A meaningful adventure on a bicycle includes things we know, a few things we might anticipate and, with any luck, one or two pleasant surprises.
This edition of "Great Rides" began 77 miles from downtown Sacramento in the quaint, affluent and wine-centric town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley.
We started the ride at a new bicycle-themed tasting room decorated with old bicycles and bike memorabilia, including a world champion jersey signed by the sport's greatest champion, Eddie Merckx.
Nestled along Main Street, it's called Velo Vino, the warm and inviting tasting room for the Clif Family Winery Clif, as in Clif Bar, the energy bar that elevated the category from taste-challenged to easy eating.
We knew how the ride would start. It was going to be cold. And wet. And we knew it how it would end back at Velo Vino, with a taste or two of wine to warm our noses and thaw our toes. We knew we were fit and prepared to push ourselves a little, thanks to thousands of miles riding in and around Sacramento.
We also knew, no matter what, the route would be beautiful, with acres and acres of grapes on endless rows of vines, lots of restaurants, magnificent homes, mountain views and enough out-of-the-way roads to make you feel that you have the place all to yourself.
What didn't we know? There was plenty, including one wrong turn about halfway into our 45-mile outing a doozy of a right-hander that led us to a climb, steep and steady, that just kept going and going, practically into the clouds. It was on Petrified Forest Road, and the hill left us more than a little humbled. My attempts to shift into easier gears were futile such gears don't exist on my bike. If you want to know what it's like to climb a Tour de France-caliber hill and learn why you're not ready for the Tour de France we'll share this mistake with you a little later.
Velo Vino has several color-coded routes in a handy brochure for visiting cyclists. You can pick a route that is short and flat, hilly and long, or something in the middle. After consulting with one of the employees, we chose a ride of about 45 miles, including some rolling hills and a couple of tough climbs.
We downed a cappuccino before heading out into the cold. On outings like this, in the fall and winter in Northern California, you have to understand how the weather will affect you on the bike. For instance, there have been many times when I've ridden past a runner who seemed perfectly content in shorts and a tank top, and I was decked out in a windbreaker, leg warmers, shoe covers, neck gaiter and gloves thick enough for the ski slopes and my teeth still were chattering. It's the wind chill, and there's no escaping it when the mercury dips into the 40s and 30s.
If you start riding in the morning and you're out there for more than two hours, you and the weather are going to warm up, sometimes significantly. Dressing for success in our neck of the woods really means dressing to undress. We're talking layers of clothes that can be rolled up and tucked in a jersey pocket.
As my girlfriend and I lifted our bikes off the roof rack, upped the pressure on our tires, put on our helmets and clicked into our pedals to begin our ride, it wasn't necessarily obvious how to get that right.
When our legs started to churn and our hearts pumped harder as we crested the first mild slopes along the Silverado Trail, you'd think we'd get warmer. But the overcast skies and a crisp morning wind counteracted that, keeping our body temperatures on the chilly side. If the temperatures rose and we got too warm, we could shed a layer unzip the vest, peel off the arm warmers, roll down the neck gaiter pulled over my chin and remain comfortable as the ride continued.
This ride got us going gently, starting out on Main Street and, after a mile, sending us onto the Silverado Trail on our way to Calistoga. It was only a matter of minutes before we passed the turn for Meadowood, the world-class restaurant that rivals the French Laundry for fine dining supremacy in the valley. We also passed the turn for Frank Family Vineyards, another personal favorite.
One component of cycling for me, as I burn calories and pile up the miles, is food fantasies. Tempting images pop into my head as my hunger expands. Sometimes it's pizza, a big burrito, a thick steak, Belgian waffles, grilled cheese with bacon. I have yet to fantasize about a salad, but that's probably a personal failing.
Gary Erickson, the founder of Clif Bar, had another kind of food fantasy on a bike ride in 1990, and it continues to pay dividends. He had had enough of those bland and difficult-to-eat protein bars and, somewhere along the way, he decided he could do better. At the time, he was running a small bakery in Berkeley and living in his parents' garage apartment.
Erickson began to experiment with making energy bars, taking samples to local bike races to get feedback from the athletes.
The company started slowly and grew steadily. These days, Clif Bar hosts an annual "epiphany ride" for its employees to celebrate how the company began and to encourage more bright ideas. Erickson and his wife, Kit, moved to the Napa Valley in 1997 and began making wine in 2004.
On these early stretches in the Napa Valley, there was plenty of automobile traffic, but we had lots of room in the bike lane, so we felt safe. For the first several miles, the road featured gentle slopes cyclists call them "rollers" with an overall uphill trend. We loosened up our legs and settled into the ride, spinning along at about 20 mph, just fast enough so we could hear our breathing. My heart rate was about 125 (out of a maximum of 185).
When we got to Calistoga, we slowed down and took in the sights as we felt the first drops of rain and wondered how bad it would get (it never really poured). It was early, but the town already was bustling. There's a great old hardware store, several coffee shops and lunch spots, little hotels and the famous mud baths.
Leaving Calistoga, we took a right turn onto California Highway 128 and headed out of town on a winding road featuring a long, steady climb on rough pavement until we hit the Sonoma County line, when the road tilted down and the pavement got smoother.
I am not a big fan of descending, and, unless I am racing, I rarely go full-bore downhill. Too many bad things can happen cars pull out of driveways, you can overshoot a tight corner, you can get going too fast to slow in time to avoid trouble. Generally, I keep it under 40 mph.
After 18 miles, we turned onto a quiet country road called Spencer Lane and took a deep breath. Suddenly, we were all alone on a road not much wider than a bike path. We picked up our speed along the flat stretches, going a smooth and steady 24 mph for several miles (my heart rate was 155 and my breathing was labored).
On this ride, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we got a little confused. Our brochure suggests taking "Franze Valley School Road," but the sign on the road doesn't include "school." We hung a left anyway and found plenty more great riding. We were 20 miles into the adventure. My bike computer said I'd burned 660 calories.
Getting lost in Napa Valley isn't exactly torture. And even torture on a bike, which we were about to encounter, usually does a body good.
We experienced more serenity, more fields of grapes and rolling hills. After a half-hour along these back roads, I realized something: We'd seen one car. From 20 to 30 miles, the climbing was short and sweet, with a few steep pitches but nothing long enough to break our spirits.
Unless you count that wrong turn. Just as we were set to head back to St. Helena, I decided we should go right instead of left. Maybe the oxygen wasn't getting to my brain. I thought the climb seemed familiar. Wasn't this the reverse of the nice descent on Highway 128? But it just kept getting steeper and harder, and it went on for more than a mile (my heart rate was at 175 and I was suffering).
I realized my error only as we crested the top. We turned around and went back down. Only later did I convince myself that this was one of those pleasant surprises. The road was wet, steep and winding. Quite scary. Had I not feathered the brakes, I could have easily hit 55 mph.
Back on track, we headed for Velo Vino. I was having a good day and my legs still felt strong, so I rode hard, knowing how much energy I could expend in the remaining 15 miles. Despite the weather, it was a beautiful ride and a solid workout.
We vowed to return soon for another great ride. Perhaps we'll seek out Petrified Forest Road again, knowing this time what lies ahead. We'll have to look elsewhere for our pleasant surprises.