The harrowing drive from San Diego up to Idyllwild, CA with my 76-year-old dad at the wheel was likely the most dangerous part of my recent ITT of the Stagecoach 400. The combination of tight winding roads and my dad’s affection to press high speeds through hairpin turns had me crying out SLOW DOWN! After last year’s failed attempt to start Stagecoach due to illness (see Missing the Wagon,) I just wanted to get to the starting line in Idyllwild healthy and in one piece. Idyllwild is the place to be. It’s a quaint mountain community nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains – a range that separates the ocean from the desert in southern California. There, you’ll find all of the amenities needed to relax and enjoy this cool little town. Brendan Collier, the creator of the Stagecoach 400 route and owner of local bike shop Hub Cyclery, met my dad and me for a pre-ride shakedown lunch where we shared knowledge of the route and discussed my plan. I think he was a little surprised when I told him I wanted to lay down a sub 72-hour ride. Nevertheless he provided some great beta, we ate a killer tuna melt and some fruit, talked over some more details and wrapped up with a handshake. Brendan headed out for a haircut and I returned to Silver Pines lodge to do a final prep of the bike and to rest. I would leave the next morning at 6:00AM. After a night of mostly restful sleep, I woke up at 4:30AM to eat some breakfast and get dressed. This was the first moment that the ITT felt “real.” Some pre-ride anxiety cropped up and before I knew it, the clock struck 5:45AM and my dad was giving me the final ten-minute countdown to starting time. I would ride from our room at the lodge to the starting point at Idyllwild School – mile 0.0. BAM! I was off. Riding in the darkness, I didn’t even hear my dad say goodbye. I was totally focused on the task at hand. As I approached the school, I could see some headlights in the parking area and a voice calling out to me, “is that Paul?” It was Brendan, in his pajamas with camera in hand to shoot some pics of me on my departure. I did not expect to see him there and was totally stoked to have his support. Warm up slowly; don’t press. Saunders Meadow Drive is steep, and a stiff paved opener to what was going to be a long couple days of hard riding. Once on top I dropped into May Valley and made the quick descent through Lake Hemet and onto the northern slopes of Thomas Mountain. Some easy pavement and then prime gravel lead me up and over. The ride to Anza took longer than expected so I stopped in at a little park on Homestead Road to top of my water before heading out into the high desert section that would eventually take me to Warner Springs. Riding from Anza to Warner Springs was an ass kicker, but a well-planned piece of the route. This section provides a good introduction to getting “western.” I got lost on Tule Valley Drive which is where the “pavement ends” and “life begins.” The cues did not show the road turning into Tule Ridge Drive and the GPS track wanted to take me through private property. Don’t get shot! I finally figured out the route and honed back in on the riding. The sun really started heating up and the riding was hard. California has had some much-needed rain in the past few months, which eroded every road and steep trail. Huge fissures and loose granite made for a slow but manageable pace. Keep your head down and press on. IMG_0095 I was super stoked to hit the pavement that would take me into Warner Springs as I was completely out of water. Yep, I used up four liters of water before making it to the spigot at the abandoned gas station turned riders oasis. I dodged a few Dodges, and after finding some shade, worked through the mental task list that would become my ritual over the next couple of days: throw away trash, restock the feedbag, fill up on water, soak my top and arm coolers, re-apply sunscreen and get back on the bike. Ride. Pamo Valley is a gem and if you have never experienced the Mediterranean climate of north San Diego County, you’re in for a real treat. Mild temps combined with a lot of shade from the oak trees that line most of the roads, the riding is bliss. No real technical sections here, just steady climbing followed by long descents all the way into Escondido. There’s even a cool section of singletrack that takes you from Bandy Canyon Road all the way to a parkway that dumps you directly in front of a plethora of much needed services. With the sunset in front of me and on pace to make it to Point Loma by midnight, I decided to hang out a little longer than planned in Escondido to get human again. This is the first time I noticed how much I was eating. I had eaten all of the bars that I had packed in Idyllwild and was now sitting down to a giant coconut water and tuna sandwich. I had a hot spot developing on my right big toe so I dressed it with some blister gel and changed into a fresh pair of socks. So glad I brought several sock options. Time to get to the beach dude. Lake Hodges singletrack followed by the new section of the route that takes you into Del Mar, hosted a lot of downward trending trails and pavement that made the riding easy and super fun. On one paved section before reaching the polo grounds, three different Ferraris passed me. Kinda awesome even if you’re not into exotic cars. Ferraris sound cool. A little curve ball at the polo grounds/ Coast to Crest trail intersection: the cues called for a gate to go through. Since the gate was locked, I had to climb over it despite the signs telling me that the trail was closed due to it being flooded out. Once over the gate, the trail was good and even put me onto a cool seaside boardwalk as I rode towards the final few miles to the Pacific Ocean. The smell of the salt water and the cool air livened up my pace and I felt a burst of energy that pushed me quickly through Cardiff, up and over the 101 HWY to UCSD. Before I knew it, I was rounding Mission Bay as a thick marine layer ebbed