Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tour De Los Padres 2015 - 2nd edition

Evening view climbing up Sierra Madre Climb on Saturday

The Tour de Los Padres is a multi-day bikepacking route in Southern California developed by Erin Carroll, a landscape architect in Santa Barbara (who is also redesigning our yard). 

The 2015 ride was the second edition of the Tour de Los Padres with twice as many starters (there were 9 of us last year) and a reroute around areas that turned out to be problematic last year. It remains an excursion into surprisingly remote and isolated areas with great scenery. It also is surprisingly hard given the relatively short distance. Lack of water is becoming a real limitation, the situation deteriorated substantially compared to last year. Even an otherwise reliable spring that is a crucial resupply was no longer flowing in April. 
Looking back on the last day, from here it will be downhill to Santa Barbara

I had been on a business trip in Europe in March that was really draining and I got sick afterwards. I still had breathing problems the weekend before Los Padres and was discouraged from even going, but didn't want to miss it. As a precaution, I loaded multiple alternatives into my GPS as it wasn't clear what and how much I could ride. Erin also has a "touring route" and I was confident that I could ride at least this route back.  

I drove up to Santa Barbara the night before and slept in my car. I declined Erin's offer to stay at his house because of my lingering cough and potential European germs. Claude Frat had come down from Marin county on Thursday, too, and we went with Erin and his wife Molika for dinner at the Palace Grill.  Kathy and I last went to the Palace Grill when it was new many years ago and we had fond memories of that time (long before kids).

Friday morning started early, but first we had to get to Frazier Park. About 10 riders met at the Santa Barbara train station and Erin had organized two vans AND a limousine to take us and our bikes to the start. 
The limousine takes 6 cyclists to the start, including me.
But a van is actually more comfortable. 
On the way, one of the vans broke down. Erin stressed out over the delay, but we were back on the road within an hour. It turned out that to be only a fuse that needed to be replaced.

Turned out to be just a fuse

After the unplanned stopover on the side of the road, we arrived at Big John's Restaurant in Frazier Park where the rest of the Grand D├ępart starters were waiting. Here is a picture from the start, maybe 16, maybe 18 (not sure all in the pics were riders). Three had planned to do the shorter route (Rachel Finch, Wes Barber, and Trevor Thorpe), the others the full route. Always is fun to replay individual locations on the trackleaders website:

Day 1 - Friday

And off we went, as usual with plenty of enthusiasm and optimism. My cough was really annoying, though, and I quickly drifted off the back, just didn't get enough air. However, I remember huffing and puffing last year, too, and maybe just the (moderate) altitude makes itself felt when you come from sea level. 

The route takes a horse trail up that connects with Mt Pinos road near McGill Campground. I like the horse trail and there was a nice meadow where I took a late breakfast break. About the last flowers we saw on the trip, the year has been too dry and already too late for wildflowers. 

All the campgrounds are still closed in April, so little traffic or people. I felt miserable, but thought it was worth riding up the extra few km to the end of the pavement (a parking lot at the Nordic Ski Base, at about 2500m, so I had climbed a good 1000m). Erin added the top of Mt Pinos as an out-and-back to the route this year, but I didn't go all the way to the top. I have done it before and while not much further, it also doesn't add anything interesting. There is a wilderness area (no bikes allowed in wilderness areas) past the top, there is no alternative for bikes than to backtrack. And at that point, I still felt so weak that the touring route bailout was a consideration.

Last year, there was snow left at the top, but this year was completely dry. 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 have ridden it up and down before, it is a good way up, too. 

The single track back to the road is followed by pavement until Pine Mountain Club. After Pine Mountain Club, the road is actually good because the traffic is gone (I personally find there are too many cars before Pine Mountain Club). However, Erin's route has another horse trail detour. I initially got onto it, but must have missed a turn because I was fairly quickly back on the pavement. But pavement here is fine, one of the rare situations where I think staying on the road wins over a trail. It would be nice to have an off-pavement alternative before getting to Pine Mountain Club, but that isn't available. 

A long and easy dirt road downhill (Quatal Canyon) takes us to Highway 33 and a few houses called Ventucopa. There only is one restaurant, "The Place", and Art de Goede had already ordered (he passed me on Quatal Canyon). Many more riders trickled in until we had filled the big table, although everybody had been riding alone. It is just that the speeds don't vary too much. I believe it included at least Erin, Rachel Finch, Wes Barber, Michael Grosso, Claude Frat, Art, me. Probably half of riders on the route by then. 

Like last year, Art and I left at about the same time and, like last year, Art quickly pulled away. By now, I felt good enough not to take the "touring" route, which would turn left shortly after the restaurant, but stick to the "race" route, although with some simplifications over the next two days. 
I enjoyed a sunset ride
Highway 33 is fine in the Ventucopa area, it has a shoulder and traffic is light. The stretch on 166 is not pleasant, although again there is a shoulder and it only is a few km. Erin found a very interesting alternative that avoids a few km on 166, although it has its own idiosyncrasies: first, we need to backtrack parallel to highway 166 and there is a steep (but short) hike-a-bike section. Around sunset, it was very pretty. Then the new route goes a canyon that leads into the Carrizo Plain. What I saw was very promising, better than the main road into Carrizo, but it was completely dark before I reached the top, so I descended into the Carrizo Plain in the dark. 
Meadow after the turnoff from 166

Erin routed the race through Elkhorn road this year, which is by far the more attractive way to get through the Carrizo Plain. The alternative is Soda Lake road, a wide washboarded dirt road, cars, not scenic at all, but shorter. So I got to the intersection and started doing circles: Elkhorn or Soda Lake? After doing 3 circles I picked Soda Lake: at night, there was nothing to see and the cars had left (almost all, I saw 2 over the next few hours), and I was already doing a longer ride rather than expected by not taking the touring route cut-off. 

