Sunday, 29 September 2013

29 Sep: A ride from the Bay to the Ocean

Nigel writes: Another work trip to Silicon Valley in California gave me the opportunity to hire a top-class road bike today and go for an 80-mile loop in the Santa Cruz mountains which turned out to be one of the toughest rides I've ever done.

I spent an afternoon cycling in this area almost exactly a year ago, on my last visit. My report of that ride can be read here. Today's ride started from the same bike shop as last time, The Bike Connection in Palo Alto, where I paid $38 (£24) to rent a lightweight carbon-fibre road bike for 24 hours.

My hire bike, probably the lightest I've ever ridden

Last time I managed a 40-mile ride which took me from Palo Alto, west over the Santa Cruz mountains, down the other side and then back again. Today I had a rather longer ride planned which I hoped would allow me visit both the San Francisco bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, as well as the mountains which lie in between.

The first few miles were along quiet suburban streets in prosperous Palo Alto, many of them with cycle lanes despite having very little traffic.

Cycle lane in Palo Alto

Between Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay runs an eight-lane freeway, US 101. This is something of a barrier for both cyclists and pedestrians, but I was able to find a subway which allowed me to pass under it safely.

Subway (with chicanes) under US 101

Between the freeway and the bay is an area of flat wetlands known as the Baylands Nature Reserve, cross-crossed with a network of wide paths surfaced with compacted stones.

Baylands Park on the shore of San Francisco Bay

I followed the shore north for a few miles, riding slowly and carefully because the rough, loose surface was not the ideal terrain for a lightweight road bike with slick tyres. Fortunately I was soon out of the park and back on smooth tarmac. I turned west and then north again through the less-salubrious streets of East Palo Alto (which is actually a separate city) until I found myself at a complex of office buildings that I had visited a few years ago before the present occupants moved in.

Facebook HQ on the shore in Menlo Park.

The Facebook (formerly Sun Microsystems) campus lies on the edge of the bay, and I rode around the perimeter on a public cycle path. After that it was time to say goodbye to the bay and head towards the ocean. I turned west, rode back through Palo Alto, and it wasn't long before I was out of the city and climbing through redwood forest into the mountains.

Climbing King's Mountain Road

I soon discovered that my bike wasn't as low-geared as I had hoped, and I found the ascent to 600m harder work than it had been last year. I had to stop several times to allow my legs to recover from the effort of pushing the pedals harder than was comfortable.

Eventually I reached the top of the ridge and paused for a longer rest, in the company of several other cyclists doing the same thing.

At Skyline (the summit ridge) before the descent towards the Ocean

Having earned 600m of elevation, it was now time to recklessly spend it, and I continued west down the mountain towards the Pacific. This was a particularly narrow and pretty road.

Descending Tunitas Creek Road towards the Ocean

After about ten miles of mostly downhill cycling I reached the Pacific Ocean near the village of San Gregorio. It was now about 2.30pm and I stopped on some low cliffs above the beach to have a late lunch. There I chatted to a couple of other cyclists, one of whom kindly took my photo.

Pacific Ocean at San Gregorio

After lunch I got back on the bike and followed the coast south for about eight miles. This took me along the Cabrillo Highway (US route 1), the busiest road of the day.

Cycling the Cabrillo Highway south along the coast

After about half an hour of spectacular coastal riding I turned east off US 1 and onto the quiet and pretty Pescado Creek Road. This took me through the little town of Pescado where I stopped for a drink and some more food before continuing east. The road began to climb and after about ten miles I turned onto Alpine Road for a further climb up to almost 720m.

Climbing Alpine Road back up to Skyline

This would have always been a punishing ascent but my end-of-day tiredness and the lack of a really low gear made the climb a gruelling ordeal, with me wondering whether I would be able to complete it. I decided that the only way to complete the climb was to take it really slowly, and every time my Garmin altimeter showed I had climbed 20m I paused for a two-minute rest.

Eventually I reached the top. It was about 6.30pm. Sunset was only half an hour away and since I didn't have any lights I set off straight down the other side for the 10m descent down Page Mill Road to Palo Alto.

The top of the 10-mile descent to Palo Alto (the sign referred to now-completed resurfacing)

Despite my tiredness and my concern about the declining daylight this was an exhilarating 2000+ foot descent down a wide, smoothly-surfaced road with a well-engineered series of hairpin bends. There was almost no other traffic, so I was able to use the whole width of the road to take the bends enjoyably quickly. I arrived back at the bike shop in Palo Alto at about 7.30pm, having cycled the toughest and hilliest 80 miles I have ever done. And, of course, given a slightly more suitable bike, I'd love to do it again.

See elevation profile below.

View this GPS track on a larger map


  1. I'm impressed by the altitude, are you sure it's not in feet? ;-)