Want to burn 3,000 calories? Looking to travel by bike from the crowds and cars and traffic signals to a place that belongs in a travel brochure for Belgium or the north of France?
Who wouldn't? But it gets better.
If the wind is up, you'll hit a tailwind on one amazing flat stretch that will have you riding 32 mph without really trying. You'll meander on quiet country roads toward a long, tough climb, then hammer all the way back home, craving an extra-large and guilt-free meal.
The third part in our "Great Rides" series takes us from downtown Sacramento out to Winters, then into a haven of orchards and farmland so quaint and quiet and rural you won't believe how close it is to the big city.
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This ride is about 87 miles with 1,621 feet of climbing. It gives cyclists plenty of time for speedy riding on flat roads before hitting a well-regarded climb. The route will also give me a chance to discuss one of our least-favorite words – "bonk" – as in, I nearly bonked. More on that in a moment.
I love this ride because it offers the feeling of getting far, far away. In this age of ever-expanding road systems and a way of thinking that tends to overlook walking and bicycling, it is satisfying to get away from it all on your bike, to lose yourself in the experience.
Pedaling a bike, you connect with the land in a soulful way. You see things, hear things, feel things, smell things you miss as you sit in that steel box with an engine.
Riding with steady power over long periods is at the core of long-distance cycling. You go faster if you are strong, fit, efficient and tough-minded. It is the love of the ride and the beauty of the soul-inspiring machine that will keep you going. It is an amazing thing to pedal at 90 strokes a minute for five hours and move so far without making any noise, taking up much space, burning any gasoline or generating any pollution.
If we behave ourselves and follow the rules of the road, we can even win over those motorists who look upon cyclists as annoying, silly and in the way.
This ride is not easy, but it can easily be shortened by starting in Davis (for a total of about 50 miles) or even Winters (about 25 miles).
Our longer route begins and ends in downtown Sacramento. If you're driving in to the start of this ride, choose a quiet place to park on the street or, perhaps, find a parking spot at the Amtrak station on I Street near Old Sacramento.
After crossing the Tower Bridge and spilling into West Sacramento, we enjoyed a warm-up for a few miles on our way to the day's first challenge: the bike path beside Interstate 80 over the Yolo Causeway.
This is a functional trail, but the word "splendor" won't come to mind. It is loud and windy and, well, ugly. With a modest headwind, we picked up the pace to 22-23 mph. The idea: Get this stretch done. Nine minutes later, we were off the path and onto the first of many quiet country roads.
Davis is known as one of the nation's great bike towns, and you'll get the sense of that as you roll along the streets. If you're not in a hurry, stop for breakfast or perhaps take a breather on a bench and have a cold drink. This trip can also be abbreviated to a ride to Davis for lunch or breakfast, then a return to Sacramento.
On the other side of Davis, we hit a bike path that is bumpy and overgrown with weeds on both sides. It's safer than riding on Russell Boulevard, but the path needs some basic maintenance work.
At 22 miles, you make a left and soon cross an eye-catching old bridge plastered with graffiti. I'm not sure of the story behind all the markings, but it seems to be a tradition. A few weeks earlier, the pros crossed this bridge on the second stage of the Amgen Tour of California from Davis to Santa Rosa.
A mile later, we turned right onto Putah Creek Road, and I could spot an incredible giant yellow bike a mile off. Malcolm Bond, the owner of the property, had the bike welded and erected to celebrate the big pro race that zooms past.
Though we bypass the village center of Winters on the way out for our hilly loop, it's possible to make a pit stop for coffee and/or lunch before proceeding. There are public restrooms in the town park, which hosts a bustling weekly farmers market. (It recently switched from Sunday mornings to Thursday from 5 p.m. until dark, complete with live music.)
As we head toward the climb, we get to the fantasy portion of our ride. With the right wind conditions – and it's almost always windy out here – you will enjoy several miles on Winters Road with a direct tailwind. Once, I rode at 32 mph and my heart rate was in the 120s, about what it is when I'm warming up at 18 mph. If only it could always be this easy.
