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California dreaming: Riding in the spiritual home of gravel

In-depth
17 Apr 2020
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With its endless forest trails, Santa Cruz County lays claim to being the spiritual home of gravel riding. This article was originally published in issue 1 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words Stu Bowers Photography George Marshall

Head south out of San Francisco, along California’s Pacific West coastline, and after around 120km you’ll find yourself in Santa Cruz. There are many good reasons why you might want to visit. If you’re a surfer, Santa Cruz is credited, along with Hawaii, as being one of the birthplaces of the sport thanks to its coastal breaks.

And if the sea isn’t for you, the city has a multi-cultural charm – modern and vibrant, but also laid-back in the way that beach resorts tend to be.

Beyond the city limits, though, just a short distance further inland, is another kind of paradise: a mountain range that is not only home to some incredible roads for cycling, but also myriad dirt trails sprawling through the county’s magnificent redwood forests, just begging to be explored. So, whatever it is that attracts you to Santa Cruz, be sure to bring a gravel bike.

Ahead of the curve

Our day begins in Verve Coffee Roasters, downtown. We wash down pastries with coffee so beautifully crafted it looks like the latte art was printed on.

With me are locals Dain Zaffke and Eric Horton, whose intimate knowledge of the area will ensure we don’t miss any highlights. I’ve been promised a mixture of fast tarmac, quiet gravel roads and fun forest trails. It’s exactly the kind of riding, Dain tells me, that they’ve been doing in these parts for years.

 

‘While it’s easy to trace mountain biking’s roots to Marin County [north of San Francisco], the forerunners of the gravel movement arguably got their start in Santa Cruz County,’ he says.

‘It’s essentially nothing but rugged coastline and redwood forests from here to San Francisco, and guys like Keith Bontrager and Tom Ritchey live and ride in these hills.

‘There has always been a culture to adapt bikes to tackle the more rugged terrain here. Some of the most epic rides of my life have been on a cyclocross bike through the forests around Santa Cruz. Luckily, bikes and kit have come a long way to allow people to really enjoy this style of riding.’

The sea air feels crisp, and the temperature is already pleasantly warm as we roll out of town. It’s mid-June, so we’re seeing Santa Cruz and its vast bicycle playground at its sun-kissed best.

 

There is no set plan for the day. Sure, we know loosely where we’re heading – a loop that will take us up into the hills, along the ridgeline as far as Big Basin State Park and then back along the coast – but the beauty of gravel bikes is that how we travel is a little more open to interpretation than if we were sticking to the road.

If we like the look of a certain trail, we can just dart down it. Heck, if a particular section puts a big enough smile on our faces then there’s nothing to stop us looping back around and hitting it a second time, just for giggles.

It’s a different mindset to the scripted way I’m used to setting out on road rides. We’re not exactly making it up as we go along, but this more free-spirited approach is the foundation of this new genre of riding, where exploration and new experiences take precedence over average speeds, power data and Strava KoMs.

Our only set objective is to be back in Santa Cruz in time to watch the sun go down. Preferably with a cold beer in hand.

 

How they roll

Things start out in leisurely fashion as we begin the day on tarmac, climbing steadily to the north. But as soon as our tyres hit dirt, entering the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, there’s a sudden injection of pace.

Dain has lit the touch paper, leaving Eric and myself to give chase. We’re soon on a singletrack trail that snakes between huge redwoods. As we round a bend we encounter a mighty tree that’s fallen across the trail, forcing us to duck under its branches.

I fight for traction on the loose surface and skid around the tree roots that lie hidden in the dust, waiting to grab at my wheels. Following Dain is no easy task as he weaves expertly through the undergrowth. Despite having been mostly descending I’m breathing heavily by the time we pause at a clearing.

‘It’s how we typically ride here,’ he says with a grin. ‘We’d rather go full throttle on the descents than the climbs. It’s way more fun.’ The pace may have lulled temporarily but my heart rate spikes again when I spot a sign at the trailside warning us of the presence of mountain lions.

