Gentleman’s Training Camp: The Prologue

Spending A Week On the Roads of San Luis Obispo County With Some of Cycling’s High Society

Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger

In early 2010, when Paved was just a twinkle in Papa Parkin’s eye, I was pedaling up Page Mill Road in nearby Los Altos Hills, a tidy grunt of a northern California climb. Rounding the bend before the pavement pitches a few degrees more, I spied Team BMC Racing mechanic Rich Sangalli parked in the red-and-black team car where Alexis Drive spills onto Page Mill. After a nod between friends, I continue my climb, looking up in time to see recently-crowned world road champion Cadel Evans coasting toward me on a time-trial bike, wearing his rainbow jersey.

“Such is my life,” I said to myself between pedal strokes. Not many days go by without seeing one famous cyclist or another in my neck of the woods. This was never the case during my seven years in Dayton, Ohio.

Moments later, Evans passes me, heading toward Altamont, where he would turn around and pedal back to Sangalli. This was repeated four times by the time I reached Altamont (I soft-pedaled to enjoy the moment), and I realized they were testing equipment in preparation for the new season, fresh off a team training camp in Santa Barbara. Team co-owner Jim Ochowicz lives in nearby Palo Alto, and Evans was staying in town for some meet-and-greets and training before heading to Europe. Evans would win the 2011 Tour, and his gift to me was the ability to share this anecdote.

Three years later, my lunch ride continues to be an 18-mile loop, with Page Mill Road and 2,224-feet of climbing for good measure. Nearing my 47th year, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to attend a training camp; not as a journalist, which I’ve done before, but as a participant.

Dreams can come true

Nearly seven years removed from living in the Midwest, where dreams of dry roads and warm weather are buried deep below layers of snow and ice, I sit at my desk, watching the morning sun peek over the Douglas Fir near my home in Mountain View, California. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, my Belgian skin already showing darkened signs of the lovely weather bestowed upon the fortunate, tan lines which indicate access to some of the best road and dirt riding in the country, a fact I never take for granted. I ride every day.

My mobile phone chirps, and it’s Brent Steelman, a fellow rider who also happens to build some of the finest steel bicycles on the planet.

“Hey, man, some friends of mine from Tacoma are having a training camp of sorts on the Central Coast, and I was wondering if you’d like to join us,” he said.

“There’ll be wine.”

My mind wanted to say yes immediately, but my heart reminded me that my parents were visiting from Wisconsin soon, which would overlap with this adventure, a long one, running March 2 – 6. I told Steelman I’d let him know soon.

As I continued with my work, it dawned on me that I’d be a fool to say no to Mr. Steelman; as a freelance writer and cyclist, passing up the chance to spend a few days riding bikes on the Central Coast of California would haunt me forever, just like the recurring nightmare of when I passed on the invitation to see The Police in 1984.

“I’m in,” I told Steelman later that day. “Tell me more about some of the guys I’ll meet and what this so-called ‘training camp’ entails…”

Definitely not boot camp

Mike Brown, the organizer of what I unofficially began calling our ‘Gentleman’s Training Camp’, owns Tacoma Bike in Washington State. In the early days, Brown worked for Gary Fisher and Tom Ritchey, and is best known in the bike industry for his 20 years as a regional rep for Security Bicycle Accessories, an East Coast-based distributor of high-end component kits for small builders like Steelman.

The two men also share a love for wine, something we’d find in abundance during our training camp. Brown and Steelman are part of a wine collective with the equally acerbic godfather of American framebuilders, Albert Eisentraut of Oakland. American road-racing pioneer George Mount is another member.

Brown enjoys social rides with friends, and long tours of foreign countries, a trend I’ve noticed among those who’ve worked for adventurers like Fisher and Ritchey (myself included). In the past, Brown’s training camps have been held in Ashland, Oregon and Solvang, California, but the lure of quiet country roads lined with vineyards, affordable lodging and dining options, plus a weather forecast calling for temperatures in the mid 60s to low 70s, can’t be beat in early March.

I made a mental inventory of the necessities for a four-day camp; thankfully we’d be based out of the same hotel, beginning and ending every ride from the same spot, which included an outdoor hot tub. I spent an hour or so tuning and prepping my bike, checking my tires for nasty cuts after cleaning and lubing my chain. I ride year-round, in all kinds of weather, and pay close attention to my machine, so I wasn’t worried about the bike as I was about the folks I’d be sharing saddle time with. History has proven too many times that ‘where two or more are gathered, there a race shall result’, and I don’t have a racerboy fiber in my body. In fact, for as long as I’ve known Steelman, we only shared our first road ride a week before. It was wonderful.

The adventure begins

Steelman and I met Brown and two of his Tacoma pals, Lewie and Jim, who flew into the San Jose Airport on the first day of camp. John, Randy, and Skip drove down from Tacoma the day before, and John was driving up from Pasadena. A few more of Brown’s friends would join us for dinner. We loaded Steelman’s Chevy truck with their luggage, and while swapping bike-tech stories like boys around the campfire, drove down scenic Highway 101 toward our destination.

Leaving the overcast skies of Silicon Valley in our rear view mirror, we rolled into base camp just as the youngest member of our crew was rolling in from a short ride and the sun was beating down on our necks. The 30-year-old Randy is fairly new to cycling. A waiter for the popular Seattle restaurant Wild Ginger, Randy also spends several weeks a year as a guide for Bicycle Adventure. He goads us to change into our riding gear and gather up in 45 minutes for a short 30-mile jaunt through wine country to get the travel out of our legs.

One thing I’ll learn on this trip is how punctual men can be without family in tow; well, for the exception of Steelman, who kept us waiting for 15 extra minutes. Introductions were made, and I realized quickly that at 46, I was the second youngest in our group. I’d do some calculations later the next day to determine the average age of our 12-person peloton was 58.5, the oldest being 71, with several in their mid to late 60s.

Our prologue for the camp was an eye-opener; I never realized how many vineyards were packed into San Luis Obispo County, like patchwork quilts for the wealthy or industrious. The architecture ranged from the stately to the arcane, and the smooth pavement passed by quickly. I spent much of the first half of the ride toward the back of the group, getting to know the pace and the style of each rider. There were just seven of us, which made my learning curve pretty tight.

Some of our crew had ridden these parts before, and Brown had a daily plan laid out for the camp. Our prologue was ideal, an introduction to God’s country, and despite it being a Saturday afternoon, traffic was fairly light. After approximately 2,300 feet of climbing, we returned to our hotel, not before a motorist shouted ‘get a car!’ as we passed through town.

After a hot tub soak and shower, we met the rest of our motley crew for dinner at a Caribbean joint downtown, promising Chilean and Latin Riviera cuisine. It’s there we met Pam and Walt from San Diego; Skip and Gary had already finished their dinner (Skip, 69, is the former captain of the U.S.S. Alabama, and keeps a tight schedule). Our first meal together was also where Brown dropped the bomb that the next day’s ride would be 70-plus miles, with 7,000 or so feet of climbing, including one stretch of 22-percent grade rollers that peaked out with a 24-percent hump.

That’s when I peered over my gargantuan menu at Steelman, whose big eyes grew bigger as he listened to his friend Brown describe the route.

“Don’t worry,” Brown reassured us. “Tomorrow’s ride is just a little pitchy.”