On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 4/1/2014
75 Classic Rides
Time for a shameless personal plug. Two of them, actually.
The first of them is to beat the drum about my new cycling guidebook, published this month by Mountaineers Books. It's called 75 Classic Rides Northern California • The Best Road Biking Routes. The title pretty well explains what the book is about. If I say that it's a good book, it would be easy for you to assume that I'm biased, and that my self-interest would prompt me to say good things about it. Certainly it is in my best interest to promote the book, but biased in its favor? The opposite is probably more likely: that I am my own worst critic and harshest judge of the worth of the product. I know what went into it and what compromises had to be made to get it done. I know what I would have done differently (better), had I an unlimited amount of time and had the publisher an unlimited budget.
So I'm not one to gloss over the books little failings, but I have to say, as honestly as I can, that any shortcomings are few and far between…that in fact, it is quite a good book, doing what a good guidebook should do. I believe I did a competent job with the content: scouting out and plotting the best routes, then writing them up. The graphic artists did a good job on the maps and profiles. Many friends of mine contributed some really wonderful photos to illustrate the copy. And the publisher did a top-notch job with the final package. It's a big, hefty book built to best-quality standards: nearly 330 glossy pages, with 90 beautiful photos and all the maps and profiles and mileage logs anyone could wish for. Although I had seen other titles published by Mountaineers Books and knew they did good work, when I first held a copy of my own book in my hands, I have to say I was impressed by the quality of it. Although it is technically a "paperback," it is a book of substance.
How is it that I came to write and publish this book? Or, more to the point: if you are thinking about buying the book, you might wonder: what are my credentials for writing it? Why should you trust me to point you down this road or that one on a bike journey? Those are valid questions. The book is not cheap, and your time and energy are not something you would want to squander (on bad bike rides) any more than you would want to squander your money on a mediocre book. You have a right to know what you're buying.
So, to answer that…
I have been cycling for a long time--all my adult life--ever since I hopped on an old Raleigh to tour the English countryside in the summer of my 19th year. Sometimes I've been a cycle-commuter, sometimes a hardcore hammerhead. But mostly, for more than 200,000 miles, I have been a happy cycling tourist. My life's motto might be: "I wonder where that road goes…" In addition to exploring every road I can find, I have always enjoyed poring over maps and getting all the spatial relationships sorted out…what connects to what.
I have lived in the Bay Area for all of my adult life, and I moved to my current home in Sonoma County in 1983. Not long after that, I fell into the clutches of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. For a few years, I was more of a lurker than a leader in the club, but around 1992, that changed. I put on three different leadership hats at once: I became the club’s Ride Director (coordinating the club's ride schedule); I became the club's newsletter Editor (writing about the club's rides and events); and I became the chair of the prestigious Terrible Two Double Century. All three of those assignments launched me on what almost amounted to a second career: planning, coordinating, and leading rides and writing about them. (I have continued to wear all those hats right up to the present.)
Then in 1994, someone suggested to me that the club should begin organizing one-week cycle-tour vacations for its members. We ran a test tour that year (for six people, riding down the Oregon coast), and by the next year, we were staging large tours, with me doing most of the planning and leading. Over the course of the next few years, I really got into planning multi-day tours, traveling around California to scout out new routes, then adding more tours in Oregon and Utah. What's significant about these tours in the context of this new book is that, in addition to figuring out the routes and the logistics, I began writing up the tours in preview books…narrative descriptions of each stage to go along with the maps and profiles and route slips.
(I should probably slip in the point here that I was a Journalism major in college, and while I never ended up working as a pro-level journalist, writing copy has always been close to my heart and is something I do easily.)
Around 1998, I set up a website where these tour preview books could be shared with the general public, with more tours being added all the time. That brings me to my second shameless plug. That website still exists and has recently been redesigned and expanded, with more tours available than ever before. The site is Adventure-Velo.com. If you want to learn more about good biking routes around California (and Oregon and elsewhere), you will probably find something there to interest you. There are 23 tour books available at the site now. They range in size from 25 to 60 pages (including maps and many photos), and they can be downloaded for free as pdf's of between 1 mb and 4 mb.
