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At the back of the pack, a cyclist finds some fine scenery

February 27, 2000

San Jose Mercury News


During my first bike tour in 15 years, I discovered I had two options: stare at the tires in front of me as I struggled to keep up with faster riders or poke along solo and look at the scenery.

I wound up doing plenty of both during the 43rd annual American Youth Hostel Christmas Bike Tour, (December 26-31). The 400-mile, 6-day tour of San Diego and Riverside counties provided ample time to ponder the pros and cons of two-wheeled transport.

On the bright side, I had the opportunity to explore roadside attractions that I may have skipped in a car; I could eat my way through small towns and justify the caloric intake; and I could seek out riding partners from all over the country.

The biggest challenges were aching muscles, pedaling up “gentle rollers,” (cyclist jargon for “mountains”) and accepting that I was far slower than I had expected.

I had randomly selected this tour from the back of a sports magazine because it was a healthy way to end the year and it was inexpensive. Since it had survived nearly 50 years, I figured it had to be a good event. Plus it was organized by and benefited the American Youth Hostel Association (AYH), part of an international network of hostels.

On the first day, our group gathered at our starting and ending point, the University of San Diego. I was content to socialize in the parking lot after loading all our gear into the truck, but next thing I knew I had pedaled for two and a half hours.

Those first 30 miles felt like 100. I feared my quadriceps had turned into lumber. I fantasized about turning around.

No one had mentioned that San Diego County was so hilly! I had never paid attention to elevation numbers until I got the chart for each day’s climbs and descents. I learned that going from sea level to 6,000 feet was gonna hurt.

I heard a rustle of nylon. Peter Kendal pedaled past me. Seeing my grimace, the sixty-something San Diego native gave me the best advice I would get: “The key is to go slow, strong and steady, and don’t stop much,” said Kendal, who was on his 45th AHY tour. “If you do stop, don’t stop for long.”

“Slow, strong, steady,” I chanted all the way to Alpine bakery, the first of many fortifying snack stops.

“Five minutes and we are off!” announced the tireless Ralph Elliot, as I pulled up. Elliot had attended the AYH tour for 32 years, though this was his first time leading it. His mother had organized the trip for two decades, ending in ’89.

“How much farther do we have to go?” I asked Fred Nicolette, one of about a dozen members of the San Diego Cycling Club on the trip, and a 13-year veteran of the AYH tour.

“You’re in it for the duration,” he said with a smile.

I decided then to stop micro-managing the miles and enjoy the scenery. I would reach each night’s lodging eventually, either on my own or with help from the sag wagon.

I pulled into camp by 3 p.m., set up my tent, and collapsed until dinner — a simple but plentiful spaghetti and salad feast. Like all our meals, it was prepared by volunteers and served cafeteria-style.

That night, we each sat in the “hot seat” for introductions. Our group of 100 cyclists had come from Atlanta, New York City, Michigan, Durango, Colorado, and even Switzerland. There were large contingents from San Diego, Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.

For the next five days, I settled into a familiar routine. Each morning, snug in my sleeping bag, my hamstrings begged for more rest.

After breaking camp and vowing to pack lightly next time, I dragged my two overflowing duffel bags to the gear truck. (I preferred the privacy of camping rather than sleeping on the floor inside the community centers, like the majority chose to do.)

Then I ate my oatmeal, prepared my energy drink, and stuffed my beltpouch with fruit and sports bars. After doing a clean-up chore (with no paid staff on the trip, we each were asked to select daily chores), I set out 30 minutes ahead of the pack.

This was my solitary time to reflect on the glow of morning light in the desert or huff and puff my way up a steep but spectacular and aptly named Sunrise Highway, off old Highway 80, near Laguna.

It never took look long for the large pack of cyclists to pass me. Sometimes I latched onto a slower group to practice riding in formation. With guidance from more experienced riders, I discovered the joy of efficient cycling, picked up tips on road bike etiquette — watch when you blow your nose — and perfected the fine art of drafting, using another rider as a windblock. After all, I had a lofty goal every day — lunch!

My favorite lunch stop was in the charming town of Julian, several hours east of San Diego, off Highway 78. Dozens of bicycles lined the entrances to the Bailey Wood Pit Barbecue and the Rong Branch Restaurant. I devoured a sandwich and peeked in the bookshops and boutiques. I considered ditching my bike for a ride in Julian’s horse drawn carriages, sampling all the homemade pies at the Julian Pie Company and wandering around the 1870 Hilltop Pioneer Cemetery, but I had to keep going.

Sometimes my moods varied as much as the terrain.

“This is the best trip ever!” I thought as I blasted downhill, twisting through oak forests with only 14 miles left to Warner Springs.

“I hate this trip! This is the longest, windiest 14 miles of my life!” Those last uphill miles had sapped my spirit and gobbled 1.5 hours.

