Bicycle Beer Time Extra Large: Northern California (BBTXL:NorCal)

I need a time machine. 

I need to go back, back to January or maybe November. I need to go back and ride my bike all those days that I didn’t ride my bike. The days when it rained. The days when it was cold. The days, so many of them, when I just didn’t feel like it. I need to go back. Because I’m not even halfway through Day 1 of this six day ride and I’m watching the wheel of the person in front of me, the other half of Team Caboose, get away from me. I dig a little deeper and climb back, but the fuel tank is basically empty. I’m gassed, burnt, spent. We’re halfway through the day and I’ve gone five times further than I had on any one ride this year, but I’m not going to be going much further.

I need a time machine.

What I get instead is a ride in the giant Mercedes Benz Sprinter van that serves as our SAG vehicle for the rest of the day. This van will be how I ride back to San Francisco, not on my bike, because I wasn’t ready for BBTXL:NorCal. Not even close. I knew this before I left, but I thought maybe I’d be able to fake my way through it. Turns out that I can’t.

Day -1: Austin to San Francisco

I’m excited to see the giant bike travel case I was renting get loaded into the Virgin America flight that was taking me to SFO. It meant the trip was real, it was on, and I’d have a great week riding with a dozen of my BBTXL buddies. I’d imagined that there would be a problem getting the bike checked, or that the TSA would find some reason not to let it fly, but there it was going up the conveyor and into the plane. I followed it onboard shortly afterwards and tried to enjoy my three and a half hour flight without benefit of a book or headphones. Turns out I also overestimated by ability to sit quietly with my thoughts for that long too.

I landed, gathered my duffle bag and giant bike case from the baggage carousel, and went outside to wait for my ride to show up. Eric was coming to get me in the Sprinter and we were coordinating the pickup by phone. Eventually I spied the van, twenty-five feet of black-on-black-on-black gliding up to the terminal. It was ridiculous. It was awesome. It was great to see Eric again. We drove the van into the city and stopped at the apartment of David Helder, the trip’s organizer, to drop off our gear and assemble our bikes. Afterwards we parked the van in a lot we hoped was safe, somewhere in the Mission, and walked to the AirBnB that we’d be staying in for the night. There we were greeted by Matt, Pete, and Adam and after having a beer we went to bed so we could get an early start on the next day.

Day 0: San Francisco to Trinadad

Bikes under wraps

Bikes under wraps

This was a travel day to get to the start location, and we were up early and busy getting everything that needed doing done. A U-Haul trailer was hitched to the back of the van. Everyone met at Helder’s apartment for the loading, with 10 bikes squeezed into the trailer and all the bags loaded into the cargo area of the Sprinter. We thought we’d be lucky to leave by noon, but we were on the road at 11 heading east over the bay to avoid driving the van through the heart of San Francisco. We crossed the bay and turned north, eventually making our way onto the 101. We stopped for lunch at a funky little BBQ and burger joint in the afternoon and then we were in the hills of northern California. We climbed up and down some of the same slopes we’d be riding on in the days ahead. After seeing it in person, I immediately volunteered to drive SAG on Wednesday, the day we’d see the most climbing.

We got to Patrick’s Point State Park late in the afternoon, and when we pulled up to our campsite we found Bill Merrill and his friend Andrew in a site adjacent to ours. Bill and Andrew had ridden down the week before from Oregon, so they’d be starting our ride together with a few hundred miles on their legs. While we were getting everything unpacked a Ranger rode by in her truck. She must have thought we looked like trouble because she warned us that we’d be kicked out if we weren’t quiet. She needn’t have worried, because after getting our camp setup and riding back to town for dinner and some beers we came back and went right to bed. As I lay in my tent enjoying the cool, damp air coming off the Pacific I could hear the sound of sea lions barking at each other on the nearby beach before I fell asleep.

Day 1: Trinadad to Fortuna

I woke up early the next morning, anxious about starting our first day of riding. We cooked a breakfast of scrambled eggs, drank Starbucks Via instant coffee and some finer, hand-ground beans that Ben had packed, then packed up the van and got ready to leave. Our first day of riding. There was fog coming off the ocean and the air was cool and wet. I was wearing arm warmers and hoped it would be enough to keep the chill off. A few words to remind everyone to be careful and stay with a buddy and we were off. We are eleven on the road and one, Andrew, in the van. I felt good, even though I was losing my breath on short climbs, when we started. I slotted into my favorite spot, just behind Bill, and we rode easily down the route Helder had mapped out. We would go in and out of the fog, playing hide and seek with the sun, as the morning wore on and I’d be getting slower and slower. After the first sag stop I couldn’t keep up with Bill anymore and after a few miles found myself at the back of the group with Zack. Crossing the bridge over Arcata Bay it was everything I could do to keep up with Zack and I was relieved when we stopped for lunch shortly afterwards at the Lost Coast Brewery.

