Paved Magazine Feature: Finding the Stoke — Part 4

A Former BMX Pro Struggles to Gain His Stride on a Tour Down the Pacific Northwest Coast

By Taj Mihelich | Photography by Sandy Carson

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Arcata to Garberville
After leaving Arcata, the 101 we’d been following turned into a four-lane highway. It was a bit of a shock to the system to ride along a busy, exhaust-choked road after so much peaceful riding. Luckily, we soon hit the Avenue of Giants: a quiet redwood-forest road that parallels the 101. We spent so long in the trees that it was beginning to get dark, and we realized we were still 17 miles from the nearest town. We hopped back onto the busy highway and powered through the remaining distance into Garberville.

Garberville to Fort Bragg
All of my cycling friends had told me that on a big ride like this, “You just need to find your rhythm and stick with it.” This wisdom made no sense to me. How could I keep my own pace when I had to keep up with these other two guys? Now I got it. There’s some serious ebb and flow on a ride like this.

I’d been riding with the guys for only seven days, and already I felt completely different on my bike. I felt so much stronger. No climb or distance or time in the saddle intimidated me anymore.

We headed out from Garberville and rode the last unpleasant stretch of the 101. In Legget, we took the opportunity to head back to the coast and pick up the 1. The road started climbing but was much quieter. I was feeling good and soon put some distance on Nick and Sandy. On the climb, I passed a few other bicycle tourists laboring up the pass, and all I could feel was my breathing. I just kept climbing, not caring if it ended. I reached the peak and thought about waiting for Nick and Sandy to catch up, but just felt too good to stop. I’d completely found the stoke.


Fort Bragg to Bodega Bay

The road was long and straight as far as we could see. Two loud trucks were coming up behind us, while a couple of cars were heading toward us. There was no shoulder at all, and even the white line was cracked and crumbling. Cycling instinct told me this was going to be a tight spot; I could hear that the monster trucks behind us weren’t braking. I was riding what was left of the white line with a drop-off to the side of the road. I chanced a peripheral glance behind me to see the truck coming straight for me. I managed to flinch enough to get the bike off the road, feeling the truck practically buzzing my elbow as I went skidding down into the ditch. The truck behind him swerved at me and rode the cracked white line, seemingly in a display of road dominance. Ahead of me, Nick faired no better. The first truck missed him by inches and the draft sent him wobbling. The next truck was even closer.

I can only imagine how bad that situation would have been for some of the less-experienced riders and families we’d passed that same day.

I went through the typical cyclist’s thought process. At first, I sprinted off on an angry, 20-minute, adrenaline-filled charge, thinking what I might do if I caught up with the truck. Once I’d burned off the anger, I just felt sad and started thinking of what island nation without cars I might move to.

Hours later, we finally caught up with Sandy. He was completely oblivious to the dangerous road, having had a wonderful ride. We found him lounging at one of the most amazing cliffs overlooking the ocean we’d encountered—one that you couldn’t even see from a car.

When we set out again, I learned how Sandy handled this narrow road—just like every other road. He rode two abreast where he pleased, laughing and not even noticing himself swerving while he talked. Cars and trucks be damned. This was his road.

Bodega Bay to San Francisco
For three beat-up old BMXers, we were holding up pretty well, and I felt ready for the last jump to our final destination: San Francisco. But it wasn’t going to come to us without a fight. Nick and I were cruising along at a good pace when we realized we’d lost Sandy. He often wandered off to take photos, but after waiting for almost an hour, we started to get worried. After a few texts, we discovered that we’d missed a turn and were on the wrong road. Nick and I had ridden out of our way and into Petaluma. After 15 hot, challenging miles of climbing, we made it back to the coast road. At the first small town, we found Sandy, who’d had an equally exhausting solo ride.

We were 40 miles from San Francisco. We were tired from baking ourselves inland, but this wasn’t going to stop us. The closer the road got to the city, the more it curved and the hillier it became. We’d be riding along the water and would look up to see cars rounding the edge of a cliffside road, hundreds of feet above us, and we’d realize that our legs would have to take us there.

The road seemed to become even more dramatic, switching back on itself, diving steeply down so we were braking to avoid slower cars and then striking steeply back up again. I was positive that, in terms of sheer elevation change, today had been our biggest day.

At last, we bombed down a final winding hill and out into the buzz of civilization. We picked up a bike trail that was crowded with people commuting to and from the city. It all felt too hurried as we got caught up in the flow straight to the Golden Gate Bridge. Once we crossed that bridge, it would be over. Even though part of me wanted to get off my bike, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted this trip to end. Pedaling all day seemed to be all I knew anymore. But the road kept passing beneath me and the big, red bridge rolled right up to greet us.

I’d ridden 853 miles on my first tour, from Portland to San Francisco. From start to finish, the birthday boy seemed to be reveling in every moment of his 1,135-mile journey from Seattle. For me, the trip was more of an emotional experience. Throwing myself completely out of my comfort zone and into Sandy’s world was something amazing. Seeing one of the most wonderful parts of the earth by bicycle was reason enough to do this trip, but it was more than that. I went from feeling like I couldn’t push another pedal to feeling completely unstoppable. There were times when I needed my friends to get me through it, and at times I found myself…well, I just plain found myself.