It was tough for a mountain biker at heart like me to pass the opportunity to ride in the mountains where the first "klunkers" and "ballooners" were ridden, and where the first Repack races took place. This is the story of my short gravel trip exploring Marin County and Mt. Tamalpais, on my own.
Words and photography by Marc Gasch
A WEEKEND IN SAN FRANCISCO
Exploring the birthplace of MTB on a Gravel bike
And I said "on my own" because on this occasion, I'm the only XPDTN3 explorer in this story. With a few days left between two other XPDTN3 trips in California, I decided to embark in this quick trip with a minimal kit (and ditto preparation), and see what the Marin fame was all about.
We all know this kind of trip is usually better with friends, but I also enjoy solitude from time to time, just me and my bike, a couple of packs and a small camera, taking it easy all day and stopping when I need it. No deadlines. Nobody waiting for me and no rush to get to the next hotel. If you happen to be in San Francisco with a few days to spare, now you know what you can go and do.
With the help from our friend Nate King at the Above Category Cycling shop in Sausalito, one of the best shops in the Bay Area (more a museum than a bikeshop), I was able to come up with a gravel-mixed terrain route in the county that "tasted" the best the area has to offer. Well, in fact, Nate did that, by trying to connect all his favorite paths, singletracks and pavement segments used on his daily training rides in the area.
Nate is a former cycling pro and the marketing guy at Above Category, so he knows all the tricks to get the best from the Tamalpais mountains and their surroundings. I just suggested Point Reyes as the place to stay for the night, and half an hour later, a perfect gravel 2-stage loop was loaded onto my GPS...
Regarding equipment, no doubt the setup for this excursion had to be Gravelplus 650b wheels with knobby tires. Even if part of the route happens on paved roads, I didn’t want to compromise the singletrack and technical parts of the route. I would rather deal with the small knobs on the pavement than not having enough grip on slick tyres to enjoy places like the Bolinas Ridge forest or the descents on the north face of Tamalpais.
In hindsight, I think it was the best decision ever, as some parts of Mt. Tam were muddy and tricky after a few days of storms and heavy rain. Even with WTB Ranger 2.0 tires, the paved segments may not have been as fast as with slick tires, but it didn’t feel sluggish at all. I just pumped the tires up to 3 bar, grabbed down on the drops and I was good to go. Fast. If it's dry when you are doing this trip, you can also have fun with Horizon RoadPlus tires.
As a photographer, shooting pictures on this trip was tricky since I had no models! After thinking about it for a couple of days, I decide to play it light, and just carry the bare essentials: a small Pro-quality point and shoot camera (the small but mighty Sony RX100IV), a Gopro 4 Black for the wide angle shots, and of course, a small tripod that would help me use the timer or the remote to shoot myself.
The workflow was something like this: check nobody's watching; put the camera mounted on the tripod on a rock, branch or tree; turn on the 15 seconds timer, and run like Forrest Gump back to the bike, mount, clip, and start pedaling to the photo spot. Click. All in 15 seconds.
Lots of failures on the first tries, but by the second hour I got it figured out. On the Gopro, everything was easier, as I used the dedicated remote controller mounted on the handlebars via Bluetooth, which saved lots of running and looking like a dork... But you know, part of what we believe in at XPDTN3 is that the photographers actually ride the route, we don't use any support vehicles to get to the nice photo-ops or to drop off people and gear. If we can't fit it on our bikes, it can't come.
Starting the route right in Mill Valley allowed me to escape the early morning traffic to the city, even if it would have been cool to start on the Golden Gate Bridge, but after all, maybe not such a good idea starting the day doing slalom cycling among tourists and cars.
And even better, just 5 minutes after starting my route in Mill Valley, I was already on dirt. The first climb up to Mount Tamalpais started inconspicuously hidden in a quiet neighborhood, where moms where taking their dogs (and some kids) for a walk. "Mt Tamalpais climb"? I asked. "Yes, all the way up there".
The fog was thick in the distance and hid the San Francisco skyline in a picturesque way, but I was ready to sweat that climb, so I took the windproof jacket off while the first rays of sun warmed my skin.
The first climb to the top of Mt. Tam (one of them) on Old Railroad Grade is a gentle one that offers superb views of the city. While I was basking in the sun, San Francisco was still immersed in a thick fog that made for a few photographic stops (see many more photos when you sign in for the gallery at the bottom of this page).
Wish I had a 600 mm lens to get the skyscrapers in the distance... I couldn’t help thinking about all those tourists stuck on a bus, thinking they have the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge. A few kilometers later and a couple of signs warning about the presence of mountain lions on the trail (which scared the hell out of a European tourist like me), I descended on Rocky Ridge, where I found the first signs of the previous storm that flooded part of the county.
Lots of mud in some places, broken trees and branches everywhere, but luckily I chose the right tires for the job. After Bon Tempe Lake, the pavement started climbing for a while until I came across the San Geronimo Ridge road, also damaged by the torrential rains.
Anyway, the terrain here absorbs the water pretty well, and the mud is not that sticky clay that makes cycling impossible. But the best part of the day was still to come. After finding the Cross Marin Trail closed to bikes due to restoration work, I was forced to pedal on the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which turned to be one of the highlights of the day!
Thick vegetation, like coming from a tropical forest blended with a narrow river on your right, and a perfect paved small road with almost no cars. I enjoyed the speed on this section while I wondered if the rest of the day would be like this. The tropical feeling stopped when I had to take the deviation to the Petaluma road, where deforestation and dry landscapes where the norm. Big landscape changes in just a few kilometers.
I stopped to pump my knobby tires to 3 bar for the long paved section ahead, and then just while I was finishing pumping, a roadie came into view. I quickly put everything back on my backpack and pedaled like hell to catch him back, as the wind was blowing hard in this area, and as far as I know, drafting is not forbidden on gravel bikes, right?
