January 21, 2020
story by CHRIS STRICKLEN
photography by CHRIS STRICKLEN & ZACH PIANKO (@zackpianko)
Chris Stricklen (@creedub) is a Bay Area photographer and cyclist who's constantly on the move around town, up and down the west coast, and beyond; always with a camera in-hand. Last summer, he and his friends embarked on the long distance ride of their dreams - pedaling almost 500 miles from their home city of San Francisco to Los Angeles, with, of course, a few North St. bikepacking accessories in tow.
In the beginning of the year me and five friends came up with an idea. Little did we know - or maybe it was just me - that this would be a life changing experience.
This master plan was initiated by Kyle’s announcement that he was going to have a vacation during the summer that would give him time to ride at his leisure for about a week. This may not seem like the beginning of anything too extraordinary but Kyle has been in the middle of intense education for radiology school. From sometime around the end of 2017/beginning 2018 he’s been locked down and buried in books. Kyle and I went from riding three times a week on good weeks to three times a quarter if we were lucky.
For me, by the middle of 2018, due to a mixture of several things - lack of motivation, no one to ride with and some sort of attempt to figure out what I still found fun about riding bikes as much as I had been - I had all but pretty much stopped riding bikes entirely. There was no plan to quit and even on a week-by-week basis I would ask myself, “Are we riding this week??? Nah!!” Somehow, by the end of the year I had new inspiration and motivation but I still hadn’t quite gotten the proverbial gears going yet.
When Kyle mentioned his summer vacation and that we should plan a ride that would go through the weekend, that ultimately became the spark that I needed to saddle back up. He had a total of 10 days free time so in my head I felt like a Saturday-Sunday trip wouldn’t quite do his temporary liberation justice. There were all sorts of bike camping trips thrown into the discussion but nothing really sat right with me and the whole time I only had one idea in my head: Let’s ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles!!!
Flashback to 2015 - Kyle, myself and a few other friends had already planned a San Francisco to LA trip down to a T! The only problem was that in the 11th hour the entire trip dissolved as if Thanos had snapped his fingers just days before the trip was to commence. So for me and Kyle I KNEW that this trip had even more meaning to us than just “some ol’ trip”. This was a bucket list item that HAD TO be checked off the list and we weren’t going to let it slide through our fingers this time.
“Yup! Let’s do it”
It was a very easy unanimous decision. Kyle, myself, Patrick Lee, Gene Torno, Zack Pianko and Rj Agcamaran would be the main players in deciding how, when and where this ride would be going.
It took months of planning and we wanted to make sure that everyone that had supported us thus far was represented well. Amongst the supplies we collected to make this trip go well - lights, on bike nutrition, food, coolers, new kit, tubes galore, tires a plenty - we were able to get our hands on a few North St. saddle bags.
For our little hodgepodge group of hipster minimalists this was THE PIECE! Low profile, sleek and understated and also a unique wrap design that speaks to our nomad aesthetic and attention to detail. Nothing says road trip like a hardy canvas supply wrap. We just happen to have that in saddle bag version.
The route from San Francisco to Los Angeles was planned to be 480-something miles (we eventually made that 490) with 30,000 ft of climbing. We gave ourselves four days to ride this course almost exclusively on HWY 1 with four stops - Seaside, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara and Santa Monica/Venice Beach.
The trip was planned down to what seemed to be the minute of each day. Gene would play the support role and captain of the ship/SAG wagon along with Chelsie, my girlfriend, and Ali, Rj’s girlfriend. These three were integral in our trip and I don’t think we ever missed a beat on anything due to this super team.
Their plan: We would ride for a scheduled amount of time, get photos and content, eat, commence riding again, take another shorter break at a planned stop for nutrition and then ride once again to each day’s final destination.
We started our ride from the Pas Normal pop up store in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. Everyday we planned to leave no later than 8 and we were essentially right on schedule. Everything went smoothly aside from an almost catastrophic crash that I saved which was caused by a very rare mental lapse in a parking lot.
Once the unplanned shenanigans were behind us the ride smoothed out. There were several punches out of the city and through Pacifica, down HWY 1 past Devils Slide and to Pescadero which was our first lunch stop of the day. Zack’s wife and friend along with the SAG crew met us there as this would be the usual routine for the whole trip.
By the time we got rolling again more than an hour had passed. We realized that giving a bunch of cyclist/freelance photographers more than 20 minutes to do anything was a HORRIBLE idea. This first stop could have easily been the first and last day of the trip had someone not clapped their hands at us and said, “Hey! We need to go now!” From Pescadero we rode, more conscious of time, to Seaside.