It doesn't last. You have to turn off Winters Road, at which point you head directly toward the relatively small Vaca Mountains. This is the section of our route that feels like the rural regions of Belgium or northern France. You will see goats and cows and a llama or two. Farmhouses and vast fields and plenty of clean country air.
About 38 miles in, you get your first gradual climb, a chance to see how your lungs react to gravity. Three more miles until the real climbing.
Cantelow Road is well-known to cyclists. We are doing the long climb, as opposed to coming from the opposite direction and doing a shorter but extremely steep one. The longer climb includes a few dips and several gradient changes, from moderately to very steep. This will test your ability to stay in the proper gear as you try to keep your pedaling smooth all the way to the top.
I wasn't feeling so great by this point, so I didn't force it. I'll chalk it up to an off day. Even so, the last half-mile to the top is a real bear for anyone. At the apex, take a moment to pull over for a break, perhaps grabbing a drink of water and a snack. On a clear day, you can see downtown Sacramento, 44 miles away.
When I'm in better shape, we actually descend the steep side and climb back up, then descend the steep side again and continue on. It's a nice way to get some really tough elevation in there before miles of flat roads. That wasn't happening this time. My legs were already a little rubbery.
That's pretty much it for the climbing – only a few more slopes. We made a slight pit stop and went into the lovely little town of Winters. This was a Sunday and the town was hopping.
There are several places to stop to eat, including the famed Buckhorn Steakhouse, Cody's Deli, Steady Eddy's Coffee House, Putah Creek Cafe and my favorite, Ficelle, a cool restaurant with excellent tapas for dinner.
Speaking of food, we didn't stop for any, and I hadn't had enough of it along the way. How do I know? The power to the ol' engine room started fading as we headed back toward Davis. Little by little, I was getting weaker. I've done this long enough to know what was coming: If I didn't eat something, I was going to bonk.
Short of crashing, that's about as bad as it gets for cyclists. Bonking is the cycling equivalent of running out of gas.
Luckily, my GF gave me half a Clif Bar. I wolfed it down, got back on my bike and within minutes, the power came back to the legs and the speed went up. Amazing what jacking up the blood sugar can do. A few nibbles helped me avoid a lousy ending to an otherwise wonderful day.
Speaking of fuel, after 87 miles, you will have burned more calories than the typical person should eat in an entire day. You need to eat. Nutritionists call it recovery.
But you should think of it as your big reward. The food never tastes better than when you are this hungry.
Riding long distances on a bike offers incredible rewards. But unpleasant things can happen if you are not prepared and don't use proper form.
Suiting up: Correct equipment is a must. Decent shorts, helmet, jersey and shoes needn't be expensive. If you don't like those tight Lycra shorts, a good option is to get the baggier kind with a built-in chamois for comfort. Another option is to wear bike shorts under other shorts.
Getting in position: Things can go numb on long rides. One problem area is your hands. If your fingers often go numb, look at the position of your wrists on the handlebars. If your hands are bent back, that cuts off circulation. Straighter wrists can minimize discomfort. You also shouldn't put a lot of weight on your hands.
Your arms should bend slightly in your normal riding position. Relaxed arms absorb bumps and keep the bike from jerking side to side. A relaxed rider can go farther and faster, and be much more comfortable.
Seat sense: Don't make the mistake of buying a very padded saddle. Those work for short rides to the coffee shop. A good road saddle is quite firm. It just takes some getting used to. If you experience numbness from sitting, try standing and pedaling every so often.
Often, the saddle is at the wrong height. A quick way to check is to put your heel on the pedal at the bottom of the stroke. If your leg is straight without tilting your hips, the saddle is at the right height once you ride with the ball of your foot on the pedal.
View Davis-Winters loop in a larger map