Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger
Mike Brown, our training camp organizer, is the consummate influencer. His appreciation for the finer things in cycling was noticeable right from the start, from the Campagnolo gruppos adorning several bikes, to the sew-up tires glued to the rims of more than half the group. When not tending to customers at his two bike shops in Tacoma, Mike is on his bike, practicing what he preaches.
Prior to our big ride on the first day of camp, he spun a yarn based on his experience riding the 2008 Campagnolo Gran Fondo in Italy, cycling’s holy ground. The 216-kilometer route included six slopes—Forcella Franche, Passo Duran, Passo Valles, Forcella Staulanza, Passo Rolle, and Passo Croce d’Aune—and 17,060 feet of elevation. It was hard, so hard, but the scenery was forever.
At the finish, Mike noticed Valentino Campagnolo, president of the fabled Italian component maker and son of the driven Tullio, standing by himself. Mike extended his hand and thanked Valentino for organizing the event, to which the Italian replied: “Did you enjoy the suffer?”
Fuel for ‘The Suffer’
Suitably rested from our nice 30-mile spin on Sunday, we walked across the street to fuel up at a cafe. Consistent with the previous night, Skip and Gary were the early birds, finishing up their breakfast as we took our seats next to their table. We ordered enough food to feed a small army, and most of us could only eat half portions, saving the rest for later.
Brent and Gary consulted a map to prepare for the journey ahead. The plan was to head due west for 30 or so miles, then convene for lunch in Cambria. Riding along California State Route 46/Green Valley Road was a good plan, offering a wide shoulder and stunning views once we neared the coast.
Randy, our youngling, invited Suzanne and Rob, friends from a bike tour he previously guided. They live in nearby Shell Beach, and were excited to join our group for the day. Walt and Pam, our San Diego contingent who were staying in nearby Templeton, rolled into the hotel parking lot promptly at 10:00 am. Pleasantries and names were exchanged, and we clicked in and pedaled away en masse.
Rolling through town, we chose quiet parallel streets to avoid church traffic. The curious thing about San Luis Obispo County is the bike lane, usually a sanctuary from motorists and a safe haven from obstacles. Ours proved to be a magnet for sand, glass, debris and all sorts of tire-grabbing nonsense, which would prove tiresome as our journey unfolded.
Someone wise once said: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” More often than not, my group-riding experience has included too many hammer heads looking to flatten everyone and everything in their path, leaving me solo, frustrated and wondering why they bothered to invite me in the first place. Brent reassured me that Mike’s group was different, and the ironic thing was that it was I who would inadvertently ride off the front a few times on our second day of camp.
Pam works at a San Diego bike shop, and has been mentoring and coaching young cyclists for decades. When God created the universe, San Diego was his crowning glory, never to be touched with inclement weather or temperatures dropping below 70 degrees, as evidenced by Pam’s deep tan and beautiful surfer-girl smile. She and I pedaled along together on SR-46, getting to know each other and talking about the San Diego bike culture, while our main group of 10 pedaled cohesively behind. But, as the road pitched up and down with more increasing frequency, and the wind began shoving its big hand in our faces, Pam and I realized we put too much acreage between us, and soft-pedaled.
Hilly and flat at the same time
Once again a solid peloton, the party really started on the first of several big climbs toward the coast, as Brent’s rear tire went flat with a noisy phhhhtttt, followed by a splattering of sealant streaming from his sew-up. Half the group waited, while the other opted to keep their momentum steady and roll on.
The purpose of our Gentleman’s Training Camp was saddle time and camaraderie, and I decided to stay with Brent while the others soldiered on. Minutes later, his rear tire went soft again, and after several strokes of his pump, Brent decided to replace the bad with the good, pulling on a replacement tire. I towed him back to the second group, who waited near a vineyard.
As SR-46 became Green Valley Road, our climbing was rewarded with gorgeous six-mile descent toward the Pacific Ocean. Emerald hills, with farms, vineyards and open spaces as far as the eye could see, unfolded before us. Our group wasn’t the most excited about climbing, but as talk of an extended descent made its way to our ears, we happily shifted into our highest gear and pedaled like we stole something, middle-aged kids tearing over asphalt like a turbo-charge donkey to its carrot.
Unlike a professional racer’s training camp, which dictates munching up the miles and eating on the bike, Mike’s plan was to regroup in Cambria for lunch all together. Skip and Gary, the elder statesmen at 69 and 71, respectively, originally planned to ride a gentle 20 miles and taste wine, but gladly stuck with our crew. The benefits of a draft, and the opportunity to eat locally grown food, must’ve outweighed the lure of a pedestrian’s wine tour that day, and we were glad to have them.
Discussions around the table began about the 15-mile Santa Rosa Creek Road adventure that awaited, and a few of our hearty crew decided to take detours, namely Pam, Walt, Rob and Suzanne. We said our farewells, and our slightly dwindled group pedaled on toward The Wall, a climb notorious for gobbling up and spitting out weak-kneed riders. Of course, Mike was cagey about the severity of the climb, not once mentioning there was more than one section that topped out at 22-percent grade and then some. Skip, Gary and Lewie rode on ahead, as Brent, Mike, Randy, John, Jim and I were the last to leave the cafe in Cambria.
We were about to find out what Mike meant when he described today’s route at the dinner the night before as ‘pitchy’.
Santa Rosa Creek Road stretches from Cambria on the coast northeast to SR-46, and is one of the best roads for rouleurs and puncheurs to experience firsthand. The excitement began once the asphalt crumbled and pitched slightly upward, the road narrowing to barely two-cars wide. What felt like California one minute looked like Scotland or Ireland the next, and our fears of The Wall were delayed as well pedaled in unison.
Not to be outdone by Brent, Lewie’s rear sew-up decided to grab a chunk of something sharp, and it was a good reason for our group to merge with theirs, next to a quietly babbling Santa Rosa Creek. Randy and I rode ahead to tackle The Wall first; I claimed my journalistic need to take photos, while Randy wanted to see for himself how hard it could be.
Grabbing the brake hoods like Armageddon was upon us, Randy and I muscled our way up the 22-percent grade, which thankfully only lasted 50 meters or so. I collected my breath and my camera to wait for the others, who one-by-one cleaned the climb with efficiency without shedding any tears.
“That wasn’t so bad!” Randy shouted to Mike as he approached us on the side of the road.
“Of course it wasn’t,” Mike replied. “Wait ‘til you see what comes next!”
Making the most of the second ‘pitchy’ climb, we pedaled together as the road pitched higher, and then whipped a hard left up a hairpin steep enough to make Marco Pantani wince. Randy and some others went up the road, while I mustered up the courage just to survive. I said a quick prayer, made some mental notes about loved ones I may never see again, turning over the cranks with as much souplesse as possible, and began my ascent into hell, which ironically enough looked like heaven.
As the others made the climb up and over the summit near Cypress Mountain, Randy went back down to fetch Lewie, who, like Brent earlier in the ride, needed a sew-up swap to maintain forward momentum. Once everyone came up and over, it was a lactic-acid clearing descent at high speed back to SR-46, where half the group rode straight back to the hotel, while the other half added Peachy Canyon Road and another 1,500 or so feet of climbing to the day. All told, we covered 70 miles, with 7,000 or so feet of climbing on the day, a perfect reason to rejuvenate our tired muscles and tender sit bones in the hot tub before sharing pizza, beer and wine back at base camp.
No training camp would be complete without nonsensical television viewing, and Randy blazed a bizarre trail controlling the remote. If zombie television wasn’t enough to melt our already-fried brains, the hand-fishing show deep in the heart of Texas was one for the memory banks.