Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bikepacking to Big Basin: Part I

Stephanie and Krishna ride their tandem from San Mateo to Big Basin, whereupon disaster strikes.

Sheila Moon fields a strong presence at races, but we also pursue the many non-competitive facets of cycling, from tweed rides to mountain bike tours. The following story was my first and so far only foray into bikepacking. It took place a year and a half ago, but I'm only now getting around to posting it up. Hopefully I'll do another trip soon.

I had always been dismissive of the idea of loaded touring/bikepacking, since I figured it would entail lots of riding on unpleasant, dangerous roads. However, I recently discovered that we could reach Big Basin Redwoods State Park from our house by following scenic back roads that I would actually want to ride on. Thus the plan was hatched.

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Our tandem is a fillet-brazed Jack Taylor from around 1969, which has been in the family since it was new. It was built as a touring tandem, with beautiful front and rear racks painted to match the frame. In preparation for the trip I stripped all the parts, cleaning and lubricating everything. The only exception was the bottom brackets, as the old TA cranks require a different puller than standard cranks. After I was done I double-checked the torque on every bolt, and we took the bike for a 12-mile shake-down ride the Thursday before our trip. We only had one real pannier, so we also used Stephanie's rack-compatible Basil handbag.

As the trip approached, I was beset by doubt. My wife hadn't done any serious riding for several months, and a 60 mile day with more than 4,000 feet of climbing was sounding rather ambitious. The tandem's frame flexes too much for standing to be practical on climbs, and I was worried our gearing wouldn't be low enough to haul a full load of camping gear up the longer grades. Then there was the final section on steep dirt roads, which I had never seen before.

We left San Mateo around 10 on Saturday, making a leisurely ascent of Crystal Springs and Polhemus, then taking the bike path to CaƱada Road. We stopped for a snack at Woodside, watching the usual mix of kitted-up roadies, motorcyclists, and stuffy-looking shoppers. From There it was Mountain Home, to Sand Hill and the base of Old La Honda. This was my wife's first time up this climb. I had to work a bit on the steeper parts, but managed to keep my heart rate below 170. We arrived at the top feeling strong, having climbed it in 37 minutes, which we were quite happy with.

Descending Old La Honda on the other side was spectacular as always, and we were soon flying down 84 towards the coast, with a top speed of almost 40 mph. The bike handled fine, though the frame flexed a lot under hard cornering. I was feeling parched and hungry by the time we reached San Gregorio, where I quickly demolished a chocolate milk, a fruit smoothie, a muffin, a hard boiled egg, some chips and a few other things I ate too fast to remember what they were. After a pleasant rest we headed south on scenic Stage Road.

In Pescadero we bought more snacks and a fresh bell pepper for dinner. At the end of Cloverdale we turned right to detour to the beach. It was stunning: bright sun, blue water, dozens of kite surfers. After a quick nap in the sand we turned and headed back up Gazos Creek, for the final climb of the day. We were both feeling great: strong and well rested, with plenty of fuel in the tank. The grade was gradual as we wound through redwoods next to the creek. Then the pavement ended and the dirt road climbed abruptly.

I could tell this would be a moment of truth. Would our smooth 32 mm tires have enough traction on the steep, loose dirt? I felt the bike surge forward as Stephanie began digging in. No problem. Our speed was holding. We weren't losing traction. This steep section was almost over. And then my heart sank as the cranks suddenly spun forward without moving the bike. I hoped desperately that the rear tire had slipped on the dirt, but we tried pedaling again, and this time it was unmistakable: the cogs in the back were turning, but the wheel was not.

To be continued.

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