Dirty Words: Road Riding When the ‘Road’ is Dirt

A weekly Bike rant by Sal Ruibal

By Sal Ruibal

With all the flashy international road racing going off in Italy and California, a mountain biker can feel a little left out.

I was out in California for a couple of days, hanging out at a big, fancy hotel in Santa Rosa where the big, fancy team buses for the Amgen Tour of California were parked on just about every inch of curb. Scurrying beneath color-coordinated tents while wearing matching outfits, mechanics tightened and oiled, tweaked and washed dozens of gorgeous, shiny road bikes.

While the assembled masses oooh-ed and aaah-ed as the suds splashed on the super-model bikes, my eyes were searching the hills for hints of singletrack and puffs of dust coming from a far away knobby tire.

Santa Rosa is the birthplace of Team BMC and founder Gavin Chilcott met us at the service course to get fitted for a ride on the roads around Sonoma County. I casually mentioned to Gavin that I had seen some great reviews of the BMC GranFondo GF01 cobble-busting bike and a few seconds later he pulled a sweet 54cm frame GF01 from a rack. The carbon BB was huge, like something you might see on an enduro MTB. Stout would be an understatement. The rear triangle was also massive, with a sculpted shock-absorbing seat-stay that dissipated energy into a small plate.

On the hoops were some hefty 28s with a touch of grip and the shifting was electronic. Not a machine for whippets, but a bike for whipping some havoc on bad roads and badder dirt roads.

I could hardly sleep the night before the ride despite copious amounts of wine and zany but delicious tapas at the famous Willi's Wine Bar. Even our hotel was designed for winos: I was staying in the Reisling section.

By 6 a.m. I was slathering chamois butter on a pair of bib shorts from a kit I scored from Stolen Underground a few years ago. The inverted "13" on the left leg and jersey arm was a bit of anti-road rebellion that matched the BMC machine's black-and-red color scheme.

Our trio rolled out and soon we were out of the race mania and into the beautiful undulating wine-country, with hundreds of acres of finely manicured grape vines covering the vista like the land of Teletubbies.

The roads were becoming increasingly nasty and I was smiling. I grew up riding the rough roads and dirt paths of the High Plains of Colorado, flying on gravel with nothing but mountains behind me, and Kansas straight ahead.

Sonoma was more cultured, but Gavin soon pointed out Shiloh State Park on our right and I could see dirt trails slithering up the hills. I rode a bit more with my companions, but the siren song of dirt was pulling me back. I asked Gavin if it was OK to hit some dirt, he just nodded and said goodbye while they disappeared down the tarmac and I began climbing in rim-deep dust.

The bike didn't feel like a road machine or a mountain bike. It absorbed the climbs without feeling flexy and was scary fast on sketchy descents. I saw only one hiker and she kind of smirked to see a biker so far off the asphalt.

I continued up and up and saw the early morning clouds still covering the coast. It's that chilly microclimate that makes Sonoma County wine special. My whistle was getting dry and tepid bike bottle water wasn't on the menu.

Reluctantly, I turned a U on the highest ridge and aimed down, skirting some small vineyards and some huge corporate plots. Hot air balloons floated above, giving tourists a bird's-eye view. I was content to touch the branches with my hands as I passed, my ascending tracks the only sign than a bike had been there.

When I returned to the pavement, I gave out a small sigh and headed back to Santa Rosa and an afternoon driving the difficult first stage. At one point we passed a section of surf-warped rock formations on the beach, but from my bus seat I turned away and looked up to the mountains looming above.

They looked like home.