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Dave Smith of Shuttlesmith loads bikes on the back of the van to drive mountain bikers up Eureka Canyon Road and drop them off near the top of Soquel Demonstration State Forest to start their rides. Karen Kefauver/contributed

By Karen Kefauver, Spin City

Spin City columnist Karen Kefauver grips the handlebars and brakes tightly while navigating a steep descent in Soquel Demonstration State Forest. Karen Kefauver/contributed

I recently solved one of Santa Cruz’s greatest mountain bike mysteries: What lies beyond Sand Point, the scenic overlook at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park?

It’s not truly a mystery: Thousands of people already know the answer. It’s just that for the past 20 years, I could never motivate myself to ride uphill beyond that point.

Who could blame me?

The next section of trail is nicknamed, “The Wall,” and it’s a notorious test of leg muscles and lung power. Plus, the wooden benches at Sand Point provide the perfect rest stop for snacks, socializing and celebrating — the hilly nine miles from the Aptos Village to Sand Point is a solid workout on its own. I always savored the accomplishment and then turned around and zoomed back downhill.

Finally, I discovered a way to skip that brutal climb. I could take a shuttle to the top of Nisene Marks, or rather to Soquel Demonstration State Forest, which is what lies beyond Sand Point.

Last weekend, my friend Johnty and I drove to Aptos Village and met with an enthusiastic crew of fellow riders at Epicenter Cycling shop. From there, Dave Smith of Shuttlesmith loaded up our bikes and gear and we were on our way. The Sunday morning fog shifted to sunshine as we and seven other passengers headed up Eureka Canyon Road. Among us was a group of five friends from San Jose and a rider from Durango, Colorado, plus his friend.

Our driver and guide, Dave, 60, said that during the seven years he has operated this shuttle, riders from all over the world — often from Canada and New Zealand — have climbed aboard the shuttle to explore these beautiful trails. He estimated that 50 percent of his business is locals, 50 percent is tourists.

I was drowsy at the start of our 45-minute drive, but Dave is so lively you, can’t doze off. He pointed out oddities such as a mountain bike artfully wedged high up in a tree and a lone albino redwood alongside the road. He also showed us a historic schoolhouse, dating from the 1850s, on Hames Road.

“Riding is my passion,” said Dave, who moved to Santa Cruz in 1986, then worked for Granite Construction for nearly 30 years. “I wish everyone could go ride every day and do what I do. I am so happy. If I’m feeling good, I can do this for another 30 years.”

I was so entertained by Dave’s stories and taken by the beautiful drive through the towering coastal redwoods that I didn’t feel at all carsick, something I had been concerned might happen during the 17-mile drive, which didn’t turn out to be very twisty. I also felt lucky with my timing; the shuttle didn’t operate for five months due to road damage from the severe winter storms. Soquel Demo (as locals call it) only reopened in June.

When we parked on Buzzard Lagoon Road, the group unloaded and then got out the map to review our route options. First, we all had to ride about 2.3 miles, with 300 feet of climbing, to the official entrance of Soquel Demo. Then we could choose: Ride the fire road from Soquel Demo to Nisene, the easier option, or take a challenging network of trails through Soquel Demo before returning to Nisene Marks.

Guess which one we chose?

Johnty and I were in the mood to cruise on a Sunday afternoon. Plus, we hadn’t equipped ourselves with sufficient food and water for a minimum of four hours in the saddle.

So, we chose the fire road. Dave told us that from the top of Soquel Demo down to the Nisene Marks parking lot is approximately 15 miles with about a 3,000-foot drop in elevation. Sounded good to me!

Due to my notoriously poor navigation skills, however, we ended up briefly on a singletrack trail that both thrilled and terrified me with its steep drop-offs. It then soothed me with its smooth, twists and turns through the sun-dappled forest. Johnty and I both had times when we had to “hike-a-bike,” pushing our mighty steeds uphill. We also had to dismount in certain spots with treacherous roots and jagged ridges.

“I would say that was one of the most technical rides I’ve been on,” said Johnty, 63, who typically rides at Wilder Ranch State Park and on the Emma McCrary Trail in Pogonip. “Usually, a technical ride might mean just falling into poison oak on your right or falling three feet to the left, but this one was technical because you would just flip straight over your handlebars.”

Happily, we spotted the fire road through the trees and discovered we had just been paralleling it for a little while.

We were both delighted to return to the fire road and sail down to Sand Point, where lo and behold, we stopped, snacked, socialized and high-fived fellow riders at the benches. Now we knew what “lay beyond.”

Yes, we had shuttled to the top of Nisene Marks State Park instead of climbed. But it didn’t matter. We were stoked to ride new terrain and push our technical skills beyond our comfort zones. Now, equipped with powerful new knowledge, a major boost in confidence and thirst for more adventures, we plan to return to Soquel Demo for a full day to conquer the epic trails that await us.

Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.

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