Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bicycle touring to the Northern California Coast

Along Highway 1
It was time to get away for a bit and put a few miles on my bike. I decided to head to the coast this year, camping along the way and enjoy the fall weather along the Northern California coast.

As usual, my principal route planning was accomplished by pulling out an AAA regional map and hoping for the best! This time this method actually worked out pretty well!

The Mercian loaded for camping.
I found that I couldn't fit all the gear I would need for 4 nights' of camping into my Carradice Camper saddlebag and handlebar bag, so I went with rear panniers and the large Ostrich handlebar bag instead. I used a Nitto Campee rear rack which mounted to my read cantilever brakes' posts. This sturdy rack is advertised for 26" wheeled bikes, but it just fit on my 700c Mercian. However, I found that it held my larger panniers too far forward and they interfered with the brakes' movement so I had to use the smaller "front" panniers. I figured this would encourage me to pack as lightly as possible.

Off I went on a bright Thursday morning. My route would roughly follow Highway 20's path to the coast, but I tried to stay on quieter country roads as much as possible to avoid 20's traffic. I was able to keep mostly to side roads as far as Meridian on the first day. This included a couple of dirt roads which were a surprise, but in good repair. (One problem with AAA maps is that they sometimes don't indicate whether a minor road is paved or dirt.)
On Meridian Road.
After Meridian, I rode on 20 to Colusa, stopping for there for a quick lunch. Then continuing on 20 across the Sacramento Valley, I passed through Williams at Interstate 5, then up into the eastern foothills of the coastal mountain ranges. This stretch was one of the worst for traffic, with very little shoulder available at first. Eventually, after passing through the narrow canyon at the start of the climb, the road opened up and there was ample shoulder for a good distance.

I stopped for the night at a rest stop which happened to have a trail head collocated with it. I hiked up the trail a little bit and found a relatively level spot out of sight of the road. Here I set up "camp", merely a tarp laid out on the ground with my bivy sack and sleeping bag on it.

First night's bivouac.

The next morning I was on the road early, delaying breakfast until I found water at Elk Creek in Lake County. Along the way I discovered that my attempt to correct the shimmy by changing the weight distribution actually made the problem worse! I had transferred some weight from the front to the back,  but instead of improving handling, I almost had a "tank slapper" on one steep downhill run, with my handlebars swinging back and forth! After coming to a stop, I resumed, making sure I didn't get to much speed on the downhills. Clearly, taking the weight off the front didn't solve my problem!

I was pretty low on water so I was looking forward to reaching Elk Creek. I found an area close to the creek to park the bike and hiked to the water. I filtered the water and made breakfast, (just cold cereal with instant milk, but it was really welcome!) After eating, I filled my water bottles. The filtered creek water was clean enough but had a bit of a gamy taste to it! Then, it was on to Clear Lake!

Clear Lake
Actually, the ride across the northern flank of Clear Lake was quite pleasant! Generally, the road had a generous shoulder and the condition of the paving was very good. A fresh breeze blew from the west, across the lake and made for very pleasant riding. Quite a nice change from summertime, when this area can be oppressively hot!

Continuing along Highway 20, I paused at Upper Lake and shopped at a farm stand, picking up some fruit for lunch. Apples and pears are plentiful this time of year. The pear was especially tasty.

Eventually, Highway 20 joins Highway 101 for a stretch up to Willits. I reached this part in the afternoon, and the long climb to Willits was hot work. I arrived in the town in the late afternoon, in what seemed to be rush hour. I needed some food and cool drinks so I stopped for a quick meal and picked up some extra water for the night.

I departed Willits via Highway 20 in the early evening and found a good campsite at a point near the 26 mile post heading to Ft. Bragg. It was another clandestine bivouac that night. That night I had some leg cramping and was a little worried that my schedule of a 5 day trip may have been a little too ambitious.

On Hwy 20, heading for Ft. Bragg.
Day 3.

