On Sunday I completed my most challenging ride ever. It wasn’t my longest ride- it was close- but with an additional ~40 pounds of gear strapped to my bike it made the effort wildly more difficult. From my place near DTLA it was 94 miles to Carpinteria State Beach Campgrounds.
My fascination with bikepacking began less than a year ago. I can’t remember exactly what sparked the flame, but the idea of being able to pedal all day then camp where you land- without having carried any extra weight on your own back- made me smile. Quick disclaimer: I am a novice camper at best. I can count the number of times I’ve willingly slept outside on two hands with a couple of fingers left over. As a cyclist however, I have decades of experience. I’ve been pedaling my whole life, switching between BMX and road bikes at different points, with a few downhill MTB rides sprinkled in. My quads are the strongest muscles in my body, I’m pretty sure of that.
My bike is a Fairdale Weekender Archer to which I’ve attached a Fairdale Adjust-A-Rack to the rear and a Surly rack to the front. I switched out the stock seat for a differently shaped one (I have relatively narrow sit bones) and I use padded cycling shorts when I ride. I also added drop-bar attachments so that I can get more aerodynamic if I want to. My rear panniers are some old-school Cannondale bags that I got at a yard sale years ago and on the front racks I have Ortlieb waterproof bags. I also have an Ortlieb frame bag where I keep tubes and tools, a burrito bag strapped to the handlebars and a soft, insulated lunchbox that sits on top of the front rack. Strapped to the rear were my one-person tent and inflatable sleeping pad.
I readied my bike on Saturday evening and enjoyed organizing everything into the different compartments of my rear panniers (I’m somewhat obsessed with organization). I made sure to keep the heaviest items out of the front bags because that could make turning and general maneuverability difficult or dangerous. The bulkiest item I carried was my sleeping bag, but relatively lightweight, so it went in one front bag. The other front bag held sweatpants and a lightweight insulated jacket, both rolled up into a cheap, plastic compression bag. The heaviest items I packed were two Nalgene water bottles- one 48oz and one 32oz- they went into a rear pannier, not the same side as my U-lock (I also have two water bottle cages attached to the frame). In another compression bag went a towel, a change of clothes (boxers, pants, t-shirt, socks) and a hoodie.
In the burrito bag went my portable charger, phone cable, knife, camera, pen, marker, stickers, random little things, and my phone stayed in there so that I could grab it and shoot photos whenever I wanted to. I strapped by portable speaker to it but barely used it because the battery on it sucks and streaming Spotify drains my phone battery. For the next ride I may dig up my iPod nano and load it up with some recent favorites. Maybe an audiobook? My lunchbox consisted of a half-full jar of Nuttzo, two apples, a small bag of trail mix and five packets of Liquid I.V.. Additionally, I packed away a small container of roaster almonds for emergency rations. I knew that I’d be passing thru a few small cities so I’d have no problem grabbing food along the way if I needed to. That lunchbox fit nicely on the top of the front rack and nestled under the burrito bag, secured by a bungee thru the straps of the lunchbox itself.
Sunday morning came and I left home right after sunrise. The temperature was around 55 degrees. I usually ride in shorts but opted for some 2% spandex 98% cotton pants, donning a Dri-Fit long sleeve under a Gore-tex windbreaker jacket and I even wore gloves. The gloves may have been overkill but I was super comfortable and not cold for the first hour of pedaling, after which the gloves came off. Grabbing a coffee in Santa Monica right before 8 o’clock, the jacket came off and the Dri-Fit long sleeve felt really nice and breathable while still protecting me from the sun (turns out the only sunburn I got was on the back of my left calf). I should mention that I always wear a helmet on my road bike and always wear sunglasses or some form of eye protection- not just for UV rays but also protection from particles in the air. Twice in my life I’ve had to have small pieces of metal removed from my eye (not as gnarly as it sounds but definitely an irritation- best to avoid it if possible).
