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It’s nearing 8:00am we are in an industrial parking lot in Sausalito, two days before Stage One of the Tour of California. Aaron Erbeck, in a helmet and bib shorts, is scrunched-up and peeing into a bush watching the traffic on Bridgeway Drive. Behind him, a first ever Rapha Continental ride with customers is about to begin. A 105-mile ‘Gentlemen’s Race’ inspired by Stage One of the Tour of California, we mapped a route promising miles, scenery, climbing, and hoping to deliver some mid-February glory. Twenty-six Bay Area Rapha customers and friends are standing around a red sixteen passenger van with arm warmers on, water bottles topped-off, messenger bags and backpacks tossed over seats, helmets located, pockets stuffed with fig newtons, wives kissed and dinner plans foolishly made – quick introductions and light conversation, all coming to a hurried finish. Mingling among them are the ride’s hosts, four West Coast Rapha Continental Team riders, the first member of the East Coast Team, Slate Olson the new General Manager of Rapha, two local riders, Kathryn and Murphy, and Rapha’s Creative Director over from London.
Slate gathered everyone around - “Ok, so the ride starts by going up the side of Tam on a gravel section that shouldn’t be a problem, then we take Seven Sisters down to Alpine Lake, then up through Fairfax and Nicasio Valley to Marshall Wall, up the One to Coleman Valley Road until dropping finally into Occidental. It’s about a ten thousand foot day and a little over a century, so pace yourself and stay hydrated so you don’t get weird on us. Some of you are turning around about half-way and riding back to the City. The rest of you, put whatever you want in the van for the ride home. Murphy and the Continental guys will lead us out. Keep your helmet on and don’t get lost.”
Clack and clip-clack-clack, clip-clip-clack, the parking lot is empty.
Twenty suburban minutes into the ride and the group approaches a gate and the first major climb. Old Railroad Grade is a six-mile fire road with a short descent at the end before reaching the top of Mt. Tamalpais. It’s rideable on 23’s and nano-technology but it does require skill, some luck and a lot of determination. And, as if to deter everyday roadies from a truly hardman experience, it starts sharper and rockier than it really is. Once into the body of the climb, lines are easily found and the gravel thins to hard pack dirt. The glory of riding road bikes up Tam, the birthplace of mountain biking, was palpable, and our hearts would warm with each passing down-hiller on a full-suspension rig and full-face helmet. That said, one of us went down hard and we lived in fear of flatting. Towards the top, we left the trees and overhead cover for a classic California fire road scene – endless khaki switchbacks and big views of the valley, Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean below.
At the top, eight miles into the ride with wheels firmly planted on pavement, we regrouped, watered and dropped onto a road that instantly opened to views of the Pacific on the left and rolling light green grassy ridges and hillsides on the right. Ahead, Seven Sisters (aka. Seven Bitches if you climb it in the opposite direction), a series of major rolling drops, undulated downhill along what felt like the world’s tallest retaining wall. We all dove like racecars, one after the other, in the drops and leaning to the left, in the drops and leaning to the right, again and again. The combination of salty air, color, and scale made the surroundings appear fake and too perfect, almost like a massive movie set or model and the sun was shinning on us as if on cue. Then with a blink, we all disappeared into the darkest and densest of forests imaginable. Our eyes adjusted on old growth cedar trees and a mossy patina covering everything. The road was suddenly rippled, busted and covered in branches and leaves. One at a time, we all blew through the apex of the first dark and sketchy turn as we began our three-mile descent to Alpine Lake.
“It took a few minutes for the reality of the first hour to sink in. I'm not sure why it surprised me so much; I'd enjoyed reading about the unpaved sections the Continental guys had ridden in Oregon. I guess I just didn't think it would happen to me. And now, I know you can ride a road bike just about anywhere if you have to."
– Michael Robertson
“We ride this section all the time on our road bikes. It’s THE way to climb Tam and sure it’s rocky in places but epic doesn’t come out of a machine for fifty cents, you don’t get epic free with a car wash. But seriously, it was a pleasure to lead a bunch of roadies into the dirt.”
– Murphy Mack