The next morning had an inauspicious start, I had a flat! A small bit of wire had penetrated my tire. I swapped out the tube and headed off. The morning was cool and misty, I even encountered some very light rain as I rode the undulating terrain towards the coast. I made pretty good time though and was able to enjoy a hot breakfast at the Denny's on the far side of Ft. Bragg by 10 AM!

Outside of Ft. Bragg, I remembered that I wanted to adjust my load, so I pulled over and returned my load to it's original configuration. The bike had been a little touchy on the way to Ft. Bragg. After making the change, things seemed a little better. I also tightened the preload on the headset, something that has been said to help. With a thread-less headset, this was easy, (it would have been impossible with a threaded headset!)

As the ride progressed, I kept this configuration and never really had a problem again. (I did make a point of pressing my leg against the top tube during descents, maybe that solved the problem!)

Past Mendocino, I stopped at Albion. There was a small hardware store and an even smaller grocery store here. At the hardware store I picked up a spare tube of rubber cement since I only had one more spare tube, and my patch kit's cement looked kind of dry. At the grocery I picked up a coffee drink and a really excellent, fresh pastry.

I continued south on Highway 1, planning to stop for the day at Manchester State Park. I was disappointed to discover that the park is now closed. I did find some possible "hidden" spots, but I decided to see what I could find down the road. I wanted a sandwich for an early supper and was told that the closest sandwich shop was in Pt. Arena, so I headed down there.

By now the weather had cleared and was quite pleasant. There was a nice, consistent tailwind blowing from the northwest.

At Pt. Arena I enjoyed a great sandwich and a cold beer at the General Store. While there I met a young Frenchman, Jolis, (who went by the nick name Jo-Jo). He had a proper cycling guide to the coast and showed me where he planned to stay, at a State campground in Gualala. I rejoined Jo-Jo on the way to Gualala and we rode together to the park, where we shared the hiker/biker spot with another cyclist, Brian, from Seattle. Brian was a writer working on updating a cycling guide for the coast. We were later joined by a couple from Utah, the guy worked for QBP!(Quality Bike Products).

On Hwy 1
Day 4

I left Gualala around 8:00 AM, before any of the other folks did. In fact, Brian was the only guy up!  It was a little foggy in places, but not wet enough to cause any problems. The traffic was not bad at all, it was Sunday morning after all. After coffee at a small convenience store just below Salt Point, I cycled through some pretty dramatic scenery heading to Jenner. You have your forests to your right and a steep cliff dropping off on the right. At one point the road is reduced to a single lane, controlled by a stop light which holds traffic for 10 minutes, each way. This actually works out nicely because you can time the groups of traffic. I'd pull off and let the crowd go by, then I'd have 10 minutes of no traffic, the I'd pull over again for the next bunch and so on. For this stretch, it is actually kind of convenient.

Hwy 1, approaching Salt Point
I made it to Jenner at noon, right on schedule for lunch. Unfortunately Jenner was packed, so I decided to delay lunch until I reached Guerneville. Riding now on Highway 116, I followed the Russian River on a very pretty course inland. There was an adequate shoulder and the ride to Guerneveille was pleasant and uneventful. I found a cafe in town (the 3 Alarm Grill) with tables on the street and decided to lunch there. Had a very good hamburger and beer, then I was surprised by a second beer on the house! (A mispour the waitress decided the award me!) I was very happy with it, St. Florians, a delicious little beer indeed, but I was a little worried that a second beer would affect my riding since I still hoped to push on to Calistoga.

Well, the beer did not seem to bother me at all and I pressed on 116 until just before Forestville, where I made a left turn to get to River Road. This road was a real pleasant surprise! Beautiful, shaded with a wide shoulder, I enjoyed this route to the northern fringes of Santa Rosa at highway 101. After 101 the road name changes to become "Mark West Springs Road", and its charm disappears! Following this road is an endless climb with very little shoulder and an annoying amount of traffic for a Sunday afternoon. Finally, you catch a downhill run into Calistoga. I was pretty tired by now so I stopped at the first diner I saw and had a milkshake!