Dropping in on the Incline to PCH was fast- my bike was cruising like a limousine. The light turned green as soon as I made it to the front of the cars. I had done this stretch a couple of times before and it was the one area that spooked me- with impatient northbound drivers just breaking free of I-10 traffic gunning it on the open road. Approaching Palisades, I felt someone behind me and realized a cyclist was trying to pass. My natural instinct was to speed up, but this was no time for racing. Our light turned red and we sparked up a quick convo. He said he’d be “taking the lane up here” and boy, he wasn’t kidding. There was barely any obstruction to the bike lane (a puddle and a few dozen rocks) but Reece, as I’d later know him as, took every liberty to ride in the middle- if not the left half- of the right lane. I thought it very ballsy but also almost unnecessary. The cars behind us piled up pretty quickly but he didn’t budge so neither did I. He was fully kitted out and I wasn’t surprised at his answer when I asked him if he does this ride a lot. He said he’ll pedal to Dume or even Mugu often and he was more than willing to guide me thru the “shitty parts” of the PCH in Malibu. “If you ask for permission they’ll just tell you to fuck off” he said about taking the lane. He went on as our light turned green “…and if you do get hit then…” his speech became an indistinct mumble as he faced forward and started cranking again. I don’t know what he said but I like to think it was some tongue-in-cheek reassurance of a quick and painless death if that were to happen.
A few minutes into following him, which- even after he said he’d “take it easy” on me- was NOT actually easy, I noticed him wipe the lens of a rear-facing GoPro camera strapped to his seat post. I wondered if it was for content creation or liability insurance in case of a vehicle collision. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to catch up with him enough to get to say another word. He stayed in one gear the whole time I trailed him until the first real climb up to the Pepperdine entrance. His calves were bulging! I thought they might explode. As I reached the apex, Reese was gone so I decided to take a break. I had a long day of pedaling ahead of me, like 40 pounds of gear strapped to my bike, and I was already sweating. It was a blow to my ego but I had to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with other cyclists. I will have gotten passed by another half-dozen cyclists on the rest of that first stretch.
I wanted to switch out of pants so I saw a parking lot to stop in and made the turn. Standing there was a cyclist who looked distressed. Sure enough, Jonathan had not just a flat, but a huge gash thru his rear tire. I lended him a tire boot- an accessory I’ve never actually used (I have used a credit card in lieu) but luckily had ordered a pack for this exact situation. I asked if he needed any more help and he said “no”, but I watched from afar and realized that he did in fact need more help. I walked him thru the process of changing a flat and I hope he learned that the tube doesn’t go on the rim by itself before the tire does… I was amazed at how quickly and easily he re-installed the wheel without struggling with the derailleur (something I’m still learning to deal with). I wished him luck on his ride back home. I really do wonder if he made it- that slash in his tire was massive. Big up the Park Tool tire boot if he did make it back.
Realizing that I was way ahead of schedule, I gave myself the freedom to stop at a yard sale right before Decker Canyon road. The neon green signs led me up a steep steep hill- I didn’t even dare try to pedal up it- it was hard enough to push my bike up it! The friendly couple was about to sell me a collection of stamps that was worth tens of thousands of dollars for next to nothing. Lucky for them, they decided to look up just one of them and saw it was valued at three grand (there were HUNDREDS of stamps, really old ones too). Those binders would have been too bulky to fit on my bike anyways. I did buy a saw that I could later use for firewood at the campsite.
I pedaled the beautiful coast for another 90 minutes or so then realized I was very fatigued. Seeing a winding climb in front of me and the beach and some picnic tables to my left, I pulled over and had lunch at Sycamore Cove Beach right around noon.
The pedaling restarted with a climb around a corner where the shoulder was barricaded off and cars were forced to move at the cyclists pace. I felt awkward and pedaled a bit harder for their sake. The closure lasted less than 100 yards then traffic resumed as normal. The conditions were less dangerous than they were in Malibu, with less vehicles and a bit more bike lane. I reached the intersection at Las Posas Road where I had seen on my map that cyclists were asked to take some crazy detour and the signs clearly said “No Bicycles”. I sent it for a minute thinking that I was saving good time but my better sense told me to check the route again real quick. Sure enough, the cyclist route wasn’t any longer than the way the highway would have taken me, and the bike route was quiet and safe. I turned on my speaker for the first time and queued up Culture Abuse’s “Bay Dream” album. I rode along the perimeter of the Point Mugu Naval Base and passed by the famed Missile Park. The strawberry fields I was riding past in Oxnard smelled weird, like you could clearly tell that they were using bad chemicals on their plants. The bike lane was safe but dusty and boring.
