Bay Area Ridge Trail - Part 1

Benedicto adventure #3

They say the hardest part of any adventure is getting out the door, especially this time of year when in the Pacific Northwest rainy days start to outnumber sunny ones. For this, my fourth adventure of this project, the hardest part was choosing a route and finding a crew that could take time off to do a ride. I spammed (I seem to do that a lot lately. Sorry!) Steven Hunter and he replied hoping I had written to invite him on a mountain bike adventure. I replied quickly - consider this your invitation. The universe works in mysterious ways. Steven enlisted Kurt Wolfgang. I felt lucky to find these guys, since both are extremely positive and seem to have no sense that anything is impossible.

 Due to work schedules, Kurt and Steven could only take 3 days to do the route. The word “ambitious” became the buzz word whenever we mentioned the route and our planned time frame. I took that to be a euphemism for crazy or just plain stupid. For this website my goal is not just to make adventuring by bike accessible, but to expand my own ideas of what knobby-tired trips that lie just beyond our front door, or in this case, just over the bridge. At first I got hung up on the standard gear list, because bikepacking means camping by bike and being self-sufficient, right? Well, if that’s the case then maybe this is a 3-day fastpacking trip within urban boundaries. Why get so hung up on terminology? Let’s just go ride mountain bikes around the bay and see what that’s like, so that’s exactly what we did.

 Steven is a recent transplant to the Bay Area and I’ve gotten to ride with him in Oregon quite a bit. I know he’s fast and likes to do long rides whenever possible. Steven met Kurt through mutual friends in the Bay Area racing scene. All I knew about Kurt is that he was a nice guy and a really strong Cat 1 road racer. All of this meant that we would have to do the ride light and fast. All of my rides up to this point had been loaded with camping gear, which meant slower pace and fewer daily miles. Steven and Kurt proposed the Bay Area Ridge Trail. By the looks of the website http://www.ridgetrail.org/

it was far from complete and would be difficult to connect trail segments. They had ridden many parts of the trail and felt confident that we could link it all together and make a cohesive ride. Also in our favor was the fact that Kurt had been in touch with Austin McInery, the executive director of NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) the development organization governing high school mountain biking in the US. Austin had ridden the trail four years ago and would be a great source of knowledge for our route planning. We did a conference call with Austin and I was struck by his clarity and wisdom on the trail selection. He offered clear alternatives, whether for flow or just optimal scenery.

The Bay Area Ridge Trail is not a classic bikepacking or endurance mountain biking route, not yet. According to the website, the first ridge trail segment was dedicated in May of 1989. Existing trails were quickly added and it opened 100 miles in 1990 and 200 miles in 1995. As anyone that’s ever ridden in the Bay Area knows, land access is tricky and the 300th mile wasn’t added until 2006. Today the Bay Area Ridge Trail boasts 350 miles of trails. A quick look at the interactive map reveals the reality that to complete the route, one will have to link dirt trail with plenty of pavement.

The thrill for me was to see just what quantity and quality of trails are available in the Bay Area close to major urban areas. In past trips I had gotten to ride roads in the Marin Headlands, several trails near Fairfax, Weir’s ranch in Novato, UCSC and Soquel Demo Forest near Santa Cruz. But those were day trips of proper trail mountain biking. This was going to be a unique trip in the sense that it would be more like a fast-paced bike tour, half on dirt roads, some singletrack, and plenty of grinding out road miles through urban areas. The reality is that this route is its own thing – it’s urban mountain biking that you can link together sections of trail and we discovered without too much difficulty.

