Legging it

David: “It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides….”

Ashley: “It was just the best!”

The Leggett climb is notorious among Pacific coast bike tourists, winding up and out of the south fork of the Eel River and over the southern end of the King Range, of Lost Coast fame. We spent at least two days dreading it—which turned out to be a mistake. Yes, it’s a long climb, and at some point during the triumphal descent you discover that there’s yet another long and seemingly steeper climb. Yes, there’s no shoulder and traffic can be heavy.  But it’s a beautiful cycling road, well-graded, with serpentine curves that are exciting going up and perfect going down. The forest wall of redwoods offers little vista but some shade, welcome when it’s hot—and this was the hottest, sunniest, stickiest day we’ve had.

Before Leggett, we climbed a couple thousand feet along 101 out of Garberville. We were using alarmingly low gears from the get-go, and by the time we reached our lunch stop—The Peg House, just at the base of the real climb—we were feeling overheated and out of gas. But the cop in Rio Dell had promised that The Peg House’s double fudge brownies would do the trick. So we took a long lunch break, downed half of our substantial brownies for dessert, and took off.

At Leggett, we took a right turn to join Highway 1 for the first time, the road that will take us most of the way to the Mexican border. In contrast to our expectations, this turned out to be as fun as long sustained climbing gets, and traffic was lighter than we’d feared. It’s the constant variation in grade, the succession of varyingly sharp curves, the aesthetic pleasure of a narrow and winding road, especially after bustling and noisy 101. You might have a plan to shift back and forth among your lowest gears to adjust for slight variations in the grade, but in the end you drop into the most venerable of granny gears and settle in for the long haul.

Typical of David’s view during the climb (though the picture doesn’t do justice to the grade).

Signaling the first descent.

We stopped several times to reapply sunblock and chug water—or at least sip it, since there are zero services between Leggett and just north of Fort Bragg and we didn’t want to run dry. The road is narrow and curvy, so you never know what’s about to happen, and the steepest sections were often in the bends themselves. A few passing cars and trucks chose a more dangerous moment than we would have liked to pull into the oncoming lane, but we ourselves never felt in danger — we only feared for any oncoming vehicle. But there were few if any really close calls, most drivers erring on the side of slowness and caution. Not a road you’d want to be texting, or DUI on.

Waiting at a lane-closing construction site; luckily there was only one such hold-up on the climbs.

Both the first and the second descents were spectacular, the road exquisitely banked for speed. The curves came one after another, and every one was a put-your-bike-on-its-side kind of curve. We were going as fast as any motorized traffic could, so we felt no pressure to give up the lane.

Note the fog bank, keeping well offshore

Just north of Westport, Highway 1 emerges from the interior and the mighty Pacific explodes into sight. We stopped half a dozen times within a mile or two to take pictures and to try to process the sudden splendor.

Looking south at the steep coastal cliffs you can’t not imagine San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Malibu, San Diego…. Not for the first time this trip, we were almost speechless.

We are so lucky to get to ride these roads, to smell the primeval redwoods, to feel that sea breeze day after day, to smell the salt, to live this life.

In Westport we reconnected with Kristof, a young German tourist riding from Seattle to San Francisco. We flagged him down while lunching at The Peg House, warning him to eat there before tackling the Leggett climb. He pushed on instead, but in Westport he admitted the mistake. “I’m killed,” he exclaimed, wiped out from the ride. He’s been solo for the whole trip, so suggested that we ride together to his camp site just north of Fort Bragg. Kristof—wearing gym shorts, a black sweatshirt, and sneakers, a rubber dry bag bungied to his rack—kept us moving at a brisk pace, but we stopped him twice for pictures. We took a few of him with his camera, the only ones—he told us—he had of himself on this epic voyage. “My mom will be so happy,” he beamed.

Four miles outside of Fort Bragg, having said goodbye to Kristof, we turned off Highway 1, not sorry to be done with its relentless short climbs for the day. We joined a mostly level and somewhat gravelly bike path that took us right along the beach in perfect early evening light. Starving, and racing to get into town before the brewpub closed, we were hauling tail—though we did stop to give a desperate stranded fellow cyclist a patch kit.

Checked into our basic-but-clean-and-friendly $70 motel, showered up, and walked down Main Street to the North Coast brewpub in good time for a hearty dinner and a couple of gigantic IPAs.


The numbers for Monday: 68.8 miles, 5972′ of climbing, in 6:43. Total for Sun-Mon (days 16 & 17): 161.1 mi, 10,011′.

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