End of that plug…moving on… In 1999, the folks at BikeCal.com asked me if I would be interested in writing a monthly column at the site, and it has proven to be a good relationship. 15 years later, I'm still cranking 'em out each month and having fun doing it. That allows me another venue for word-smithing about cycling. I've had articles about cycling appear in assorted other publications as well.
One way or another, I have done a lot of writing about cycling and lot of scouting and planning of bike routes. That brings us up to the fairly recent past, when Seattle-based Mountaineers Books tracked me down as a likely author for a book on good road rides around California. They had already published similar books for the states of Washington and Oregon, and having had some success with those efforts, they were looking for new worlds to conquer. They initially suggested a book for the entire state of California, but I pointed out to them that this state is almost as big as Washington and Oregon combined, and that they ought to consider dividing the state in two. They very reasonably agreed to that proposition, and so here we are.
Their first queries to me about the book began exactly two years ago this month. After we agreed on the scope of the project, I went to work on the content: the rides. The editors have allowed each of the authors quite a bit of creative liberty in figuring out what sorts of rides to list, with just a general template guiding things along: that there should be some entry-level and family-fun-sized rides; that there should be a few epic, century-sized rides; and that most of the rides should fall along a bell curve between those two extremes. I think I did a nice job of hitting a good balance on this mix. There are rides for all levels of fitness and ambition, with most falling in the 40- to 70-mile range, with levels of difficulty ranging from easy to epic.
The other overall premise for the book was that all parts of the state--half-state in this case--be well represented in the book. Following the lead of the Washington and Oregon books, I divided the state up into seven regions (see map). Some of the less settled regions simply don't have as many bike-friendly roads as the more populated areas, so it isn't possible, nor even desirable, to have exactly the same spread of rides in all areas. But as the map shows, we came close to it.
In the end, the book works well at sampling all the regions and offering something for everyone…not that easy with the nominal target of just 75 rides. (Note that while the title says "75 rides," there are actually well over 100 rides written up in the book. For instance, the last three "rides" in the book are multi-day tours of three, seven, and nine stages each. And then there are many others where longer and shorter options are offered.)
While I believe every ride offered in the book is a good ride--a "classic ride," as the title proclaims--and that each is packaged with accurate information, so that anyone with a lick of sense and decent fitness can ride them and enjoy them…I think the real value of the book will be as a sort of starter set to get folks going on more rides of their own. In my other career as a commercial illustrator, I've worked on something like 60 remodeling books for Sunset, showing folks how to build a deck or reinvent their kitchen. And while it's always possible to build exactly the deck we show--at least we hope so!--the real value of the books is as dream books: they inspire the reader to try something similar. Not the exact same deck, perhaps, but something suited to their own backyard. In that same vein, I hope this guidebook will be a wish book for its cycling readers; that it will jump start their own curiosity and wanderlust about the roads around them, causing them to ask: "I wonder where that road goes…"
I do my best to tell you where many of those roads go, but I hope the book is just the beginning: that after you do a few of the routes in the book, you will have begun to assemble your own notions of where the best road are.
I expect most cyclists, picking up this book, will first look at the roads in their own neighborhoods to see if I have nailed the best routes on the roads they already know well. But the book's real value will be not so much for the roads near home. It will be for the Sonoma County couple looking to spend a weekend cycling near Santa Cruz. Or for the Santa Cruz couple heading for a weekend in the Gold Country. Or for someone who has to spend a weekend at his Mother-in-Law's house in Oroville or Redding and hopes to get out of the house for a little ride…if only he knew the best local roads…
I have my first book-signing event coming up at Copperfield's Books in Santa Rosa (Montgomery Village) at 6 pm on April 22. If you're local to Sonoma County, I hope you can drop by. The publicist at Mountaineers tells me other such events will be scheduled in other towns around NorCal in the months ahead. I will try to list any such dates at my Adventure-Velo website.
If you do end up buying the book, I hope you enjoy riding the routes as much as I have enjoyed putting them together and writing them up.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org