When @sgt announced the California Cogal I knew a road trip was in my future. Unable to make it for both days for velominatus paterfamilias reasons, the first question was which day. Solvang is a bit closer to the Bay Area but the temptation of a Big Climb was too much and I decided to do Saturday in Santa Barbara. The week ahead I applied new bartape for morale (including correctly orienting the fi'zi:k bar plugs) and meditated on which wheelset to bring. Thanks to @sgt’s sage advice I decided on the tubulars. I set out in the Rule #25-mobile Friday evening once the Pedalwans were asleep and traffic died down a bit. The next morning I caught the last 15km of the Strade Bianchi, had a Belgian waffle breakfast and headed for the rendezvous. As I drove into Santa Barbara I noticed the large mountain towering over town under a cloudless sky. Clearly, serious climbing was on the menu, and on a beautiful day.
I met sgt, we compared notes on our respective team issue California Velominatus Wilier Izoards (Campagnolo components, fi'zi:k saddles and bartape), downed coffees and hit the road. The first part of the ride was a nice warmup around Santa Barbara and environs as sgt filled me in on local history, etiquette of the local peloton, etc. After a few kms we made a left and began climbing a bit as we wound over the small ridge in front of the mountain. The pace remained Casually Deliberate as we made our way past jaw-dropping real estate populated largely by celebrities. The first climb of note was Ladera Lane, straight up for 1.5 km at 10%. Not a bad warmup.
More winding through yet more trophy homes, and before long we arrived at the base of Gibraltar Road, the Main Event, which would, if I have my geography right, top out at La Cumbre Peak at nearly 1200 meters above the ocean below. We stopped for a feed and sgt briefed me on the climb — an hour of up, broken into thirds. The first third to the No Shooting Sign, the second third to Painted Rock, the third to the top.
We passed a few slower riders on the lower slopes and soon became aware of a lone riding bridging up to us. Soon he was alongside. A veritable billboard of Rule violations, from the unwashed bike that probably weighed as much by itself as our two Wiliers, to the triple chainring, to the ill-fitting jersey, to the Camelback, to the shorts he was wearing (and I mean shorts-with-underwear, not shorts-as-opposed-to-bibs – the mere thought of which nearly gave me a saddlesore), he was nevertheless friendly and introduced himself as Brian. Over the next 10 km of climbing and suffering, we learned that Brian had ridden what seemed to be every major and minor climb on the coast between Santa Monica and San Jose, not to mention numerous huge climbs in the Sierra Nevada.
As the road approached the ridge, the views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands were completely stunning. I soon found myself riding side by side with Brian while sgt, a few yards back, suffered at his own pace. Momentarily distracted by the view and an insane hanglider hovering overhead, I looked up to find that Brian had opened a gap. Between his encyclopedic climbing resume and his ability to maintain a strong pace uphill, my oxygen deprived brain slowly formed the realization that Brian was some sort of Grimpeur-Savant, most likely dispatched by the Gods of Mt. Velomis to test our devotion to the métier du grimpeur.
Suffering but not yet in the red, I bridged back up to Brian, then maintained the pace, which Brian matched. As we neared the top I moved Sur la Plaque and managed to open a bit of a gap but while the elastic stretched it never snapped. Over the top I stopped at the intersection to wait for sgt and to recover from the effort, Brian arriving moments behind after me and with his composure much more intact than mine. Respect: beneath the unassuming exterior was an engine that was not to be trifled with. As Rule #43 says, we’re all brothers and sisters on the road.
The next segment of the ride was up and down a sweeping ridge top road. Nearly devoid of traffic (as had been the case since we turned away from the coast), with long views down the road of anything coming the other way, I reveled in Rule #85 Awesomeness. Then suddenly I heard a loud report and thought I’d punctured. Shit. The next moment the shooting range sgt had mentioned at the base of Gibraltar Road came into view, and I realized it had only been the sound of small arms fire, and evidently not directed at us. There was one last short ridgetop climb, with a stunning view down the backside of the mountain, which fell away into a precipitous wilderness canyon. More descending, then we took the left-hander at Painted Cave and spend the next half hour in yet more Rule #85 paradise, as we marveled at the genius of well-fitted Italian road machines going down twisty roads.
At the bottom of the hill Brian left us to head another 20 or 30 km down the coast, because why not – he hadn’t shown the least sign of strain yet. Sgt and I wound our way through Goleta, yet more amazing real estate in Hope Ranch, along the beach and an empty bike path, and back into Santa Barbara. 110 km, 2000m of climbing, most of it on stunning and nearly traffic-free roads, with perfect weather, it had been a magnificent day in cycling paradise. Mucho gracias to sgt for organizing; I now face the daunting task of hosting him for a ride of equivalent Awesomeness on my turf. Thanks also to the Keepers without whom it wouldn’t have happened. Vive la Vie Velominatus.
It really was the perfect plan. Two days of epic riding, meeting a bunch of my fellow Velominati, showing off my incredible form and even more incredible roads. But as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Looking back now, I can see where things started to get a little haywire, first off, the weather forecast. As the first Cogal to be conducted under absolutely splendid weather (20°, no wind, clear skies), I expected you all to come swarming. Wrong! Second mistake, the calendar. I neglected to account for both the local racing calendar and the flurry of VSP activity on the site competing for mind-share. Third, repeated Rule #11 violations on my part meant that I was sorely lacking in form. Note to self: the next Cogal I plan will be in cold, pissing rain and howling wind, in the off-season, at the end of summer so I’m not Too Fat To Climb.