In the end we enjoyed the company of hosts and having beds to sleep in every night. We were able to recover well before getting out and attempting another ten-hour day in the saddle. All the way up to the day before we left I kept thinking I’d take a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and emergency bivy sack just in case. I took dehydrated chili and oatmeal packs and carried a camp stove and fuel. That turned out to be a mistake. Our three-day pace didn’t allow for ‘just-in-case’ packing. Kurt stayed truest to the fast and light ethic and showed up on a carbon Marin hardtail and wore just a small Camelbak pack loaded with snacks and just two bottles on the bike. Steven, on my suggestion brought some store-bought dehydrated meals that he packed in a large seat bag and borrowed Leah’s Hunter steel 650b hardtail. Steven isn’t in the habit of wearing a pack when he rides, so he tucked a wind jacket and snacks into a Hunter fanny pack. I was probably the most loaded with a Revelate Pika seat bag, Gas Tank, and my Osprey Escapist 20 all loaded with food, clothing, spare batteries, and whatever else I thought I might need. By mile 30 on day one after trying my best to keep pace with Kurt and Steven, it became obvious that I had packed too much and my legs were paying the price. Luckily we had arranged a shuttle from Novato to Vallejo, since Kurt’s girlfriend Heather works in Novato, to avoid the dangerous road section on highway 37. At that point Steven abandoned his dehydrated meals and I gave up my camp stove and fuel. It became clear that we’d never be too far away from civilization and there would be many opportunities to resupply on water and food.

Day 1: San Francisco to Berkeley.

The day started with a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and eggs at 6am and a 6:30 am rollout. We were surprisingly prompt. I remember Kurt asking someone to take our group photo at 6:36. We wiggled our way towards the Golden Gate bridge, with brief hits of dirt, and actual Bay Area Ridge Trail near the Presidio. The weather was clear with just a touch of cool. You could already tell weather was going to be a non-factor and we’d be treated to bluebird pretty much the whole time. The first paved climb in the Headlands gave the first hint of what loaded climbing would feel like. We were still getting a sense of our group dynamic, but Kurt rode off the front easily and it was clear we’d be chasing that wheel all day. We dashed off the road quickly and up to the viewpoint above the bridge and played tourists, snapping shots of each other and our rigs with the Golden Gate behind. I remember thinking this bodes well, that our pace is good, but we’re not afraid to stop for snaps and to goof off for a second. 

 The start of day one - playing tourists at the Golden Gate Bridge

The start of day one - playing tourists at the Golden Gate Bridge

Once on the Coastal trail we realized that the recent rain had granted us perfect conditions. Bobcat trail climbs quickly and grants you views of the ocean. Before yo­u know it you’re on top and ripping down Marincello Trail to Tennessee Valley and back up again to Miwok Trail. If Bobcat didn’t warm you up, Miwok trail will get your heart rate up. The trail is never technical but is steep enough to force you to ask the question that if I’m riding trail this steep all day, should I try to clean it or save my legs for the next two days. Miwok made me hike my bike for a couple sections only to be taunted by a fit Austrian dog walker “I noticed two of you made it and one of you was pushing, just to let you know I’m keeping track of these things” I had fun with that one all day. At the 20 mile mark, shortly after crossing Shoreline Highway, Miwok turns into Dias Ridge Trail, which is quick and a little loose with several good switchbacks. Before we got into a decent groove, it was over and we found ourselves spit out on the pavement at Shoreline Highway. Kurt pointed out the Pelican Inn, which had this been a group road ride would have been a beer stop at the end of the day, but since we were just getting started we pushed on to our next road section, the climb up Mt. Tam.

 Mt. Tam Road Climb

Mt. Tam Road Climb

We chatted and pretended we were on ultralight road bikes as Kurt told us of the local group rides he’d done on these roads. Before we knew it we found ourselves at the 30 mile mark and our first water refill at Pantoll Campground. I was suffering at this point and was concerned that my cramping would continue all day. I knew it wasn’t my hydration, since I was drinking OSMO active hydration regularly and it wasn’t hot at all. I was pretty sure it was just that I was going harder than I was used to. The only thing to do was stretch out, keep the hydration going, ease off the pace a bit, and ditch the extra gear asap.I knew I had to find the balance between keeping a decent pace for the group and being true to a pace I could sustain for three days. I wanted to push myself, but to do it wisely and keep the big picture in mind. I knew day one would be the hardest, clocking in at 100 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing. But these statistics and numbers are empty things. Mountain bike miles are not equal to road bike miles, so keep pedaling and quit counting numbers!

