How To Bicycle Tour Without Really Trying
by Gina Morey (June 2007)

On February 28, 2007, your trusty staff of Bicycle Fixation were, like many others, drawn to San Jose by the 3rd annual NAHBS. It took a little logistical juggling, but ultimately we were able to justify five days away from work.

Roundtrip was about 966km. The weather throughout was excellent for cycling--generally clear and sunny with mild temperatures. As worst, we experienced some light rain and wind, which was centered around San Jose and the East Bay. Daytime temperatures ranged from 35F to near 75F. Nighttime was somewhat cooler.

Rick's steadfast Bottechia fixie known as "Gina Bambina!" and my "Vivian" were with us throughout...yet (herein I admit!) we were not modally pure! As you will read.

Los Gatos Reservoir. One can forget that homes and strip malls are just over the tree line.
Our goal was to travel northward along California's legendary shoreline using a course that would take us through the central coast wine country (including Cambria and the Santa Ynez valley), a huge expanse of wilderness, wild and sequestered, guarded by Vandenberg Air Force Base. Then we would venture through protected estuaries and wetlands inland from Monterey Bay, and slip through the now notorious Salinas (of the bad spinach), past Gilroy--"The Garlic Capital of America"--and finally into San Jose. From there we would bicycle the most excellent Los Gatos Creek path into Saratoga, nestled in the western foothills.

Though fully as beautiful as it sounds, our trip was much less rigorous than it could have been. Sure, cycling our famous coastline was alluring. We would've loved a little light-load, B&B touring where we could ride at ease and see the wine country. "Send the luggage ahead, we'll be there in time for cocktails!" But c'mon.

We are a business start-up, and there's neither time nor money for such things. Besides the show, Rick, the boss, had meetings to attend, contacts to make, and otherwise had to do businesslike stuff. Practicality ruled this trip with a firm hand.

What does one do when on the West Coast with some spare time, but not enough for a bicycle tour? "All Aboard Amtrak!"

One wing of the venerable and beautiful Union Station in L.A. Just a small part of an amazing place. Not a bad place from which to board a train.
The train, the Coast Starlight, is a jewel of the Amtrak system. The views it offers from the observation car are so stunning that people come from around the world to ride it. Other great things about the Coast Starlight are seats with loads of leg room, an electrical plug in every car (it's a working trip, right?), a full-on cloth napkin dining car, a darn good veggie burger, and no chance of, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've run into some turbulence so the captain has turned on the seatbelt sign...."

For "Gina Bambina!" and "Vivian," Amtrak offered a comfortable ride in the luggage car for just $10 each. That includes a full-size, bike-specific box and all the tape we could use. We only needed to twist the handlebars to get them to fit.

The first leg of our journey started from BF headquarters. The dawn found us on Olympic, pedaling through Korea Town, angling, along with every other Angelino, for position on the way to the Crystal City--Downtown L.A.

The drivers we passed seem to be in upholstered stasis, upright in their steel-glass cases. It reminded me of an Oldenberg exhibit I once saw at MOCA, except this was more interactive--an experiment in three-body physics--as we navigated the floes of metal cubes.

We then bypassed the heart of downtown with its congestive failures by cruising along its supporting arteries and capillaries--7th (cutting it close) to San Pedro. We went through the warehouse district and teeny-weeny Little Tokyo, oriented ourselves briefly toward Chinatown, then cut north again onto on Alameda St. to Olvera Street.

The knowledge of having your trusty rig below you is comforting. It's downright luxurious when "below you" means in the luggage compartment on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.
Once there, we made a hard right, and entered the glorious and venerable Union Station. This impossibly-cool 1930's era train station is totally L.A. noire and awesome. (Mission-revival cum streamline-moderne, for you architecture buffs.)

Our goal was to make the Coast Starlight departing Union Station at 930am. (We were asked to arrive at the station 90 minutes before departure, but Rick prefers we set foot at all departure locations at recommended time + 1hr.)

We got our rigs neatly packed-up and had time to chill in the station lobby, lap up some joe, nosh a bagel, and ogle the architecture. I highly recommend you visit the place. Perhaps BF will add it to our LA Architecture ride, currently in concept phase.

View from the train. Central California coastal beach north of Vandenberg AFB.
Most of the beautiful scenery described in my intro we enjoyed from the observation car of the Coast Starlight while sipping our favorite beverage.

Once on the ground in Downtown San Jose, it was a short night ride, plus a wrong turn, to the hotel. Downtown is cute and quiet, and so frigging tidy--a pleasant novelty for us. Vintage office buildings and hotels, along with some well-kept public spaces, are ringed by relaxed Victorian-style homes. Our hotel was just beyond these.

The next day, Friday, was ours, and we took full advantage of it. As beautiful as the train ride was, and as much as I recommend you take it, there is nothing like getting in the saddle and moving under your own power. So, at the crack of dawn, short of sleep but long of desire, we mounted up and rode.

On the docket was the much recommended Los Gatos Creek Trail to the nearby coastal mountain range en route to the town of Saratoga.

It was a mundane ride through San Jose. As cute as the downtown city center is, it ain't much--it is still nothing more than a pepper shoved into a martini olive.

Easy Access to Refuge: The Los Gatos Creek Trail has many access points in from which residents can escape the suburban sprawl of San Jose for a little while.
My legs agreed with my assessment by being sluggish and leaden, unwilling to show any interest in our ride. Banal strip malls, massive parking lots, walled subdivisions that we marked by counting big intersections....