I had enough water and instead of going to Selby Campground (which, as it turns out, is NOT a reliable water source), kept going up on the road to Caliente Ridge and stopped at one of the turnouts that offered an excellent camping spot. I remembered the spot from last year and had planned for that as a possible camp location. It was around 1 am when I stopped.

Day 2 - Saturday

View from first night campsite

I got up a bit after sunrise, but I believe some riders came by before 5 am (I didn't really wake up completely, just heard some tires). The climb into the Caliente Range is fairly hard and it was good to start early as this gets very hot: Steep dirt road, fully exposed in the sun, and a loaded bike. This stretch would be very tough in the summer during the day, an important consideration for planning (including water needs).

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:

There are many ups and downs after the main climb that will take all morning (and more), making it important to plan water supply. Water can be found, but this is a dry area, so advance planning is needed. Unfortunately, water sources are not reliable (not even Selby Campground) and many potential water sources look like this:

potential water sources looked like this, although Erin's marked sources had water

The morning turned out to become more challenging as I had a mechanical: I snagged the brake hose and it actually tore out of the lever!  

That could have been the end of the mountain bike ride because even the downhill just in front of me would have required both brakes to ride. Unless I could fix it, the only options were to backtrack (lot of going up again) and then ride out on the road to San Luis Obispo, or keep going for a few hours (walking steep descents) and then ride on highway 166 to Santa Maria and then Santa Barbara. But either one would have meant at least a day of pavement riding.

I had two liquids to work with: water and chain lube. Chain lube seemed closest to oil, so I tried to reshape the olive, reconnected the hose, and slowly filled the brake cylinder, half drop by half drop (half always spilled). And, after what seemed to take forever (but really was just 20 mins), the brake worked again!

In fact, the brake was as good as before, nothing spongy or soft that felt like air bubbles. No leaks either (and there is some luck involved). Possibly the lube was thicker than the original oil, which helped with reliability (maybe there would have been a leak with water). In any event, the brake was great and held up fine for the rest of the ride. So back to the scheduled program:

After refilling with water at a cow trough, there were a few stretches on technical single track and also some really steep downhills - happy to be able to ride them rather than walk them. The stretch takes long, it is a full morning and it is hard. I entertained myself for a little bit watching this guy. Those mini dinosaurs (horned lizards, although often called horny toads) are very cute:

Horned Lizard

Shortly before the last hike-a-bike, I pass Greg Dunham from Thousand Oaks, who had zoomed by just before I had the mechanical. At that point, he must have hit a rough stretch. And a few hours later, after the climb to Miranda Pines, he would look even worse. Yet in the evening he made a miraculous recovery and he passed me just before sunset, looking strong. Lots of ups and downs, not just literally, on those rides.

Eventually, I crossed the Cuyama Valley and 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 the Miranda Pines camp site. Erin's wife Molika and friends were up that weekend camping.I enjoyed a beer (no, actually two, I think), some sausage, and relaxed a bit. Greg Dunham arrived shortly before I was about to leave, looking even worse than a few hours before, and lied down on the blanket of Erin's dog.

I rode on for a few hours, but didn't feel strong, Maybe it was a beer too many?Greg caught up and passed me, having made a miraculous recovery on the dog blanket. I made an early camp, after sunset, but there was still a bit of light.

Day 3 - Sunday
On and on on Sierra Madre road. Much of the day is a long dirt road and very dry and hot. 
The scenery for most of the day

The first reliable water source would be Chokecherry Springs, but it wasn't flowing. Fortunately, the trough was still full, so enough water, but it looked like that, with tadpoles and little worms: 
Erin had flagged this as one of the best water sources on the route.

Big Pine was the high point after day 1 (literally only). While there are a lot of ups and downs coming, the route never goes up that high again. I like the climb through the trees. 
Big pine cones on the way up Big Pine
And views down on the other side

Eventually, I get to the Santa Cruz trail, the longest single track downhill. Last year, I mistimed it and reached the top around sunset and the descent can at times be outright scary at night. Steep downhill (700 m descent), exposed ledges on a canyon wall, but a spectacular ride whether in the day or moonlight. Even during daylight, I had the trail all to myself, nobody in sight. 

I rode the Camuesa Connector trail as it got dark and finished it in the dark, then continued a little bit towards Gibraltar Reservoir and camped along the river trail. Erin, Claude, and Wes did an overnighter here in November. Near the water hole is not the best place for camping, just to refill, but a little bit further up under a tree works better. 

Day 4 - Monday
Night 3 camp

The day would be easy as I planned to join the touring route in Santa Barbara without doing the harder climbs around Santa Barbara. So the only real effort left was the climb from Gibraltar Reservoir to El Camino Cielo. Gibraltar road has a gentle gradient and, while long, is a pleasant  climb. Then there is some pavement on top, a little more single track, and then the long single track descent on Romero Road, which is not a road, but nice single track: 
Descending Romero Road
Romero felt congested after being in a rather empty area. A bunch of hikers, some cyclists. I did the next little single track section, Fearing Trail, which is indeed cute.
 But after that I took the ocean route back. Very Southern Californian and a nice recovery spin back to the car. 

1 comment:

  1. Great blog and a great review of some great So Cal places, some of which you don't get to see unless your on a bike. Thanks for the blog and the share, beautiful.