This blog post is about Mesa Rim Co-owner Bob Kain’s epic 7-day cycle journey down the California coast for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge.
As an avid road cyclist for over a decade, I knew about the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge (MDC). For most of that decade I dreamed of doing the ride. Who would not be seduced by a fully supported ride down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego? Even before I was a road cyclist, when I mainly road mountain bikes on trails, the romantic draw of riding through Monterey, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara appealed to me. The California coast is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. With a full time Biotech job at Illumina, partial ownership of a rock climbing gym, and a family to consider, taking a week off to ride the coast wasn’t in the cards.
During the last few years my goals switched to climbing goals. My thoughts about epic adventures took me in other directions. I wanted to climb Half Dome in a day, to find long moderate multi-pitch routes in the Sierras and other climbing meccas around the world. Thought of traveling to Italy and climbing in the Dolomites excited my imagination.
This past year though my life took an interesting turn. I left Illumina and jettisoned the weekly travel schedule. No surprise that I then had time to fit a week long ride into my life. One question remained, could I do it? Could I ride 620 miles in 7 days? It was time to find out. I signed up and started training.
Training 5 years ago would have entailed 10 – 14 hours a week in the saddle. Riding 4 days and 10 hours a week initially, working up to 5 days and 14 hours a week as the date grew near. However, as a climber who wasn’t going to give up climbing, training became a compromise. Near the ride date I was riding 4 days and 10 hours a week, however I was climbing and doing Yoga 9 hours a week. My legs might not have been finely tuned spinning machines, but the body was ready to go for it.
Rider check-in was Friday October 10th at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. As it turned out I needed to be in Boston on Thursday. To add to the drama, I took a redeye flight to Boston Wednesday night, worked Thursday, and then flew to San Francisco to check-in. After 2 days of hectic airline and auto travel, I was ready to spend a week on the bike.
Saturday November 11th we woke to a hearty breakfast and some encouraging words from our supporters at CAF. At just past 7:30 am one hundred riders took off with police escort through San Francisco, under the Golden Gate bridge and down the coast to Santa Cruz. The riders broke into 4 main groups outside of SF and made their way down the coast at different speeds. It was to be an adrenaline filled ride for me! With the help of a head wind, we reached speeds of 28 mph on the flats and arrived in Santa Cruz by early afternoon.
At our hotel mechanics took our bikes, support crew handed out room keys, bags were delivered to our rooms, massage therapists worked out legs, then food and drink awaited us. Each day 4 groups started from the hotel. Group 1 was the fastest and often started 30 minutes later than the rest. Group 4 would take their time and stop to shoot many pictures, finishing late in the afternoon. Mostly I finished between group 1 and group 2, group 1 ½ we called ourselves.
Ok here are the stats for those who want to know what is involved with riding the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego. The total ride is about 627 miles spread over 7 days. Every day was a new and different experience. The list below includes hyperlinks connected to topo maps and charts for the day.
DAY 1: SAN FRANCISCO TO SANTA CRUZ – 89 miles
DAY 2: SANTA CRUZ TO BIG SUR- 86 miles
DAY 3: BIG SUR TO PISMO BEACH – 114 miles
DAY 4: PISMO BEACH TO SANTA BARBARA- 121 miles
DAY 5: SANTA BARBARA TO SANTA MONICA – 86 miles
DAY 6: SANTA MONICA TO DANA POINT – 72 miles
DAY 7: DANA POINT TO LA JOLLA SHORES – 55 miles
I’ve completed many long single day rides in the past, with the longest being 217 miles through the Angeles Crest and the Los Padres mountains. However, up until this year, I’ve avoided riding two long days in a row. Leading up the event, I was worried about waking up and getting back on the bike on day two and day three. I figured that if you can ride three days in a row, you can do 7. My strategy was simple, ride at my own pace and enjoy the scenery.
