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Race you to the Pacific Ocean Add to ...

A heavy sky shrouded Figueroa Mountain, part of the picturesque chain of hills that grace the skyline beyond the vineyards, cattle ranches and broccoli farms in California's Santa Ynez Valley, northwest of Santa Barbara.

Most times this would be a disappointment, but on this spring morning it was a blessing. For the clouds and fog concealed the torture - pure, lactic agony - that awaited at least one of about 20 cyclists preparing to ascend the winding, narrow road through 1,500 metres of climbing over the mountain.

The cyclists were from a group of about 30 who had come here from as far afield as New Hampshire, Hawaii and Southern Ontario, for a week-long, 800-kilometre ride in "cycling paradise" based out of the tourist town of Solvang.

This vacation was not just for relaxing - to enjoy some fine wine and food, to drink in the California scenery on some of the same roads that Jack and Miles travelled in the 2004 Oscar-winner Sideways (although that would be achieved in good measure).

Rather, we came to test our mettle on some long and challenging daily bike rides, some to get a head start on training for personal cycling goals this summer, others to blow the carbon out of their lungs after a long, schizophrenic winter.

California has become a hot spot for serious cyclists, with several organized tours and one-day double-century (200-mile, or 321-kilometre) rides that attract thousands of participants. And it's not just amateurs who are coming here. The Solvang tour organizer, Planet Ultra Inc., boasts that the Central Coast region is a training ground for Tour de France-calibre cyclists, that Lance Armstrong himself rode his bike on this very road going up Figueroa Mountain.

The climb was sublime at first, an uphill bend to the left on a cool, damp morning; challenging but not insurmountable, it seemed. Deborah Bowling, who owns Planet Ultra with her husband, Brian, blew by on her 10-speed, gently goading: "Come on, we've got a lot of miles to climb."

Then, a hairpin turn to the right and the dissipating fog revealed the enormousness of the challenge. Across a valley, Bowling's helmet bobbed above the brush as she climbed another switchback.

For most of 15 kilometres, the road was on a grade similar to a parking-garage ramp. As the morning wore on, it began to play tricks with the mind: Nothing but blue sky beyond the next switchback, could that signal the summit? It was a false hope - there was more climbing and another switchback. And another beyond that, it just kept going and going, all of it mercilessly uphill under an increasingly hot sun. Prayers for one more lower gear went unheeded, my legs were on fire, my heart was in overdrive trying to squeeze out every last joule the body could muster, water was running short ... But for the kindness of a stranger in an SUV, it might have become a calamity.

These kinds of cycling trips are not for the faint of heart, and are a rude awakening for a Central Canadian who might count highway overpasses as part of a hill-training regimen.

"Some people come here just to train because they live in a poor climate. A lot of people are here to see an area of the country that has great cycling," said Brian Bowling.

He agrees that it's a new kind of tourism - similar to guided trips down rivers - that in part reflects the increased popularity of cycling tied to Armstrong's Tour de France heroics. It was the fifth season for the Solvang Spring Tour, and the roughly 30 people who paid $245 (U.S) to sign up was the highest number yet.

Planet Ultra's clients typically are 40-to-60-year-old men with lots of disposable income, Bowling said. "Most of the people who show up for double centuries are riding at least $7,000 or $8,000 bicycles."

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