Down the Unmapped Path: A Recap of The Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event

Back in April, Tom and I drove our van down to Santa Barbara, CA to catch the Taxi Cab Shuttle over to Frazier Park for the start of the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event. We knew very little about what were getting ourselves into. We knew the ride was free to do, that it was 260 miles and 30,000 ft of climbing, that it had very little water available on the route, and that there were guaranteed enchiladas at the finish. This is how it went... 

It was the morning after we had completed the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event and we were sitting over a cup of coffee at the event organizer’s kitchen table with a serious ride hangover. One of our party, was suffering from a continuous bloody nose from the dry conditions, another was applying aloe to blistered second-degree sunburn. I was feeling some complex emotions. I had just completed one of the most difficult rides of my life through some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery I had ever seen in such a short distance. As I was sitting at Erin's table that morning, I couldn't figure out how I felt about my first bikepacking experience where the route required me to hike miles of steep, rutted, terrain and drink water out of tadpole inhabited cow troughs. Despite the beautiful scenery, this was one tough ride. If we weren't hiking up steep technical terrain, we were riding it. I kept asking Erin how he came up with the route, especially since the most challenging paths and trails that the route follows, do not show up on most maps or GPS devices. As a route maker, I was curious about the sanity of an individual who would get to a certain point on a route and decide that a hardly-a-trail path looks promising and when that path ends, that individual continues to go further, on foot, to the next place that is rideable, rather than turn back. I mean, I've hiked my bike on a fair share of rides out of necessity and desperation, but this was intentional hike-a-biking! I was perplexed. I couldn't figure out if I loved it or hated it. Understanding that I would at one point write about this experience, Erin suggested that I take a week, let the experience soak in, then write what I thought. We'd actually be leaving on a month long tour through the interior Pacific Northwest a week later so I was conveniently going to be a little preoccupied. It wasn't until the third or fourth day of our Tour of Cascadia that I realized the impact Tour De Los Padres had on my riding style, navigating, and route making.

The Event

Tour De Los Padres is a bikepacking route and annual event that started three years ago, in Southern California. Every spring a handful of assorted cyclists from racers to tourists participate in this informal, self-supported, no-fees challenge of riding from the mountain town of Frazier Park, up and down Mount Pinos, into the Carrizo Plain and back through Southern Los Padres National Forest, ending on the palm tree lined beaches of Santa Barbara, California. The route comes in at 260 miles, with close to 30,000 ft of climbing, following 60% dirt roads, 20% singletrack (and hike-a-bike), and 20% paved roads. The number to really look at is the 30,000 ft of climbing...

The Plan

Tour De Los Padres is not a race it’s a challenge. The goal for riders is to complete the difficult route with limited water supply without having to catch a ride, or press that emergency $60,000 helicopter rescue button on your SPOT Tracker. As with any event that lists riders’ results on a public website, for some, there naturally becomes a sense of urgency to complete the route as fast as possible.

When prepping for rides like these, Tom and I definitely get sucked into the mentality of doing the event as fast as possible. It's psychosis through osmosis. While we ride our bikes as much as possible for enjoyment, we aren't training to be in physical form for racing. Nevertheless, we can't help but get sucked into the racing mentality when we are around people who are trying to beat last year’s time, or who have to be at work on Monday. In these situations, we go in with a plan that will get the route done in the fastest possible time that we can handle in "race" mode. Then, we pack an extra days worth of food in the case we have to abort that plan. This fastest possible plan looked something like this...

Day One: Ride 117 miles with 8,000 ft of climbing.

Day Two: Ride 66 miles with 10,300 ft of climbing

Day Three: Ride 84 miles with 10,300 ft of climbing.

I told you the climbing was no joke on this ride.

The Ride

Like we always do, like kids let out to the playground with their friends, we started the ride fast with a couple of like paced riders, Rita and Armand. We crushed the first day too, or I should say the first 115 miles. Something happened to Tom and I during the last two miles as the sun went down and it grew dark... Our legs just stopped working. We saw the campground in the distance up the hill, but had no energy to pedal further so we walked. Then it hit me, we had not ridden 100 miles in one day since September when we were riding the Trans America Dirt Road Trail. It was now April and we were feeling the distance, and obvious lack of “training”. We finally reached the turn to the campground where Rita was sitting, contemplating her next move. Rita was one of the people who planned to be at work on Monday so she was fairly committed to complete the ride in three days even if she had to ride in the dark for a while. Despite our semi-commitment to racing, we had planned to sleep during this event. We said goodbye and good luck to Rita* and set camp for the night with our single remaining compadre, Armand.