The trailhead was hard to find even given our Google map search and pre-ride advice from a local. It was tucked away down a suburban side street. But once we got there, and looked down upon the river trail, we knew that it wasn't going to be like what we get at home.

L.A.'s Ballona Creek Bike Path sticks close to its namesake which, years ago, was forced ramrod straight by a corset of concrete. The flotilla of trash drifting down the creek is the same stuff that scuttles in circles along the path. The nitrogen-induced algae that clogs the creek's banks is the same that slicks the runoff crisscrossing the path. The sun, free of obstruction and full of intensity, beats down on the egrets pecking the murky waters the same way it does on the path's cyclists.

A bridge on the Los Gatos Creek Trail.
As for fish, who knows? Yards of sloping asphalt topped by a seamless stretch of chain link fence makes clear determination impossible. Ballona Creek is a sad, imprisoned body under full suburban lockdown.

In contrast, the Los Gatos Creek Trail, though equally suburb-confined, is a free, meandering oasis of flora and fauna. Boughs of untamed trees shade the path. Little gladed islets dot the middle of the water. The creek's banks are lined with grasses, shrubs, and flowers which flourish in its rich soil. Riders can pull aside anytime, visit the water's edge, and watch as water bugs and frogs and other critters, including the native steelhead trout, go by.

To be on Los Gatos Creek Trail is to sometimes forget that urban sprawl is just a few meters away--even when it is clearly visible on the opposite shore. You forget or just don't care.

A small flood control dam across the Los Gatos Creek.
We encountered a wood-slatted bridge, some neighborhood parks, moss-covered dams, and a wonderful little reservoir. The path itself is unobtrusive in its environment, immaculately-paved, clearly-lined, litter-free, and flat as a pancake. Which is all good. The last thing you want when you are rubbernecking the scenery is a bumpy, hilly ride.

The path is very people-permeable. That is to say it has numerous access points along its length. Throughout this 15-mile leg of our ride we were joined by an ever-changing mix of cyclists, runners, walkers, folks on their lunch break, kids on skateboards, old folks with their dogs, and many many others. That said, it was Thursday morning, so the path still wasn't crowded, and we cruised along easily.

Vivian gamely suffers the indignity of laundry duty. We brought only what we could carry on our backs.
We left the path 15 miles later, when pavement turned to gravel, and rode into the foothills. Drizzle and low clouds were prevalent on this leg of the ride, but they served to enhance the emerald green landscape. We passed small fruit orchards, stands of oaks, sprawling ranch homes, and patches of brilliant-yellow wildflowers. Just in time for lunch, we came to the town of Saratoga, and its tiny main street. We locked up in the usual Angelino manner--U-lock, frame and wheel and sturdy pole--though it hardly seemed necessary. Quiet and quaint and with socio-economic purity, this sleepy little strip was dotted with upscale cafes, restaurants, and gift shops. We splurged on a fancy Italian place. I give them credit. Two spandex-free cyclists, sweaty and disheveled, rustle in, and none of the tidy matrons sipping tea in the dining room even blinked. The patroness approached smiling openly and invited us to sit where we liked. We chose the porch, out in the clean air, so we could sweat and dishevel freely. The food was great. The beer too. Good stuff. Not PBR. A couple shots of espresso, and we mounted up and headed back.

Downtown SJ. I've been on this funky pink jag recently. Seem to fit in well. The town was covered with these flowering trees. (Photo by Rick.)
Friday, Rick had meetings. But we were able to salvage enough time for a quick ride around town. We had heard rumor of another river route called the Guadalupe River Bike Path and we set off to find it. We discovered a stunted twin of Los Gatos which consists of a few disappointing miles of hidden, disjointed segments that are hard to navigate and harder to find. Still, it was pretty enough.

Saturday was show day for us. Spurred on by my urgent need for a espresso, we set off early and struck directly at the heart of downtown. We hit the NAHBS location first, well before it opened, and worked our way out from there. It took fifteen long minutes of hunting to find a coffee bar. Our luck was good. Others spent longer with worse results. This coffee bar was part of Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant known to us back home . We also ran into our esteemed colleague, Dennis Bean-Larson, of the Fixed Gear Gallery (test-riding the Schwinn Madison).

Our ultimate goal: The Pavilion where the NAHBS was held. Rick's in the middle of the pack somewhere.
After coffee and conversation we had our rigs valet parked at the show (yes, bike valet), and there they hung out with others of their kind while Rick I did the same in the hall. The NAHBS highlights were many. Two of my favorites were chatting with Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles and then lunching with the i-BOBs.

The quiet of San Jose ended the next day, Sunday, at 11:30am when we boarded the Coast Starlight for home. It left an hour late. The train pulled into Union Station 4 hours late.

From the train station, at 2am, Rick and I rode into the balmy 65 degree night, dodging the meandering homeless and night-shifters, braving endless pot holes and street crevasses, gliding by the "bad boys" on the blocks.

Later that day we rode a few more miles to one of our favorite little corners, Heliotrope at Melrose, home to Bicycle Kitchen, Orange 20 Bikes (shameless plug: They carry BF knickers), and Scoops, (the coolest little ice cream shop). I guess we wanted to sort of re-immerse ourselves in our own world. The street is gritty, the neighbors, dicey. The weather 80+. Home at last.

We had a great time. I'll always be amazed by the beauty of our Pacific coastline. Downtown SJ is cool, but a work in progress. The well-kept downtown has new loft developments and a nice little museum, a decent university, etc. But the place is as quiet as a tomb during off-hours. No sense of community at all. Still, all in all, riding around San Jose was a lot of fun.

Text & photos by Gina Morey