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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2000

The Joy of Going Nowhere

I’m the recipient of a lot of e-mail from people who have questions about touring in California. Either because of my connections to a California bike club or because of the little touring company I operate, people figure I may know a bit about getting around the Golden State by bike. The questions take many forms, but a common query I see over and over again runs something like this...

“Do you know the best route from San Francisco to Los Angeles?” Another variant: “I want to ride from Oregon to San Francisco. Can you give me any advice?” Having covered the up-and-down-the-state trips, the next popular plan is go cross-state...from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco or vice versa.

What all these grand plans have in common is that they involve long journeys connecting two distant points, usually major landmarks. The other thing they have in common is that, as recipes for great bike tours, they stink. People seem to get this notion that riding down the length of the state is some epic journey, worthy of their time and energy. My feeling is, if you want to have a great cycling experience in California, there are many other, better ways to do it. Let me deal with the specifics first and then wrap up with some generalities.

Oregon to SF: for the first half of this route, from the Oregon border to the town of Leggett--nearly 200 miles--the main road is Hwy 101, whether you’re driving or cycling. It’s always busy and is often a full-tilt freeway. You can escape onto less-traveled byways for a little over 80 of those miles, if you know what you’re doing, and for even more miles, if you’re willing to do some serious climbing. But the balance must be done on 101, and it’s quite unpleasant and none too safe. (Unlike the state of Oregon, California has done very little to make its portion of 101 cycle-friendly...and having done the Oregon coast tour a couple of times, I’m not even sure I would rate that section of Hwy 101 as a great cycling experience either, but at least it’s better than the California section.)

What’s more, you’re hardly ever on the coast. I would guess you’re actually in sight of the ocean for no more than 10-20 of those first 200 miles. Once you get onto Hwy 1, south of Leggett, things do improve, although Hwy 1 isn’t always an ideal cycling road either. Most of the coast in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin Counties is as spectacular as anything along any part of the Pacific coast of the United States, but there is still the likelihood of heavy tourist traffic--especially on weekends and in the summer--and often next-to-no shoulder to get away from it.

SF to LA...the same story: miles and miles of overly busy, not very scenic highways. Big Sur is of course justifiably famous for the grandeur of its landscape. No argument with that! But Big Sur only amounts to about 90 miles out of a journey of around 450 miles...20% of the total, max. Of the rest, I would rate perhaps another 30% as moderately interesting, if you don’t mind riding next to a fairly steady stream of passing cars all day. The remaining 50% I would deem to be substandard for pleasant cycle-touring. As with any tour that connects major metropolitan areas, a large chunk of the journey is frittered away in battling through the cluttered, congested zones around the cities...in this case San Francisco and Los Angeles, but also including traverses of Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, etc, etc, ad naseum.

I could cite specifics for the cross-state routes as well, but the story would be about the same: long stretches of busy freeways or dangerously overcrowded arterials; the long, boring slog across the Central Valley, etc.

And yet people persist in dreaming up these epic journeys for themselves, and they often persist in pursuing their plans even after I’ve given them the advice they asked for but didn’t really want to hear: that their plans are inherently flawed. (Not that they should immediately drop everything just because I say so, but they did ask for my advice...)

I think of these as Big Idea Tours, because their sole guiding premise is one big, monolithic objective: to get from one major dot on a map to another major dot, with apparently very little concern for what lies between. These tours are goal oriented rather than process oriented, and stubbornly ignore the truest of all travel truisms, that getting there is half the fun. (In the case of cycle-travel, getting there is about 95% of the fun...once you arrive, most of the fun is over.)

If I have a week or two of vacation a year and I want to squeeze the maximum amount of cycle-touring pleasure out of the available time, why would I elect to spend half of it riding along the shoulders of freeways? Why ride along roads lined with tract neighborhoods, strip malls, and all the other unsightly crud that surrounds our cities and sprawls along our major highways? Why indeed...especially when there are so many thousands of miles of very scenic and virtually deserted backroads out there, just begging to be ridden.

Granted, it’s easier to plan a Big Idea Tour: just find the two biggest dots on the map and connect them with the biggest line on the map. In contrast, connecting all the little dots out in the middle of nowhere is harder. It requires a lot of research and probably some local advice on which roads are the best. But it can be done. Detailed maps and tour books abound that will help you plan, and web searches can turn up all sorts of local knowledge...witness all the people whose e-mail reaches me.

If you really want to experience all the best that cycle-touring has to offer, you have to give up the Big Idea and replace it with the more modest concept of meandering and exploring, with no great goal in sight. Start by eliminating any tour stages near major urban centers. Choose a region that’s cycle-friendly: not too much traffic and lots of great scenery. Then content yourself with wandering around in lazy little loops, getting to know that one region well. Forget about getting from “A” to “B” and instead enjoy getting from “a” to “b” to “c” to “d” and so on...back to “d” and then over to “w” and “z”...whatever! Give up the notion of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and rejoice in the colors of the rainbow right where you are, right now, today. In the end, you may not be able to brag to your friends that, “I rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles!” but you may be able to tell them, “I just had the best bike vacation ever!”

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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