On the Bike: Most Memorable Road Food

The Grizzly Peak Cyclists, a local club here in Berkeley, has a slogan: “Eat to Ride, Ride to Eat.” You’ve got both sides of the cyclist’s eating equation right there: you need to fuel up to do this calorie-burning exercise, and this calorie-burning exercise allows you to indulge in one of the major pleasures in life–good food. The GPC holds a century every May, a hilly tour of the East Bay, and it justly prides itself on offering the best spread of any cycling event anywhere. Lots of fresh fruit and roasted potatoes at every stop along with a wide assortment of home-made cookies and quick breads that would be really bad for you if you weren’t out riding your bike. The lunch and end stop are renowned for having all of the above plus roast chicken and salads and more.
But for cyclists, fueling up is often–nearly always?–a matter of bowing to the necessity for jamming calories down one’s gullet, not enjoying the experience of eating. The two main reasons: Time and convenience. To cover distance, you have to eat fast or on the bike. To eat fast, you eat processed, packaged items. To climb off the bike, walk in a cafe or restaurant and actually order something to eat? What an indulgence.

A good meal or a decent restaurant experience in the midst of a ride can be nourishing beyond one’s simple nutritional requirements. It can give you a break when a ride has become a grind. It can give you a chance to meet some of those strangers we’re always zipping past. And, if you’re lucky, it might even give you a chance to eat real, identifiable, tasty food that will give you a boost when you’re back on the bike.
I know everyone’s got their own list of favorites–tell me about them!–but here are a few of the rewarding food stops I’ve had along the road. Most are commercial ventures you can visit yourself; a couple are one-off food offerings that cannot be replicated unless you have some very, very good and dedicated foody friends.

