For anyone who's ever raced a longer stage race, there's a sense of physiological familiarity that happens somewhere around the third day, and it compounds, like interest. Getting out of bed becomes harder. Walking is laborious. Stairs are devastating. Mental faculties deteriorate. Sleep is precious, and the growing mountain of sheer exhaustion makes it difficult to get there. The familiarity is fatigue. The human body is not designed to fully drain itself, day after day. On the bike, it manifests itself in pure lethargy. Like a car with a slowly dying alternator, it becomes harder and harder to kick the engine into gear, taking longer and longer. But, unlike an internal combustion engine, the motor of homo sapiens is a little more variable. Some two-plus months on, I look over at my journal from the Escape From LA for day five. It is mostly empty, but has one over-dramatic line scrawled in all-caps from my mechanical pencil: "WE ARE BROKEN."
DAY FIVE: SANTA CRUZ TO SAN FRANCISCO - 200km / 3770m
The fifth and final departure of the Escape is from a place that needs no introduction: Santa Cruz. A legendarily quirky spot, Santa Cruz is known for surfing, weed, mountain biking, and a college that resembles a giant tree fort in the redwoods, UC Santa Cruz. It's also home to a web of small, hardly-trafficked roads through the towering trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a spine of coastal hills that reach all the way to the southern reaches of San Francisco. It is here that we will destroy ourselves today, on a circuitous route involving three separate ascents of the 750m-tall ridge. In addition, we're being joined by two superdomestiques - Giant-Alpecin's Laurens ten Dam, who resided in Santa Cruz for the 2016 season (and took 9th at the 2014 Tour de France), and retired WorldTour rider/maple monger/general riding honch/Marin local Ted King. This will be our biggest, and likely hardest day of the Escape, especially given the company we're keeping. The day starts with an amuse-bouche of dread.
We start our day at Verve Coffee in the Seabright neighborhood, where we'll be picking up Laurens and Teddy. And coffee. Nick proudly displays his latest ironic t-shirt acquisition, the morning after Election Day. Our mood is one of bittersweet elation. Completion is within sight, though none of us is sure we actually want to finish our journey. It's reinforcing our pervasive belief that riding is about just that - the ride. The destination, this contained "LA to SF" box, feels limiting, and simply a byproduct of the trip.
Riding out of Santa Cruz begins with immediate climbing, hitting out to the west of UCSC's lush hillside campus. Empire Grade is, for the most part, a gradual ascent, but with four days of hard riding in our legs, anytime Ted or Laurens sat on the front, we winced at the effort, praying that our heart rates would ignite and the power in our legs would come. Unfortunately, it never really did, and we sat behind the two wheels, masking our ebbing suffering with steely, forward-facing gazes. Empire crests the Santa Cruz Mountains some 20km in, and rambles along for a short bit before our offramp: Jamison Creek. Jamison and its sibling down the mountain, Alba, are locally legendary, mostly because of the insanity of their uphill gradients, short length, and punishing switchbacks. Jamison's top 3km averages about 13%, with pitches at 20%. Climbing it is a bear. Descending can be terrifying. Luckily, our contingent makes it down the technical drop with aplomb, screaming into the heart of Santa Cruz's Big Basin State Park on one of the most magical roads of the trip, Highway 236. Arcing through the trees like a speeder bike on the far moon of Endor, 236's fresh pavement induces hoots of laughter and awe at the massive flora around us.
We reach another high-ground moment of the day - Skyline Boulevard. If we were lazy people, we'd simply ride Skyline all the way along the vertebrae of the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco. Instead, we dive west again, down one of California's most scenic roads - Alpine. Skipping past the old Hell's Angel's La Honda hideout, we plummet back to the coast, reconnecting with THE VAN, which gives us a much-appreciated tow out to San Gregorio during one of the few flat parts of the day (see: #GETONTHEVAN).
Back on the coast, there is no reprieve for us. We almost immediately turn right - again. This time, we're launching into the teeth of one of the Peninsula's favored ascents, Tunitas Creek. But first, we stop at a spot storied in its own right: The Bike Hut. The Hut is just what it sounds like, provided by the farm it sits on. Unmanned, it's full of mid-ride necessities like tubes, water, and food - and operates on the honor system, like many similar farm stands along the coast between San Francisco and Monterey. We breathe. Collect ourselves. We're finally beginning to feel like bike riders again, some 120km into the day.
Tunitas Creek is a climb that leaves an impression. Almost entirely within the cover of a massive redwood rain forest, it clears 12km at about 6%, and its curves are the perfect launchpads for out of the saddle bursts in perfect rhythm, with the close trees amplifying the feeling of constant velocity. It is a climb made for diesel engines, where one can hold enough speed to keep piling coal onto the fire. Ted and Laurens jam up the road ahead so THE VAN can be positioned for optimal photography. The pace is high, and I begin to feel what can only be described as delirium-induced euphoria, a feeling that won't scrub off until the day after. It's familiar - I've felt it during stage races before, when deep within, something emerges that by all scientific explanation should not be there. I should be too tired to be doing this. The van gets the shot, and takes off up the road. I give chase, and the adrenaline rages. Up ahead, I see our two WorldTour compatriots latch onto the back of the van for their moment in Embry and Erik's flashbulbs. I'm clawing back meters towards them, and they're going hard too, aided by the huge draft of the van. The furious full-gas effort is futile, but it feels like little else I know - it feels real, the pinpricks of pain coursing across my legs and chest burying themselves deeper, turning into jagged daggers. I catch up to Laurens and gas it as he latches onto my wheel, my relatively flabby frame embarrassed to be dragging the superstar Dutch rider up the hill on a bike made for tackling the cobblestones of Belgium. We hit the top, just behind the van and Ted. And we're all grinning.
The remainder of the ride is going to be rough. This is easily our least favorite part of the trip, cutting through the Peninsula's suburbs, traffic lights, and debris to get to the southern flanks of San Francisco. Our original route has us finishing on the Marin Headland's Hawk Hill, if we can get there before we lose the sun. A detour forces us on a fast jaunt through a neighborhood at tempo pace, amplified by our schedule and early-winter departure. THE VAN takes the freeway, intending to meet up with us in San Francisco. And then, the unthinkable - or rather, the oft-too thinkable. Tony (see: #OatmealPrincess) flats. Again. Without our trusty support van, we are left to our own devices, which are limited in scope. Tony is riding deep Zipp 454s. Nobody in our group has a long-stemmed tube. THE VAN is forced to turn around in rush-hour traffic to find us. Tony back on the road, we realize the hopelessness of our quest, but floor the gas pedal anyway, riding for a time on a debris-strewn freeway. We are overjoyed anyway.
As we rake along Ocean Beach in San Francisco, we bid adieu to our Superdomestiques, whose presence is required at a PR event in downtown San Francisco. The Escapists continue alone towards the mighty Golden Gate Bridge, and our final destination: Above Category in Sausalito, just over the bridge. The sun is dropping too rapidly. We will not get to the hill in time. We pause for shots before the bridge, reminiscing on the insanity of the week behind us, and press on to home.
Rolling through the front door at AC 5km later, we feel disoriented and out of place. A week of riding has left us utterly destroyed, and has temporarily changed where we feel right in the world - on our bikes. The reminder that we must now re-enter our own daily grinds leaves us crestfallen as our bittersweet celebratory beers run down our chins. Already we're plotting, scheming, and dreaming of our next Escape, one to outdo this one. Stay tuned.