After taking turns for 10 minutes battling the wind, me on mountain bike tires and the guy on skinny road tires, we stopped for a quick coffee on the Marin French Cheese Farm. The guy, a young kid from Petaluma, could not believe I was following him on "those monster tires". I tried to explain that aerodynamics and position is more important that friction from the tires (especially while drafting), and he was eager to test my bike, coming back with a big smile on his face!
The rest of the route for the first day was a paved road with no cars. It just went up and down the yellow and dry hills around Petaluma and Marshall, offering amazing views of the area, filled with farms and cows until, at one point, the road starting heading down to Point Reyes and I could start feeling the sea breeze coming from below.
Without eating too much for the day, just an oat bar, and a coke, my stomach was complaining, and the Oyster factories at Marshall made me stop to take some pictures and contemplate indulging in seafood. After checking the GPS I realized Point Reyes, my destination for the day, was not that far away and that oysters were not the best food for an empty stomach while on the bike. So I proceeded for a few more kilometers on the road that goes parallel to the sea entering Tomales Bay, an Ecological Reserve in a beautiful location, surrounded by mountains and the sea on the other side of the hill. First stage done.
After a good night sleep at Point Reyes Station Inn, a beautiful old wooden house restored into a hostel, the day started cold and foggy at Point Reyes. The streets were empty and visibility was bad. But I knew that after passing Inverness I would be going uphill for a while. And a mountain called Mt. Vision could not have anything but a good view of the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the hill, right?
So I started the climb on Mount Vision Road, which was pretty steep in some turns, and while I was stopping for pictures it felt strange to me that no car had passed me since I start climbing on this road. Very strange. I kept going, and the road was clearly lacking maintenance after the storm, all dirty with fallen branches from the violent winds and rain last week. Still no cars.
After a few kilometers, to my surprise, the asphalt ended and turned into a gravel path! Now I knew why there were no cars. But there was still another surprise waiting for me. That dirt path ended up in a water reservoir, and I thought there was a mistake on the GPS track. Damn Nate, I hope you didn’t made me climb up here for nothing...But after a few minutes searching, I found a little singletrack that went through the forest down to the valley: welcome to the Inverness Ridge Trail!! This was one of the other places where I was happy to have my 650b knobby tires, as I flew past trees at an unreasonable speed for a guy travelling alone...
Following that singletrack rush, Limantour Road took me to Olema on pavement again via a fast descent at ridiculous speeds, trying to make up for all the photo stops that made my average speed look pathetic. Not in a rush anyway, nobody's waiting for me, but don't we all like to go fast?
After that I was approaching one of the highlights of the whole 2-stage route: Bolinas Ridge.
With the help of a couple of roadies I found the trailhead, but I was at first not impressed by the trail. Just a narrow singletrack winding through dry pastures among cows. Meh. And the up and downs were frequent and steep, so it even started to get annoying. But man. Then I came to the point where the Bolinas Ridge gets into the forest and that was indeed a big surprise. Like coming out of nowhere, I was now in a Jurassic Park forest, all wet and green, with a perfect trail that went up and down forever. I was loving it and happy that Nate decided to include this section in his made-to-order route.
I was expecting this amazing section to be like 10 kilometers and a quick ride, but it turned out it was almost 20 km, which, with my empty stomach and no oat bars in my pockets, started to feel bad. Was I really bonking on a gravel-leisure-slow-paced tour? Looks like. Maybe I should have had a proper breakfast.
The problem with this kind of trips is you don’t realized how many hours you have been on the bike, and even if you are just cruising and not doing a big effort, time flies. By the time you think you haven't eat anything "in a while", its been already 6 hours...
So by this time I was hoping to find a place to eat something, but the GPS and my iPhone maps didn’t show any place until I would get at least to Stinson Beach. Time to move. The weather was great, perfect temperature and sunny skies, with a light sea breeze.
I exited the Bolinas Ridge Trail and came up to see the sun again, after being under the tree canopy for a while, and started searching for the quickest road to Burritos. A very scenic road puts you on the paved section of the same ridge, this time deforestation helping with amazing views of Stinson Beach below, and a small swell arriving at the beach with some cool wave sets. Wish I had my single fin here with me...
Arriving at Stinson Beach, it didn’t take me long to find a cool place to down some burritos: Breakers Café. Adding a drink and a strong coffee, I was now ready for the last section of this amazing route. After a mandatory visit to the beach and getting my feet wet in the Pacific Ocean after travelling from the Mediterranean Sea (tourist stuff), I started pedaling back to San Francisco to finish the trip, which looked pretty close on the screen of my GPS.
A few kilometers of a coastal road reminded me our famous "Costes del Garraf" road back home in my hometown Barcelona, Then Nate's route took a deviation that was not easy to find, to the Dias Ridge Trail hidden behind a horse ranch. It looked like a private entry and as a European tourist I have seen too many American movies with people shooting someone trespassing property. So it took me a while to realize there was a hidden trailhead behind the bushes of the entrance...
That last portion of the route climbed quickly and in steep 180 degree turns to the back hills of Mill Valley, but saved me the last long kilometers back to San Francisco on the pavement, and then having to go back through the traffic in rush hour.
Earlier than expected I climbed that last trail that put me back in the Bay area, close to my start in Mill Valley, ready for a night out before taking the plane the next day.
An amazing Burmese restaurant in Corte Madera and a few glasses of California best red wine with Nate and Kemi rounded up a perfect weekend in San Francisco, discovering the vibrant cycling community, the amazing paths and singletracks that gave birth to mountain biking few decades ago, and the perfect setup for a quick getaway on your gravel bike, with a couple of friends... or just alone.