Portland to San Francisco, on a bicycle
Mon, 5 Dec '11 04:48
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Highway One

Every year, my college buddy Scott and I take a 10-14 day vacation over Thanksgiving. Domestic US airline ticket prices become so absurd during this period that two years ago it was actually cheaper for me to fly to Peru to hike the Inca Trail than it was to fly to Tennessee to eat turkey with my family. Since then it's become something of a tradition that Scott and I take advantage of this four day weekend and make a vacation out of it.

Last year we decided to up the ante a bit and bike across something. After some investigation, I decided Portland to San Francisco was a do-able trip in the maximum time we could both get away with: 14 days.

And so the plan was for Scott and I to fly into Portland, assemble our bikes in the Portland airport, and ride the 860 miles along the west coast to San Francisco.

The west coast bike route is pretty common and, for the most part, well marked; however, this season is not so common. We got used to providing excuses to explain why in the world we were biking in near freezing rain rather than the more comfortable, scenic, and common summer.

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Day 1: Portland Airport

Scott and I arrive around noon at Portland International Airport. Scott is coming from Virginia, so he has to get up at stupid o'clock to fly across the country. I take the easy route and fly Alaska Airlines from SF to Portland, a two hour jaunt on a prop plane. Alaska has one of the cheapest bicycle fees, coming in at just $50 for a boxed bike.

I arrive first, so, after collecting my bike from the oversized luggage area, I start to look for a good bit of floor space to assembly my bike when I see a sign for the "Bike Assembly Area". Portland, you are awesome!

I paid a bike shop to pack my bike for the plane, and I wasn't sure exactly what I'd need to do to put it back together again. Normally, they just remove the front wheel (mine is quick released), the rack (a couple of screws), the pedals, and turn the handlebars sideways. Little did I know they would completely disassembly my entire fork into a dozen or so pieces. Luckily, I'd taken a photo of my bike when it was new and posted it on Flickr; I used my iPhone to find the photo and used it as a reference to reassemble it:

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Reference Material

Three hours later, Scott and I manage to piece together and adjust our bicycles to a suitable point and we begin riding through Portland, beautiful this time of year with trees turning their various vibrant flavors of autumn. It is moist but not raining.

It's a bit tricky navigating through a new city for the first time, and we stop frequently to check Google Maps. After a couple of hours we find an REI (I think there are two or three on our route that day), and I pick up fuel for my camping stove, one of the only things I couldn't bring on the plane. We also opt for some long underwear and a few last minute necessities.

The plan is to stay in Hillsboro, Oregon, about 20 miles from Portland. There is one hill to get around; the suggested route is to stay on Highway 26, but that seems boring, so we bike over Cornell Rd instead. It's a pretty good climb to the top, but a good warm up for the rest of the trip. We coast into Hillsboro around 8pm and stay at a Marriott across from Intel. A cushy 24 mile day with a nice hotel at the end.

Day 2: Hillsboro - Tillamook

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The day starts out brisk, but beautifully clear. Our spirits are high, and we take off biking around 9:30 following a hardy continental breakfast. I anticipate this will be the hardest day, since we have to get over a mountain range through Tillamook State Forest peaking at 1586 ft.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat and we make good time. Then we see the beginning of the up.

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Goodbye, flatland

However, it's not that bad; the grade is incredibly gentle and we have no problem getting to the top. The real problem turns out to be the cold.

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Time to change into warmer socks

Spirits are still high as the altitude begins to suck away the warmth.

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The first bits of snow are kind of exciting...

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Then slightly less exciting...

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At last we make it to the top at 1,586 ft!

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Incredibly, it's all downhill from here. Not one little hill until the center of Tillamook. However, that turns out to the real problem. Without doing any up, we're not generating any heat. And at 13-15 mph, we're actually freezing ourselves in our own windchill. My gloves are pretty good, borrowed from an Irish friend used to biking in cold, rainy weather. Scott's are not so good and his fingers really start hurting.

We also seem to get a slight side wind as my left foot eventually goes numb from the cold. Scott's left foot has the same problem.

