day. 

Day 3 - Sunday

I camped under a big pine tree on a soft bed of pine needles. It is not easy to fall asleep after hard days, the brain is really busy and tries to make sense out of everything, wind, leaves, creeks. So there are constantly changing voices in your head and pictures that only slowly settle down. But once they settled down, I slept well again and the sun was long up when I woke up. I guess I didn't quite make the "racing pace" this time. 

Fast finishing times are determined less by moving speed, but by break times. Moving speeds tend not to vary dramatically, except maybe the first day when the front group is pushing the pace. Riders who finish days apart may only differ a few hours in moving time, the difference is in hours ridden per day. The fastest finishers do 20 hours of moving time per day and the slow tourers maybe 6-8. I tend to aim for 12 or more of moving time, sometimes add a ride through one night if the conditions are suitable and I feel good. I think my highest average was 50 hours moving time in a 72 hour period. So far, I did less than 12 hours per day of moving time on this trip. 

My idea of camping is to go as far away from cars, barking dogs, electricity as possible anyway. There is nothing a campground adds for me: Here is everything unpacked for the night, water bottle and food nearby. I don't get it why people plan their rides around developed campgrounds or urban stretches, they miss a key experience. A few hours after I leave, especially if there is a little wind, there shouldn't be any evidence left that I spent the night there. It is not difficult to find a good spot with a bit of thinking ahead; it rarely takes more than 30 minutes. However, don't start looking just after starting a climb or descent, that's not where you find them.  

The morning view from my camping spot was breathtaking, I did not expect it. This was the view looking southwest as soon as I stood up:
and this was the view when I turned around, looking north/east (the direction that I came from the previous day):

And there were many more similarly amazing views around every corner (the next two pictures are both looking south or west). 

It did not take long for the clouds in the valleys to disappear, probably not much after 9 am the Cuyama valley was completely clear again (this is looking north):

As I was not the earliest riser, nor started off particularly speedy, the Produce Train caught up with me by mid-morning (i.e. Claude and Art who were riding together; both have day jobs in the produce business).  We leap-frogged most of the day, depending on who took a break when and at one of those occasions Claude took this picture of me. 
Up, up, up on Sierra Madre road. It starts at 400 m and goes up to 2000 m around Big Pine Mountain (about 1400 to over 6000 feet).

I also stopped for viewing and taking pictures. I suddenly had sympathy for these hardly little flowers trying survive on this road.  

After another turn, suddenly there was a lush meadow, the Montgomery Potrero, which almost looks like a European alpine meadow.  

Near the trees on the left are also some Chumash rock paintings.

The gear shifters had started to feel a bit strange in the morning, but then stopped working completely. And on a climb in the hot sun just a few km before I could refill my bottles! The shifter cable had torn. I started to see what I can do to fix this and maybe get a few usable gears, but there was nothing I could do: In their wisdom, Rohloff bolted the external shift box together with torx T20 heads. I carry a good selection of tools for repairs, so at first I thought no problem. But even a T25 did not fit to take the gear box apart (T25 are common, for example, on rotor bolts). I don't think I have come across T20 in my life before. Before long, I figured out that there was nothing I could do here and that I am now on a single speed bicycle for the rest of the ride. Of course, first thing I did when getting home was to replace T20s with roadside-repair-friendly screws (Phillips head).

The external gear box is held together with T20, nothing I could do to get at least a few shiftable gears.

I was in a very light gear, good for climbing, that would mostly work for the rest of the day (lots of steep climbing and then lots of descending where I just roll, nothing flat) and then I see what to do tomorrow. But it definitely was a downer and cast a pall on the rest of day, more because of the uncertainty about how this would work  over the rest of the ride than because of any immediate problems. 

In any event, the Produce Train did not get ahead of me too far, just a few hours later I saw them again before Big Pine. That area suffered a fire not long ago, so whenever there is a strong wind or storm, dead trees will topple over and create an obstacle course. It was not the worst fallen tree section I have seen, maybe 20 or so lifts over trees. The picture below was not taken by me (which should be obvious if you realize that it is me in that picture): Claude had lost his glasses hopping over one of those trees and a few minutes later backtracked to the previous hurdle in time to take this picture. He is an expert at losing stuff: In the Caliente Range, I picked up one of his gloves; at Stagecoach, he lost his light.

By the time the descend past Big Pine camp begins, my shorts and legs were covered in charcoal. 

Big Pine was the high point after day 1 (once more, literally only). While there are a lot of ups and downs coming, the route never goes up that high again. 
Produce Train rolling down cresting Big Pine, highest point.

Now the short day 1 and the long break at Miranda Pine were catching up because a very long and technical single-track descent was on the program. Having become a slow single speeder after my first mechanical problem, I didn't make it to the Santa Cruz trail until sunset.

This descent can at times be outright scary, despite having really strong lights (I can crank it up to 1000 lumens between 2 lights). Steep downhill (700 m descent), exposed ledges on a canyon wall, pretty spectacular whether in the day or moonlight. On the plus side, I had the trail all to myself, nobody in sight. 

Almost, though...., after I reached the bottom and started a small climb at the bottom, I heard a "yoohoo" behind me and there was the Produce Train again! Claude and Art obviously also had tackled the descent in the dark and that is even scarier because Art didn't have a bike light, just a small headlamp. 

I was wasted by the time I got to the bottom and started looking for place to camp. There would have been something at the bottom, but I already did two curves of climbing and wasn't going back. I was not going to cede any elevation gain, not even those two curves, so I made dinner in a road turnout, took a nap, and then continued grinding along to a top (remember: there aren't good camping spots on climbs). But as soon it flattened out, there was a promising looking area, also the beginning of the Camuesa connector trail.  I started to search around a little bit for a rockless spot, flashing my light around, when a light came on pointing in my direction: Art and Claude had made camp there as well. 

Remembering the view from this morning, this area would get wet at night. As soon as found a spot without rocks, I flipped my bike upside down and made a shelter. Sure enough, the night was wet and sleeping without a shelter would have resulted in a soaked sleeping bag. My tarp is actually a tent footprint and I usually use it on the ground so the sleeping bag doesn't get dirty.  Depending on weather or climate, I turn it into a shelter, either with a lot of room when there is no wind or rain (as here), or closer to the ground against bad weather (either an A-frame with a string or just using one wheel). This is my most elaborate camp setup.

It had been yet another day with 2500 m of climbing! So 7500 m already, almost the the total altitude gain of this year's Stagecoach 400 route (which was less than previous years). I don't think I have done that much climbing over such a distance before. 

To be continued....

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