By Patrick Walsh
“My legs are tired.”
“My legs are shot.”
“Welcome to bicycle touring.”
Such went our banter as we rode upward over the Sierras toward Carson Pass, the 8,574 ft apex of our first multi-day tandem tour. Riding over the mountains was both our most challenging and favorite day because of the snowy alpine and forest views, downhill coasting (after the pass), and spring flowers lining the road, not to mention a big sense of accomplishment. The relentless climb ended after the road traversed a half mile of intimidating blasted rock that you can see for a mile before you arrive. With the hardest part (on paper) behind us as we stopped for obligatory photos, we figured it would be smooth sailing to San Francisco. Riding down was a blur, and I appreciated the disc brakes on our new Co-motion Primera for keeping our speed at a reasonable pace (mostly less than 50 mph). Turning off onto Omo Ranch Road was a nice reprieve allowing us to leave the highway feel for a narrow back road with almost no cars. We even made a few stops to smell the flowers.
Touring with my foodie wife Lynda was pretty different from my usual fully-loaded camping expeditions. I had coaxed her to do the ride with a promise of haute cuisine where available, and we stayed in a variety of hotels and airbnb.com accommodations while sampling some pretty nice food. We have had great success booking house rentals, and it was perfect for our ride. Earlier in the trip, we enjoyed walking to Adele’s, the nicest restaurant in Carson City, where they served something like Cajun/Mediterranean fusion cuisine. The fun wait staff and beautiful evening on the deck heightened our experience, and we retreated to a single bedroom with private entrance where we discovered American Ninja on TV. An early start the next morning to avoid more wind resulted in settling for a long, quiet afternoon in Woodfords in preparation for tackling steep climbing to Carson Pass.
The big reward after our first 3 days riding was the Fitzpatrick Winery and Lodge. We learned of it after consulting Adventure Cycling’s Western Express map for route, lodging, and restaurant ideas. Our expectations were blown away by expansive vineyard views and wood-fired pizzas for dinner and dessert. Both had blackened spots on the thin crust, a choice of meat or vegetarian toppings, and caramel apple for dessert. The pizzas were apparently usually reserved for Friday nights but we happened to arrive on a day when the owner and his friends were there. It would be a good idea to check with the staff before arrival to see if they might be available, or plan to eat before you arrive because we might have been willing to skip dinner to avoid riding back up their driveway from Somerset for a second time. A bottle of 2010 Sierra Gold Mountain Petit Syrah paired nicely with the food. The lodge itself is made of huge timbers and big windows with several comfortable seating areas inside and an expansive deck outside. We finished up our day watching from the hot tub as the valley succumbed to long shadows and orange sunset.
The ride to Sacramento was less glorious with few highlights except well-deserved fine-dining at Ella. When I asked Lynda over dinner if she enjoyed anything on our fourth day, her deadpan reply was, “When we stopped.” Coasting seemed like a close second. It did feel like a pretty big slog despite an overall downhill profile due to climbing only about 1000 feet less than the previous day and with higher temperatures – into the 90s. In my view, the ride up to Placerville was steep but scenic, but once we got there, the roads became busy with at least a few less-friendly drivers. Bursts of sweet nectar from a pint of perfectly ripe roadside strawberries and 20 minutes in the shade brightened our spirits as it was heating up near Folsom and the bike path entrance. The bike paths are great, but finishing up in Sacramento was the worst part of the trip, with more run-ins with drivers in a few miles than I have had in a year of regular bicycle travel. It seemed surprising until we read more about the city’s lack of bike-friendly culture. Bike lanes, bike paths, and fancy green-painted boxes do not seem to ease the tension. We had a car honking at us at a red light so that we would get out of a bike lane and allow them to make a right turn on red. After ignoring the first honks, the driver tried again adding hand motions as I looked back. Another nearly sideswiped us, and yet another tried to run us out of a traffic circle. But wow: Ella. I ate local stone fruit salad, pork chops, and passion fruit soufflé. Lynda had ultra-fresh oysters, a cheese plate, and mouth-watering fried chicken. Perfect cocktails, including an excellent Old Fashioned, and wine pairings highlighted the flavors, and we walked back to our nearby hotel. As for the Sacramento biking, I would recommend finding a different route except for Davis.
Davis was the polar opposite of Sacramento with bike shops seemingly on every corner and coffee shops in between. Friendly drivers and bikers offered us directions and recommendations. We chatted with people at the grocery store, others waved on quiet back roads where tens of local cyclists were riding on a weekday morning. There is nothing for supplies between Davis and Fairfield, so it is recommended to stock up on water (and coffee). Our timing chain also seemed a little loose, and a bike mechanic told us somewhat sheepishly that he had never adjusted one and would rather not. I was appreciative of his honesty and had it done later at home. We refueled with good cheese steaks on the side of Interstate 80 in Fairfield and rode the rest of the way uneventfully to Vallejo to catch a ferry to San Francisco.
Our original plan had been to ride to Emeryville, the start of Amtrak’s California Zephyr, and to take a train back to Reno. As our trip got closer, a good friend offered to pick us up because she wanted to spend a weekend walking and dining around San Francisco. We rolled into Vallejo pretty tired and with only a few minutes before departure. I mistakenly thought Lynda’s foot was down and accidentally dropped the bike, and Lynda, near the doors to the ticket counter – fortunately a rare peril of tandeming. She was relatively unharmed but a little annoyed, and we were grateful for an hour and a half break from pedaling. I grabbed a bourbon and 2 waters, and we rehydrated while floating around Alcatraz. After getting off the ferry, we rode another 10 miles with a stiff headwind and some hills to Ocean Beach where we had used Airbnb again to book a nice house for the weekend. The last day was our longest at 90 miles, and we spent most of the weekend without leaving the neighborhood, which is fine because everything we needed was within a few blocks. We were only 2 blocks from Trouble, one of the coolest coffee shops in the country. We gorged on pizza, excellent takeout Thai, hearty breakfasts, and fresh baked goods for snacks. We walked along the beach, and I kept wondering if Lynda would be up for another tour. We are currently talking about maybe a flatter tour with shorter days, but she enjoyed it. The couplers on the tandem should allow us to get to Belgium, France, or Corsica with great food and libations being the key motivator. As usual, I have more ideas than time.
Nuts and bolts
Start – We started in Reno, but the Amtrak option would also work really well from Truckee.
Finish – The ferry to San Francisco was great. Emeryville is it for the Amtrak option.
Time of year – Any time but winter. Rain is rare in the Sierras. Summer can be hot, but early days could make it work.
Lodging — Hotels, bed and breakfasts, and camping options are plentiful along the way.
Route statistics – 275 miles, over 11,500 ft elevation gain, over 16,000 ft elevation loss
Food – Reno, Carson, Placerville, Sacramento, Davis, etc. all have restaurants and grocery stores.
Water – Potable water is available regularly along the route, and you pass several streams as well.
Bike – Our Co-Motion Primera was great. Pavement all the way allows for smooth-rolling tires. I used parts of my bikepacking setup to carry our light load. These included Carousel Design Works frame pack and seat bag. If we keep this up, I am hoping to have a larger custom frame bag made that fits better.
Map – Adventure Cycling Western Express was handy for finding route and lodging suggestions.