Had the day been any longer, I would have been a bit worried, but we're down to the flat cow pastures of Tillamook by dark. We ride into town, find a cheap motel, and prepare to fullfil our incredible caloric requirements for the day.

A good rule of thumb for calories burned while biking is about 40 calories to the mile, but I believe that's only for an unladen swallow biker. With our 50-60 pounds of gear, we figure we must be using at least 50 calories/mile, which means we need about 5,000 calories per day (2,000 + 60 miles * 50).

Day 3: Tillamook - Lincoln City

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We begin the day with a quick pitstop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory to sample and purchase delicious cheeses, and also ice creams.

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And then the rain begins. Ok; no problem. We knew we couldn't bike through the Pacific Northwest in late November and not get rain. We don our rain gear and set out.

It turns out the rain isn't so bad. Our rain gear is effective; we stay warm; Oregon motorists are courteous. However, it's not the rain I'm worried about. It's the wind.

Someone tells us this is the worst storm Oregon has had in ten years: 30-40 mph sustained headwinds with gusts up to 70 mph. They say the west coast trail was easier to do North to South because of the 5-10 mph tailwinds. However, in the autumn and winter that trend reverses, and in a storm like this it's even worse.

At one point, I'm riding along, struggling to keep pace on a gentle downhill grade, when a side wind comes out of nowhere and pushes my entire bike about 6 inches to the right, (luckily) onto the shoulder of highway 101 rather than into traffic.

We can only make 60 miles instead of the planned 70+ and decide to stop at a campground in the middle of Lincoln City. It's a state park, but it's literally in someone's backyard. However, a few miles north, I find my back tire is flat. Only 3 days in, and already our first flat! It takes about 30 minutes for me to change the tire, with Scott holding the light, the rain misting around us, and the both of us shivering and cursing.

We roll into Lincoln City around 7pm, exhausted.

Tired, wet, and now cold since we stopped biking, we find the nearest sustenance, a not-so-great Mexican chain restaurant. The tortillas are warm, however.

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The chicken mole is fajita chicken strips in a ketchup-based mole sauce. It is truly awful, but we devour it like it may be our last meal. I promise Scott he will have excellent mole in the Mission, where I live in San Francisco.

We retire to our campsite and lock up our bikes - not so much for fear of theft but that they may blow away.

Day 4: Lincoln City - Newport

Today the winds defeat us entirely. We wake up in our campsite in Lincoln City to find most of the campsite flooded. Luckily, we slept on higher ground with wind gusts waking us up periodically with fears that our tent may blow away.

The rain is still coming down in sheets, so after some careful consideration we move the entire tent into the campground restroom and take it down there.

We consider our options. Today is supposed to be even worse wind-wise. Our better judgement kicks in as we realize how dangerous yesterday actually was, and how today will be moreso.

I find the camp host and ask about public transportation or car rental agencies. Lincoln City has a small bus system that will take us as far as Newport, 25 miles south. We pack up our gear and push our bikes down the street the few blocks to the busstop. Even walking our bikes is an extreme effort.

We make it to Newport by 2pm and find a Days Inn with a hot tub. After a quick dip, we head down the road to find a warm bar, a bit demoralized by the incredible wind and a zero day.

Day 5: Newport - Florence

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The rain is still going strong, but the winds have died down significantly, so we head back out onto Highway 101. We're along the coast now for the first time, and it's great, even in the cold rain.

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However, there is a snag: my back tire is leaking air, despite my inner tube replacement less than 24 hours ago. We need to stop periodically to pump it up, and I find my Topeak pump is not working properly either. What luck!

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Around 3pm and only 50 miles, we make it Florence, OR. Now we're really feeling demoralized: it's stil raining, and despite being a full day behind, we've now got to have a short day due to mechanical problems. We find a bike shop in Florence called "Bicycles 101". There, a very helpful mechanic named Sarah gives us both a mini tune up. We stay until 6pm, and of course, she replaces my tire and checks for loose items in the tire.