When you think of HWY 1 you think of the ocean, amazing views of coastline and mountains jutting out of the earth and liberating roads for miles and miles. What you don’t think so much about are the amazing farmlands which is California’s backbone industry. We rode through miles of cliffs and bluffs which farmers brought their agriculture to the very edge of state’s boundaries and its shores. From Moss Landing to our first destination we spent the last 20-25 miles weaving inland through rolling mounds of sun kissed produce and at last the town of Seaside.
For only the second time in my life I would be riding the day after a century. The last time I did this, 3 years ago, it was a very easy 20 mile jaunt through Palo Alto. This time I would be saddled up and committed to another 130 miles with 8000 ft of climbing, a small increase from the previous experience. Our super sag wagon team, as they would soon be named, prepped our food and packed our rental van as we discussed the logistics of the day. From here on out every single detail of the trip was preconceived. On this particular day, Chris Corona (@dirtdrops) was meeting us on the road at Bixby Bridge to shoot some content for us with John and Cory Caletti. In return for the favor we opted to do a large group lunch at Nepenthe - it’s pretty much a must if you plan on driving into Big Sur.
Aside from the promenade through Seaside and Monterey, by the time we past by the 17-Mile Drive my legs were wide awake. My guesstimate from our current location was roughly 40 minutes to Bixby Bridge. So what better to do than to open up the throttle a bit and drive the bus the entire way into the most amazing and unique coastline paved in the world!
Bixby was the dedicated photo location and Nepenthe was nothing short of absurdly amazing, par for the course. And from Bixby to Nepenthe the appetite that we worked up after a very unwarranted 20 minute flat out race pace made all the fancy, premium priced food go down that much easier or “faster” depending on how you look at it. After lunch Corona and the Calettis parted ways from the group and we were back to our team of 8. The rest of the day would not include the pleasantries that the first half had brought us but at this point we were spoiled.
I think it was Ponyboy from The Outsiders reciting the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. It’s a short poem outlining nature’s cycles and how nothing good in life can last forever. If Seaside to Nepenthe was “Nature’s early flower”, then some point roughly 15 miles beyond the southern terminus of Big Sur to Morro Bay, Eden’s grief was sinking, RAPIDLY! What started out as a soft, promising tailwind turned into a non-beneficial gust that was blowing in every direction against us. We knew our Air BnB was situated extremely closely to Morro Rock so when we finally could see the rock across the bay in the distance it should have been a relief but the fact that it sat ominously blanketed in a low layer of fog and mist 10 miles away quickly became insult to injury.
We finally arrived at destination No. 2 depleted, hungry and victim to 260 miles of not-exactly-easy riding. Theraguns and cold beers both became our devices of relief. The atmosphere of our living room was ironically dead. I don’t think anyone spoke a word to each other for the first 10 minutes of our arrival aside from obligatory exclamations of courtesy, “excuse me.” Rj’s brother, who lived nearby up the highway, stopped by to say hello and while our energy was restored to an acceptable capacity our enthusiasm to endure the next two days of riding was nonexistent.
With the biggest day upon us - 130 miles and 10,000 ft of climbing - we began what had become our regular routine of preparation. The super sag wagon team packed our bags once again and the procession of photography commence the same as it had the two days prior.
Heading out of Morro Bay was a blur. Misty and overcast just as it was when we arrived and anyone would have thought, with our spirits so low, that the rest of this ride would be a downward spiral of fitness, energy and morale but somehow, somewhere, between Morro Bay and Orcutt, our lunch destination, all of the aforementioned were actually restored to stable levels.
At our first checkpoint, before lunch, we all conceded that we were actually feeling fine and that today might not be so bad. Gene had wanted to shoot some video of us in there area as we rode through the outer Lompoc and by that point we had ramped the pace up to a very stiff clip up a moderate climb. It was a relief to feel the group, as a collective, come back together when we did as this could have been a pivotal moment in the entire experience.
There was a bit of a snafu in communication for lunch. We had decided that we wanted to have a proper shmorgishborg so naturally, In-N-Out, Our Food and Savior, easily earned top billing on our shortlist of options. The problem was that we thought In-N-Out was in Orcutt, our rendezvous spot but it turned out to be 5 or 6 miles away so we had to wait for the Super Sag Wagon to make the trip to the restaurant and come back to deliver our food 20-30 minutes after we had arrived in Orcutt, a minor set back but I think there may have been a slight cannibalistic nerve developing amongst the group or it could have just been me.
