Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Friday, November 7, 2014

Returning to Toe Cages
A Brief Bike Experience in Monterey, California

by Kat Hunter

Ever traveled to a place that had amazing cycling routes but didn’t bring a bike with you? Day 1, a wistful stare at every bike and lycra-clad rider you see. Day 2, the deep need, like a nervous tick, to explain to the world that you too ride bikes, that you are “serious” about cycling. Day 3, true desperation sets in. Can you commandeer a road bike by force, by persuasion?

In mid-October I was in Monterey, California, on assignment for an article for a lifestyle magazine. The press trip had a busy itinerary, much of it centered around food and wine. While I was a vegetarian in a region best known for its fresh seafood, Monterey County is also called the “salad bowl of the world” for the bounty produced by its inland agricultural areas. Area restaurants emphasized sustainable and locally sourced ingredients, and I was eating some of the best dishes I’d had in a long time: heirloom tomatoes, fresh artichokes, inventive salads, creamy risottos, desserts that ranged from a simple flan or plain chocolate to a seemingly bottomless trifle filled with whipped cream and a dozen delicious mystery ingredients. I’d sampled many, many glasses of the region’s legendary pinots, chardonnays, and ros├ęs. I’d seen otters, seals, and sea lions by kayak in the bay and by pontoon boat in Elkhorn Slough, and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium I’d looked on in awe at giant kelp forests, shimmering funnels of anchovies, and flower-like gardens of suspended jellyfish. I’d sat around a bonfire on the white sands of Carmel Beach watching the sun go down, wine glass in hand. The weather was perfect, nothing but clear, warm days and cool nights. I was having a great time, but I kept hearing about what I was missing on the bike.
Monterey County is the location of the Sea Otter Classic, a popular and long-standing stage race in April that hosts mountain, cyclocross, and road events, as well as a gran fondo. Also, this year Stage 4 of the pro men’s AMGEN Tour of California, said to be the most scenic of the seven stages, started from the city of Monterey and traveled along the dramatic seaside cliffs of Big Sur to finish in Cambria. I’d neglected to do my homework prior to the trip—while I was familiar with both events, I hadn’t connected them with where I was going. Here I was staying in the heart of prime cycling real estate without so much as a pair of bike shorts.

Recreational Trail & Fisherman's Wharf
Lesson 1 for a cyclist traveling on a non-cycling trip: plan ahead. Two days of the trip, my group wasn’t scheduled to leave the hotel until after 10 a.m. Long before I stepped on the plane, I should have filled the gaps in the itinerary with “BIKE” in big block letters. Lesson 2: if you know you’re going to be obsessive about cycling, go ahead and pack pedals, shoes, jersey, and bibs even if you’re not sure you’ll have an opportunity to ride. If there’s space, I’d also add lights, a flat kit, and an Allen wrench.

I’d been jogging each day on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, a paved pedestrian and cycling path that winds along the coast for 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove. Most days I trotted northwest from my hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf toward Pacific Grove, completing an out-and-back of four to six miles. My off-season run training has been spotty at best, and these were some of my longest and most successful runs to date. The cool ocean breeze and the scenery were big motivators. Waves crashed, boats bobbed in the wharf or motored far out in the bay, other tourists and locals walked, ran, and biked along the path, scuba divers strapped on their gear, sea lions barked from their perches on jetties and docks. Just off the beach, harbor seals balanced their sausage-like bodies on half-submerged rocks and looked at me with their big, wet eyes in a casually interested way, as if to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” The trail also passes through Cannery Row, a historical sardine-packing district turned restaurant and tourist mecca. Usually I turned around somewhere near Lover’s Point, a picturesque jumble of rocks that juts out to sea in Pacific Grove.

On my next-to-last morning in Monterey, a Saturday, I saw a group ride leave from the road alongside my hotel at the same time I started my run. Solo cyclists passed me on the trail. The weather, characteristic of Monterey’s Indian summer, was achingly perfect, and what I wanted most in the world at that particular moment was to donate my running shoes to the fish and continue on two wheels, seeing more of the Recreation Trail and beyond.

