Bike touring a great way to see Northern California

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 - 5:10 pm

There's one sure way to keep high gas prices from ruining your summer road trip.

Go by bicycle.

That's what I did this year, opting for a six-day ride through some of my favorite Northern California spots.

The food is fresh and tasty, the scenery is unbeatable, and the roads – most of them – make for great cycling.

You don't have to be a riding fool to take a bike tour. Anyone who can ride a bike can do it.

Like Carlie Roberts, whom I met one day on the American River Parkway.

"I was a ride-a-cruiser-to-the-bar kind of girl," said Roberts. That was before her friend Becky Marcelliano suggested they ride across country, from San Francisco to Delaware and New Jersey.

One of the most popular bike routes across the country leads right through Sacramento, and the women were on their first leg.

If you find 3,600 cross-county miles or my 360 California miles extreme, there are shorter ways to enjoy a bit of bike touring, including a road-free overnighter you can do here in Sacramento. (See story on Page D4.)

"There's tons of ways to tour," said Winona Batemen, media director for the Adventure Cycling Association, the country's biggest bike membership group.

And it's not too late to pick one and start planning a trip for this year. September and October offer some of the best cycling weather with less traffic when you're riding California's most scenic coastal routes.

Touring approaches

My favorite kind of bike trip is a hybrid of roughing it and luxury.

That's how I went from home, to Napa and Sonoma, and then down the coast to Santa Cruz before taking a train home from San Jose.

The roughing-it part involved modest accommodations: mostly pitching a tent in state parks. I also stayed in a hostel and one private home.

The luxury involves top-notch eateries. If you've got to fuel up for the riding, it might as well be premium fuel.

You'd be surprised how easy it is. My first night, I stayed in Napa-Bothe State Park, a long day's ride from Sacramento. The park in the Napa Valley is in the midst of one of California's culinary hotbeds.

At $3 for a bike-in campsite, I could afford to open my wallet wider for meals.

On the way to Napa-Bothe, I stopped to eat with friends at the Pizzeria at Tra Vigne, the great Napa Italian restaurant started by chef Michael Chiarello.

After settling in and getting a hot shower at the campgrounds – many state parks have coin-op showers – I took a short ride to Calistoga and walked around to check out the dinner options.

In some places – Monterey, Half Moon Bay and elsewhere – I've been able to walk from a campground to dinner, a nice option if you've been on the bike all day.

Some other ways to tour:

• Pure camping. Cook all your own meals and camp every night. Some people camp out wherever they are, not even worrying about whether they find a campground.

If authorities show up to evict you – said one biker on the site – just speak a foreign language and act super-friendly.

• Credit card tour. Take minimal gear and stay in hotels and motels. This allows you to go light, fast and far.

• Self-sagged. Go with a group of friends and a van. Take turns driving the van with all the gear. Camp or stay in hotels.

• Couch surfing. Stay with friends along your route. Or go a bit upscale with websites like that allow you to stay in a private home – usually for much less than a hotel.

• Hostels. Hostels are for more than youth. The most photogenic place I stayed this trip was the Pigeon Point Hostel on the San Mateo County coast. Hostels are inexpensive.

• Mix and match. You can enjoy the outdoors some nights and come in for a comfy hotel bed and bath others.

Do some planning

Unless you're very free- spirited, you're best off doing some route planning. For my recent trip, I picked a route mostly along familiar roads. I can't say that eliminated wrong turns, but it sure minimized them.

Think about how far you want to ride each day.

I've done rides that vary from 45 to 120 miles in a day. The lower end of that scale is great for getting somewhere, seeing sights and still having time to relax, meet people and have some great food.

The Adventure Cycling Association has thousands of miles of routes mapped to help out.

"It's basically like having a Cliff Notes of cycling across the United States," said Roberts, the cross-country cyclist.

The maps show campgrounds, libraries, accommodations and more along their carefully scoped-out routes.

They also have a narrative telling cyclists how to ride the route – across the country or down the Pacific Coast, turn-by-turn and mile-by-mile.

However, the maps aren't as detailed as I like and don't show you what's right off the route.

I tend to use pieces of AAA maps as my guide – though they won't tell you what's a good bike route.

While I'm the kind of guy who upsets his wife by not stopping to ask directions, I can't emphasize enough how helpful it is for bikers to ask people how to get there from here.

When I rode from Santa Cruz to San Jose on the last leg of my trip, I picked a lot of brains to figure out the best route. I called bike clubs. I asked people I met in gas stations. I looked online.

In the end, asking around saved me about 1,500 feet of uphill and a couple of hours on that final day.

Asking around can also save you from having a day like Adam Formica of Boston, whom I met on my trip. He and his girlfriend, Jordan Hollarsmith, borrowed and rented bikes and rode two days from San Francisco to Monterey before heading back.

What they hadn't realized was that winds on the California coast are almost always blowing from north to south.

"The wind was fierce," Formica said.

