I am already awake, 6.15am, I have a feeling the weather is absolutely crap, it is funny how you seem to know what the weather is like without checking, maybe because no bird is chirping or the muzzled sounds of the world outside suggest that it is moving in slow motion. Whatever it is, you just know. I move the curtain and the nascent day is just that: crap. Overcast, cloudy and heavy with rain all around. Fog hangs over the road like a skin on a snake and the beach is barely visible. The ocean looks as gray as the sky and if it wasn't for its timid ripples of water the whole thing would look like a solid block of gray matter. I am swathed in my gear and all pasted in sunscreen and ready to hit the slippery road by 7. No breakfast from Motel 6, thanks a lot. I ride 4 miles on highway 1 which is as empty as it gets and at the first gas station I pull in for a hot chocolate, two bananas and one big box of fig biscuits. As the world begins to wake up and cars take over the road I spot a big green sign: LA 235 miles. Boy, so far. I can't do it. I don't want to. 235 miles. I stare at the huge white numbers on the green background and I let air out of my mouth like they told me there is no hot water in my apartment for a year. A vague feeling of defeat hits me instantly. How is it that I'm only 250 miles from the finish line and I still find it so damn hard to go on to wrap this up? I am on the home stretch but it is every bit as hard as any other day. Is it the weather? I try to sing but it doesn't work, ok, head down and cycle, just cycle. Today I don't expect to see any sights, I don;t even want to see anything, my plan is to get my ass to Santa Barbara. 140 miles or so. It is going to be a long day. A lot of improv goes into it. Highway 1 merges into freeway 101 and I can't ride there so I make my own way through San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and the huge valley of Los Padres National Forest. I hit San Luis Obispo fairly quickly, after 40 miles.
The first 40, 50 miles are always the easiest part of the day as you are kind of resigned to the fact that you have a whole slog ahead so there's no point in complaining, you've got to do it. Without any sights or vistas it is much harder though, miles are longer and time goes by slower. A minute bleeds into another and my eyes fall on the odometer about every 30 seconds. It is drudgery. Today my mind is not with it just yet, I need to put everything I have got into the ride. I stand on the pedals and push hard thinking about every stroke, every push. I move my hands from the underside of the bar to the sides, to the middle and back to the sides. I can't seem to be able to keep a position for more than 300 yards. What's the matter? My right thigh hurts, not now, with only two days left don't give me that. Shake it off, okay, that's better, it's gone. Where the hell is the sun? Well, at least there's no wind so shut up and stop whining about everything. Okay, fine.
I ride through a very rural part of California with fruit fields and vineyards all around. Although wihtout sunshine the whole place looks very ordinary. At San Luis Obispo I follow the bike route through downtown and I am surprised to find a charming little town with relaxing streets and some vestiges of the colonial past. Commander Juan Bautista de Anza was a member of the Spanish Crown. In 1775, he led 300 hard working settlers from Mexico all the way to San Francisco Bay where they could begin a new prosperous life. Within a year these settlers built a fort and established small farms. Soon their children were raising their own families and building new communities. These families would transform the West, creating a better life for themselves while preparing the way for new immigrants. The route of these 300 settles with the Spanish Commander as their guide is now called the Anza historic trail. I follow it. I am biking along it. Past Arroyo Grande the clouds don't follow me though and they give way to sunshine. After many hours I can finally look at some blue skies above me. It takes only a few minutes and I am riding totally bathed in a warm sunlight and I am too lazy to stop to change my jersey. I keep the long sleeves, at least I won't have to apply sunscreen on my arms. Let's be economical in the movements. Let's save energy, let's keep going.
I ride very resolutely for the next 50 miles but if the weather is my friend no, the road is my foe as I am dodging holes, cracks and all sorts of debris. The road surface is covered in dried mud which is as bad as potholes or deep cracks. I am alert at all times and my eyes are glued to the road just in front of me. The pavement is badly cracked and when I take 254 I realize I have made a huge mistake. The bike bounces at every crack and holes and my ass takes so much punishment that it is a miracle I am still all functioning. The bike shakes and rattles every 10 yards and the torture goes on for almost 20 miles. I curse at myself, why did you come this way you idiot? How the hell was I supposed to know? Always make a choice based on knowledge, never on a hunch! On the GPS it looked like the shorter route! The conversation between myself goes on and on and of course no one wins the argument. I ride through Solvang, a singular town established by Danes at the beginning of the last century. Everything is Danish and the tackiness of the place is only overwhelmed by the multitude of tourists that roam the streets. I fly past it and I find myself in open fields again.
