Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Come Rain or Shine

And lo, it came to pass that on the 114th day of bicycling at last it did rain upon us.  And when it did, yea verily it did so with great vengeance and furious anger, and at one point it appeared that Noah himself may sail past us, such was the volume of the wet stuff falling from the sky.

Until the day we left San Francisco, we had endured negligible rain.  In a trip of nearly 9 months, you could count the number of times we had got wet on the fingers of one hand.  An hour of heavy drizzle in Tierra del Fuego, another outside in San Luis Province, Argentina, and a decent two hour drenching on the Canada/USA border.  And that was it.  Truly, we had led a charmed life.  So by law of averages we were due a decent soaking.

And you couldn't say we hadn't been warned - the weather forecast had given '100% precipitation' chances for our restart date for days beforehand and it had already rained relentlessly for 24 hours.  And so we set off from the sanctuary of the Williamses' wonderful pad, hermetically sealed in our expensive and foolproof rain kit, cheerfully looking forward to unfamiliar conditions and a decent test for Endura's finest materials.
Within yards we were sodden.  Even wheeling through the weekend peace of San Anselmo, Mill Valley and Sausalito, there was a new dimension to our challenge: cycling up river.  Unsatisfied with the torrential rain and driving winds, the weather gods provided the kinds of rivers flowing down those streets that wash cars away when you see them on The Weather Channel.  We literally had to pedal harder to battle against the current.

By the time we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, our long held hopes of a triumphant, landmark passage across, complete with clicking cameras, brilliant sunshine and passing cars hooting in admiration had been washed over its handrails and into the menacing grey waters swirling far below.  We pushed the bikes across.  The wind was such that there was no way we could have ridden.  One drenched guy we passed just before reaching the Golden Gate warned us, in a moment of brilliant understatement: 'Watch out, it's windy out there on the bridge'.

The bridge itself was almost completely enshrouded a dense cocktail of heavy rain and cloud.  The crowning moments came as we pushed past its two supporting towers, which seemed to create a kind of vortex of 70mph winds around them.  We ended up feeling like King Lear in the storm, all but blown off our feet.  We had to shelter briefly in the lee of the towers before venturing back into the teeth of the Pacific storm, pushing our fully laden bikes like prop forwards with a scrum machine.

By the time we reached the San Francisco side of the bridge and caught our breath, we were wet through.  It was quite clear that even the best waterproof gear this side of the Ziploc factory wasn't up to rain like this.  We stood shivering outside Safeway, surrounded by crates of giant Hallowe'en pumpkins, eating soggy sandwiches for lunch.  We wrang the water out of our t-shirts.  It rained more that day than in the rest of our trip combined.  It was misery.  And even when the rain and wind abated late in the afternoon, they were seamlessly replaced by steep hills blanketed in coastal fog that reduced visibility to 50m.  These were, indeed, 'unfamiliar' conditions.  But not ones we wanted to repeat in a hurry.

And so it was with considerable relief that we awoke the next morning in our room at the Montara Lighthouse Hostel to clear blue skies.  There was still evidence of the previous few days - the sea at the bottom of the cliffs outside our door was topped with foam with the consistency of whipped cream.  It was flopping over itself as the waves slopped in to the rocks.  A workman at the hostel explained: 'It's the sea cleaning itself' - all the sediment stirred up during a major storm apparently naturally ends up in this thick gloop.

So, from the ridiculous to the sublime.  After our worst weather day of the trip, in the following few days we reverted to our charmed life.  California was just delicious.  Yet more spectacular sun-drenched coastal views, with roadsides and cliffsides carpeted with the soft reddish green spikes of ice plants and palm trees beginning to crop up alongside the cedars and pines as we headed further towards Southern California proper.

All along the roads were pumpkin patches.  These are, as you might imagine, huge patches strewn with hundreds of big orange orbs.  This being a seasonal business, the owners make the most of their assets at this time of year and mutate them into kinds of agricultural pumpkin theme parks, complete with hay bale mazes and tractor rides.

We were also into Californian fruit and veg' growing territory - we passed hundred acre fields of everything from artichokes to strawberries and red peppers to brussels sprouts, smelling heady and strewn with hundreds of small Mexican pickers.  All the crops were perfectly aligned in beautiful parallel rows, the earth was the colour of coffee grounds, the irrigation systems were in full flow and the workers were all picturesquely bedecked in bright colours.

We even visited California's oldest organic strawberry farm.  It offered an honesty till for the coffee, pumpkin pie and strawberry truffles we feasted on and a 10% discount for cyclists wearing helmets!  It was all very wonderful.  Unless, perhaps, you are one of those Mexican workers?