My companions don’t seem too bothered so I can only assume that a skinny cyclist makes for an insufficiently appetising snack. Still, the idea of big cats lurking behind the tree trunks certainly adds to the sense of adventure.

 

Out of the blue we pop out onto a railway line. Dain neatly hops his bike into the middle of the tracks and carries on riding as if it were just any other bike trail. I follow suit, assuming the line to be disused. But I can’t help noticing the tracks don’t look rusty and overgrown like a disused line ought to. In fact they have the sheen of steel still very much in service.

‘Yep, it’s still in use,’ Dain confirms. ‘We’ll just have to get off if the train comes. But don’t worry, we’ll get plenty of warning, and the train’s really slow.’

This is part of the Pacific Railroad built to carry timber from the mountains to mills on the coast. Today, though, it’s more of a tourist attraction, taking visitors on a tour through the forests. There’s no contest, though, that the way we’re appreciating these woods is far superior.

 

Still following the railway we cross over a steel truss bridge. The date cut into the steelwork above us reads 1909. Over a century old, the girders look rusty but still as solid as the day they were bolted together.

That’s more than can be said for some of the wooden slats, which look decidedly rotten in places as we bump our way precariously across. Just then, we hear the rumble of the train in the distance. Time to get off the tracks.

Mixing it up

We get a change of scene for the next portion of the ride. Having eaten up time playing in the woods, we need to put a few kilometres of tarmac under our wheels to keep us on target.

We climb until we’re crossing the high point of the mountain ridgeline, and as we emerge above the tree line we get magnificent views across the tips of the surrounding hills to the Pacific glistening on the horizon.

 

In this moment I realise this is exactly the point of these versatile gravel machines. Just a short time ago we were enveloped by dense forest, kicking up the dust, and now here we are making good time on the road, looking down upon a completely different landscape.

It’s no wonder anyone living in these parts would want a bike capable of doing a bit of everything. I ask Dain what we can expect next, and he assures me that where we’re going are some of the most amazing trails he’s ever ridden.

Big Basin is California’s oldest state park and home to ancient redwood trees, some of which have circumferences at the base as big as 15m and branches at the tips higher than the Statue of Liberty.

 

Apparently, some redwoods are thought to be as old as 1,800 years. If that’s true, we’ll be shimmying between tree trunks that were around at the time of the Roman Empire.

First, though, we drop down a steep descent on a dirt road that takes us into Big Basin’s smaller sibling, the aptly named Little Basin State Park. We come across a general store, which seems like a good place to refuel. It’s also a reminder that we’ve barely encountered another soul so far.

Until now, the only noise to interrupt the tranquility has been the crunching of gravel beneath our tyres, like someone noisily screwing up paper in a hushed library. We refill water bottles, and I down a bottle of cold Coke, followed by a cookie the size of a dinner plate.

 

Once fully rejuvenated, we remount and head back into the woods. What starts as a sedate, meandering path soon turns into a narrow gully that drops precipitously down a steep incline.

Dain attacks it with glee, and I become disorientated by the relentless twists and turns, drops and climbs, as I try to keep within sight of his rear wheel. It’s like a giant dirt rollercoaster, and by the time it finally fizzles to an end I’m grinning like a kid at a funfair. Again! Again!

All good things…

With all the thrills of the trails I’ve lost track of time, and I’m surprised by the late hour when we eventually emerge from Big Basin into open meadows to find the sinking sun casting long shadows on the grass.

There are more than 130km of trails to explore in Big Basin alone, and we’ve only touched on a small percentage of them today. We could come back again tomorrow, and the day after that, and never do the same ride twice.

 

The prevailing northerly wind on our backs helps us as we make for home, taking turns to pull on the front on Highway 1, our route back to Santa Cruz.