Every day was challenging, exciting, and scenic in a very unique way. As with all starts during the ride, Santa Cruz to Big Sur begun with an easy ride out of the hotel with Group 2. When group 1 passed just before lunch, my friends and I decided to abandon our group and go for it. We jumped on the train. The next hour was spent speeding through 17 Mile Drive, barely able to keep up as over 20 cyclists would break and then accelerate through the many turns. It was a crazy with little opportunity to enjoy the world class views. What fun. Lunch was on the beach in Carmel by the Sea. We quickly ate and mounted our bikes for the final couple of hours to the Big Sur Lodge.
Day three was 112 miles and 7500 feet vertical for the day. We cruised along the best coastline in the world as Big Sur was put behind us and we headed for Pismo Beach. As we pedaled the better part of the day, we couldn’t help but wonder what Day 4 would be like given the 121 miles distance from Pismo to Santa Barbara. I took my time and road from 7am to 4pm. Big Sur morphed into San Simeon (Hearst Castle), Morro Bay, SLO, Solvang, and finally Santa Barbara. The legs felt good, as long as we didn’t get too anaerobic. This was not a day that many of the hundred riders wanted to attack on.
Pismo Beach to Santa Barbara was 121 miles, more importantly though, it was a physiological turning point in the ride. So many of us were focused on the 112 mile and 122 mile days coming after two already challenging days in the saddle. Yes it was hard, yes the day was long, and yes our legs were tired, but we made it.
The days following were going to get progressively easier. For many of us we were also approaching home territory. I had ridden many miles on the Central Coast over the years, including a three day weekend in Santa Barbara just a month earlier. We were home. We had conquered what we thought of as the two toughest days. The road ahead was all going to be all downhill, or at least it was headed south anyway.
Part of my plan was to get hour long massages every other night. They were calculated to help the legs rest and recover. In fact, every muscle in the body was thankful for the attention. Massages also are also a welcome luxury that balanced out the hard riding. The whole week was a balance of riding for hours on the bike, and nothing but pampering off the bike. It is hard to calculate the importance of having almost no stress in our day. We wake up and food is there. The bike is handed to us before the ride. Rest stations along the route provide plenty of good food and drink. They also address most medical needs including ibuprofen. Food, beer, wine, are there at the end of the ride, along with a key to a hotel room that already contains our luggage. No stress. Just eat, ride, and sleep.
The last few days went by fast. Ventura, Malibu, Santa Monica, LA, Orange County, Camp Pendleton, San Diego. Did I mention Malibu… Did I mention Santa Monica? We stayed near the pier. In fact my riding friends from the Bay Area, and I, arrived at our hotel first. For many reasons, including a minor crash, three of us finished 15 minutes ahead of the next riders. It’s not a race, on the other hand it does feel good to finish first.
We had plenty of time to enjoy the hotel and the beach. While friends took a dip in the water, I hungered for some climbing. The beach has a series of permanent workout structures, including rings, ropes, pull-up bars, and slacklines. Against my better judgment, I couldn’t help but climb the ropes. At 18 feet, I started to think “bad idea. Wouldn’t want to fall, twist and ankle, and abandon the ride.” Couldn’t resist topping out though. Needless to say, I didn’t fall and finished the ride. (That’s not me by the way, but I did finish the climb.)
We woke up the last morning in Dana Point. A mere 55 miles from our finish point at La Jolla Shores. The pace was casual and the mood was mixed. Like the final pitch on a 5 day multi-pitch project, we were excited to finish, elevated by a beautiful ride down the coast, and honestly a bit disappointed that it was ending. The 100 plus riders rode at their own pace toward our meet-up point at 12:30 a mile before the formal finish. Most stopped for lunch or coffee along the way. My friends and I decided to have lunch in La Jolla Shores. As a result we crossed the finish line an hour early and ride on to a celebratory Mexican feast.
CAF puts on a great ride in support of a very worthy cause. Riding with the challenged athletes and hearing their stories was inspiring. It helped us hold back our minor complaints and view the ride from a different perspective. I’m thankful for having the opportunity to do the ride and to finish it.
Bob Kain • Founder + Co-Owner of Mesa Rim