Lunch did nothing to make me think I’d be any faster for the second part of the ride, so I announced my intention to SAG the rest of the day and put my bike into the van. Andrew was driving and we ran some errands before heading to the campsite where we’d spend the night. We didn’t have to wait long before the riders showed up and we made camp in a fairly nice RV park. They had cabins just like the ones at our starting campsite in New York, so we recounted the things we’d heard there (Booberry?!?, Mom’s in the shitter!, I could kick any dog’s ass) while being grateful these were all empty. We walked a short distance to a brewery for dinner and then came back and sat around a campfire. Again we went to bed fairly early, and I don’t think I’m spoiling much to say that this year’s event was a much quieter and more sober affair then our trip around the Finger Lakes had been the previous year.

Day 2: Fortuna to Richardson Grove State Park

I was going to SAG today. SAG is short for “Support And Gear,” so I’d be driving instead of riding. I needed to be ok with this. I knew before I left that I probably wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the group and that I’d probably end up in the van. I need to be ok with that. So we ate breakfast, packed up, and the riders took off towards the redwoods and Richardson Grove. I was alone at the campsite with the van. Panic began to well up inside. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t really know what we needed, and I wasn’t sure how to get where the van and gear needed to be for the first planned stop of the day. With my heart racing I plug the location of the first SAG stop into my phone and start following the robot voice out towards the Avenue of the Giants.

Bike for scale.

Bike for scale.

It doesn’t take me long to reach the Eternal Tree House, a tourist trap on the Avenue of the Giants but one with ice cream and plenty of places to sit in the shade of towering redwoods. I look at my phone and see something I should have expected but which still sends me into a panic – no service. There’s no  way for any of the riders to reach me if there’s a problem on the road. I’m flooded with anxiety and imagining the worst. I wait, and pace, and try to breath the anxiety out of my body. It takes an eternity, but eventually the first rider comes into view down the road followed in short order by everyone else. I talk with Bill about my concerns and he reminds me that everyone can take care of themselves and if the phones don’t work, then they just don’t work and everyone will deal with it. Relieved a bit I take requests for snacks and lunch, then I watch as the riders take off and I get back on the highway in search of grocery store. The scenery on the Avenue of the Giants is amazing with tall redwoods towering overhead. I find a small grocery store to stock up on supplies for the lunch SAG stop and then find a gas station to fill up the Sprinter.

When I arrive at the second stop of the day, a small gravel parking lot for a nature trail, I am struck by the heat of the afternoon. We are inland, away from the cool Pacific, and today there will be record highs in the towns we pass through. The riders eventually show up and all of them are complaining about the blow dryer heat they’ve endured. One rider, Zach, decided he’s had enough and joins me in the van. Together we drive to our campsite after the riders take off on the final leg of the day’s journey. We arrive at the Richardson Grove State Park to find that they have no water available. A water main broke, so there’d be no flush toilets or showers on site. Alarmed, we drove back to the nearest town and bought 15 gallons of water in addition to dinner and beers for the night. Despite not having any water, Richardson Grove is amazing. Nestled alongside a river in a grove of redwoods the location is idyllic. We bathed in the river, lit a campfire, and cooked bratwurst for dinner.

Day 3: Richardson Grove to Fort Bragg

Pacific Sunset

Pacific Sunset

This was the day I was going to SAG anyway, with two long climbs as we headed over the hills and back to the coast. We cruised along the 101 down to where it meets the 1, then made a long, twisty climb up over the first hill of the day. I provided a SAG stop just past the top, then raced ahead to the top of the next climb to provide SAG again. After the second climb we were back along the coast, in and out of the fog, with some spectacular views of the ocean every now and then. At fifty-five miles it was a fairly short day, but with two long climbs and then several steep pitches along the coast everyone was tired when they reached camp. After a rest we rode our bikes on a path along the beach into Fort Bragg for dinner at the North Coast Brewery. We rode home at sunset then crashed out in our tents, falling asleep to the sound of the Pacific surf.

Day 4: Fort Bragg to Boonville

Sag Stop

Sag Stop

This day would take us back inland, first down the 1 south along the coast past Mendocino, then back among the redwoods down 128 toward wine country. I stopped at the Safeway in Fort Bragg and bought $200 worth of junk food, sandwich fixings, and beer. Then I sped ahead to the first SAG stop, a rest area along the ocean, passing only one rider along the way. I nervously awaited everyone at the SAG stop and was relieved when, eventually, they all pulled in to eat. Turns out that most everyone had stopped for coffee along the way and that was why I hadn’t seen them on the road. This day might have been the prettiest, with scenic views of the ocean along the 1, then twisty miles under the redwoods on 128, before finally opening up into a lovely valley near Boonville. We were camping in a fairgrounds, with a few trees for shade and ground that was hard as rock. We walked to a restaurant for dinner then spent the rest of the night hoping that the heat would go away. Eventually it did and I woke up shivering in my tent.