We sleep at a cute little motel, almost a B & B, with a sauna that isn't hot and an outdoor hot tub that...isn't hot. Anyway, we are glad to be warm in our room. And we find a great bar with microbrews on tap. We each order a flight of beers with dinner.

Day 6: Florence - Bandon (Thanksgiving)

It's time to play catchup. The wind returns slightly, but it's not bad. We have intermittent rain, but the weather seems to be cooperating at last.

We stop after 25 miles in Reedsport and enjoy a Thanksgiving lunch at the first cafe we see. We each get dessert on top of the big meal, which we regret for the next 10 miles. Tip: never overeat prior to a 60 miles bike ride.

We bike pretty hard all day, but only make it to North Bend by sundown. We still have 20 or so miles to go.

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Normally, that should only take us a couple of hours. Just past North Bend, we take the recommended alternate from Highway 101, a road called Seven Devil Hills. It's supposed to be scenic and better for biking.

It takes hours. The initial grades are so steep that, for the first time, my lowest gear is not enough - my legs burn as I force my bike up a series of hills and switchbacks. I feel sorry for Scott whose bike is missing the 3rd front gear common to touring bikes. I'm not sure how he's able to do it.

At the top of the hill, we pause to put on warmer clothes and turn on our lights. As dusk turns to full night, I listen to the wind howl through the trees. It feels like the start of a horror movie.

It turns out we're not on the top. In fact, someone had spray painted a "Devil #1" at the top of the hill we're on. So there are 6 more? Can't be. Oh, but there are...

It seems like forever, but we finally reconnect with Highway 101. We celebrate by playing with a few long exposure photos and the lights on our bikes.

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We roll into Bandon around 8pm, our first 80 mile day! By the time we find a hotel and check in, we've hit 83 miles and 8:30. I make a frantic phone call to the last place in town still serving food; they promise to hold onto some takeout turkey dinners for us as long as we arrive by 9pm. In a mad dash through the night's downpour, we are able to return with two turkey dinners, clam chowder, and four Lagunitas IPAs.

Day 7: Bandon - Brookings

We awake to our first truly nice weather on the trip:

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and make our way to Brookings. It's going to be another 80+ mile day. Got to make up for that lost ground.

Spirits are a bit higher today as we enjoy the scenery and the not-rain-and-wind weather.

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As evening approaches, we find ourselves on the coast and experience our first coastal sunset along highway 101:

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This evening, we get to try out our night photography again, this time with stars in the sky!

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Our dinner is a gluttonous burger and brew in Brookings, then we camp at Harris Beach state park.

Day 8: Brookings - Praire Creek Redwoods

Now that the weather has become agreeable, we reinstate our original plan of camping. We awake to a beautiful morning at Harris Beach.

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However, all is not well. Scott notices his back tire is a bit low and decides to put some air in. The valve stem on his tire snaps off and the tire deflates. Not to worry; we've got another spare! However, his tire proves nearly impossible to remove. After 20 minutes at it, we give up and hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town.

Also, my tire is flat again too.

At the "Escape Hatch" in Brookings, the mechanic easily finds the bit of staple that's been destroying my inner tubes (come on, Sarah, what happened?). I opt for the tire stripping and extra thick inner tube so this doesn't happen again.

Scott's tire, on the other hand is not trivial to fix. His wheel and tire are not standard sizes (nor are they correct for each other even). The mechanic can only offer Scott a new wheel (at $95) and new brakes to go with it since his old brakes do not fit onto the new tire.

We spend most of the day at the Escape Hatch and finally leave around 4pm. Although sunset is already upon us, we are determined to avoid another zero day and decide to attempt our destination: Praire Creek Redwoods State Park, 60 miles away.

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We quickly cross into California, where we immediately find a stark contrast in drivers. Within 10 minutes some good old boys in a pickup call us assholes as they zoom past. This attitude doesn't change for the rest of the trip. Come on, California!

Scott has never been to the west coast and never seen redwoods. Although we ride through two redwood forests and even camp in one, it will be another day before Scott gets to actually see them.