Bolinas Ridge was gorgeous and it felt good to be in the trees. The change in terrain lifted my spirits and we found a good groove. Soon we were ripping downhill, jumping ruts and enjoying the flow. We hit pavement in San Geronimo and decided not to stop at the store. Kurt pushed a hard pace on the pavement and we quickly found a shape that would be most efficient.

Next up was the Loma Alta Open Space Preserve, which opened the Skywalker easement in 2002. When we were grinding up these dry fire roads that snake upward through pastured grassland towards the sky I was not thinking about Star Wars or George Lucas. I was just thinking damn this is steep! But luckily the climb is not endless, the views are sweet and the descent to Lucas Valley Road is as steep as the climb.

 The climb up Gunshot Fire Road within the Loma Alta Open Space Preserve

The climb up Gunshot Fire Road within the Loma Alta Open Space Preserve

After chatting with a couple mountain bikers at Big Rock, we flew down pavement, resumed our paceline shape and rolled into Novato around 1:00. I think we were surprised to find ourselves more or less on schedule. At Taqueria La Fiesta we alternated stuffing our faces with burritos while Instagramming and checking in with the digital universe. Not surprisingly this became our rest stop ritual, as Steven and Kurt were motivated to share the journey, while Kurt was doing double duty with his own feed and doing Marin bikes ‘gram for the week. We quickly found Heather at Mikes bikes. We were more than happy to hand over our extra packed weight and scarf cookies and bananas as she shuttled us over 37 and straight into Vallejo. Oh Vallejo.

Kurt had promised that another one of this routes charm would be contrast between – let’s call it industrial grit - and beautiful trail and amazing views. Welcome to the urban grit part of the trip. Cross the Carquinez bridge and you’re in Rodeo. This town has some small town charm. According to the town’s website: “Rodeo gets its name from the cattle, sheep and hog round-ups (also known as rodeos) which took place at the Union Stock Yards. The end of 1800's saw the end of meat packing in Rodeo and the advent of the petroleum and refining industry. In 1895, Union Oil Company purchased land and a wharf from the Humbolt Lumber Company. The first crude oil still was installed in 1896 and over 100 years later Phillip's 66 San Francisco Area Refinery still operates in Rodeo.”

 The industrial East Bay part of Day one.

The industrial East Bay part of Day one.

We navigated the roughly 15 miles of East Bay pavement, dodging lead-footed soccer moms, getting high-fives from middle school kids before arriving at our next section of dirt that heads straight up Leisure Lane out of El Sobrante, into the Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

 Steven charging the climb up Leisure Lane to the Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

Steven charging the climb up Leisure Lane to the Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

and onto Old Nimitz Way. Nimitz rolls along the top and feeds into Fire Trail No. 3 and back again onto Nimitz Way. I fully enjoyed this section, with it’s views back East to the San Pablo Reservoir. This section was also a blur, since the sun began to sink lower on the horizon and we felt a bit of urgency, since Austin was going to ride up out of Berkeley to finish the ride with us and shepherd us into town. We were so relieved to see Austin, one because of his infectious enthusiasm, but secondly because we could stop navigating for a bit and just follow his wheel down into town as he gave us a guided tour of Tilden Regional Park and the trails above University of California.

Austin had a perfect sunset spot for us where we looked back over the bay and had a chance to think about the fact that we started way over THERE more than twelve hours ago. What a day! But it wasn’t over yet. We still had a ripping road descent into Berkeley where we had beds and cold beers waiting for us. Our hosts were beyond gracious, sharing laundry facilities, beds, foam rollers, clothes, you name it. We went to bed tired, and feeling blessed to have had a clean run today and be able to roll into town and be so well taken care of.

 Bay view at the end of day one from Berkeley

Bay view at the end of day one from Berkeley