From Orcutt to Santa Barbara we had the biggest portion of the day’s ride directly in front of us - cutting inland to Solvang and then climbing up and over a mountain that was going to add around 2-3000 ft to the ride in roughly 20 miles. With our spirits pretty much fully restored and 70 miles to go we made our way down a connecting highway between HWY 1 and US 101 and as we are making it to the junction the signs read: SANTA BARBARA 35 MILES. The group in unison slowed, freewheeled and we looked at one another as we passed this sign and approached the junction.
“Soooooo? Why are we riding an extra 35 miles again?”
It wasn’t that we didn’t know we were going slightly out of the way on this day but with such a defeat on the previous day the group knew that attempting to harden up just to prove our fortitude would jeopardize the ride that we just restored. The SSW was already in Solvang enjoying the scenery in what is apparently a quaint little Dutch settlement. We called the support van to let them know that we would instead go straight at Santa Barbara to make up some time. I had also been dealing with a mechanical of a broken derailleur cage that desperately needed to be addressed so if we could shave time there was the slimmest chance that I could actually make it to a bike shop in time and get it repaired.
The decision to cut out 35 miles of the ride and actually make it to town an hour or so earlier than projected catapulted our morale and energy to Super Saiyan levels. We needed the SSW to meet us down the highway for our last checkpoint to refill our bottles and from there they would try and find a bike shop that was open AND that also had a new Dura Ace derailleur cage that I could swap. The odds were against us but we HAD TO try.
As we blazed down the US 101 like a military convoy through the desert I noticed that my front tire started to feel a little squishy. I yelled at the group to hold up as we came to a large shoulder fit for a full sized basketball court. And just as we pulled over our Super Sag Wagon pulled up like heli-vac right behind us to refill the squad. The tube change and the bottle refill felt about as fast as a NASCAR pit change and just like that our heli-vac/Sag Wagon re-engaged the mission to find a derailleur cage and we were back rolling down the 101 - spirits still high as ever.
When we exited the highway Chelsie called us to let us know that she found a shop that had a cage to sell us. Although the shop was closed during the weekend and the owner had been out of town he coincidentally had stopped by his shop shortly before Chelsie called, luck was on our side. Turns out that not only was he the fifth or sixth shop that Chelsie called he had also just swapped his brand new DA rear-der for some random oversized doohickey that he got from a vendor. The shop owner offered to stay open as long as it took us to arrive. With not much time wasted my bike was repaired, we were in Santa Barbara and all we had to do was make our way across town to our destination.
After two monumental fortunate outcomes there was no ruining this day. After the new cage was installed we cut through Santa Barbara towards the famed and iconic Gibraltar climb. Instead of taking Gibraltar we took the split to the left and climbed its little sister up what was about a 9-10% mile long climb at the end of a 130 mile day. With morale being at an all time high that climb felt like 3% vs the 10 that it was.
The Air BnB was lavish. An old ranch style home with all the rustic Santa Barbara trimmings and vibes. Paired with a large tv and a large window, which was the selling point for Kyle, this home atop a steep climb and was nothing less than symbolic for the day.
There was only 100 miles left in our trip and now we didn’t want this to be our last day. It may have only been the 5 of us riding but we were an 8-person unit for every mile. I think Gene totally botched the meal that night which none of us noticed. Chelsie had cheered us all the way up the last climb of the day and Ali made sure that every single detail was sewn perfectly into our routine and that everyone has what they needed when they needed it. Our soon-to-be final departure was celebrated the night before with many laughs and drinks and camaraderie, a polarizing moment compared to the previous night that led us to believe that this trip may not have been all that we thought it would be.
If we could turn a 9 hour, 130-mile, 8,000ft ride into the best experience of our lives then riding 90 miles with less than 3000ft should be the bonus track of this entire ride.
“I feel pretty f*cking good. The ride is pretty much flat. I’m down to hammer the whole way.” I professed.
“30 [mph]!” Zack replied.
Zack and I had really bonded over the last three days since our time together previously had been pretty limited. When the pace was entirely out of control Zack or myself was usually the one to blame. Although no one truly bought into the idea of punching it from SB to Santa Monica the general consensus was that we wanted to get down as soon as possible and spend the rest of the time recapping and celebrating this amazing accomplishment.
Queue Theragun. Queue breakfast. Queue photos. And now the last day was officially underway. Because we ended Day 3 at the base of the Santa Barbara mountains we had to cut through town and make our way to the coast where we picked up the bike route. Regardless of how good we felt we always took about 30 minutes to let the legs softly open before we started riding at a good pace and this was no different today. Everything about this day was like the final day of Le Tour save the champagne.