We arrive at camp around 12:30am and hit the showers, now coin operated unlike Oregon's free hot showers. California has such severe budget cuts, they can't even provide paper towels at the campgrounds (seriously, that's what the sign said).

After a dinner of cooked noodles, summer sausage, and cheese, we finally pass out around 3am.

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Day 9: Prairie Creek Redwoods - Eureka.

We "sleep in" until after 8am the next morning to find a gift from the forest creatures.

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Raccoon poo?

I watch the sun burn away the forest mist as I make coffee.

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Then, we're on our way. As we leave the park, we ride by some elk who think they're cleverly hiding in the brush. But we humans see through their disguise.

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Scott still hasn't seen any redwoods trees and is beginning to suspect they may not exist. Most of the road is rather boring highway.

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My favorite sign

The above is my favorite sign on the highway. Typically, on two lane US highways, an extra passing lane is provided for upward-bound traffic. So when you see the passing lane ending, it means the up is almost over.

After about 50 miles we come to Eureka, probably the largest city we'll hit before San Francisco. Although we've only gone 50 miles, we're both so exhausted that we nearly settle for the first hotel we come across. We hold on just long enough to find a Super 8 with a working hot tub and nearby pizza.

Day 10: Eureka - Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Our goal for the day is Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which I think is about 60 miles away. There's not much beyond that for several miles, so it seems like a good goal. And Scott finally gets to see his first redwoods!

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And Homer...
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And more Redwoods

We detour from Highway 101 to follow the Avenue of the Giants, which parallels 101. We're surprised the official Pacific Coast Bike Route stays on 101.

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Scott approves this forest
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A large tree

Almost every other night, our destination is 4-5 miles farther than we think it is. We are not sure why; we don't deviate from the main highways (101 or 1) so Google Maps should be relatively accurate. Perhaps our slight weaving sums to a few extra miles?

In any case, tonight's destination is bizarrely closer than we thought at only 50 miles. I'd like to put in more miles today, but there's not much in terms of camping or motels for a while, so we decide to call an early day. Plus, it's early enough that we can buy firewood from the camp host and have our first campfire!

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Campfire!

Day 11: Humboldt Redwoods - MacKerricher

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Humboldt Redwoods campsite

Today is a long day. The "short" day from yesterday and night campfire leaves us well rested and in high spirits. We leave Humboldt and continue along the Avenue of the Giants, a road that parallels highway 101 through beautiful redwood groves.

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Eventually we come to a major highway split: left to continue on 101 and right to continue on highway 1, along the coast. Just before the turn, we encounter an older gentleman who claims he has walked all over the United States, totaling some 34,000 miles. Having walked in the opposite direction, he tells us we are about to encounter the worst three hills for the next thirty miles.

We turn right and continue along a steep down. As it flattens out, I check my odometer: 50 miles and nearly dusk. We see the up the old man mentioned.

The up is nothing like what he described. It goes on for miles (literally) and is steeper than anything we've done before. My lowest gear is not low enough for the second time on the trip (the first was Crescent City). There are winding switchbacks so we never know when we have reached the top. When hiking, I usually look for light through treetops to signal the to of a hill, but here we seem to perpetually be at the top of a mountain. Except that every time we go around another corner, there's somehow more up. It is insane, but we've nowhere else to go.

At last the steep down begins. We pause at the top to turn on our lights and check our brakes, then plunge into the darkness. Remembering the encounter with the old man, I don't get too excited, as I know there can only be more up.

Sure enough we are to repeat the process and go over another equally difficult hill, now well into the night with only a sliver of moon for ambiant light. At the top we spend a bit of time going along a ridge, then plunge back down towards sea level. I know there is only more up waiting for us.

But there's not. We go along a nice flat area in a valley for a while, then begin to hear the sea at last. We round a bend and suddenly feel a warm breeze (from the Pacific Ocean, in autumn, at night). It's beautiful.

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At last we are on Highway One along the California coast. It's miles before we see another vehicle on the road; it's quite peaceful.

