Surprise, let’s go pedal our bikes for a few days! Bike touring along the SoCal coast from the Los Angeles area to San Diego was a last-minute plan I threw together for Chelsea’s birthday. Some people whisk their wives away for a weekend in Vegas, but you know that’s not the way we roll. Planning consisted of buying Amtrak tickets the day before departure and booking a few places on Airbnb spaced evenly along the way. Lacking camping gear, credit card touring was the name of the game.
Executing a short touring trip is surprisingly easy. Stuff a couple changes of clothing and some food in panniers, load up your bike and head out the door. The hard part (for me) is relaxing into a slower pace, rather than my usual hammering away as hard as I can. After all, touring is about seeing and experiencing a place at a slower speed, not blazing through in a full downhill tuck. I’m coming around to this, and hauling 30-50 pounds of gear, water and food diminishes the thrill of sprinting on a bike anyway. Standing up to race on a baby-elephant-of-a-bike lacks the thrill and responsiveness of cranking uphill on a 16 pound carbon ride!
For me, touring distills the varied emotions of travel into potent vials. Standing above an ocean cliff, you sniff a shot of salty air, pelican dives, sunshine and waves. Zipping along a car-free path mainlines freedom and the reward of pumping legs and heart. And the most mediocre of meals is a sultan’s decadent feast after four hours of hard cycling hauling loaded panniers. The smell of car exhaust mixes in, but at the end of the day, kicking back with tired legs with your feet in the sand, the positive memories abound. It’s a hard-earned respite, and that makes all the difference. Plus, there is something so rewarding about pedaling your way from city to city as you meander toward a distant target.
It’s not for everyone. I met a guy named Ramon while out mountain biking amid the red rocks of Sedona and he asked me, “No offense, but what’s fun about road biking, especially touring?” An insightful question. At this point in my life, I certainly prefer twisting singletrack to a workout on a road bike given the choice. Then again, variety keeps things spicy! Still, there is plenty that sounds terrible to many people about touring: traffic, incredibly hard physical work, getting stuck in the elements, navigating the logistics of route finding and where to stay, staying on top of fueling your cranking engine, pressing on through tired legs and a snarling stomach when all you want to do is stop pedaling a bike.
Our tour started with a bike ride to Amtrak train station in San Diego, which we rode to the stop in Anaheim right next to Angels Stadium. I realized this was my first ride on a train in the US, which is odd considering I spent six days straight on the Trans-Siberian across Russia/Mongolia and hours on them elsewhere. Each train has reservations for only a few passengers with bikes, so if you do this, make sure to check! I wasn’t impressed with the bike rack system on the train, but at least there is something there. The clickety-clack of the train rumbling north was melodic, a concerto highlighted with frequent views of the waves and sand of the Pacific Ocean. They don’t call it the Surf Liner for nothing!
From the halo of Angels Stadium, we jumped right on the Santa Ana River Trail, yet another of the awesome car-free, no-street-crossing paved paths along a river in Los Angeles just like the one we took for our L.A. bike tour. From there, our route simply followed the Pacific Coast Highway south all the way to San Diego, about 110 miles to the south. Lots of pausing at view points or beaches, if only to grab a handful of snacks or to drink in a compelling vista.
Snippets of the journey, little memories lodged in my mind, include:
- Spinning along the bike path in Newport Beach through dozens of people on cruiser bikes with surf boards, tourists scurrying across and others sitting on their decks enjoying views of the water.
- Lounging in a hot tub during an earthquake, ripples of water cascading from side to side as concerned residents stuck their heads out the doors. (All good, not a big one.)
- Eating delicious vegan mushroom and onion fare at Z-Pizza after hard hours of hills along the coast. We were in a shopping complex with a parking lot stacked full of Mercedes, Land Rovers and a couple Maserati’s, with shops where dresses cost more than my bike and people oozed wealth from their pores. Yet a well-dressed dude says, “That looks like fun!” and tells his friend he wants to bike tour sometime.
- Munching hummus and pita at the Oceanside beach at the end of a day, then walking the long, crowded pier at sunset holding hands and watching other tourists, surfers and pelicans.
- Stuck in a crush of traffic in Laguna Beach with no bike lane and nowhere to hide except the sidewalk. My wiser half finds a nice side street to ride on while I battle cars for a few blocks before joining her. Sometimes, the direct route submits you to all types of pain a little detour fixes nicely. We’ve found that riding up a giant climb is well worth it instead of riding on a flat, highly-trafficked route.
- Staying in a hotel under renovation where one half of the building (directly across from our room) was stripped down to bare studs and HVAC ductwork hung from the ceiling in the lobby. Funny that Hotels.com didn’t mention this… (Our room was wonderful and about ⅓ what we would have paid otherwise.)
- Descending a twisty sidewalk from bluff view down down down to a harbor as the sun hovered low.
- Burning legs heading up the steep two-mile climb of Torrey Pines north of San Diego, and then another three big ascents to bring us home.
- ID checks by baby-faced soldiers at the military base we rode through for a solid hour, cascading views of the ocean along the way.
- Riding a flowery path through a neighborhood, spring scents in the air.
All in all, this ~100 mile ride was a great way to ring in Chelsea’s birthday and another successful tour! We are both itching to try something longer, and with our backpacking gear recently flown south by Chelsea’s parents and added to the mix of equipment in the van, we are scoping out fun potential trips in Utah and Colorado when not rampaging on mountain bikes or hiking in slot canyons.
Perhaps the neatest thing about touring is that ANYONE can do it. I’ve seen 10-speeds from the 80s loaded up touring 1,500 miles on the coast, and mountain bikes towing trailers, and everything in between. All you have to do is pedal. I don’t at all consider myself an experienced bike tourer, but have loved all trips we’ve taken. My Lemond Poprad cyclocross bike doesn’t have enough climbing gears and the rims aren’t designed for hauling weight, but I just get out there and give it a shot and my impatient, love-to-go-fast mentality falls into a zone where I cruise at a lower speed and enjoy it.
You can tour too! Grab a bike, do a little online research, and hit the road. Hopefully we’ll see you out there.