SoCal From Three Bikes, One Cyclist, Over Three Years – Part I

Southern California calls to mind palm trees, beaches, Hollywood Boulevard, and juice cleanses. At its most athletic, one might picture celebrity-studded hikes in Topanga Canyon or pull-ups on the rings at Muscle Beach in Venice, surrounded by jocks with biceps bigger than a cyclist’s waist. But if you pan out, you’ll notice that the landscape is also studded with smooth roads, brutal climbs, and jagged desert singletrack, all peppered with cyclists out on their daily grinds. It’s where pros go to train, where weekend warriors hone their art, and where friends and enemies are made on the Strava Leaderboards.

Gibraltar: The Solo Climb

gibraltar-strava-lgMap of the ride via Strava

I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few winters in the SoCal area. As a New Jersey transplant, I was transfixed by the glaring sunlight, instantly decided to get highlights to blend with the locals, and immediately regretted the decision. My first year in the area, Gibraltar was the climb that scared me the most and the one I developed the most excuses around. The roughly 800-meter climb happens over six short miles, and there’s no hiding from cars, other cyclists, or your tired legs as your power starts dropping but your heart rate refuses to do the same. It’s painful, occasionally scenic, and involves inevitably bombing down back roads to meander back to Santa Barbara where, if you survive, there will be acai bowls at Backyard Bowls and delicious coffee at Handlebar Coffee waiting for you. Get larges of everything–you’ve earned it.

gibraltar roadNowhere to hide on Gibraltar Road

I trained for eight weeks leading up to the solo run at Gibraltar that I’d mentally built up to legend status. The Tour of California rolled up there. The pros I was living with all feared their time trial days that sent them up the mountainside. I had no delusions of grandeur; I just didn’t want to get a flat or be forced to walk any of the steep sections. So finally, with a vest crammed in my back pocket, spare tubes, and both water bottles filled to the brim, I pedaled nervously to the bottom of the climb.

I should note that at this point, I’d earned some local cred as a racer and a darn good triathlete, but weeks of living with people who race bikes for a living had decimated my sense of bike-related self-worth. Cautiously, I started pedaling. This wasn’t so bad. And so, it wasn’t so bad, for the first mile anyway.

The sun beat down.

Two gray-haired men appeared in the distance and I realized I was slowly reeling them in, so I overconfidently increased my pace. I passed them, straining to act casual while offering the wave and head nod. I whizzed past and proudly exhaled before gasping for air. After making sure I was clear of those riders, who had been deep in conversation and completely comfortable, I settled into my least-favorite position in a race – No-Man’s-Land, where you can pedal super hard and not catch anyone, or slow way down and still not get caught because you’re already so far ahead (and, let’s be honest, no one is chasing you). You’re struggling to maintain motivation to go hard for no actual good outcome. With that in mind, I admit I slipped in one earbud, cranked some music, dropped a gear, and stood up and danced on the pedals for a few beats. My heart rate dropped a bit, and a smile started creeping over my face. The top wasn’t quite in sight, but I had made it: the rest of the way up, I sashayed across the road, enjoying the slight cramping in my legs immensely, realizing that I was winning my race.

This is a three part series. Part II – Sycamore Canyon: On the Heels of Greats will be featured next week.


Related Articles