I feel I have been so busy fighting the road condition and finding a decent way to Santa Barbara that I don't even realize that my odometer reads 100 miles. And counting. Only 35, 40 to go and I am in Santa Barbara. That's not bad. The thought sends energy into my body and I am awake now. I am beginning to think positive things and all of sudden my burning love for cycling cross-country is back. I take 154 which has a tiny shoulder and a huge influx of cars and again I say to myself that I shouldn't take rush decision but that part of me will never really change. Riding on this road requires all my focus and takes a lot of energy out of me. Just stay alive, don't drift two feet to the left because the vehicles will blast you out of the highway. I glance at several crosses and flowers by the side on the road and out of me comes: fuck, I am not dying here. I tense up and grab the handle bar tightly and push on like I am another car, another RV, another truck that's just taking its time.
I know a big climb is coming up as looking south I only have the Santa Ynez Mountains ahead. And up it goes, I climb for four tough miles, the grades are steep and with no shoulder and blind curves at every turn this could probably be the most stressful bit of the whole ride. I just say to myself that this could be it, this could be the last real climb, the last difficult bit. Cars keep on zipping past me without moving an inch to the center of the road, this is really tricky. Vehicles don't give a shit about my plight and I cannot do anything about that. I concentrate on my ride and I try to stay as close to the white line as possible. That's my job. I pedal standing hoping that the cars would see me better if I pedal that way. The white trimmings of my shorts are usually white but they are black of dirt and chain lube by now. Come on, you made safely uo to this point, you can go a little farther. I am sweating like I am in the humidity of the Appalachians but I feel incredibly strong on the bike. The road rises up steep but it is not daunting for me, not anymore. I am only concerned about the traffic. The ride is mine, LA is mine, US is mine. It is done, I feel it in my bones, I know I am stronger than 5000 miles in 40 days. I am too confident, I am fast and I am light. I see the top of the climb and I can feel for the first time that I can actually make it to Los Angeles. A few more turns and I shall see the coastline, maybe a mile or two and I should see the Santa Barbara valley. Come on, you are almost on top and then the descent will hurl you right onto the beach. I glance at the odometer and the number 44.. about to change to 4500 miles takes my breath away. All on my bike, all those miles paddling with these legs, not a mechanical problem, not a puncture, was it just luck? But I don't believe in luck, was it because I wanted it so bad? I don't know, stop asking why, it just happened, enjoy it, take it, from an idea which sprung up in my mind at some point during an ordinary spring day to this very moment. Life is fast and I can't control it but what I can do is to fill the time that I have with the things that I want to do. The rest is clutter, doesn't make much sense and only slows you down. And I still can't get my mind around the fact that in a few moments I will crest this damn mountain and I will see the coast again. The road will take me to LA, that's a fact. The callouses on the lower part of my palms are there, a true sign of fight, the crazy tan lines are there, the veins that stick out of my body are there, the sinewy body is there and it is new to me, it has been built and shaped by 4500 miles of fight. I feel supremely happy at this point but I try to contain all my thoughts because after all I still have more than 100 miles to go tomorrow and a 6-mile descent of a 7% grade with a shoulder large enough for a pedestrian. I crest the hill, I wipe the sweat off my face with my soiled hands, the chain falls off again but in a second it is back in, I take one picture to celebrate the moment and down I go. I stop several times to admire the scenery and let the vehicles pass me. What's the status of my break pads? I don't know and I don't care; I don't want to check. I am not going to the bike shop in town, I am gonna try to make it to LA with what I have and then put this baby to sleep. At 6pm I hit Santa Barbara. 11 hours today: lots of energy used and lots of preoccupation over the route, the road condition and the traffic. All that took a toll. I am tired but the thought of being in LA tomorrow night, the prospect of successfully finishing my race overwhelms me. No, I am not tired.
Santa Barbara is the embodiment of rich and gorgeous. It is quite a striking image that the town casts as soon as I ride through State st. Gentrification as taken hold of the outskirts and extends well into the surrounding hills. It is not subtle, it is right there in your eyes. I am really impressed by how good this place looks. I don't go all the way to downtown, which I will save for tomorrow but the little I see leads me to think that this is the American Riviera par excellence; architecturally edgy villas surrounded by tall palm trees, spot clean sidewalks, trimmed lawns and beautiful fast cars, I am almost in shock after weeks of wilderness and shabby motels and dusty roads. What world was I riding in? Or, what world am I riding in now? The oak-studded hillsides are dotted with jutting estates and winding roads. Everywhere I look I see swathes of red-tile roofs and white-washed adobe walls. The city blazes in the late afternoon sun and with my smelly clothes I have something to show for: almost 4500 miles in 36 days. That's the way I am beautiful.
Time for a shower, a big meal and after I write my journal I will plan tomorrow's stage. My last, hopefully.