I could see the first threads start to unravel when my repeated posts regarding attendance were either ignored or offered a cursory “have fun storming the castle!” from the peanut gallery. Then, one by one, my local friends and teammates started bailing… Some were racing. Some were sick. Some claimed “it didn’t fit in with their training schedule.” So it was with some apprehension that I rolled into Handlebar Coffee Roasters, the local cycling coffee house owned by Aaron Olson and Kim Anderson, two former pros and all-around great folks. “Where are you off to today?” Kim asked as I ordered up a coffee. “Ladera, Gibraltar Rd., the whole nine yards,” I replied. “Great day for it!” Kim and Aaron exclaimed in near unison. I was sitting in the sun sipping away when Nate rolled up, resplendent in Witte Kit, aboard a sparkling Campy-equipped Wilier Izoard with Ambrosio tubbies and a spare tire impeccably strapped beneath his fi'zi:k Arione. Nate had driven down from Berkeley the night before, a round trip of over 1000km for the Cogal. (good on yer, Nate!) So, two Velominati on matching Wiliers…things were actually looking up! The day was warming nicely, and as we spun easily along the coast I pointed out some of the sights, while trying my best to call out turns early and often to avoid an early mishap.
After an untimely Schleck-anical on my part requiring a dismount, followed by a brief stop at a gas station to clean off my greasy fingers, we turned towards the hills. Nate asked, “Is it going to get cooler again?” in preparation for removing his arm warmers, and I chuckled and said “Not likely.” Toro Canyon, Ladera Lane and Mountain Drive slid by and after about an hour and a half we reached the foot of Gibraltar Road. Climbing 800m over 10km, it’s the iconic climb of the Santa Barbara road scene. We settled into a rhythm, but I could tell within the first five minutes that Nate was going to be dragging my sorry ass up this climb, and I cursed myself for the first time that day, but not the last.
Then psychic disaster struck.
I heard some huffing and puffing behind me, and turned to see a guy latching onto my wheel on a triple-ringed Schwinn wearing baggy tan shorts, a California flag cycling jersey and a backpack with a hydration tube coming through a hole in the top. I told myself “no worries, he’ll hold on for a few minutes, then give up and drop back.” But no, he went around me and struck up a friendly conversation with us (I dimly recall hearing the name “Brian”) as we dieseled up the first ramps. The multiple Rules violations were flashing warning bells through my sweating skull as I watched this guy match us pedal for pedal up the first 3km, then felt my heart sink into my Carnacs as he passed me, still chatting, and he and Nate slowly went up the road ahead. Un. Fucking. Believable. Feeling any remaining snap draining from my flagging legs I prayed to Merckx, “What have I done to deserve this?” No response. Up we went, past the hang-gliders, past the hippie communes, rock climbers and ad hoc shooting ranges, all the way to the top. I arrived to see Nate at least breathing heavily as he leaned against the bars, while Brian continued to chatter about all the climbing he’d done last weekend, and how glad he was to be “taking it easy” today, prompting another round of internal cursing from me followed by the slowly dawning realization that I was the subject of a cosmic prank, and that I should lighten up and enjoy the ride.
From the top of Gibraltar we continued up the ridge to La Cumbre Peak (elevation 1,200m), with the temperature about 25°, my legs starting to cramp and Nate finally shaking Brian, continuing to climb beautifully. I throttled back to work through the cramps (which mercifully passed after a few minutes), and we finally got to the payoff: the 15km decent of Painted Cave and Old San Marcos Pass. Nate again proved to be a rider of some skill negotiating this very technical descent with perfect form, while I enjoyed the empty comfort of at least knowing I can go downhill faster than Brian. At the base of the climb we turned west, stopping briefly to fill our bottles (this ended up being a four full bottle ride for me, almost double my typical intake in cooler conditions) and proceeded along the route. Brian bid us farewell as we turned towards the beach (I’m sure he was off to do another 150km), and Nate and I pacelined the final 30km or so, through tony Hope Ranch, past the harbor and back to Handlebar.
Over lunch and the presentation of Nate’s V-Pint we chatted about the ride, laughed about life and how Fate intervenes to remind us (uh, me) of our pretensions, and how lucky we are to enjoy a measure of health and the ability to get out and do rides like this. Nate got back on the road to Berkeley (my thanks as well to his VMH and two young boys for letting him loose), and I headed home to lick my wounds and see if anyone was interested in Day 2. No soap. With temperatures forecast above 25° in Solvang and no one else committing to riding, I did the previously unthinkable: I scrubbed the mission. Instead I spent Sunday closer to home, recovering with a hike behind my house and chipping away at the honey-do list.
So there you have it, the first CA Cogal. But not the last. Nate and I will be riding this summer in his backyard, and we will have more Cogals. You’re all invited. But Brian AIN’T. (Brian, if you’re reading this, have a heart. At least buy some shorts before you show up on some climb and kick my ass. Again.)
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