They ended up struggling for five hours on one 25-mile section between Santa Cruz and Pigeon Point because of the wind.

I have always made it a point to ride north to south.

The good news is that hard work is almost always rewarded by great landscape. I intentionally picked a roundabout, hilly route from Healdsburg to Sebastopol because I knew it ran along a creek through a quiet forest.

Roberts, reached by phone in the middle of her trek, recalled climbing mountains to get into and out of Boulder, Utah – followed by coasting down the mountain.

"It was probably one of the most amazing days of my life," she said. "The scenery is just incredible. You cruise down feeling like you just own the world.

"Nothing I've done can compare to that feeling."

What kind of bike?

You might think the best bike for touring is one of those light speedsters that took Lance Armstrong all over France.

Not necessarily.

The best rule of thumb is to ride a bike you feel comfortable on. For most tours, you'll be on the bike for a few hours a day.

I took a pretty heavy bike on my trip.

Its model name – Long-Haul Trucker – suggests that it's built for carrying capacity, not lightness. Its steel frame will take a lot of baggage – I had about 30 pounds, and many touring riders take more.

Nothing is worse than a breakdown on the road. In acknowledgment of that, the bike has durable tires, extra-strength wheels and even a pair of extra spokes tacked onto the frame.

A decent hybrid bike with good tires would work for most people, and I have also toured with road bikes fitted with racks, and with a light carbon frame light bike when doing credit-card or supported touring.

I don't recommend a mountain bike with knobby tires. Nevertheless, that's what one fellow I met in San Mateo County rode from San Francisco.

He also carried all his gear in a large pack on his back. Not a good idea.

Is it safe?

A lot of people find riding a bike risky in the city and riskier out on the open roads.

"People have to overcome that idea first," said Donald Bybee, who leads tours and teaches bicycle safety in Sacramento. "I think it's a lot safer than their perception of it," he said.

Certainly, bad things happen to cyclists, but bad things happen to motorists, too.

The statistics are in the cyclists' favor, Bybee said.

Touring cyclists can improve their safety by making sure they are visible, riding predictably and avoiding unsafe roads.

I confess I never feel safe on one stretch of Highway 1, just north of Devil's Slide in San Mateo County. It's uphill and narrow, with lots of fast cars. Most of Highway 1, however, is not like that.

The small amount of risk seems well worth the effort.

No one keeps statistics on how many people are touring, but Adventure Cycling notes it has had a 27 percent growth in membership and a 42 percent growth in map sales over the last decade.

At 44,000 members, it's the biggest bike group in the country.

"It's flat-out a fun way to explore your community or your state or your region," said Adventure Cycling's Bateman.

It's the best way to see the world at an easy pace.

And a great excuse for consuming all the calories you want for a few days.

Start with a low-mileage overnight

A great bike tour can be a short bike tour.

Some refer to it as the S24O, for "sub-24-hour overnight."

"It doesn't have to be an epic journey," said Donald Bybee, who teaches bike safety and leads some short tours.

Twice this summer, he has taken overnight group trips from midtown's Edible Pedal, up the American River Parkway to camp overnight at Negro Bar.

Chef Rick Mahan of The Waterboy was scheduled to do the cooking on one trip. That's my kind of camping.

A one-day vacation can seem more refreshing than the time it actually takes.

"It felt like it was a lot longer," Bybee said.

You may need to plan enough to book the group campground a month or more ahead, but there are plenty of advantages to this trip:

• No cars on the bike trail.

• You're close to home if you forget something. You could even cheat and have someone drive your camping gear up.

• Short distances. If you start at Discovery Park, you can ride 27 miles each day, but you can jump on the bike trail a lot closer if you like.

You can do something similar out of Napa-Bothe Park (see main story), camping there and riding to local restaurants and attractions.

– Carlos Alcalá

Bike tour begins with basic gear

What you take on a tour is a personal choice.

One of my friends takes traveling light to extremes – he never carries a bike pump, because he figures a flat tire is a way to meet a helpful stranger.

I think it's better to carry some repair equipment. A pump, spare inner tubes, a patch kit and tire-fixing knowhow are musts. So are lights, front and back.

Spare spokes and a multiuse bike tool are handy.

Maps are crucial, and the ones from the Adventure Cycling Association show you where there are bike shops if you need real repairs.

Take a camera. One of the beauties of bike touring is that you can stop just about anywhere to take a photo.

Beyond that, your equipment depends on what kind of touring you do.

For most multiday independent touring, you'll want at least a rear rack and panniers or saddlebags.

Carlie Roberts and Becky Marcelliano took trailers on their 3,600-mile cross-country jaunt. They regretted it.

"The trailers pull back on you while you're trying to go up these hills," Roberts said.

Still, some riders swear by them.

Aside from that, it's mostly basic traveling or camping gear. Be sparing when you pack, since you probably don't want to lug too much weight.

Prepare for rain. A change of clothes is nice at the end of the day, and – if you wear bike shoes – bring something comfortable for walking.

– Carlos Alcalá

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