Now I had to find a place to sleep! My map indicated a State campground between Calistoga and St. Helena so I headed for it. It was starting to get dark so I was relieved to come to Bothe-Napa Valley campground, which had bike/hike sites!

Settling down at my site I was visited by Jack, an young Englishman who was car camping with friends. Jack had ridden the end-to-end ride, Lands End to John O'Groats! I think he was pleased to see my Mercian!

On Highway 116, along the Russian River.
Day 5.

I splurged on breakfast in St. Helena, then left town on the Silverado Trail, leaving the Napa Valley on highway 128 to Lake Berryessa. At first 128 had very little shoulder and the was some traffic. Fortunately both of these conditions changed for the better after the turnoff just past Lake Hennessey. The shoulder got wider and the traffic quieted down. there was a fair bit of climbing until about Markley Cove, then a wonderful downhill began which took me to Lake Solano.

On 128 in Napa County.
Finally going downhill, past Monticello Dam and, below the dam, along Putah Creek, which has some burned spots, but much is still untouched.
Monticello Dam, Lake Berryessa. 
Beautiful Putah Creek.
Day 5 The last push and hidden roads.

Reaching Winters, I stopped for lunch at Subway, enjoying icy cold beverages and filling my bottles, preparing for the final push through the Sacramento Valley. I've noticed that I really crave ice cold drinks on long rides, I get really tired of drinking warm water!

From Winters I took a series of rural roads which led me in between Davis and Woodland to county Road 102, (E8 on my tattered AAA map). This I followed to Knights Landing, where I then hopped on Hwy 113. My map showed Kirkville road which appeared to lead to Highway 99 just north of Nicolaus.

Turning onto Kirkville Road, I was relieved to find it was paved. A little rough but paved. I was a little worried since it was getting late in the day and if this road didn't work out I'd have to do quite a but of backtracking! Eventually the road rose up a levee wall and turned to dirt. My heart fell a little but the road seemed to continue, so on I went.

Kirkville Road/ Sacramento Ave.
On the other side of the levee was a small stream. As I crossed the bridge I saw a fellow fishing on the shore. I called out and asked of the road led to Hwy 99, and he said yes it did! What a relief! I continued on and soon reach the highway. Looking back at the road signs, I discovered that Kirkville Road had become Sacramento Avenue, (because it was now in Yuba county)!

 Now I was in familiar territory. riding through Nicolaus, I texted Shelly to give her an ETA. I stopped at East Nicolaus High School and filled my bottles at a drinking fountain. Finally pulling in at home in semi darkness with Shelly and my grandson Jayden sitting in the driveway waiting for me!

It was good ride. It was tough though, with the heaviest miles on the last two days. I couldn't track my miles with my phone because I couldn't charge it, but I would estimate 440 to 480 miles total. The longest day was the last one, I estimate at least 120 miles that day, but I was riding almost in the dark by the end.

The route was nice and varied, but quite challenging. I found the 28/28 low gear was low enough to handle everything I encountered.

As I had mentioned, the bike's performance was marred by the shimmy I encountered on the first and second days. I seemed to either have adjusted to the bike's handling, or by losing some of the weight as the days went by, perhaps the handling improved. I'll have to experiment with loads to find a solution.

Using a bivy sack saved a bit of weight and was pretty handy. As long as you expect dry conditions, this is an excellent option. It would have been another story altogether if it was raining!

One more equipment note: I used my "road" SPD pedals for this trip, Shimano A520's. While they functioned fine, I wished I had put on double-sided MTB pedals instead. They are more forgiving and allow you to "click in" faster when you're distracted by road conditions or traffic or what-have-you.  For the next loaded tour I will be sure to use the MTB style.

One postscript, I seem to have developed a wicked case of poison oak while camping! I really don't know how I made contact with it, but I had a bad case of it on my right side and shoulder.