As we moved further down the coast the surfers multiplied, like black brussels sprouts bobbing in the water.  We watched them each day at lunchtime as we sat at one idyllic beach picnic spot after another.  At Waddell Bay, it was kite surfing that had taken over, with dozens of the multi-coloured parachutes looping and diving elegantly around each other and their handlers doing the same over the waves.  Perhaps their biggest surfing mecca of all has been Santa Cruz, famed for decades for its surfing breaks and surfy attitude to life.  School children go to the beach for breaktime, and we heard that the university encourages surfing over organised sports teams.  We loved the atmosphere of Santa Cruz, right from our leisurely sunset pedal along the front when we arrived, slaloming between families, dogs and surfers and catching up with our Cornish friends Roger and Glen, whom we hadn't seen for a few days (it's becoming really quite a social event, this chapter!).

In fact, we liked Santa Cruz so much that it got us up early, for a pre-breakfast walk along the sunny pier.  On one side, the early morning surfers were out there surfing the break at Steamer's Lane, on the other bikinied foursomes were starting a couple of beach volleyball games in front of the famous old theme park. Below us, sealions belched, jostled, wobbled and stank.  The only thing that could have improved it was a good breakfast.  And the massive omlettes we shared with Roger and Glen fitted that bill just perfectly.

The next highlight down the coast was Monterey.  Yet another wonderful evening drift into town, this time along the Cannery Row seafront bike path, past diving cormorants, swooping pelicans and bobbing silver harbor seals.  The following morning, after a slap up diner breakfast in the sun, we headed to the 'world famous' aquarium.  We have been consistently amused down the West coast by exactly what qualifies as 'world famous'.  Do the diner in Orick, or the salt water taffy shop in Defoe Bay genuinely provoke ripples of excitement in Sydney or Shanghai?  Perhaps, but our best interpretation of the phrase is 'pretty well known around here, visited by at least one foreigner'.  However, here was a place that truly justified the tag.  Wow.

We arrived at 10am as it opened, and left shortly after 3pm. That gives an idea of how good it is.  In the meantime, we were transfixed by sea otters eating their lunch with their hands, leopard sharks and rays gliding menacingly around their collosal tank, leafy sea horses indistinguishable from the sea plants they shared their tank with, and feeding time for November the giant octopus.  November was almost exactly my height, and fascinated us - yet another fantastically informed staff member told us all about how she changes colour with mood, recognises her favourite people by smelling them with her suckers and has the same intelligence as a domestic cat.  I don't want one for a pet, but I'm glad we found out about her.

Just outside on the sunny boardwalk, we could see where the 'exhibits' mostly come from - sea otters frolicked in kelp tangles and seals splashed around with each other.  As families and joggers meandered their way along the front, it became clear why the Monterey Peninsular is such a sought after place to live.  And this became even clearer when we hopped over the hill behind town later that afternoon to Pebble Beach, where we had very kindly been invited by Walt and Lynne Dwelle, Ali Williams' parents.  We had a fabulous evening with them and a selection of their friends for Walt's annual golf extravaganza, all rounded off with a viewing of that evening's first game of baseball's 2010 'World' Series (again, 'world' - interpret as you will...!).

By the end of the 9th inning, we knew our strikes from our balls, and Walt's excellent explanations had us hooked.  We More importantly, the San Francisco Giants had trounced the Texas Rangers 11-7, and were 1-0 up in the 7 game series.  Go Giants!

The following morning, once again to bright blue skies, we left Chateau Dwelle and headed on an idyllic cruise around the famous 17 Mile Drive to Carmel.  If you haven't done those 9.6 miles (of course it's not actually 17 miles, silly), try to imagine combining aquamarine ocean lapping onto pristine beaches, beds of ice plant, some of the most beautiful golf courses in America, ancient cedar groves and mighty houses that take the Amalfi coast and double it in size and modernity.  When you are actually biking around all this on a sunny weekday morning, any thoughts of cynicism directed towards this haven from the real world just evaporate.  It is simply lovely.

And so we rejoined Highway 1 and reached the start of Big Sur.  As landmarks go, this surely ranks alongside the Golden Gate Bridge for a biking trip like ours.  We crossed everything that the weather wouldn't give us a repeat performance...


  1. I have contacted a very dear friend that is with the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Dept. and let him know you were in his territory. So, should a highway patrol pull you over, expect him to give you a hug. I didn't know exactually where you if Dan stops you, just smile.

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