Our destination is MacKerricher State Park, just north of Fort Bragg. We think it's only a few more miles, but our expectations are reset when we encounter a curious star gazer parked on the side of the road. He tells us it's at least ten more miles. We're quickly losing our patience and morale, but there are no towns or anywhere to stop; our only choice is to keep going.

At last, just after 10pm we reach the park and stop fo the night. We've traveled an amazing 92 miles, our longest day of the trip.

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Day 11: MacKerricher to Gualala Point Regional Park

MacKerricher is beautiful; we heard the ocean last night as we drifted off to sleep, but this morning we wander down a short path to meet it.

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After admiring the ocean for a bit, and a breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches, we're once again on our way.

The coast is incredible. The weather report for the next week is clear and sunny, so we've no more wind and rain to worry about. We stop frequently for photographs.

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Lunch stop
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The land between Tillamook and San Francisco is all cow land. I mean, really, there's no better use for this land, I guess. I know the vast majority of meat is not raised in this way, but, well, it's all I see for miles and miles.

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Highway One is full of a highway device designed to get around creek or river connections to the sea. I'm not sure if there is a word for this, so we invited the phrase "side reel" to describe them. Heading south on Highway One, with the coast to your right, you will frequently find a sharp turn to the left, with a steep grade downward. It does not go to sea level, but about halfway, then turns back and heads steeply up, a reflection of the road you've just come down. The temperature drops about 10 degrees at the lowest point of these "side reels". The grade is so steep that, for the third time, my lowest gear is insufficient. Luckily, they are never long. Scott, whose bike lacks a third front gear, has to walk his bike for the first time.

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Along Highway 101, we would typically travel along flat road for a bit, then there might be a 5-6 % grade upward for a half mile to a mile, immediately followed by an equivalent down. So if you saw up coming, you knew at least it meant you'd get some good down on the other side.

Highway One is the opposite in every way. It's much more windy, and the flat is at the top, so if you see down, you know it means you'll just immediately have to go right back up. The ups and downs are much shorter and more frequent, too.

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But the scenery is amazing.

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This evening, we roll into Gualala around 8:30pm. It's a small town (<500 people) but there are several restaurants open. We decide to drop our things off at the campground, then find some food in town.

The campground, Gualala Point, is over two miles away, and it involves two steep hills. The campground itself (not a state park, but a Sonoma county park) is absurd: there are no showers, and the entrance sign a half mile from the campground demands payment but does not indicate the hiker/biker campground cost (a later sign does).

It's been another 80 mile day and over seven hours of riding.

After dropping off our equipment and a quick change, we book it back to town, where now, just after 9pm, everything is closed, save on tavern. We stop in and ask for food. The bartender, a cute, hyperfriendly blond, tells us the kitchen is closed but that she may be able to scrounge up some grub. We tell her we will gratefully accept anything on offer and are soon presented with a plate of BBQ meat and several sides. We order beers and devour the food.

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Jill, our savior for the evening

Scott and I continue to drink more beer and even a couple of shots (why?). Jill becomes increasingly energetic and begins doing crazy dance moves with some of the regulars.

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Soon after this, the man in the photo (sorry; can't remember his name) will borrow Jill's truck and drive us and our bikes back to the campsite (he'd been drinking soda the entire time). Given the distance and terrain, we are lucky.

Day 12: Gualala Point to Bodega Bay

After a couple of extremely long days, we're ready for a shorter one. We continue along beautiful Highway One, anticipating an early arrival.

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As the sun sets, I begin to see familiar land masses in the distance, possible Point Reyes. I know we're close: just one more day!

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That's not Point Reyes!
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We make it to Bodega Bay, our scheduled stop for day 13. Despite our zero day, we're finally caught up to the original schedule! I wouldn't mind going a bit further, as I know the final push to San Francisco will be over 70 miles, but after back to back 80-90 mile days, we're ready to turn in early after just 55 miles.

We're also looking forward to another campfire. Unbelievably, the camp host is out of wood, though he normally sells it. We ride into town to pick up some wood, and, while we're at it, some s'mores making materials.