*Rita ended up completing the ride in three days, becoming the first woman to complete the route, and second place finisher overall, badass...

The next morning we learned what made this route truly unique as we followed a steep gravel road to an overgrown powerline access double track over a series of steep rolling foothills, into an overgrown valley of cow pasture, to a rutted and rock strewn cow path. We employed the push bike-hold brake-walk method in order to maneuver our bikes and bodies over the steep technical terrain. As we pushed and pedaled, each transition of human agility required to cover the terrain would trigger a wave of revelation in understanding what bikepacking can be. The temperatures were in the 90's and, sure, we were riding through a miraculous fairyland of blooming wild flowers that made Death Valley's "Superbloom" seem like a joke, but it was 6 o’clock and we had spent our day half biking and half hiking over just 36 miles. So much for our intended plan! We decided to set camp and commence tour mode. To our delight, Armand was in too.

We spent the following days riding a new rythm, one that was influenced by our renewed goal to simply complete this challenging route, rather than to cover the difficult terrain as fast as possible. With Armand's companionship and shared enthusiasm for the incredible views, private camp spots, swimming holes, and sunsets, our Tour De Los Padres experience morphed into an enjoyable learning experience, rather than a desperate one. It wasn't easy, but we were all in it together. We laughed at ourselves and said that bikepackers, people who do this stuff all the time, were the ultimate badasses. We wondered together about what the world might be like if everybody had to push a bike, loaded heavily with water, food, and the necessities up hills that were more appropriate to crawl up. Completing the route was the ultimate reward, however I still wasn't sure if I would seek out this experience on my own ever again.

The Impact

A little over a week after completing Tour de Los Padres, we set out on what was supposed to be a month long tour through Cascadia following two separate dual sport motorcycle routes across Washington and into Canada before picking up the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Banff to ride to Whitefish, Montana, where we would Amtrak back to Portland to get our van. Again, we had a plan, only this was meant to be a time for Tom and I to live on the bikes and explore new to us places via the dirt and roads less traveled. There was just one glitch in our plan. Our route called for a lot of high elevation riding in mountains that were still very heavily covered in snow. Within 40 miles on the first day of our tour, we were hiking our bikes through deep snow pack and only gaining elevation. There was no way we could follow our intended route. It was a harsh reality to accept so we set camp for the night on top of the mountain to deliberate on whether to turn back or continue further in the morning. Forward would require a 7-mile hike through snow and completely abandoning our planned route. It would mean navigating our own way across Washington while avoiding the snow and pavement to get to our destination of Whitefish, Montana. There was only one way to go.

As we traveled forward, I realized the extended impact that riding the Tour De Los Padres had made in my method of route selection for our Tour of Cascadia. By not following a pre-planned route and schedule we had the freedom to explore the enticing unmapped paths we came across and connect them with the next dirt road. Sometimes, it required some hiking but we know now that to skip five miles of pavement by hiking a bit is a trade we like to make. The more diversity in the terrain, the more fun we have. Had we been following roads on a map or GPS, we would not have experienced some of the most memorable terrain and scenic landscapes we rode through on our Tour of Cascadia.

This is a quality over quantity experience. It’s not getting to a destination the quickest or the most direct way, it’s getting there the fun way, on less pavement than ever, and it’s rewarding in ways you may not expect. My experience riding the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Route exposed me to a new way of riding, making routes, and simply covering terrain with my bicycle. As with any learning experience, the first time was difficult for me, but the result is a shift in my perspectives about bicycle travel and a new set of skills that I can now apply to my own riding and routes. Thanks Erin, for showing me the way!

Special Note About The Route

If you are thinking about riding the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Route, or participating in the event, visit the website and study up, especially since there is very little water available on the route. If I haven't made it clear already, this ride is physically and logistically tough. If it sounds a little beyond your ideal level of strain, there is a Tour De Los Padres Touring Route that has less mileage, less climbing, and less hike-a-bike. If you are exclusively a dirt road bikepacker, consider riding the Los Padres Wilderness Corridor Route, which has incredible 360-degree views, along deserted gravel roads, with great camp spots along the way.