We turned south onto the PCH and immediately began to climb . There was non of the chatter of the previous morning and the quiet was broken only by the occasional shift of gears or grunt of effort . A marine layer had rolled in over night and added to the stillness. It settled amongst the redwood trees, that looked down on us as we worked our way uphill.
There was no sign yet of the ocean or the famous Big Sur views we’d been promised . Up ahead riders had started to disappear into the distant mist and as usual I was already beginning to slip towards the back .
When you ride up a mountain it chooses your companions for you . Young, skinny riders fall into each others company by the same process of natural selection as the old heavy ones .The climbers can actually talk while riding up hill and share an easy camaraderie, joking with each other as they wait at the top .The rest of us grind our way up the mountain in scilence , exchanging guilty looks like fat people at an all you can eat buffet.
On this particular morning Al Green or The Reverend as we call him, was the experienced rider who had been elected to sweep up at the back of the group. Its a system designed to ensure that a fast rider provides support to the slowest. As I slipped back further through the group I knew that if I saw The Rev I was in trouble. I looked over my shoulder and down the hill and sure enough… there he was.
Eventually , I turned a corner and got my first view of the mighty Pacific . In the grey morning light it was hard to tell the land and the sea apart, they both appeared sulky and massively unforgiving. Riders stopped to take photos and pose with each other but I kept my head down and carried on pedaling.I was prepared to sacrifice snapshots of this miraculous scenery for a chance to claw my way back to the middle .
In short, I was riding like a dick.
I reached the top of the climb and threw myself into a fast descent .This is my happy place, the extra pounds serve to propel me downhill faster than I can ride under my own steam. Thank God for physics! Near the bottom of the hill I am over taken by James yelling “Tora Tora Tora” at the top of his lungs . Inspired , I take off after him and ride with him for the rest of the day.James and I had last seen each other 15 years ago in London . We chatted about the trip , about his life in Singapore and mine in Los Angeles and like all good men we talked about our kids and our bikes.
It was not always like this ,I used to like cycling because it afforded me the luxury of solitude. I would go out for hours on my own and come home happy but non the wiser. I have since discovered that the secret to cycling is to ride with others, especially if they are stronger and more experienced than you because thats how you improve. I freely give this advice to anyone who will listen but like most advice I give,I often ignore it .
As we chatted and worked our way along Big Sur I stopped worrying about were I stood in the food chain of other cyclists and began throwing myself into the riding . If I was overtaken I yelled encouragement and I even stopped to check out the view from time to time.
At last I was having fun, which is after all ,what riding a bike is all about.
We decided to stop for coffee at one of the cafes along the road and got served by a cheerful weather beaten woman who spoke with a pack a day baritone. She seemed incapable of remembering more than one thing at a time and even though I write our order down on a piece of paper but it still comes back wrong.
We are joined by Bill towing the “lady train” behind him. Katy from Portland Aine from Cork and and Kat from London , three riders who had never set eyes on each other until a couple of days ago . Somehow riding a bike a long distance creates fast friendships and they seem to be in a constant fit of giggles, as if they had known each other their entire lives.
I ride with some great women cyclists at home in LA .They are strong and fast and they kick my ass all day long. But as well as breaking off the front they also hang back and chat and riding with them is a pleasure. If the sport was made up of nothing but testosterone fueled guys I don't think I would bother with it.
We finish our coffees and set off six of us now, determined to finish the last of the climbs through Big Sur and get to the lunch spot in San Simeon.
The team I ride with is called “The Fireflies” a loosely affiliated bunch who’s aim is to raise money to fight cancer and in particular Leukemia . It feels good to be doing something worthwhile “riding for a reason” my friend Adrian calls it and as we pedal we talk about the people we are riding for and what they meant to us.
Kat tells us about her friend Cheryl who she lost earlier in the year and she gets a little sad at the memory . I talk about my Nan who died in my bedroom while I slept downstairs on the sofa listening to her gasping for breath as she lost her battle with lung cancer. Aine tells us that her girlfriend thinks she looks like the squirrel from the Ice Age movie . And this is how we progress sharing the intimate and the ridiculous ,tears and laughter.
Looking at a cross section of the map we noticed that the last two hills resemble a couple of boobs and present some of the hardest climbing of the morning. But by now the misery of riding on my own and wrestling with my internal voice had been replaced by the sheer fun of riding with this group as we worked our way up the climbs togther .
As we reached the top of boob two we stopped to take a drink of water and eat yet more energy bars. Looking out to sea we saw spouts of water shooting high into the air and catching the light. We watched transfixed as as a school of whales took turns rising up from the water a magical,slo-motion mass hovering in time, before smashing back into the Pacific. And we did what everyone should do at a time like that,we stood very still and said absolutley nothing.
Later that night at dinner in the small beach town of Cayucos, I got a call from my wife with some sad news. The non profit she runs was about to lose the space it operates from and the organization that had promised her a new home had just withdrawn its offer. It was a cruel blow and promised to unravel a decade of hard work . I was gutted for her and struggled to find words to help. I guess because, there were none.
I suddenly felt really tired so I left the restaurant and headed back to the motel alone . Tomorrow was going to be a hot 100 mile slog and I needed to get some sleep. I thought back over the day on Big Sur and felt guilty that while I had been watching whales breach off the californian coast my wife struggled back in LA with no support from me.
And then further up the street I saw a small church in the darkness. Its sign was illuminated and shining brightly, projecting a simple message that had once inspired a nation.
I stopped to take a photo and sent it home.
Somewhere off the coast , whales were rising from the dark water and bearing silent witness to the land with all its ups and its downs.