1. Marshall Store/Marshall, California: Go for the chowder, stay for the Sierra Nevada. The Marshall Store is on Highway 1 in Marin County, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. It’s also on the route of some of the brevets put on by the San Francisco Randonneurs. My very first 200-kilometer brevet with that club, in 2003, began as a rainy day and then turned blustery and cool. The route included a 10-mile leg north along Highway 1 from Point Reyes Station into what had built into a pretty healthy headwind that had whipped up whitecaps on the bay. I’ll ever forget getting to the store, where we had been told they’d have extra chowder ready for us. I got a cup, some bread, and a ginger beer. Wow! Restorative! Also exhilarating: The knowledge that heading back south I had a tailwind waiting for me. I’ve stopped here many times since and on one wet ride even had a Sierra Nevada pale ale along with my chowder (across the table from me: one of the brewery’s sales managers).
2. Pete’s home-cooked soup/Calistoga, California: Again from ’03. I did my first 600-kilometer brevet that year. That’s 375 miles in the course of a weekend, and while I was in good enough shape, I was barely prepared for the lack of sleep or the misery of a night and morning of cold rain on a tough climb. Come to think of it, I had a series of bad and good food moments on that brevet. Early on, I went into a state where I found food very unpalatable, almost nauseating. As I failed to take any significant calories on board, I started to fade and struggled out to the turnaround point, situated in a sodden campground in the redwoods along Highway 128 west of Boonville. It was pouring rain out there, and I stood under a tarp and unenthusiastically ate a Cup o’ Noodles. I got back on my bike wondering whether I really had another 190 miles in me. Then, a roadside apple cider stand appeared. I stopped and got some fresh apple juice, which somehow went down with no complaint. I had a second glass, and got on my bike. I made it to Boonville, where I passed a restaurant called Horn of Zees (that’s “cup of coffee” in the local argot, called Boontling). Suddenly I was hungry. I parked my bike, took off all my wet stuff, went in and ordered eggs and toast and potatoes. It tasted great. I still had a big climb ahead, on Highway 253 between the Anderson Valley and Ukiah. But the food was working, and I managed to grind up the ascent, taking my time but not stopping. The weather was improving — some showery rain on the descent. And by the time I got in and out of Ukiah, it was a sunny, warm May afternoon with a freshening northerly wind. I hit Calistoga, about 75 miles from the finish in Davis, just after dark. My friend Pete drove up from Napa to meet me. In addition to moral support, he brought some outrageously good split pea soup, some home-made bread, and a big cookie he had whipped up. I don’t think anything has ever tasted better. As it happened, I had a long night ahead of me, but that food and the gift of bringing it to me on the roadside kept me pushing.
3. Cook’s Station/Pioneer, California: Another memory of 2003. My friend Bruce and I took on an epic training tour of the northern Sierra as our final training for that year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. We took the train up to Sacramento on the last Wednesday night in July, then hit the road at 6 a.m. Thursday morning bound for South Lake Tahoe–about 145 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing away. Bruce had a rack and bag mounted to a seatpost, I was carrying clothes, supplies, and water in a large Camelbak. We fueled up at a Denny’s in Fair Oaks, then headed up HIghway 16 to Plymouth. I remember passing through Fiddletown and riding up something called Shake Ridge Road. Given the season, it was blazing hot. We emerged onto Highway 88, and started riding east and up. At about the 5,000 foot level, and I’m guessing maybe 80 miles or so into our ride, we saw a cafe: Cook’s Station. All I remember is hamburgers and fries and Cokes with lots of ice, and friendly service and more ice to go into our water bottles and Camelbaks when we left the place. I have no idea how the food would taste if I pulled over on a car trip, but on this day, it was an oasis, and one still fondly remembered.
4. The Polka Dot/Quincy, California: On Day Two of our Sierra epic, Bruce and I rode up along the west side of Lake Tahoe, through Truckee, then up Highway 89 to Sierraville. Right at the crossroads there–89 meets 49 there–we ate at the Round Up Cafe. Perhaps we weren’t in desperate-enough straits to love the place, but the memory is: decent food, very long wait.  We rode north on 89 through Graeagle (ice-cream stop) and on to Quincy. For some reason, the heat really hit us there. Luckily, as we came into town we passed a drive-in, the Polka Dot, which advertised “Frosties.” Don’t know what Bruce had, but I had a big root-beer float. Like every root-beer float on a hot day, it was the best one ever. What may have given this one the edge: the presence of a little picnic area next to the drive-in that had a small irrigation ditch with ice-cold water in it. Without a doubt the best float/foot-soak combo ever. Come to think of it, this day ended with another food experience: We wound up in a battered little motel in Greenville, cleaned up, then hopped on our bikes and the six or seven miles back to the hotel in Crescent Mills for a great dinner. Sadly, the hotel and the restaurant have shut down since our visit.
5. Veronica’s house/Marin County, California: In 2007, I did a 24-hour event called a fleche (French for arrow) with a squad of like-minded long-distance cyclists (each group in the event is limited to five riders). The challenge in a fleche is to set a schedule that lets you comfortably cover the required minimum distance (360 kilometers, about 225 miles) without working too hard or not hard enough. It’s a different mindset–this is a 200-mile ride! gotta take care of business!–than the one that takes hold when you have a long way to go. There’s time to socialize, there’s time to stop and eat, and there’s an enforced halt that bars you from being closer to 25 miles to the end with two hours to go (why this requirement? Ask the French). On the ’07 fleche, we started from Berkeley, rode up to Winters (which has two fine eateries for cyclists–the Putah Creek Cafe and Steady Eddy’s Coffee), then headed over to the Napa Valley and from there into Sonoma County. We ate dinner in Healdsburg, then commenced our leisurely nightlong leg toward the Golden Gate Bridge. One of our teammates, Veronica, lived along the route, and we made her house our last stop). She had prepared some dishes and enlisted her two teenage kids to get everything ready for us when we arrived–I think she made a call home to them at about 4 in the morning to alert them of our arrival within the hour). I’ll be honest–I don’t remember what I ate, other than the fact it was breakfasty, hot, and good and with plenty of juice and coffee. But the experience, having the kids take care of a pack of strange, smelly, cyclists in the middle of the night, was one of the best I’ve ever had on a ride.
6. Motel cafe/St. Francis, Kansas: How good is the food in St. Francis? While doing a 1,000-kilometer brevet that ran from Boulder, Colorado, out to north-central Kansas and back, I rode for a while with the ride organizer, John Lee. As we neared St. Francis, on U.S. 36 just east of the Colorado line, he waxed enthusiastic about the culinary choices ahead: “They’ve got pizza,” he enthused. So I imagined … pizza. What he had in mind was the quick-stop market that included a row of molded plastic booths and display cases of pre-fab, foil-wrapped food items kept hot under infrared lamps. “Pizza” turned out to be one of those pre-fab items. I think I opted for “cheeseburger.” Eventually I washed the taste away with a Bud imbibed in a cinder-block bar along the highway in an even smaller town, McDonald. The ride grew tougher after that. A strong southerly breeze was blowing by the time I hit the road at my overnight stop, Acton, Kansas. All day long, I fought a 25 mph crosswind. The first open cafe we came to, in Norton, was lousy. The turnaround town, Kensington, had a town market with a cafeteria-style lunch counter. It looked like great food, a bunch of townspeople were there for lunch, and the other riders all raved about it. But I was in one of my “can’t-eat, don’t want to eat” moments and rode on without lunch. Instead, I ate at a fly-blown McDonald’s back in Norton. Bad news, and more to come in Oberlin, where I ate the gas-station quick mart (more Kansas “pizza”). The wind seemed to drop a bit on the final leg back to Atwood, where, with about 470 miles in my legs in 40 hours, all I wanted to do was sleep.
The wind was blowing the next morning, too, where the first open cafe we’d find would be in St. Francis. I can tell you that it took about four hours to go fewer than 50 miles and that the stars out there on the Plains were incredible. St. Francis is nestled in a narrow valley created by the Republican River, and on first sight looks green and welcoming, an oasis. Up close, it’s a little harder on the eyes, but rolling in after a long battle with the wind was a relief. John Lee had advised there were two cafes in town and recommended one–I honestly can’t remember which now–maybe The Dusty Farmer. Another Bay Area rider and I stopped there. The food–just eggs, bacon, toast and coffee–was actually pretty tasty. I commented on that to the owner, and asked why the place was empty at 7:30 on a weekday. Well, he said, he was new in town, and had bought the cafe and an adjoining motel as an investment. He thought he had an inside track for local business–his son was the town football coach. But he was finding that even though he’d gone out and found a good cook, no one would give the place a chance. Most of his business was coming from crews drilling for oil nearby. It was a sad scene–the guy had egg on his shirt, as I remember, a couple days’ growth of beard, and was missing his upper front teeth. Would I go back? Next time I’m riding through Kansas in a wind storm.

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