Eating your way through Mexico is not the best preparation for a ride through the Californian hills.
Hola! It's Mark here, writing at y'all from my office desk in gloriously glum Melbourne. I've been home for 48 hours, after three weeks of vacation through Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Los Angeles.
My partner and I feasted our way through the Mexican resort towns, savouring the azure Caribbean waters and golden cervesas for two amazing weeks - obviously not the most ideal warm-up for the brilliant bike ride that SoCal Bike Tours had organised for me! At least my legs were tanned and wouldn't look too bad in my fresh LAID kit.
So the day arrived, and I prepared myself with eager anticipation. I was out the door and catching a bus from West Hollywood out to Malibu - a comfortable hour-long trip that took me past the grand mansions of Beverly Hills and the multitude of UCLA buildings and fraternity houses. At the end of my trip I was presented with stunning views of the Pacific ocean and the famed Pacific Coast Highway.
The occasional group of cyclists sped past, mostly lycra-clad speed machines which further raised my anticipation for what was in store for me. I was chomping at the bit by the time I walked into the Malibu Bluffs Park carpark and met with my hosts for the day.
"Hi I'm Alex, this is my wife Gloria, and our dog Fausto Coppi" Alex beamed at me with an outstretched hand, and I instantly knew I was in good company. Gloria was equally warm and inviting, and welcomed me to a selection of gels, energy bars, bananas and gatorade which she had carefully set out next to the support vehicle - a near new Mercedes sedan, very nice!
Alex was busy preparing the bikes, raising saddles and ensuring brakes were aligned properly. We assessed the best options for pedals which necessitated a quick change of cleats on my shoes before I jumped onto a very well maintained LaPierre Scandium running 9-speed dura-ace with FSA K-Wing and Fizik contact points. A few laps around the carpark with a couple of position adjustments saw us ready to hit the road.
As we started rolling, Alex and I began to discuss possible route options. We'd already chatted via email to determine a rough plan for the day, and now that we were rolling we could further confirm our intent. The SoCal Bike Tour motto is "Your Ride. Your Pace. Your Miles. Hammer. Attack. BreakAway." and Alex allowed me every option - we could stay along the PCH and pound out the miles, or turn inland and hit the hills that Southern California is known for.
As we warmed up and got a feel for these american roads, I got to know Alex a little better. He was full of interesting anecdotes about cycling, growing up in the area and his experience with watching professional races - not only at the Amgen Tour of California, but also at the Tour de France where he dressed in full costume to support Lance during his comeback years. I felt as though we could talk for hours, but the rolling undulations meant I was too busy taking deep breaths to talk too much!
After about 15 miles we pulled into a carpark where Gloria and Fausto were waiting for us. We refilled water and food and I was presented with the option of hitting Mulholland Highway, and a 12 mile climb inland through the nearby valley into Malibu indian territory. The opportunity was too good to pass up so I turned right and headed towards the initial gentle incline away from the coast. Alex packed up his bike and took to the passenger seat of the support car so I was left to my own devices to ride my own ride, my own pace and my own miles (hey, that should be their motto!).
Plenty can be said about Mulholland Highway, which would just be a repeat of all that you could google about the road. All I could add as a non-local is that it's a breathtaking climb with vistas completely different to anything I've seen in Australia. The views reminded me of my time spent hiking through Peru and the deep rifts of the Colca Canyon (albeit with less Condors and more squirrels). Temperature variances were also very noticeable, getting some cool reprieve as I was sheltered through the valley, and having to pour water over my head as I crested the hill and faced the Californian sun full-on.
The mile markers alongside the road slowly ticked upwards : 4.33, 6.28, 7.74, 10.61 until I finally crested the climb and pulled over for a well-earned break. All the while Alex and Gloria were leap-frogging me in their car, occasionally stopping to take photos or run alongside to pass a new bottle of water to me. It was the closest I've ever felt to being a pro rider and I channelled my inner Levi Leipheimer whenever the road took a turn towards the sky. Words of encouragement as I spun past them kept me going and subdued the ache in my thighs that only comes with a consistent grind along 6-10% gradients.
After the break, we took some roads that the Amgen tour used last year. This was a technical 9 mile descent through some ancient lava fields and past "The Rock Store" - a very well known motorbike hangout that Jay Leno frequents regularly. Although the Amgen riders use this loop in the opposite direction (i.e. upwards) it was great to get a feel of what the pros encounter during competition. I could just imagine thousands of fans alongside the highway cheering on their favourite athletes, busting lungs around each hairpin bend and sharp climb.
Before I knew it, we were back at Malibu Canyon road where I chose to jump in the car, rather than tackle heavier traffic and a relatively boring descent back to PCH. This allowed Gloria to give me a history of the area, and some background to who this Mulholland fellow was (sidenote: he's the civil engineer who brought water to an otherwise arid Los Angeles, resulting in the creation of America's second-largest city).
It was with a bit of sadness that we said goodbye and copious thanks for a brilliant day in the saddle. I offered to reciprocate the sentiments and take Alex and Gloria out along Beach Road whenever they decided to visit Australia - if you're reading this guys, the offer still stands!
For anyone interested visiting L.A. and is interested in heading out for a ride, I thoroughly recommend SoCal bike tours - check out their website at www.socalbiketours.com and get in touch with Alex to customise your tour. Tell them I said hi!