A hot shower, reassurance from friends and dinner always helped.

Dinner was the time to check out the next day’s route. The biggest decision came on Day 3, when we could choose between a relatively flat, 100-mile route or a 66-mile route with a 20-mile “gentle climb.”

Even though I had only done a 100-mile ride once before, (and vowed “never again,”) I chose the century to avoid the climbing.

I set out solo on the century and caught up to Pam Flint of Newaygo, Michigan and Ginny Dewey of Grand Rapid, forty-something friends who had discovered the tour on the Internet. With two Michigan tours under their belts, neither had anticipated such hilly terrain in southern California. Each day, they left an hour or hour and a half before the group, aiming to arrive by nightfall.

Nathan Shapiro, 52, also left early each day. The Atlanta periodontist was on his first AYH tour but had completed bike tours in 50 states over the past decade. We agreed that this was an exceptional group of athletes.

(I later found out our group included current and former world, national, and state champions cyclists as well as marathoners, ultrarunners and many bike racers).

The most spectacular part of the trip and the 100-mile ride was the winding 12-mile descent through Anza Borrego, California’s largest state park. The massive rock formations created a lunar-like landscape and sweeping panoramic views were breathtaking.

After 20 miles solo in the desert, I joined a group of seven riders with whom I spent the rest of the day. This group’s enthusiasm energized me for the remainder of the 9-hour day. Without them, I couldn’t have made it to camp by 5 p.m.

That night, after the 100 miles, I treated myself to a hotel. The hot tub, bed and long, hot shower were well earned. I taxied back to the community center the next morning feeling refreshed and not too sheepish since I discovered others had done the same thing.

Another highlight of the trip was the lunch with the dinosaurs in Cabazon, a small town along Interstate 10, northwest of Palm Springs. The bright green Tyrannosaurus Rex was visible from the highway. T. Rex towered over us though not much above his neighbor, a four-story brontosaurus. Stretching the length of a football field, the brontosaurus belly contained a wonderful gift shop. These two beasts and a smaller one, were the vision of a local artist, Claude Bell, who set the project in motion in 1964.

On day five, I found a riding companion who was just about my speed. With 50 pounds of gear loaded on his bike, Manuel Ramirez, 38, of Palo Alto was training for a solo ride to visit all the California missions. I could almost keep up with him if he went slowly on the uphills.

Ramirez encouraged me as I battled winds and exhaustion for the last 15 miles to the cruelly placed Hilltop Center in Fallbrook. I managed to pitch my tent and then hike to the showers at a neighboring gym. My spirits soared that night, our final eve together, during the informal awards ceremony.

I was sick the next morning. It was a tough decision not to ride on our sixth and final day and I was saddened as I watched the group roll out together. From the back of the sag wagon, I followed the coastal route of the riders. Back in San Diego, I waited to congratulate my friends when they rode in that afternoon, tired but triumphant. I was sorry to have missed the ride, but knew it was the right decision.

Would I do it all again? Yes, though the terrain was hilly and the pace fast for me, a recreational triathlete dedicated to winter hibernation. But it gave me a good resolution for 2000: commit to training for this trip.

10 Things to Add to your Gear List
1. Ear Plugs – Block out snoring of fellow cyclists
2. Eye Shade – Catch a nap when you need it
3. Dietary Supplements – Some items are scarce in small towns: Cytomax drink, vitamins, herbal teas, etc.
4. Book, cards, journal – if you find time between cycling, setting up camp, showering and eating.
5. Cell phone – often out of range but can be useful
6. Hydration system- many riders were struck by the dry, desert winter air. Have at least 2 water bottle cages and consider using a camelback as several riders did.
7. Triple chain ring. This was a lifesaver for me in the hills.
8. Dress in layers – I found arm and leg warmers the most vital elements to peel on and off and stash in a jersey.
9. Disposable camera, extra cash
10. Saddle Sore gel!

Info Sidebar:
What: The 43rd annual American Youth Hostel Christmas Bike Trip
Who: Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel, the San Diego Council
Where: 6-day, 500-mile tour begins and ends in San Diego,
When: Dec. 26-31, 1999
Registration: Open to the first 100 riders, all levels welcome.

$225 (AYH members, $250 buys 1-year AYH membership.) Fee covers indoor sleep arrangements, breakfast, dinner, plus sag wagon and gear truck.

San Diego Council, HI-AYH
437 J Street, Suite 301
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel. 619-338-9981
Fax 619-525-1533
E-mail: [email protected]

The Route
Day 1: San Diego to Pine Valley, 52.55 miles
Day 2: Pine Valley to Warner Springs, 53.55 miles
Day 3: Warner Springs to Palm Desert 100 miles
Day 4: Palm Desert to Hemet, 61 miles
Day 5: Hemet to Fallbrook, 50 miles
Day 6: Fallbrook to San Diego, 55 miles

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