Don’t ask me why my most recent bikecamping tour, loosely based on Bikepacking.com’s SF Peninsula Traverse (revised by Irving and some other friends who’d ridden it recently), earned a nickname that refers to a renowned British actor; I can’t remember exactly how it came about. But it probably gives you a good idea of the weird and random topics that made us laugh endlessly during our fun adventure that spanned San Bruno to San Jose over Labor Day weekend.
And here’s another unusual aspect of this trip: most of us didn’t really know each other. It was like an episode of The Real World: what happens when six (sort of) strangers embark on a five-day bike camping tour together? I was good friends with Irving and Eric, but Benji, Jess and Jordan were either acquaintances I’d met through mutual friends or via Instagram. So we were pretty lucky when we all just naturally clicked due to our shared love of cycling and bad dad jokes.
It’s pretty cool when the Internet forges connections likes this. Although you meet online, you can still sense whether you’ll get along in real life, too. And cycling — while it’s the pastime that anchors the tight-knit community I belong to — it’s certainly not the main reason why I remain close friends with the people I pedal with for miles. It’s from personal chemistry that evolves through swapping stories, laughing together and sharing other interests (and in my case, it’s travel, food, film, dogs and so on … Well, I generally find people who show a deep curiosity for life quite interesting.)
Here’s a quick run down of our crew: You may have seen Eric competing at local races in the Bay Area or cruising around with an adorable furry backpack. Jordan works with at-risk teenagers and families up in Sonoma County, and you can tell by his sunny personality (evidenced by the fact that he waved to all the kids he saw on our ride) that he’s great at his job. Jess is a seasoned tourer who’s ridden solo twice around the country, and she’s a talented bagmaker with her own company, Tunitas Carryall — she produced all of the bags that you see on her bike! A nurturing and spirited soul who works with Cycles of Change, Benji provided our soundtrack as he played tunes from his bike-mounted speaker. Irving is one of the legendary co-founders of the Boyz in the Hoods; you should befriend him if you love tasty food, fun group rides and #normcoresadbois songs.
DAY ONE: Half Moon Bay
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Four of us met up at San Bruno BART station on Friday afternoon — Irving, Jess, Jordan and me — and equipped with a whole range of different bikes: a Rivendell Hunqapillar; a vintage Bridgestone; Salsa Vaya; and a Moots hardtail. Benji and Eric would join us later on after work at Half Moon Bay, the first camping stop on our itinerary. If I recall correctly, this would be the first time Jess had ridden through here, and some sections were new to Jordan, too. Once you make the initial slog up the road to the top of Sweeney Ridge, you can ride mostly dirt trails always the way to Half Moon Bay. I never get tired of this gorgeous view of the ocean. (It’s moments like these when I think that if I never left California and explored just this state for the rest of my life, I’d feel pretty satisfied.)
We rambled up and down the Devil’s Slide “Planet of the Apes” route, then made our way to the scenic paths that hug the coastline by late afternoon.
Then of course it was beer o’ clock, and we stopped at the Hop Dogma Brewing Company for some liquid refreshments. (I’d never been here before, and I highly recommend their AlphaDank IPA if they have that on tap — especially if you’re partial to hazy brews.)
Now it was onwards to Half Moon Bay, where we set up camp at the hiker/biker site.
I had decided to play camping roulette and brought along my hammock — which can be a crapshoot if you aren’t familiar with the sites. I knew there would be a least two trees I could use to string up my sleeping set up, but alas — someone had claimed them before we’d arrived. I managed to rig mine up on the roots of a large felled tree, but my top quilt, sleeping bag liner, down jacket, wool socks and gloves weren’t enough to keep me warm. Half Moon Bay is a notoriously windy and foggy spot, and I shivered throughout most of the night. But I think I got least four to five hours of sleep and definitely had some surreal dreams (which meant I’d passed out sufficiently) — which was more than enough to get me through the next day. (I’ve still retained some sleep deprivation skills from randonneuring.) And Jordan had camped out nearby on just a pad and sleeping bag, so he’d been just as miserable as me. Tents are definitely the way to go at Half Moon Bay unless you’re really prepared for the elements.
After we set up camp, we rolled into the outskirts of town for dinner. There’s a surprisingly good spot called Taqueria La Mordida in a strip mall. It’s the place to go if you want to stuff your pie hole with a ton of delicious Mexican food after a long day of riding.
When we got back to camp, Benji had arrived, then Eric popped up, too. Just as we were contemplating how we were going to scrounge up some firewood since there wasn’t any left at the park ranger’s office, we befriended a group of women from Washington, D.C. They’d just graduated college and were celebrating their newfound status with a two-week-long bike tour from Sacramento to L.A. They graciously allowed us to share their fire and we huddled together for warmth, talking about bikes, drinking beer and sipping whiskey until we finally headed off to sleep just before midnight.
