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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.

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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.

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"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."

Planet Ultra organizes seven of the 18 one-day double-century bike rides held throughout the state that count toward something called the California Triple Crown. Those who complete three of these rides during the year earn nothing more than bragging rights and a T-shirt or cycling jersey. But they come by the thousands - more than 2,000 paying participants for Planet Ultra's double centuries alone, Bowling said.

Paul Kopit might well be a poster boy for this phenomenon. At 64, he's a strapping 195 pounds and boasts a resting heart rate of 42 beats a minute and body fat of 10 or 11 per cent. He has more than 100 double centuries under his belt - including 12 he did in 2001 alone - and this year is going for his 15th consecutive California Triple Crown.

"If you can do 100 miles on Saturday, then turn around and do 100 miles on Sunday, chances are you can do a double," said the Los Angeles area resident, who is retired from the nutritional supplement business.

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Kopit added that when he has his yearly physical, "they take my chart and they show it to a 35-year-old and say: 'This is what you should look like.' "

But he wasn't on the Solvang tour for the conditioning - "I do it because I like it." Part of that is the camaraderie cyclists enjoy out on a quiet road.

Each morning, our group set out from a motor inn in Solvang for fast-paced rides of up to 100, 130, even 160 kilometres through the vineyards, spring flowers, cattle and horse country, vast fields of broccoli, to the Pacific Ocean, and down and up the canyon roads, often cheered on by yellow-billed magpies among the blue oaks.

There were optional shorter routes for those less hardy or more inclined to indulge in other activities in the area: There are more vineyards offering wine tastings than you can shake an air pump at; there's a casino in Santa Ynez; and Santa Barbara is a scenic, 40-minute drive down the San Marcos Pass, offering whale, dolphin and people watching.

The scenery was a good excuse to stop and rest - many times - on Figueroa, a chance to take in awesome vistas on this formerly mined mountain. But even that became tedious after a time. With one water bottle empty and just a couple of mouthfuls left in the second, the situation was becoming dire. There were no homes to beg a drink from, no other riders for moral support. Spirit and body were aching.

Then, along came Jim.

An electrical contractor from Los Angeles who was passing by in his big, black Chevy SUV, I flagged him down for water. He apologized for having no fresh water to offer and continued down the road, but returned minutes later, saying he had found an unopened bottle in the back seat. It was warm, but it hit the spot.

We chatted a while, about crime in Los Angeles, about the scenery, how this was a great escape from the hurly-burly; then we shook hands and went our separate ways. Figueroa's summit, as it turned out, was just 100 metres away.

It had taken about three hours to ascend the mountain, but what followed made it all worthwhile: The descent lasted about 45 minutes. It was tricky, the road was rough in places, there were pine cones the size of footballs to avoid, and some hairpins had no guard rails to protect against steep drops. But for 45 minutes, in stark contrast to the painful ascent, it was pure exhilaration - like a leaf gently floating to the ground.

At the bottom, there was a long, smooth straightaway that went past the entrance to Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch. It was a good road for some fast spinning to flush the lactic acid from my legs that had built up on the long climb.

Then it was back to Solvang, via the lovely town of Los Olivos, where I returned later in the week to reflect on my accomplishment over a glass of pinot noir in the same restaurant where Jack and Miles dined with Stephanie and Maya in Sideways. On the DVD, I can see myself seated at the bar there, studying route sheets for the Solvang Spring Tour for a future trip to California - possibly by car, but most willingly with bicycle.

Pack your endurance

GETTING THERE

The closest major airport to Solvang, Calif., is Santa Barbara's, but most flights there from Canada involve a connection through San Francisco or Las Vegas. The airport has major car-rental agencies and the 40-minute drive to Solvang is easy and picturesque, either along the San Marcos Pass through the hills or along the Pacific Ocean on Route 101.

WHERE TO STAY

Royal Copenhagen Inn : 1549 Mission Dr., Solvang, 805-688-5561; . The Solvang Spring Tour was headquartered here, but there are plenty of other hotels and motor inns in Solvang and in nearby Buellton. For listings, visit .

TOURS

Planet Ultra Inc.: . Its 2008 Solvang Spring Tour is scheduled for March 16-22. It also organizes a number of double-century (200-mile) bike rides for the California Triple Crown ( ).

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant: 2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-7265; . This was a setting in the movie Sideways. Also worth checking are the many wine tastings at the vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley: .

MEMORABLE MOMENT

One of the joys of cycling in California is how the pastime is embraced by the public. On the highways, the shoulders are paved and motorists tend to give wide berth. STRESS FACTOR

Santa Barbara may be a world-class city, but it's airport smacks of the Third World.

*****

Have heart monitor, will travel

Day 2 of the Solvang spring cycling tour involved a gruelling climb

on Figueroa Mountain Road, during which the author's heart rate monitor spent most of three hours in excess of 140 beats a minute. Below are mileage and heart rate data from the day's ride.

Elevation gain: 1,500 m

Trip distance: 82.9 km

Pedalling time: 4 h, 54 m

Average speed:16.7 km/h

Average heart rate: 136 BPM

Peak heart rate: 166 BPM

Calories burned*: 5,322

* Based on Timex Ironman heart rate monitor calculation.

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