Fun in the Santa Monica Mountains

Looking out towards the Pacific from the top of Piuma in the Santa Monica Mountains. Click to embiggen!

 

And here we go again. I’ll be back in the Dolomites at the end of the summer, doing the Cinghiale tour–it only took till the morning of Day 3 last year to want to sign up for another go-around, and after a cooling-off period of several months, I still felt the same way. So Hooray!

This also means that I will be spending another summer riding myself into being able to do long difficult climbs day after day after day… After day. Right now it feels nice not to be looking ahead to the summer with an edge of terror–turns out that I actually am capable of riding a bike up a Dolomite. But I don’t want confidence in my ability to turn into complacency, so a post will be soon forthcoming with some of my planned rides and goals. Spoiler alert: my good friend Zoo Hill is on the menu tomorrow.

Which is all a long-winded way to get to the main point of this post: way back in March, I did Cycling Escapes‘ climbing camp in the Santa Monica Mountains (well, “Mountains”–they aren’t that high, but are fabulous large hills to ride your bike over). I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about it for a while, so here goes.

The trip came about when I was thinking about other places besides the Dolomites that could be fun to bike in, and about how nice it is to have support on a ride (even if there is only one Gerardo…) So I started googling bike tours in Utah because the scenery there is out of this world amazing. (Literally–Bill Watterson reportedly was inspired by the wild Utah landscapes when drawing the settings for the Spaceman Spiff episodes of his Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.)

One of the companies whose tours really appealed to me was Cycling Escapes. However their fully-supported tours in Utah this year didn’t work well with my schedule, and were a bit more of a financial commitment than I wanted to throw into the budget without more planning ahead. (Though that planning ahead and budgeting might yet happen–they really look like great trips.)

But while I was poking around on their website, I noticed that they had a number of “Climbing Camps” offered that were support-lite (they provide ride support with suggested routes, and a SAG vehicle waiting to feed you at the top of the climbs, but leaving you on your own for hotel and non-ride food), and wallet-friendly.

Their Santa Monica Mountains Climbing Camp sounded most interesting to me for a variety of reasons (including the short, easy flight to get there), and one of the weeks it was offered happened to coincide with my spring break. So… Budget tour? Check. Great deals on flight, hotel, and rental car? Check, check, and check. Grocery store located near my hotel so that I could take advantage of the fridge? Check.

The only complaint I can make about the week is the weather–the temperature was in the 90’s for a couple days–and that’s really not Cycling Escapes’ fault! The short version of the trip was that it was five days of riding on great roads, with good variety in its challenges (shorter steeper climbs, long sustained climbs) and well thought mileage day to day, with bailout options if you needed them. Not being from the area, I felt that I got more than my money’s worth out of the route planning and ride support, and had all I needed to just be able to focus on riding my bike.

The longer version: the first day dawned hot and got worse from there. The plan for the day’s ride was 57 miles with 6,800′ of climbing. I was already worried about the heat, and about my ability to last the week (a planned week of intensive riding the month before got scrapped as I spent the time in bed with a cold instead, so I was not coming into the camp with much conditioning on the bike. Boo.) Not the greatest way to start things.

But on the brighter side, showing up with a vintage Colnago tends to get people excited. So even if I wasn’t feeling top, my bike put a lot of smiles on people’s faces, including mine. And then the inevitable questions about how heavy it is came. And upon hearing that I had ridden it up the Dolomites… Well, I think that people get the idea that I’m a much stronger rider than I really am because those extra few pounds of bike compared to their carbon wonders just *feel* like so much. It becomes a marvel that I can bike uphill at all, and my slowness at doing so is written off to my bike. Works for me!

The first climb wasn’t much–just a preparatory bump and rendezvous with the van (cold water! food and refreshments! moral support!) so that we could descend to the ocean and then ride 8.4 miles up Yerba Buena, and return to the van. The Yerba Buena climb was really nice–scenic, not too steep (though the pavement was awful)–but even trying to take it easy, the heat was really getting to me. I made it to the van (after a bit of awful descending on more of the horrendous pavement, then blissful descending on new asphalt. Ahhhhh, soooooo nice…), and it was not at all difficult to decide to omit the final climb of the day. It was a shorter, very steep climb in full midday sun. Nope. So I had a mere 45 miles and 5,000′ of climbing.

Days 2-5 saw more “reasonable” temperatures, dropping first into the 80’s, and continuing to drop slightly each day (still… 80 degress in March?!?! Seems a bit unreasonable to me). At any rate, I did the full rides until the 5th day, when I cut it short to get back to the hotel in time to shower before my flight home. The other people on the flight have no idea how lucky they were.

Every day’s structure was basically to climb from the hotel on the non-ocean side of the Santa Monica Mountains up to the van, then descend (usually ocean-ward) and return to the van a couple times. The Yerba Buena climb was the worst pavement we encountered, as for the most part the roads were in good or fabulous condition, and were very fun to ride on. Our rides pretty much followed the sample rides on their website, if you want to know more detail. (Though this being L. A., our long day was rerouted because Yerba Buena was closed for filming…)

Erica, the cheerful delight who manned the van and greeted us with congratulations every single time we made it to the van, said that she has been with the company’s founder when he’s scouting new routes, and that he’s really picky about the roads he uses. I can believe it. It turn out that there are roads in the area with a lot of traffic–we just barely ever saw anything of them. Instead we were on quiet backroads with sweeping views, fun swoopy turns, and delightful challenges.

A view on the way up Piuma. Sadly the morning’s cloud cover rapidly disappeared. Nassssty sun, we hates it… But a nice photo if you click to… you know…

 

One of my favorite was the ride up Piuma–and it was such a fabulous climb that it was featured on two separate days. The road threaded its way along a ridge such that for much of it you could look out to more mountains, down into scenic valleys, and over to the Pacific. One of the ways down from the top of Piuma was down Stunt Road, which is now one of my favorite descents–and again, we got to do it multiple times.

More view from Piuma. Click away.

 

Not only did I enjoy the road selection (and getting to experience some of the best ones more than once!) I appreciated the rhythm of the week. The third day was (comparatively speaking) a little easier, and included the beautiful Latigo Canyon climb. This was both a great choice for the beauty of the scenery, and also because the next day was our long day, and finished with Latigo Canyon. So the day before, you got an idea of what you’d be doing at the end of the hard day, which made it much easier to plan out your effort on they most physically grueling day, and made the long day mentally easier too because it didn’t finish with some scary unknown.

At the end of the week, I had a modest 270+ miles and 31,000’+ of climbing. I’d happily do this camp again (especially if I could be guaranteed fog and clouds the whole time–the one day that started that way I felt great. And then the sun came out. Superman has Kryptonite, Samson has haircuts, and I have sun.) The people at Cycling Escapes were great–they did a really smart job of creating a budget camp where you got the support that really made a big difference, and left out some of the extra touches that are nice, but not as crucial.

I also met some wonderful people–strong riders, fun people, who generously let me ride with them (I sucked much wheel, but to be fair, did some pulling myself too) on the way to the climbs before disappearing when the road turned upward, and who then proceeded to rave about what a great rider I was. They were fun to hang out with, warm up with, and descend with–so thanks to you, J, G, and B!

My cheerleading squad, G, Me, B, and J! You guys were fabulous!

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