While Scott works on the campfire, I cook two dinners of raman noodles and sardines and canned chicken. then whittle some hot dog roasting sticks. We use the sticks to roast some bratwurst we'd picked up earlier, then roast marshmallows for s'mores. It's a decadent night.

Day 14: Bodega Bay to San Francisco

Our last day. Spirits are high; we know it's going to be a long day, but it's the final one.

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We set out earlier than usual and ride well, making good time. We could cut over to Highway 101 around Petaluma, but decide to continue on Highway One for the full experience.

It's easy going through to Stinson Beach, afterward the real challenges begin. From Stinson Beach, we need to climb up Highway One to the cliffs once again, then down to Muir Beach, then back up a very long up. The climb is tremendously steep and incredibly long, but we know it's the last of its kind.

At the top we start to see other bikers, day bikers from the Bay Area. That's a good sign, though we're the only ones carrying weight.

Just after dusk we make it to Sausalito.

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San Francisco from Sausalito

I had hoped to make it to the Marin Headlands and catch the Golden Gate before sundown, but we're just a bit too late.

We wind around Sausalito, climb up the the bridge, and at last we're at the Marin Headlands. I know the climb is steep, but I convince Scott he needs to make the ascent to view the bridge properly. Cursing me most of the way, we make it to the top of the Marin Headlands, a twenty minute climb.

But the views are worth it:

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We head back down to the bridge and cross over where a rather curious thing happens: my rear derailleur quite suddenly becomes caught in a spoke. My rear tire locks up and I skid to a stop just underneath the Golden Gate (you have to cross underneath after traversing it).

Befuddled, we try to fix the now completely bent and useless derailleur. How did this happen? We ride 850 miles through wind and rain and crazy RV drivers and sore knees only to be defeated by a freak derailleur failure? We manage to put the derailleur into a "safe" position, essentially on the lowest rear gear. My front three gears and derailleur still function, and we've no choice but to carry on.

My friend Patrick hosts a beer party the first Friday of every month, and his apartment happens to be en route to my place. Now 9pm, we stop in for a few beer tastings, and are immediately, though briefly, welcomed as heroes of the evening. We drink as gods, savoring the journey we have both completed, and reflect with drunken exuberance on the task now before us: to outdo this year's Thanksgiving vacation.

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Things I've learned:

  1. Never check your odometer at the top of a long hill. I expect to see a proportional amount of progress for effort exerted on a task. Cycling up hill is time consuming, so you're likely to put in a lot of effort for not much apparent gain. Check your odometer at the bottom, where the time spent cycling over the hill is on par with the distance you've gone.
  2. Up and Down correlate positively to the beginning and end of passing lanes, respectively. You usually see signs for passing lanes before the up or down begins. These are good indicators of the upcoming terrain.
  3. Maintain a high cadence, around 80 RPM if you can. Before a month ago, I didn't really know how to bicycle. I would just use whatever gear felt comfortable and psychologically satisfying. My macho-subconscious tells me that lower gears are for pansies, so I would typically choose the highest gear that I could still use. This is a recipe for exhaustion. If you can maintain a comfortable pedaling cadence of around 80 RPM and then choose whatever gear suits that cadence without exerting yourself, then you can cycle all day. It's like brisk walking versus sprinting: you can walk all day, but you can only sprint for short periods. If you feel your legs burning, you need to downshift.
  4. Shop at camping stores, not bike stores. These sorts of long touring trips are actually pretty hard to shop for. San Francisco bicycle shops (and I assume elsewhere too) cater to three types of bikers: racers, interested in minimal weight, low profile bikes and gear, e.g. carbon fiber everything, mountain bikers, and commuters. None of these categories are good demographics to market sturdy racks, waterproof panniers, non-latex, skintight chamois, or ultra-bright, long lasting bike lights. By contrast, REI has excellent camping gear and a bike department geared for a different kind of biker (the hiker-biker?) and a 100% satisfaction guarantee.