September 12, 2015

Coastal Caravan

Misty coastline near Big Sur, California
The first couple of times I did this ride, the Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge, I was itching for a faster start. We were paced out at a leisurely 12 mph or so over the initial 10 miles, which was a penalty for me because that was terrain I could cover at a faster speed.

Oh, how times have changed. With former Olympians and pro riders at the front, including Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie, this year I lost the wheels of the front of the pack before our u-turn at Robinson Canyon. I rode my heart out, averaging 18 mph for the first 30 minutes, but resigned myself to surrender. A local woman would cross the line first today, champion rider Christine Thorburn, in 4 hours, 46 minutes, 13 seconds—besting Christian and George by 3 seconds. [Well done, Christine!]

Kelp and turquoise water along the California coast, south of Big Sur
I, on the other hand, availed myself of rest stops along the way and stopped to snap the occasional photo. It wasn't a picture-perfect sort of day; it was warm, but there were only brief glimpses of blue skies to the east. The sun peeked out for all of about five minutes.

One factor that slowed me down this year was the traffic. More traffic than I've ever experienced on this ride. Along one stretch, I passed the same vehicles multiple times. Not only did I lose precious momentum on a key downhill, I had to pick my way gingerly alongside SUVs and motorhomes crawling up the hill. In one case, a few of us threaded our way through stopped traffic to the left of a Cruise America RV that left no room to ease past on the right.

Teal water in a cove along the California coast, south of Big Sur
It was quiet along the open road. The air was still; no tailwind for the final miles, but no headwind either. Between the layers of low clouds, the sky had a pinkish hue above the horizon. Pelicans, silhouetted against the gloom, glided past at eye level—some heading north, some south. I spied a juvenile snake in my path with little time to react; I think I managed not to clip it.

A volunteer at a rest stop looked out at the Pacific and asked me what was on the other side. I smiled. “Well, it's the open ocean, it's a long way to the other side.” Then I asked where she was from. “San José,” she replied. [Sigh.]

Even though I was slower this year, I found myself passing people. Quite a few people. I played leap frog with a couple of riders for much of the day, but dropped them for good as we headed toward the final pair of climbs. I didn't mind those so much this year; and as in prior years, I passed riders who were walking (or, sitting) on the penultimate climb. Over the years, some riders would sign up to ride the century, confident that they could rely on a SAG vehicle to carry them over these hills. The organizers had been especially complicit over the past two years, providing a full-on truck to carry bikes and vans to ferry people.

Not so, this year. I watched a guy try to flag down a regular SAG van as it rolled past, but it was full. He would have to wait a bit longer.

Victorious pep after riding 100 miles, at the finish line, San Simeon, California
Cresting that second summit means one thing: It's time to hammer on to the finish line. Even without a tailwind, I was gratified to pick off many riders along the way. I'd see one ahead, in the distance, and think it wouldn't be possible; but time and again, I'd reel them in. They were too spent to give chase.

Throughout the day, I reflected on how much each mile was worth in terms of the money I'd raised for Best Buddies, and I'd pedal strong and proud. I was determined to keep enough people behind me to stay clear of the well-meaning course marshals who sweep the route. Coming down off the final climb, I estimated that my on-bike time would be 7 hours, 40 minutes. I was thrilled to be wrong, crossing the line in 7 hours, 30 minutes. I wasn't last. I wasn't even the last woman. For the day, 100 miles with some 6,280 feet of climbing; average speed, 13.2 mph.

The Pointer Sisters entertained the crowd at the post-ride barbecue, which puzzled me because ... I went to a Pointer Sisters concert when I was a teenager. [That was some time ago.] Our generous host, Steve Hearst, shared the genesis of this event. Anthony Shriver had called him with a proposal for a ride that would start in Santa Barbara and end at Hearst Castle. “People will die,” Steve replied. “You need to start in Carmel.” And here we are again, 12 years later.

I was excited to have a chance to chat with Christian Vande Velde, who was a genuinely nice guy. I was looking for my buddy Cameron, to thank him for his help last fall. They'd announced his name at the start, but Christian explained that he was out with a broken foot (and, training for Kona).

Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, still drought-dry, San Simeon, California
The post-party party up on the Enchanted Hill seemed smaller than usual. Being an early bird for a guided tour, I was treated to a one-on-one (!) visit to two of the cottages.

The famous pool is still drought-dry. Maybe, next year?


  1. Great report! I visited the castle for the first time this summer and I really envy your small (!) tour of the houses. The pool is shut for repairs- we were told it's been leaking a lot for the last several years and the drought was motivation to drain the thing and fix it

  2. Another problem for the pool is that it's spring-fed, and the spring is dry.

  3. El Nino will fix that pool. :)

    Pep, great read, thank you for sharing and for your gracious humanity.