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A very old lady, slack-mouthed, frozen in thought and wearing large white designer sunglasses, goes past us. She’s driving a faded brown 1986 Honda Prelude with a miniature spare tire on the driver’s side. Her trunk is held shut by bungee cords. We’re on Highway 101 in a rented mini-van discussing our second ride of our Los Angeles weekend. We need to reccy and synthesize two notably different variations on a theme. Our speedometer reads 75mph.
Gibraltar is six and-a-half unremitting miles of improperly maintained switchbacks. It climbs, like an endless flight of stairs, from Santa Barbara to the top of a ridge and the bottom of the sky. The Santa Ynez Mountains rise 4,000ft from the back of town like a chaparral and oak studded headboard.
Ben Lieberson, a Los Angeles-based Continental rider and our ride co-host, says it’s steep, like Europe, and plenty epic. A purist, Ben likes the traditional 35-mile loop based on the climb, Gibraltar, made famous by Lance Armstrong and the US Postal/Discovery team.
Unconvinced, simply because it’s short, I conscripted LA Continental rider, Cole Maness, lover of gravel, pain, distance and the absurd, to call his best sources and manifest a slightly more demanding variation of Gibraltar.
Ira: What’s Ben’s route?
Daniel: 35 miles, it’s the way you’re supposed to do it.
Ira: And Cole’s route?
Daniel: 85 miles, with 14 miles of gravel and twice the climbing. And some water crossings. It’s definitely not the way to do it, in fact in might not even be a way to do it.
Dan: I think I need more coffee.
Santa Barbara is stuccoed, tiled and reddish brown. Vacationers wear larger than average holiday hats and short-sleeve dress shirts, colorfully suffering patterns of fish and equatorial trees. And expressive sandals. Thousands of red faces and arms fondle postcards and T-shirts. Pale legs and white sneakers rest on benches and brass animal-shaped art. Tourists engage locals and reference maps with oversized type and sea otter and surfboard icons. Ice cream is eaten and commemorative mugs are bought. Every plant and tree, regardless of size and color, looks like a variation of succulent. The town smells like fresh produce, sage and a rental beach cruiser. We find parking and set out for a bookstore and the internet.
An hour or so later, having endured the purchase of a California Atlas, several dropped calls and a tedious ‘map my ride’ session, we head up and into Los Padres National Forest with a cumbersome collection of unknown mountain roads to vet. The sacrifice required to make our 6:30am flight earlier that morning, sleep, is starting to evidence. While Ira is typical ‘on-the-road’ Ira; observant, funny, agitated and essentially entertaining and good company, Dan is broken and faded, like an incomplete teleport. Like he’s accidentally eaten pot brownies, five of them, but doesn’t know it yet. It’s 1:30pm and the temperature is well into the 90s but we’re vaguely optimistic about constructing the ultimate variation of Gibraltar.
Six hours and 85 miles later we’re six miles down a dirt road which has gone from promising to destructive to impassible in six switchbacks. Rounding yet another 180-degree turn, I recall a long conversation we had earlier that morning with the rental car woman. I can’t remember the details but the punch line was that we emphatically, if not triumphantly, declined any additional insurance. The unpaved road is rutted and covered in rocks. Ira’s neck is creased with dirt, Dan is sleeping like a derelict in the back of the van and rivulets of sweat-mud are running down the back of my knee to my socks. Option after promising option has come to nothing. Routes with beautiful views, climbs and surfaces, have proven, two, three, or on one occasion eight miles in, not to work. Closed for the season, water crossings and dead-ends have turned us around well short of finding a more epic Gibraltar.