DAY TWO: Castle Rock
In the morning, Irving led us to a sweet little cafe for breakfast — Granola’s Coffee House — where we fueled up on breakfast sandwiches and pastries and hung out in the converted Airstream parked out front.
Some mellow dirt was the morning’s agenda: the Half Moon Bay Coast Trail and the Cowell-Purisima Creek Trail that would lead us close to the start of our climb up the Purisima Creek Trail. This section cuts through a golf course and some verdant farmland. It’s a chill way to avoid the busy traffic on Highway 1.
The Purisima Creek Trailhead was where our adventure became … challenging. From this point on, we’d have the most climbing in one day: nearly 7000 feet. And since the suggested Black Mountain Backpack campsite from the original Bikepacking.com route was booked, Irving re-routed us a little further to Castle Rock (but cut out some of the dirt climbs.) Instead of taking the usual path up Purisima to Skyline, we turned right on Grabtown Gulch — which is a very steep trail that required some strenuous hiking-a-biking action (unless you’re beasts like Jordan or Eric, who cleaned most of it, apparently.) Once we all slowly crawled our way up this section, we reached summit at Tunitas Creek Road.
After a brief respite on pavement, it was time for El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, aka Skeggs. Here’s where some mechanical shenanigans ensued: while riding one of the gnarlier trails in the park, one of the King Cage USB clamps bolted to my suspension fork on my Moots loosened and slid down. Thus one of my stuff sacks in my Arundel Looney Bin ended up getting caught in my front wheel, and I endo’ed spectacularly into the dirt. Somewhere during these acrobatics, a nipple broke. And in this section, Irving’s rack got the wobbles after a nut somehow rattled off into the woods. (Yes, we did make many jokes about loose nipples and lost nuts afterwards.) But we employed some hacky fixes to get us back on track: Irving used an Irish strap and 2 Voile straps to secure his rack to the handlebars, and three trail bros that we encountered assured me that I’d be fine for the rest of the tour since the wheel was still pretty solid. One of them wove the errant spoke onto another one, which we secured with gaffer’s tape, and we soldiered onwards.
We all felt we deserved a beer — and some blackberry margaritas — with a leisurely lunch after surviving Skeggs. The iconic Alice’s Restaurant along Skyline was the perfect place to relax for several hours.
But more climbing awaited us, and we reluctantly starting pedaling again after shopping for supplies at the nearby general store. (Here’s where Eric earned part of his bike tour nickname, which was #DubStepRamen. Mine was #DeepSqueak, due to the weird noises my handlebar bag would make whenever it rubbed against my Moots frame. I believe Benji’s was #Doesn’tFuxWithTabasco, or something along those lines…I can’t remember the other ones! Hope the others do…)
While our tired legs were moseying up slowly up Skyline, the gorgeous views of the Peninsula revived our flagging spirits.
But by the time we reached the dirt at Long Ridge Preserve — which I’d normally be excited to ride — we were too knackered by all of the poison-oak dodging, bug swatting and stiff climbs we suffered through during this section. So we decided to hightail it out of there as quickly as possible, which required some tricky limbo action underneath a locked gate.
The light was fading fast — and the sunset was beautiful enough that we stopped to take photos — but we had to hustle if we wanted to get to Castle Rock by nightfall (we didn’t.)
After getting more water at the CalFire station, we arrived at the entrance at long last — which was followed by a long, dark gravel descent to the registration box. Castle Rock is a first-come, first-serve camping site, so we were a little nervous when it didn’t seem like there was any space available. We circled around to the closest sites first, which were all taken (except for one that apparently had a yellow jacket nest. That was going to be our backup solution if we didn’t find anything else.) But then we checked out the sites that were located further away from the entrance, and we ended up winning the Castle Rock lottery: there was a huge space for all of us to spread out that had a clear, unobstructed views of the night sky filled with stars. I even found a perfect set of trees for my hammock, although I was kept up for part of the night by a family (farting dad), two arguing bros who arrived late and one guy who kept clearing his throat but was too lazy to get up and drink water. Ah, the calming sounds of camping in nature.
DAY THREE: Alder Trail Camp
I was awakened by the sound of yellow jackets buzzing around the water spigot next to my hammock — as were the others — so it was time to make breakfast! Irving and I had agreed ahead of time to share some supplies and meals, so we had a mini-breakfast buffet of quinoa and leftover pastries to kick off our day.
None of us wanted to schlep back up that gravel road we’d bombed down last night, but fortunately, after much squinting and scrutinizing the local maps — we found a trail that could lead us back to Skyline. It dropped us into a private neighborhood, so I was a little nervous when a woman waved at me from her upstairs window and asked where we were headed as we began pedaling up a hill.