and flowed, finally becoming so dense I couldn’t see anything in front of me. By the time I got to Ocean Beach, I was tired and the fog was driving me crazy. It was so thick and soupy that I had to turn my lights off and just ride using my Garmin track. It was like riding blind. Finally, I climbed up from Sunset Cliffs and over to Point Loma. With day one completed, it was time to click pause for a few hours of rest. Dominoes delivers until 2:00AM! I ordered a pizza, prepped the bike and body for the morning shift and went to bed. After a few hours of restful sleep, I was up and back on the bike riding into the sun again with a hardcore day ahead of me. Day 2 would be a real test. The riding out of the harbor area, through Chula Vista and up to Sweetwater Reservoir is where the neighborhood gets “Midwestern.” Lots of roadies on bike paths, joggers and walkers, some equestrian traffic and cross fitters. I even stopped at a Starbucks just to keep it real. Arrival at ass kicker #2 – the Sweetwater trail system, et al. While the riding here is actually pretty alright, the trails are built for fresh legs and lightweight carbon trail bikes, not loaded bikepacking rigs. Lots of hike a bike followed by buff and sometimes-technical downhills lead you to another section of good pavement where I stopped briefly at a roadside sprinkler system to top off my bottle and soak my clothes before hitting the gravel climb up Sloane Canyon Rd. Riding and hiking up the California Riding (think equestrian not bikes) and Hiking Trail and the Sequan Truck Trail in 85F+ heat was going to be hot so I found creek and soaked everything again before heading up. I really hoped that I would have enough water to make it Alpine. I kept drinking and eating lots of food and made it to the convenient store that would provide me with a stopping place to get human again and spruce things up a bit. I ate ice cream, drank more coconut water, ate a giant burrito and packed more food for my journey to Oakzanita Campground.
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The grade up and over to Descanso was hot as the entire climb is western facing into the sun. I was riding slowly to allow my lunch to digest, and to absorb the killer views looking back down into Alpine and the surrounding area. This section was beautiful. The Manzanitas were blooming due to the early spring like weather. White and pink, and even some purple flowers covered the hillside around me and the bees buzzed as they collected the pollen to make honey. I love honey and I wondered what Manzanita honey would taste like. I made it over the top and dropped into Descanso where I had originally planned to stop but decided it would be better to pass through and stop later at Oakzanita, if I could just make it there before the store closed at 4:00PM. And I did with 30 minutes to spare. I ate some more ice cream, gorged on water, and lubed the chain. The riding ahead of me was daunting so I made sure I had everything right before leaving Oakzanita. East Mesa Fire Road was a long slog that presented the first signs of trail buzz. As I was riding, I looked down at the roadbed and thought that it was covered in fresh sawdust or maybe mica dust. It wasn’t. Continuing to eat lots of food, and watching the cool color changes as the sun set behind me, I made my way to Granite Springs where I would layer up alongside fifty or so boy scouts camping under the oaks. Being so hot earlier in the day, I anticipated feeling much colder as I climbed now through 4000 – 5500+ feet of elevation with no sunlight. The temps dropped quickly as I morphed into a Billy goat on Indian Creek Trail. For the first time on Stagecoach, I had to face myself. My plan was to make it to the desert by midnight. Could I do it? The climbing up the western flanks of Mt. Laguna was relentless and seemed like it was taking forever. I was tired and cold. What if I just camped at Penny Pines? No! It will be cold there and it’s dry. What if I camped at the stock tank on La Cima? No! It’s not part of the plan. How am I going to make it down Oriflamme Canyon with so much fatigue? It’s going to be dangerous. Damn it! The pace was crushing me. However, when I finally made it to the top and looked at the clock I realized that I was on time. Wow! How am I still on time? Put on your jacket and get ready to descend Billy goat, you’re heading to the desert. I never really warmed up riding the downward trending smooth pavement of Sunshine Highway, but I did notice pockets of super cold air followed by soothing pockets of super warm air. It was the desert calling. I have to say that my favorite trail of the route was La Cima – buttery smooth, flowy trail with a just enough tack to allow me to find my groove for a while – a nice respite from the killer hike a bike up Indian Creek. As I finished on La Cima and crossed the highway, I noticed some solid recovery in my legs and felt confident again that I could make it down Oriflamme. The steep canyon descent was super fun and a fast, technical drop into the desert. I’m not sure how much elevation you lose, but it’s a ton and it happens quickly. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom riding some dirt tracks that eventually dumped me onto chip seal leading down towards Agua Caliente – the gateway to the desert. My original plan was to make it to Agua Caliente General Store before bedding down, but I could not reach the storeowner by phone and was not assured of having access to water when I got there. So I opted to stay at Butterfield. I used the bathroom there despite the wretched smell of death that resided inside, pitched the bivy and laid down under an incredible blanket of stars and darkness. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I do remember seeing a shooting star the moment I woke up. Nice timing. Early morning, I struck camp and started riding with the stars still beaming above me. The upper section of desert around Valecito Creek, the Diablo plateau and the exit wash through Fish Creek added new highlight to my trip. I loved watching the orange, pink and red hues of the sunrise fill the canyon walls and light up the blooming Ocotillo as I rode slowly through the sand thinking about the time I spent growing up in the desert. It was refreshing to relive the colors, the smells, and the sand. Finally onto the pavement heading into Ocotillo Wells, the sun was heating up the earth and me, and I was eager to get to the Split Mountain Store for a cooling off. Time to get human again. I pulled in, parked the bike and immediately went for the door. Doh! No A/C. Instead, the store was hotter inside than it was outside. Quick, get more ice cream, more water and a make quick exit to the bike where I was greeted by desert rats of all kinds: dune buggy drivers, motocross riders, locals, and tourists. They were all there. On my way to Borrego Springs, I was riding tempo up the highway when I noticed a bikepacker riding towards me. Hey, it’s my people! Before I could throw a shaka, the rider comes across the highway and pulls up next to me. “You are being Spot stalked.” What? Spot stalked. We introduced ourselves, bumped knuckles and rolled on. I’ve got to say it was very surreal to be talking and riding with someone as I had been alone for so long. Though it was super refreshing to have someone around for a few miles. We talked about our jobs and Rick gave me a nice history lesson of the area. As we rolled into the outskirts of town, he asked me to stop and take a couple pictures, which was a fun break from the pace. I had not taken even one photo during my ride so far. I hope that someday I will get a copy of those pictures he took. It wasn’t long and we arrived at Christmas Circle where we stopped to eat tacos and drink horchata at Los Jilbertos. I would purchase the final sack of food for my ride up to Idyllwild, wish Rick good luck on his Stagecoach ride and quickly hit the road. IMG_1320 The adventure got real in Coyote Canyon – the crux move of Stagecoach – CCW. Another ass kicker. The canyon is actually super cool. There are natural springs pouring out of the ground making great places to stop and soak while the temps hit 95F+. I rode very slowly up the canyon picking my way through high jeep traffic. By the time I got to the willows, there were just enough high clouds to filter the sun, taking the edge off the heat a bit while I bushwhacked my way through the jungle like environment. I faced myself again. All I could think as I beat saplings back with one hand and pushed my bike with the other was the hundred or so things that could happen in this mess that could be a race ender. My thoughts were grim. Was I eating enough? Yes. Was I drinking enough? Yes. Was I tired? Yes. I think it was just the accumulation of the last sixty or so hours of riding and hiking that were becoming my reality. I never doubted that I would finish, but I did find a low spot. Once I made it through the final Punji sticks and mud, I decided to stop and change socks before riding up and out of the canyon. The brief stop felt good. Fresh socks felt good. Eating more food felt good. I refocused and pressed on. With my head down and heavy feet in the pedals, I passed by Bailey’s cabin and enjoyed the sunset as I climbed the jeep road up to Anza. YES! I made it to Terwilliger Road. I was blown away. At this point, I knew that only a few hours of riding stood between the Hub and me. I stopped at the closed Sunshine Market for a final water stop noticing that I only had about a tablespoon of left in my bottle and pack. There was a spigot there that provided all of the water needed for the final push. I ate a yummy leftover taco (totally hit the spot) then got back on the bike and made my way out of Anza. Idyllwild here I come. Still a stout paved climb and some more CRHT had to be “ridden” before finally making it onto the paved highway that would eventually lead me back up the lollipop stick of the route. The riding in this section was a brain tease. I was running on max adrenaline and slightly hopped up on caffeine Tailwind drink. I got disoriented and found myself off course about a half dozen times before finally making it to the singletrack that would send me back up through Johnson Meadow and onto the steep slopes of May Valley Rd. When I hit the super fast paved decent of Saunders Meadow drive I felt a warm buzz come over my body. I dropped in hard and fast and pedaled toward the Hub. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Whoop! I heard Brendan call out to me through the darkness as I rolled slowly through town towards the shop. Whoohoo! I yelled back. Then immediately upon my arrival, hugs and high fives. Brendan took my bike, threw a down quilt over me and I sat on the front steps of the shop elated. My dad was so excited he tried to call the local news to come do a story about me. OMG! I drank Recoverite and a beer, ate pizza and fresh oranges, and told stories of my adventure. Brendan was a great host and totally prepared to deliver a fitting end to my journey. Then, in what felt like an instant, we wrapped it all up and my dad and me headed back to the lodge for a shower and a soft bed. With the 2016 Stagecoach 400 ITT behind me now, I pack my bike and gear and mentally prepare for the hair raising drive back down the mountain with my dad. Thanks for driving dad. Thanks for caring about me. Thank you Brendan for the killer hospitality and new friendship. Thanks Rick for taking time out of your day to ride with me. Thank you Lynda for planning the work, and giving me the confidence that I could execute this race plan. Finally, thank you to all of my friends who provide indelible support to me on a regular basis. IMG_0049

3 Comments

  1. Only one picture was worth saving. How can I get it to Paul?

  2. Great job, Paul!

  3. Paul Dennis

    Rick – it would be great if you could email the pic to Brendan for me… Good luck on your Stagecoach!

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