Since moving to San Francisco from Australia, I have spent countless hours exploring on my bike, ‘discovering’ some of the most amazing cycling terrain that I have come across anywhere in the world. Okay, so we might not have the altitude of some of the great climbs of Europe, but the length and variety of climbs, and of course the descents, is incredible. Add this to the favourable weather all year round, incredible scenery, vegetation (the world famous redwoods!) and the variety of wildlife for what I believe is an unbeatable recipe for cycling…be it on the road or MTB trails. So, when I was presented with an opportunity to explore more of the cycling terrain and routes of Northern California, I immediately jumped at the chance. The event was the Ride MS – Waves to Wine charity cycle and I joined the Salesforce team for a fully supported epic 185 miles over two days in September.
Day 1: 105 miles San Francisco to Sonoma Mountain Village
Shortly before 7am, almost 2,500 cyclists congregated at Cow Palace, San Francisco, eager to take advantage a police escort and get on the road bound for wine country. There was a mix of nerves and experienced campaigners amongst the crew. Remarkably, two cyclists had flown in from London the evening before especially for the ride (only to fly our Sunday afternoon!) and while some had participated in all 31 editions of the event. Heading towards and then along Ocean Beach was a good warm up, opportunity to chat and a great precursor for what lay ahead.
The first rest stop (of many…and I mean many!) was in the Presidio, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, where I chose to meet the rest of the cyclists and start my adventure after riding from my house in The City. Being staffed by volunteer aliens and members of the US Enterprise (I subsequently found out that each rest stop had its own theme), the first stop was a good indicator of the fun tone of the event. If you are looking for a competitive Grand Fondo, this probably isn’t the event for you. That’s not to say that there weren’t some very talented riders out there pushing it…but at the end of the day it is not a race.
From the Presidio we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge hopeful that the classic San Francisco fog and damp roads were behind us. We weren’t disappointed as by the time we had reached Sausalito the roads were clear and we were cheered on by hundreds of supporters (it makes you feel like a pro with your own cheer squad!). From Sausalito we climbed up Highway 1 and onto my favourite descent down into Muir Beach. Being a decent climber compared to your group has its advantages and meant that I was at the front of the pack for the descent. Having tested the first two corners for moisture, I had a clear run down, carving sweeping long turns…now this is what I call cycling! But it’s easy to get too carried away and with a long day ahead of me, I decided to sit up at the bottom and waited for a group of about 20 to form. We rode together, along Shorline Highway, sharing the pace making duties and taking in the tremendous scenery of one of the world’s most unique roads before the descent to Stinson Beach (another rest stop) and north before leaving the coast at Dog Town. It was about here that we found ourselves back in the redwoods and with a pace-line that was operating well after sorting out some early kinks. Next stop Point Reyes Station, with a diminished group of about 12, for a well-deserved coffee and pastry from the bakery.
As it turned out, we’d need every ounce of caffeine and more than a couple of gels each. Turning right out of Point Reyes Station, we headed towards Nicasio Reservoir and the 500 plus feet of climbing heading north along Petaluma Road. It was such an enjoyable climb with the sun now out and on our backs, before a left turn, an exhilarating descent and Marshall Wall. If you haven’t ridden here, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Through largely agricultural land, the east side of Marshall Wall is category 3 with close to a 600 foot climbing over 3 miles. At an average grade of 4% it doesn’t sound that tough, but 13 minutes of climbing and ramps above 12%, this is a great climb for even professional cyclists (Levi Leipheimer holds the record at 9:14!). Our group was decimated by the top of Marshall Wall, so we decided to stop and take in the incredible views of Tomales Bay only to be distracted by the hawks circling above. Whether they confused themselves for vultures stalking vulnerable prey (was I laboring that badly?), I am not sure…but they truly are majestic creatures.
Enough waiting…the descent down the west side of Marshall Wall was absolutely brilliant! But be sure to watch out for that last corner, it is a doozy! A sharp right turn back at the shoreline and past the oyster farms of Tomales Bay and you could almost smell wine country off in the distance. Our most experienced local in the group assured us that there were no climbs ahead. Okay so there was nothing serious, but with 20 miles still to go and legs getting more fatigued by the minute, it was a long slog over rolling to our finishing point.
By far the strongest rider of the day was a semi-professional, turned venture capitalist from London who was very kind to let the remaining four of us hang on to his draft. Amazingly he had just landed in San Francisco the night before especially for the ride and was suffering from jet lag…not that we could tell. We finished the afternoon in a world of hurt (after pushing an 18 mile and hour average for the day) at Sonomoa Mountain Village in Rohnert Park where an amazing tent city was set out for us. It was pretty quiet when we arrived, so we had our pick of the beers, lunch and our own private band. The event area slowly filled up and before long we were enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with 2,500 of our newest friends, swapping war stories under sunny skies. Time for pasta and bed.
Day 2: 80 miles Russian River Valley
Day 2 started at 7am back at Sonoma Mountain Village. Arriving and seeing cyclists stumble out of their tents, I was glad that we’d booked a hotel room. Even if it was the cheapest hotel in town, it had a bed and I came away well rested and without flea bites…score! The route for Day 2 was in complete contrast to the sweeping views, big climbs and coastal surrounds of the first day. Makes sense…they did call it ‘Waves to WINE’ after all.
Heading from Sonoma Mountain Village, we tracked north over rolling terrain along rural roads and through some incredibly picturesque vineyards. With the knowledge that my wife was soon to be tasting some of the area’s finest Pinot Noir’s (some experts have called the Russian River Valley the premier wine region of the world), I can’t say that my mind was completely on the road ahead. To be honest, I wasn’t the only one though as subconsciously we had decided to take it a little easier for the second day.
After a mechanical or two, we got the old band back together from the day before and ramped the pace up again. It was a bit of a motley crew: a venture capitalist, real estate agent, pool builder, IT professional and myself from Above Category, but I think that is part of the beauty of these events in the way they bring you together. Despite our varying experience, we worked well together sharing the load and setting up the pace line again. Our momentum was however slowed by a flat tire and by the larger number of cyclists on the road. We had caught up with, and landed ourselves in the middle of those riding a 50 mile route. The rougher roads (someone needs to spend some money up there) combined with the congestion made the day a little less enjoyable than the first…but still an incredible day nonetheless.
After four and a quarter hours of riding, we were all happy to see the finish line. Five beers, a couple of Cokes, a hearty steak lunch plus a shiny medal and any pain was quickly forgotten…until I had to walk to the car for the return trip to San Francisco.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! Okay…so there might have been a few too many people on the roads in parts, but I would much rather that than having to deal with cars. The cycling was tough in parts too, but the organisation of the event (abundance of rest stops and food, police escorts in part and a great fun atmosphere) was truly top class and made any misgivings very minor in the total scheme of things. And did I mention that there were massages available at the end of each day too!
Of course, it was all for a great cause. As a team we managed to raise $250,000 which was about 10% of the total for the event. Without the effort of the cyclists and their supporters, the road to curing MS would be a little bit longer.
So…I am in next year…and you should consider it too. This is truly a special place to ride and with distance options for the novice right up to racers, I would encourage everyone to seriously think about having a crack next year. And oh, your non-cycling other half will be appreciative too as there are plenty of hours to sample some of wine country’s finest while you’re out there riding…now that’s an easy sell.
Keep it rubber side down.