Day 5: Boonville to Santa Rosa

A local had warned against riding the 128 out of town. Too many trucks, no shoulder, and the climb out of the valley was hard. Everyone who was riding decided to ignore this advice, but we did leave much earlier than normal to try to get a jump on traffic. Driving SAG again, I found a place on the side of the road nineteen miles in to stop and meet whatever riders I could for a snack and water refill. Some had left so early I wouldn’t see them until lunch at the Bear Republic brewery in Hearldsburg. It was another hot day and at 75 miles the longest of our trip. Zack decided to join me in the van after lunch and together we navigated to our campsite in Santa Rosa. The riding group split up at Santa Rosa, with half going to the Russian River Brewery and the other half coming directly to camp. After cooling off and showering we took the van into town to meet the others at the brewery. Lots of pizza and beer later we were back at camp for our last night sleeping in tents.

Day 6: Santa Rosa to San Francisco

The whole gang

The whole gang

The last day on bikes was going to be fairly long at just over 70 miles. I gave up driving duties in the van to Brian, a San Francisco resident, who’d both had enough fun riding and was also very familiar with the roads we’d be driving. Plus, I was set on riding my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco. We headed south from Santa Rosa on the 101, but as soon as we got onto back roads we found there were lots of other cyclists on the road. Brian explained that we’d be driving down some very popular routes for riders coming out of the city, and we certainly did see a lot of them. We had our first stop at a cheese factory alongside a small lake, lovely, then our next stop at a brewery in Fairfax. Our last stop was at a park on a bike path that would take us much of the way towards the city.

At this last stop, about 20 miles from our final destination, I suited up in bike shorts and, in keeping with BBTXL tradition for the final day of riding, a loud Hawaiian shirt. By and by the group appeared, minus two who’d elected to race ahead to town, and I joined them for the last leg into San Francisco. We rode the bike path into Sausalito then mixed it up with tourist traffic and pedestrians to the approach of the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather was cool and wet, with light fog and a pretty heavy wind. My oversized Hawaiian shirt billowed in the breeze as I clung to the wheel of David Helder, who lives in San Francisco and rides these roads all the time, as he lead us home. Everything was fine until the final climb out of Sausalito to the foot of the bridge. It was everything I could do to make it up the hill, into a strong and strengthening headwind, getting passed by locals on training rides (but not by any of my fellow BBTXL’ers, bless them). Until finally, finally, we made it to the bike path over the bridge.

Conditions at the bridge were pretty epic, with a light, cool fog and winds blowing across the bridge at over 25 miles per hour. We headed south, with me somehow leading the group, and crossed the bridge carefully. The wind was blowing riders all over the bike path and when we had to turn to face it at both of the towers it brought us to a near stop. It was a heck of a thing to experience. By comparison, the rest of the ride through the city was a piece of cake as we made our way into the Mission and our last stop of the ride, Chez Poulet. This was a super-funky event space, with a loft filled with mattresses to spend the night on, and it was the end of the line for BBTXL:NorCal. I broke down my bike and put it in its travel case, slicing my hand open on my chainring in the process, then we headed out into the Mission for dinner and a beer. We had to get up early to make sure everyone got to the airport, so it was a fairly quiet and early night’s sleep.

Day 7: San Francisco to Austin

We woke early and started getting ready to leave. Bill, Andrew, and I went into the Mission for breakfast. On our way back we watched a man casually looking at his phone, bending over to vomit on the sidewalk, then going right back to his phone. Gritty. Those of us with early flights loaded our gear back onto the Sprinter for the last time and headed to the airport. I bought a book for the return flight so I’d have something to do and time passed much more quickly on the way back. I was greeted at the airport by Dena and the kids back in Austin. It was great to be back home. I was a little disappointed by the way the trip had gone and the tiny amount of riding I’d done, but it was a wonderful experience and a great trip overall. I hope to get back someday soon to camp among the redwoods again. I also look forward to next year’s addition of Extra Large Bicycle Beer Time, wherever it might be.


  1. Bill said:

    Your SAG capabilities were second to none, but you’re really the only person I can draft in our group, I hope to have you for the next headwind.

    I’m so glad you were there and was so pleased to share miles and fires with you. And that burrito. I can’t wait for next year’s adventures. Find many pleasing miles between now and then, and maybe I can trick myself into visiting .tx before then.

  2. B Jeremy Witkin said:

    Found this post via a comment you left on The Bloggess’ site. I’m a cyclist too, in and around the Raleigh NC area. Loved this post. I’ve never done a multi-day tour like this one; I’d love to someday.

    If you’re ever in North Carolina and looking for a ride, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m on twitter @itsjustbeej.

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