“Big Basin!” I called to her.
“You’re going the wrong way! Hang on a moment, I’ll tell you where to go.”
A kind lady named Lois emerged from her home (with her sweet little dog) and gave us directions with her neighborhood association map. “Folks wander through here all the time when they get lost,” she chuckled.
After our warm-up climb back to Skyline, Big Basin and Gazos Creek awaited us — which was one of the real highlights of the tour for me since I’d never ridden this trail. Plus there’s a magical treehouse and a series of old railroad cars tucked away in this corner of the forest.
But first, lunch — as well as the acquisition of another cool patch for my collection and the obligatory group photo inside of a giant redwood tree’s va-jay-jay. Then we ventured off to explore the beauty of six miles of sweet double track amongst the redwoods.
Benji suggested we stop for our second lunch — and more beer, of course — at Highway 1 Brewing. We also decided to visit Pie Ranch, which was just down the road, as he knew the owners. While I’ve ridden past it a million times, this was the first time I’d actually visited the shop and farm. Benji got permission to give us a tour, so we got our cute goat fix in while admiring the gardens. (Which helped make up for the fact that we didn’t see any elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park since we showed up too late.)
Not too far down the road was the trailhead for Skyline-to-the-Sea, right near Waddell Beach. We gently climbed up the path lined with oaks draped in Spanish moss and surrounded by an ethereal, mist-shrouded landscape.
While we’d reserved a site, campers were free to choose them on a first-come, first serve basis. The two remaining side-by-side spots were rather small, but fortunately, there were no takers for the second one. Jordan spread out his minimal set up by the creek, while Ben, Jess and Eric crowded into one site. I strung up my hammock at the other one — hurray for two more ideal trees — while Irving took the other tent space.
We spent the rest of the night lamenting the fact we should have bought more beer (and tried to coerce Jordan or Eric to ride to Davenport to get some), watching Ben build a Miyazaki-like forest, then I peppered the group with a series of philosophical questions like, “Would you get a scar that spanned across your entire face from ear-to-ear if it guaranteed you immunity from all diseases?” or “Would you eat a big bowl of live spiders for a million dollars?” or “Which Simpsons / Peanuts character are you?” This spawned all sorts of other side conversations and stories and bad dad jokes that we told late into the night.
DAY FOUR: Henry Cowell
After another breakfast buffet complete with leftover fries that Irving ingeniously re-crisped with his stove, we bid farewell to two members of our crew — Jordan and Eric — as they had to hustle back to work the next day. The rest of us pedaled south towards Santa Cruz, but not before stopping at Swanton’s. (Another spot that I’d never took the time to stop at and was glad that we did.) We bumped into Corey, who’d just finished up a ride with his dad Scott. We also had the pleasure of meeting a local cyclist and photographer, Chris, who snapped a bunch of cool pics of us and our bikes.
There was so much radness during our Michael Caine Biological Imperative Tour, but I have to admit that this next section was my favorite part: the bluff trails in Wilder Ranch. This was my first time riding them and my mind was blown! Stoke levels were off the charts as we wound our way above the ocean. Plus we saw adorable seals! And I bumped into one of my KQED co-workers, Paul and his son, too.
After arriving in Santa Cruz — where we had lunch while Spokesman Bicycles fixed my front wheel (and where I saw my friend Steph!) — we parted ways with Benji and Jess, who left to return to civilization as well.
Irving and I climbed up to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (and endured a short but nasty ride through a poison oak-bug infested-sandy trail) where we set up our final camp.
Tired and dirty, neither of us wanted to venture out again. But our dear buddy Jake came to rescue and was the real MVP that night as he brought us dinner, beer, cider and dessert — including fresh apples from his farm down in Corralitos.
DAY FIVE: San Jose
And then there were two. Irving and I were planning on bopping up Mountain Charlie Road from where we had our (second) breakfast in Felton, but Google Maps decided to torture us and led us to a dead end after a short climb. So we ended up grinding up Zayante, our second choice, which is a pretty road lined with redwoods — until the steep gradients towards the top punch you in the gut.) But we slogged and sweated and swatted away annoying bugs and finally reached the top by early afternoon where we celebrated with summit beers.
Then we swooped down towards Los Gatos to take the trail (which I’d never ridden in its entirety) to have Vietnamese food before catching our respective trains in San Jose. Done and done! Time for more celebratory beers.
A huge thanks to Irving for being my co-conspirator in planning this journey and handling all of the thankless tasks that come with leading a ride. And much love to our crew — Benji, Eric, Jess and Jordan — for all of the awesome adventures and laughs during the tour. I’m looking forward to the next one!