The moment the ride was truly about to start a loud pop followed by a horrendous wheezing sound cane from Rj’s tire. It was completely blown out and destroyed by a screw or some piece of hardware in the road. We called the SSW and they have us an eta of about 20 minutes. Rj had opted to patch the tire and I responded, “If you patch that [tire] and it fails again I’m leaving you.” His tire was without a doubt unusable for anything more than a couple of miles. We were at mile 6 of 90. By the time the van came and we swapped out the tire a considerable amount of time had passed but we had given ourselves a good cushion for such a short ride that not much was lost. We sallied forth, got spun around a few times and even picked up another rider heading in the same direction. As Zack and I were on the front of the ride on the bike path we hear someone call out, “Patrick has a flat and it won’t seal.” With the delay of bad routing and now our second flat of the day we were starting to chew into our timeline but only by a bit. As long as we got rolling with no more incidents we would still make our checkpoint timeline and make it to Santa Monica with hardly anytime lost. Heading through Ventura we made up for a lot of loss time... until we got another flat, Patrick again. At this point, with the detouring and flats we had added roughly two hours to our ride. And although we are a very welcoming group the idea that we were also towing a stranger through all of this was also starting to become discomforting. If we could just make it to the check point we would be fine.
Finally, after 70-something miles we made it to our check point. I can’t speak for the entire group but I think morale had dipped significantly lower than Day 2 by now. The ride was surgey, the stops had gotten out of control, we still had this additional rider and this seemingly flat ride started to feel like an uphill battle.
The last leg of the ride was rolling terrain as we pedaled through Malibu. Each rolling hill Patrick and Rj dropped back significantly. So for three or four rollers Zack, Kyle and I waited for the last two to catch up. By the last hill Patrick and Rj has just about evaporated into thin air.
“Rj hurt his knee.” Patrick reported.
Rj had been battling knee issues for the better part of the year so hearing that it had finally given out on him with less than 10 miles to go was devastating news. We all continued to ride, separately for a moment, trying to assess how exactly we were going to get Rj to the meet up point. Obviously riding in as a group was the only way to end this ride so we all regrouped and Rj one legged the final few miles into Santa Monica.
We eventually arrived at Rapha Santa Monica to have the SSW pick up Rj and take him to the last Air BnB. It was roughly 7 miles down the way in Venice and although the final day went nothing close to planned, we made it.
Due to the fact that when we arrived at our last Air BnB we all had 97-98 miles on our ride it was only appropriate that we made a beer run - on bikes. We went to the local grocery store, I think it was a Ralph’s and grabbed Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin and rode back to the crib to make the ride an even 100 miles. Anything less than triple digits on this day would not have felt right. Zack’s wife was waiting for us along with the SSW and Rj’s younger brother Brandon.
The plan was to a go out as a group and celebrate in some epic fashion but everything seemed to be moving faster than we wanted it to. The irony of the ride being completely over and time now being harder to manage was somewhat comical. We finally landed on just going to Yard House because it was a easy and all we wanted to do was spend time with each other and no more bikes involved.
Our super team of 8 became a party of 12 or 13 at the restaurant. I can’t remember what was spoken or even what we ordered. The only agreement was that the SSW not pay for a single thing as they were not only the glue but the foundation of our entire trip. They were the defensive and offensive coordinators that sat high above the field planning the trip and calling the audibles where we needed them and to make sure that we, on the field, or in this case, on the road, executed exactly what we needed to in order to make this trip as enjoyable as it was. So the treat was ours and finally we could say that we did it together.
The next day half of the group had to turn around to get back to real life. The other half, although there were no serious obligations, didn’t have much of a reason to stay so we all went back, once again as a group albeit we had picked up an additional rental car. Instead of the 1 or the 101 we took the I-5 as most do and in that stretch of road it became more than evident how far we truly came. We drove past a highway sign once we made it to the I-5 junction: SAN FRANCISCO 330 MILES.
To be cliche, it’s not the trip, it’s the time spent with people you care dearly about. The amount of time and preparation that went into this trip was hours upon hours of trying to figure out the best way to do one thing or another. Six months of planning for four days of riding. We spent more time calculating costs than we spent on the road each day. None of this would have been worth it had we not had the right group of people. Five photographers and three more amazing people.
Nothing in my life will be as epic as this trip was. It was the perfect mixture of chaos and triumph. It was exhausting and confidence building at the same time. The feel of ocean air will always remind me now of the time me and my friends decided to ride every inch of HWY 1 on bikes only. Never once did we get in the van. Never once did we think of quitting. We all had a moment of defeat but we never let it get to us.
It was just one hell of a ride.
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