California’s coastal highway traces the edge of countless sandy beaches and rocky inlets, and our treaded tyres buzz in an almost hypnotic rhythm on its smooth tarmac. Despite the late hour, Dain is keen for one last off-road excursion. He calls it ‘extra credit’.

Wilder Ranch is another state park just outside the city. As we climb away from the coast once more, I consider whether I would have preferred to have just kept going back to Santa Cruz, but after we loop around to face the Pacific once more, I realise this detour was very much worth the effort.

 

We creep up to the edge of a cliff and perch on our top tubes as we stare out over the vast emptiness of the ocean. If we were to take a boat due west from here, the next stop would be Japan.

Santa Cruz County has proved itself to be about as close to a cycling paradise as there is. Watching the sun descend slowly, I’m left wanting for nothing more from today’s adventure… except perhaps for a quiet bar and a cold beer in my hand.

‘I’ve got a better idea,’ says Dain. ‘Let’s swing by the liquor store, buy a few tall cans and drink ’em sitting down at the beach.’ I can’t think of any better way to end the day.

If you go down to the woods…

… you’re sure of an amazing gravel ride in Santa Cruz

Following a predetermined route is not necessarily the best way to get the most out of a gravel ride, especially when you’re riding somewhere with as many trails as Santa Cruz County. So in this case you can use this map as a rough guide, and then explore to your heart’s content.

We started from downtown Santa Cruz and headed north via Graham Hill Road into Paradise Park and Henry Cowell Redwoods Park. After time spent blitzing those trails, we took to the tarmac on Empire Grade Road to head northwest up to Big Basin State Park.

We had some more fun in the woods before heading south on the Swanton Road and Highway 1 coast road back to Santa Cruz (with a brief detour to explore Wilder Ranch State Park).

 

The rider’s ride

Canyon Grail CF SL 8.0, £2,349, canyon.com

Taking in everything from steep and technically demanding off-road trails to high-speed gravel and road descents, plus a couple of long and fairly arduous tarmac climbs, this ride really was a comprehensive test for a gravel bike.

The Grail delivered a polished performance, and there was really very little it lacked. On tarmac it retained a sense of connection with the road and combined that with nimble handling.

The knobbly treaded Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres (700x40c) seemed to roll well enough to keep things the right side of sluggish, too.

 

But the Grail really came into its own on the trails. It was surprisingly capable, with a poise and balance that helped inspire the confidence to let fly on descents and throw a bit of caution to the wind when whipping through the sinuous forest trails.

On a few occasions I found the limits of the tyres’ grip, especially on looser surfaces, but any bigger tread would only inhibit the bike’s overall performance elsewhere. To my mind, the successful gravel bike balances its attributes, and in that regard Canyon has hit the mark.

As for those double-decker bars, while I agree with Canyon that they offer a noticeable cushioning effect in certain situations, I’m still not a huge fan.

Too often I found myself getting all fingers and thumbs when trying to quickly switch my hand position, and that felt weird and a bit unnerving. Perhaps I’d get used to them given enough time, but I would have preferred the option to switch to a normal bar for my riding style.

 

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airport to Santa Cruz is San Jose, but San Francisco is served by a wider choice of airlines and flight times from the UK, especially if you want to fly direct.

We flew with British Airways from London Heathrow, which takes around 10 hours. It’s roughly a 1.5-hour drive from San Francisco down to Santa Cruz, depending on whether you take the slightly shorter Interstate (I-280) route or the much more scenic coastal road (Highway 1).

 

Accommodation

As a popular holiday destination there’s no shortage of places to stay in Santa Cruz, from big chain hotels to the more personal guesthouses, beachfront cottages and B&Bs.

The closer you stay to the beach the higher the price. Expect to pay from £50pn on the outskirts of the city and well over £100pn in and around Downtown.

Thanks

A big thank you to Giro in nearby Scotts Valley and in particular Dain Zaffke, who helped organise this trip and offered tips on must-do riding spots. Also to Eric Horton for being great company on the ride.