Words by Gregg Dunham, Photos provided by Erin Carroll
It’s 1:00 AM and my five-minute timer just woke me up from a nap in the dirt, and a crazy dream about kangaroo rats (yes, they’re real — look them up). These rollers are killing me, I think. I’m trying to choke down the Snickers, but I’m so dehydrated I don’t have enough saliva to get the job done. I spit the mouthful of shit-colored chocolate into the dirt. Dehydration sucks. You can’t swallow, so you can’t eat, so you can’t pedal. I have approximately six ounces of water left and no idea when I’ll find more. I haven’t pissed since noon yesterday.
Why the hell am I doing this? The question is a poison every rider out here recognizes, tempting us all to quit. It creeps in during the most difficult legs of the journey, which honestly, is everything after that last resupply market around mile fifty-two. “Let’s go, Gregg,” I say out loud, trying to hype myself up. I push play on my podcast of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Yeah, sometimes I pump myself up with news and current events while I ride. It cuts through the delirium. For the last hour, I’ve been having a conversation with some lady who’s definitely a figment of my imagination — that’s normal, right? Maybe it’s the dehydration.
This is my fifth year riding the Tour de Los Padres bikepacking event. This year I’m in race mode and am going for speed. But Brian Lucido is long gone ahead of me, and I can feel Blake Bockius knocking on the door.
I finally make it to some water around 2:00 AM. It’s more like a stream of mossy soup, so I sweep away the thick top layer of congealed muck and start filtering. It takes some time and is still greenish when I gulp it like air. It’s the best water I’ve ever tasted. I take down two liters in seconds and mercifully am able to swallow some food along with it. It’s a relief when nothing comes back up and my body starts to recover.
Just over twenty-four hours ago, most of the riders for this year’s event were at the local mountain town Mexican food restaurant downing the last bits of mass calories and swapping bikepacking war stories. Riders new to the route were interested in specific features and key water points. Veterans were laughing about previous years’ follies, triumphs, and terrain changes, mostly due to the effects of either dry or wet weather patterns.
The Tour de Los Padres is a 275-mile bikepacking route that cuts through the heart of the Los Padres national forest, which is situated North of Los Angeles. We’re not talking easy bike trails, convenience stores, ice cream carts, or taco trucks. This is some of the most rugged and remote country imaginable. The route starts at around 4,600 feet and quickly climbs to 8,500 feet up Mt. Pinos, which was considered by the Chumash people to be the center of the world.
It then traverses the Carrizo National Monument, home of the previously mentioned kangaroo rats, as well as many other wonderful creatures. Up and over several mountain ranges and through some of the most remote areas of Southern California, you travel along the Sierra Madre ridge, then hike up either Big Pine or West Big. Once you summit, you’re in a dream world stretching out in front of you for miles. Easier said than done, you descend the forest road to reach one heck of a beautiful singletrack trail that spills into the overflowing Santa Ynez river. You’re officially in the Santa Barbara backcountry, a true treasure. Up and over the Santa Ynez Mountains, then into the front county where technical singletrack takes you into the coastal beauty of The American Riviera. A seaside cruise sends you to the finish line at The Brewhouse for a well-deserved beer and killer enchiladas.
As the sun rises behind me over the Sierra Madres, lighting my way to the west, I look to the north and see the pools of marine layer fog coating the vast expanse of the valleys below. I suddenly feel a great burst of mental and physical energy and stand on the pedals with a goofy grin as I start laughing. This, I think, this is why I do it. I’m in the middle of nowhere, watching one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever witnessed. I do this — every rider on this course does this — because of moments like these. We overcome mental and physical challenges so that we can meet our fate on top of a mountain at 5:00 AM and watch the beauty of our world unfold in front of us as the sun lights the path forward.
Next year’s Tour de Los Padres grand depart date is already set, mark April 3rd, 2020 on your calendars and head over to the event listing to learn more.
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.