Long-Distance Riding: Behind-the-Windshield View

We drove up to Mendocino over the weekend using the easy route from the East Bay: U.S. 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties to Highway 128 in Cloverdale, out 128 to the coast and Highway 1, then up 1.

We weren’t in a big hurry, so we decided to stop in Cloverdale, the last town in Sonoma before you reach the Mendocino County line. The last several times I’ve been up there, I’ve either been on a bicycle or have been supporting someone else’s ride. In 2007, I remember going through Cloverdale twice: late at night near the northern end of a 400-kilometer brevet, shepherding a semi-lost and semi-lightless rider, then again passing through both ways on a rainy 600-kilometer brevet (I got doused on the way north; by the time I came back the next morning, the weather had turned and it was sunny and warm and a big tailwind was building–I smile just thinking of it).

All by way of saying that when we spotted several bikes at the gas station/convenience mart at the south end of town, it took me about five seconds to figure out I was looking at people on a brevet (the combination of the gear on the bikes and some of the jerseys–a California Triple Crown and a San Francisco Randonneurs–tipped me off). I asked and found that the riders were out on a 400-kilometer brevet from the Golden Gate Bridge up to Hopland. From where I met them they had something like 30 kilometers to the turnaround point and several hours of beautiful March weather to enjoy before the night leg back to San Francisco. On the way out of town and all the way up the long climb on 128 to Mountain House Road–the beautiful (and roughly paved, last time I was there) back-country link to Hopland–we passed riders plugging away in ones and twos.

Did I wish I was out there myself? No–not in my current non-riding shape. But I did have an audio recorder with me and considered for a minute whether I might wait at the top of the grade to talk to the riders coming past. Didn’t do it, though. I did give a wide berth and a wave to all the riders we saw. Bonne route, boys!


Coming back from Mendocino, we made the counter-intuitive move of starting the southward trip by driving north along the coast out of Fort Bragg on Highway 1, then crossing the Coast Range to Leggett, where we could pick up 101 south.

I’ve never ridden this stretch of road, but have driven it three or four times. In my memory, the stretch from the coast had organized itself into a long, straightish section from Fort Bragg to point where you turn east, then a long climb up the mountains and equally long descent to Leggett, an old, broke-looking logging town that boasts a famous massive drive-through redwood tree. What I saw yesterday was a little different from what I remembered. The section north of Fort Bragg was neither as straight nor as level as I remembered. Heading up the highway, you turn inland quite abruptly; as you leave the coast, what look like trackless mountains stretch away to the north, falling straight into the sea. The climb and descent to Leggett turns out to be two ascents and two downhills with a bit of mostly level road between them. Driving it, I was reminded of friends who had done a 24-hour Easter weekend ride back in 2004, starting in Leggett and ending in San Francisco. What a way to start out.

We had no traffic behind us all the way across the climbs, so I didn’t have to push my speed or pull over. When we had descended nearly to Leggett and it had started to rain, we spotted a single cyclist starting up the grade. I slowed to encourage him, and he stopped to talk. I wished I’d gotten his name: He was loaded for a tour down to San Francisco and was figuring on doing 60 miles a day to get there. He looked like he was prepared for weather, and I think he’ll see some this week with a series of storms expected on the coast.

Did I wish I was out there? Kind of, though my last long ride in the rain isn’t filled with fond memories. Instead of pondering that, we drove home. Total mileage for the weekend, about 29 hours on the road, was 380 miles. I did reflect briefly that during that 600-kilometer ride in 2007, I rode 375 miles in about 36 hours — including six hours off the road to eat and sleep in Fort Bragg. I’ll probably remember that weekend, at least the road part, longer than I remember the driving I did this time around.

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.

Top Reasons Not to Ride Your Bike

1. No more altercations with surly, clueless motorists.

3. Carry your spare tire with you everywhere, not just on the road.

5. Fewer saddle sores and miscellaneous numbness issues.

6. Drive more, do your part to hasten end of Oil Era and onset of Clean, Green Age

8. More couch time for aerobically challenging sports on TV.

9. More leisure to drink beer, set up empties in a “pace line.”

Inevitable Question

The other day I punctuated my usual non-riding with a ride up Tunnel Road. As my heart rate increased and my breathing grew more labored, I heard a chipper voice behind me. “Nice jersey,” it said. Then the voice’s owner drew even with me. It was Elmar Stefke, a very strong rider I know both from Paris-Brest-Paris preparations in 2007 and from Berkeley Ironworks cycling workouts. I said hi. He said he was going to complete the interval he was doing and would talk to me at the top. We wound up riding a little way together, and the inevitable question came up; actually, more than one inevitable question:

Elmar: You riding much?

Me: I’m just trying to remember how to ride a bike.

Elmar: You thinking about 2011 [the next running of PBP]]?

Me: Um …

Elmar: Are you?

Me: Well, you can’t help but think about it.

To get the full import of the conversation, you need to imagine me gasping for breath and Elmar spinning along easily. The discussion didn’t come to a conclusion, but we did review briefly how the ’07 PBP concluded for each of us. I had the onset of Achilles problems about a quarter of the way into the ride and quit (the weather–rainy and cold, didn’t improve my outlook any either). Elmar, a superb athlete who’s a physical education instructor at UC-Berkeley, had knee problems that forced him to back off a fast pace and limp in for the final 100 miles (still: he finished an edition of PBP that the weather turned from a challenging event to a grueling one).

It’s true: If you’ve been to PBP, if you’ve been part of the little randonneur community (by numbers it’s a tiny subculture compared to the world of marathoning or Ironman triathlon, for instance), you can’t help but think about it. Of course, there’s a big difference between thinking and riding, and PBP and all that leads up to it is all about riding.


I see on the Western States Ride Calendar that there’s a 200-kilometer (125-American Distance Unit) brevet in southern Utah on December 1. It’s a great fantasy: driving out there across central Nevada, maybe doing a little riding along the way, then riding in that beautiful red rock landscape. But it’s a long way to go for a bike ride, especially having driven up to Coeur d’Alene in October. And besides, I’d never get away with it. December 1 is my wedding anniversary.

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