With a few phone calls back at the hotel, I figured out I’d have just enough time to ride the next day if I picked up a rental bike from Adventures by the Sea the day before and kept it in my room. The biggest setback was that our group wouldn’t be back from the day’s activities until late that night, long after the bike shop had closed. I explained all this to the concierge at Portola Hotel & Spa as the van of journalists idled outside waiting for me. I hadn't realized the bike shop had a location directly next to the hotel, which probably made my request seem that much stranger. The concierge took it all in stride, though, and late that night when we returned to the hotel the bike and helmet I had rented were waiting for me in a lobby closet.

I set my alarm and got up early the next morning as excited to roll around for a few hours as I would have been to race the Sea Otter Classic itself. I’m usually very exact about my equipment and fit, and now I was about to embark on a Fuji Gran Fondo with toe cages and half my foot overlapping the front wheel. I was wearing a T-shirt and yoga pants. The flat kit I’d been given was the size of a small suitcase, designed to strap onto the handlebars with velcro, and contained a mountain bike tube. But I was thrilled. I put the flat kit and my heavy DSLR in a backpack and set out as soon as the sky started to lighten.  

The whole idea was so last-minute, and the coastal scenery and pre-dawn sounds of the ocean so exotic compared to my typical ride, that I was filled with a spirit of adventure. This is what travel is about: making do with what you have to explore new places, stepping out of the ordinary, regressing from bike racer to a state so Fredly that you no longer even recognize yourself. I embraced my role as tourist and made half a dozen stops in the first few miles to take photos of the sun rising above Monterey’s mist-covered hills and rocky shoreline.  Where the trail ended at Lover’s Point, I paused for a moment with a scattered group of eerily quiet onlookers, many with cameras and tripods, who must have been waiting for the exact moment the sun broke over the horizon.    

From that point I was in new territory. I took a quiet road through Pacific Grove to Sunset Drive and along the lovely, wind-swept Asilomar State Beach, the most natural and undeveloped beach I’d seen in my visit to Monterey County thus far.  I continued from there to 17 Mile Drive, still marveling at the ocean views. I was virtually the only one on the roads, and there was a dedicated bike lane for nearly all of it; the route would be very comfortable for families or inexperienced riders. There were so many places to stop along the way that I started watching the clock and limiting myself, wanting to get a workout in along with my sightseeing. The last time I stopped to take a photo of the water, a runner with an Ironman shirt offered to snap a picture for me. I almost declined, not sure I wanted photo evidence in the rental ensemble, but how can you refuse a smiling Hungarian named Zoltan?

A true explorer never consults a map once the exploration is in progress. I missed some sightseeing when I covertly followed a non-Fredly rider who turned left onto Spyglass Hill Road, but I did find the first elevation of the day. The hills were nice and steep, like some of my favorites in Austin, but many were longer. Again, there was very little traffic. Where I was riding seemed to be part golf courses, part residential neighborhoods. When I lost the riders I’d been shadowing off and on—or rather, they lost me—I was no longer sure where I was and how I’d connect back to 17 Mile Drive. Although there was frequent signage, I found it confusing, often not certain if I was twisting my way back in the direction of Pacific Grove or farther on to Carmel. Now the clock was winding down.

When I eventually found the coastal road again somewhere around Bird Rock, I booked it. It was my first time trial in toe cages and a T-shirt. Part of the rush was that I thought I’d have to turn in the bike on Cannery Row and jog about a mile back to the hotel, but when I got there an employee explained that Adventures by the Sea has multiple locations on the Recreation Trail. I dropped it off at the the shop location downstairs from the hotel, with ample time to spare for a shower and a quick breakfast before another active day with the group exploring Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Big Sur. I’d gotten about 2.5 hours of ride time.

One day I'll return to Monterey. I want to take my son to the aquarium, my husband to the fish tacos. Next time I’d also like to try some of the routes in Fort Ord National Monument, possibly by mountain bike, and a few area group rides. But in truth, for this trip I was probably happier with the impromptu, casual ride than I would have been if I’d been prepared and fully equipped with my own gear. The Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s slogan is “Grab life by the moments,” and as corny as it sounds, I think the bike ride was mine. Sometimes as a “serious” cyclist your training starts to feel more like a job than a hobby. Riding like this, you recapture something of the feeling that made you start in the first place, just a kid with tasseled handlebars and training wheels playing in the sand.


Top 10 Bike Rides from the Monterey CVB 

Bike rentals in Monterey -
Adventures by the Sea
Bay Bikes
Blazing Saddles

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