Approaching downtown Oxnard, I saw a water re-filling station and realized I only had a 20 dollar bill, and the water was a reasonable 25 cents a gallon. With one tall Nalgene still full, I decided to push on and find a restaurant to fill up for free. About another 30 minutes later I was filling up all four bottles at a Chipotle.
Finally heading north again on E Harbor Blvd, I stopped to shoot a picture of a cool-looking sign after crossing the Santa Clara River and was approached by a local, pushing a messed-up Schwinn comfort bike out of the dirt road along the river. Javier was instantly friendly and spoke with an upbeat inflection, telling me about how he’s run five marathons in his life and used to run eight miles every day. He’d built himself a two-story shack along the river there after going thru a nasty divorce but then was forced to relocate after the winter rain had washed away his home. He would have drowned if he hadn’t constructed a zipline to safety. He probably could have talked for hours but I had to be on my way. “Take care, Javier!” I said as I threw my leg over the back of the bike.
It was right around 3:00 as I coasted into a shopping plaza in Ventura Beach. I saw I had just 20 miles left and debated an iced coffee, eventually giving in to the caffeinated temptation. After that, the route became a beautiful bike path which tuned into the heavily populated Promenade, which I’d been to a couple of times before. Dodging humans and dogs, I finally hit uncharted territory in the form of a chunky and dilapidated path along the Ventura River.
The bike path thru Emma Wood Camp was in horrible shape but only went for a few hundred feet before spitting me onto what’s referred to as the “Caltrans First Adopt-a-Bike-Path in California”. That pleasant ride was over before I knew it and I was back on the PCH, passing by dozens and dozens of RVs parked along Solimar beach. The PCH stretch finally ended and put me on a bike path that traveled alongside opposing 101 traffic. This was my least favorite part of the ride because I was getting tired, the weather was becoming cloudy and cold, and I felt very exposed to the freeway traffic. A shitty kid could throw a penny from a moving car and break my teeth out- I’m sure it’s happened before!
I checked my map and saw that I had a considerable climb ahead of me. I thought I had conquered it alongside the freeway, but upon exiting the path, Bates Road tuned into Rincon Hill Road and ffffuuuhhhhhhhhhh was it a hill. A crazy looking man in a souped-up golf cart came flying down the hill and the driver gave me what I interpreted as a devilish grin. I was convinced he’d be the last person I’d ever see. Then I saw a lone fisherman walking up the road who I passed, shooting a photo while churning in first gear, huffing and puffing the last breaths in my lungs. Winding and tight, I was dead- DEAD- by the top. If I hadn’t seen the flat at the time I saw it, there’s a chance I would have dismounted and walked the rest of the way. Even though I was only three miles away from the campsite, I had to stop and re-hydrate in a big way, with a Liquid I.V. packet and most of the water I had left.
It was 5:00 exactly and I began to feel relieved knowing there were no more hills and just serene backroads the rest of the way. I rolled into the campsite and checked-in with the rangers. Corina was there waiting for me with firewood and water. I showered while she sparked up the fire and we cooked hot dogs. I was so sooo hungry. I set up my tent, blew up the mat and set everything out for sleep. The evening turned to night, the stars shone bright and although I had a bit of trouble falling asleep (thanks to the cacophony of women’s laughter from neighboring campsites) once I was asleep, I slept soundly thru the night. I awoke refreshed and although I didn’t have to, I felt like I could have pedaled right back home. The whole experience opened my eyes to the possibility of multi-day rides and I felt confident that I had with me everything I’d need in that case. On to the next adventure!