Held every October, the Million Dollar Challenge is a fundraising bike ride for challenged athletes in which participants cycle down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego.
The reverse route, however, can be considered a bucket-list item for cyclists.
Round-tripping to work via bike, my wife Bessy and I had been clocking in 40 miles daily, with some century rides here and there. We decided to make the S.D.-to-S.F. ride our honeymoon trip – it would be a bonding experience, we thought, and reflect our personalities by taking us to San Fran for the first time the hippie way.
Why not Hawaii or some other relaxing honeymoon destination, you ask? We already live in a beachgoer’s paradise in San Diego!
Thanks to the Million Dollar Challenge, we had route maps with turn-by-turn directions. Our neighbor, who just so happened to be a tour coach driver, had volunteered to drive along. The only real question remaining was how many miles we could do a day before camping out in the support SUV.
People familiar with the route advised us to stay on PCH all the way. After a ton of preparation and planning, I figured we could shoot for four days at 150 miles a day following PCH – thinking this would avoid the bulk of the hyper-detailed MDC route. Big mistake.
Day 1: Pass L.A.
We start from downtown San Diego with a goal of stopping at Santa Monica, hoping to pass quickly through desert-like Camp Pendleton to avoid sunburn. We’ve done L.A. before, so all's going well until we reach LAX, where to stay on the supposed PCH we have to go through a tunnel that becomes a full-blown highway.
We survive the pushy L.A. drivers, somehow, and arrive in Santa Monica with three hours of daylight to spare... so we decide to push up the coast to Malibu for a total of 160 miles.
Day 2: Central Coast Cruising
Day two, we wake and roll on a scenic 30 miles of beach, cliffs and easy rolling hills in Malibu, hitting speeds of nearly 25 m.p.h. with no wind.
After reaching Santa Barbara, our first round of confusion begins with the area’s maze of bike routes. We're pulled over and instructed by police that this section of highway 1/101 is not open to cyclists...adding an unnecessary 20 miles to our trip.
Our intended stop is Gaviota, after which the road elbows up to San Luis Obispo. Still feeling good, we decide to push it. Leaving Gaviota, we enter a tunnel up the 101, which surprisingly allows cyclists – and acts as a wind funnel just to increase difficulty.
At this point, we decide to veer off the MDC course by continuing on I-101. Onward we go via multiple hill climbs, passing vineyards and ending up in a truck stop of a town called Santa Maria, clocking in at 140 miles for the day.
Day 3: Trouble in the Hills
Back on the I-101 to S.L.O. Once again we hit an un-bikeable section of the PCH and are pulled over by police.
On back roads, which at least had good signage, Bessy double-flats and we need to replace the tires. With luck, we encounter a large cycling group who help out to change her tires and tubes; our plastic tools didn't cut it.
We continue on, headwinds picking up, and stop in a beautiful town called Cambria filled with bakeries. Sick of Cliff bars, we make this our refueling point. Torque would be needed for the distance ahead – Google Maps may show distance and hills, but it doesn't show wind!
We suffer through more headwinds. Verbal communication ceases in order for us to conserve energy.
Once we start climbing hills, the winds stop. Bessy begins to fall back, knowing I will wait for her ahead, and I move forward to plan a resting point as the sun begins to set. I decide mile marker 80 is the appropriate spot, and our driver Alejandra relays the message back to her. (This is a good time for an FYI: no cellphone or GPS reception within a 70-mile radius as you enter Big Sur State Park.)
I push past some no-name town that should've been the stop point as evening fell, but I’m a man of my word on the hunt for the mile marker.
Turns out it’s a new county, however, and the mile markers have changed. My only hope is a sign reading “town of Gorda 7 miles away.” I'm seven miles of hills ahead of Bessy, with no cell service.
I rush into the convenience store in the town of two buildings, only to encounter mountain people who visibly disliked tourists – no help on how to contact a park ranger, nothing!
Too exhausted to go back after the 117-mile ride, I have no option but to dial 911 at the pay phone, where still I'm offered no help as emergency services are miles away. While on the call, I see Alejandra pull in like an angel coming down to save us. How on earth did she know to go ahead to find me?
Regardless, she's able to coordinate Gorda as the night rest point by going back to relay to Bessy my location. Yeah, she was still biking and didn't take a ride up – tough as nails.
Day 4: Pushing Through
We sleep in a bit, only to wake up with one thought on our minds: get out of Big Sur! The quicker you finish, the less time you’re suffering (my motto for triathlon races); it’s another day of strong headwinds and hills.
We reach Santa Cruz to rest after 97 miles.
Day 5 and the Finish Line
Anything out of the remote Big Sur is cakewalk as we trek on again. You know you’re close when you’re doing a hill climb and a guy passes you easily on a fixie bike. All is well, though, until eight miles out, when once again the PCH turns into evil six-lane highway and I fall into a storm drain, blowing out my wheel.
Our driver was just ahead so I'm able to change it quick, and – so close to our goal yet so tired – keep pushing forward.
At 96 miles into the ride for a grand-total 610 miles, the San Francisco sign was a thing of beauty to our eyes. We head straight to a spa and jacuzzi. The grand challenge reward: an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse – our first time eating real food in five days.
The next couple days we explore San Francisco strictly by foot, before the "quick" drive back down to San Diego.
What started as a wild idea had become a success! We were left with the utmost feeling of confidence and accomplishment by pushing through, as a couple, where strong winds had made riding nearly unbearable.
Now what to do for next year's anniversary...?
~ Roger and Bessy Leszczynski
“Don't let anyone tell you that you can't – not even yourself.”