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My California

"Mauro, come on over. Escape the miserable cold rain and snow. Let's ride in California this year."

With the start of each year's spring, I normally fly over to Italy and spend ten days riding in Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche with Mauro Mondonico, the son of Antonio Mondonico, frame builder extraodinaire. For years we had been planning a turnabout, Mauro's coming to California to ride. The last couple of winters in Milan have been especially miserable. It was easy to encourage Mauro to become a fugitive from the cold.

"Coming here in the winter, from sunny Italy?" several people asked.

It might seem silly if Mauro lived in Southern Italy. But Milan, Mauro's home, is stuck right up against the Alps. From the roof of the Milan Cathedral it is easy to see Switzerland, a mere 45 kilometers away. The winters are brutal. One day, just two weeks before the start of the trip, Mauro rode 125 kilometers in freezing rain and snow. Our 45 degree (Fahrenheit) mornings seem positively tropical in comparison.

Camarillo, the little town in Southern California where I grew up and now live is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Los Angeles, just 8 miles in from the coast. This was such a fine place for a skinny little boy with a bicycle. I think there were only about 2,000 people in Camarillo when I was in grade school almost a couple of generations ago. I could ride my father's Raleigh 3-speed everywhere for hours and rarely see a car. Lima bean fields, lemon and orange orchards or mostly wild California chaparral lined the lonely, narrow roads. It really was the California dream that so many of us think of when we think of California.

Most of that raw paradise is gone now. Bulldozers have had their way. Wal-Marts with endless parking lots cover the land. Butterflies that were so common are now rare. Wild countryside has given way to huge homes and golf courses. I weep for what is lost as the roads that are safe and quiet to ride get harder to find. How can little boys and girls play and run though fields and ride bikes all day long? We say we love our children. Talk is cheap. We send them alone to empty homes after school to spend the afternoon watching TV and eating junk food. How did we lose our way?

But, for all the destruction, there is a lot of wonderful California left to see and explore. This trip is largely a tour to show Mauro the wild, natural beauty that is still here and to get the flavor of the life that was and the life here that now is.

It's hard to beat riding on a quiet country road around here, seeing a coyote warily watching me in the distance as a red-tailed hawk circles overhead, looking for his morning meal. Roadrunners scoot across the road and quail, looking ridiculous to us, skitter with their young following closely behind. Each morning, before I ride, I feel so lucky to be able to ride in this beautiful place. This little bit of paradise is a special gift of nature. A few miles inland and the heat in the summer is crushing. A few miles closer to the coast and the morning fog and damp is chilling and depressing. It's late February as I write this and I will go out riding in shorts.

Our plan was to spend a couple of days riding around Camarillo and relaxing. In the fall, Mauro and his father, Antonio Mondonico visited shops in the western US and measured clients for custom frames. Since that visit, they had been punishing themselves to build those frames. With the last frame built and at the chrome shop, Mauro could relax a bit. As soon as he returns to Italy, he then assumes his other job, the Number 1 driver for RCS Sport. This is the La Gazzetta Dello Sport-owned company that promotes the most important Italian races including the Giro and Milano-San Remo. As soon as Mauro gets back, he has to drive the chief referee in the Tirreno-Adriatico, the first important Italian stage race of the season.

After a couple of days here, we planned to go up to Cambria and ride the rugged coastal road and try to squeeze in a visit to Hearst Castle between the main demands on our time, riding, eating, sleeping and eating.

Then we wanted to take a trip up the Big Sur Coast to San Francisco to ride in Marin and Point Reyes. After 3 days in San Francisco, we planned to head back south to Solvang, near Santa Barbara. That should give us 8 days of hard riding with a day of rest in the middle, as much as either of us can take.

What bike to take? That's easy. The best bike I have ever ridden, my Durindana, a Foco Torelli 20th Anniversary frame built with Record 10. I regularly ride my other bikes and this is the one I love. It's an all steel bike with a steel fork; a bike rider's bike.

Friday, February 21. Mauro flew into LAX by way of Frankfurt, Germany. He emerged from customs looking remarkably fresh after leaving Concorezzo, near Milan, at 5:00 AM. He had endured the usual unspeakably long trip in a fetid hollow aluminum tube filled with noisy Germans quaffing stein after stein of the free beer Lufthansa had the bad judgment to offer the airplane's prisoners. I think offering free beer to Germans is almost like giving free tickets to the Mustang Ranch to teenage boys. They'll take all they can get and not be the better for it.

We assembled Mauro's bike. He brought the same bike he's used when we've ridden together for the last four years, his EL-OS Monostay (Mondonico, of course). This is also an all steel bike with a steel fork. His original plan was to leave it here so that he did not have go through the trouble of transporting his bike every time he comes over. But..........his new frame, an UltraFoco, is in the chrome shop. Being in a chrome shop is not quite the equivalent of life without parole for a frame, but he won't have his new bike ready when he returns to Italy.

Mauro is planning on doing the Cyclotourist Tour of Flanders, 255 kilometers of relentless hills and pavé. This is a staggeringly hard ride that the pros take 7 hours to complete. Mauro needs to keep training if he is to take part in this insanity. And that means that he's taking his bike back with him to ride. My only problem with his going on this fool's errand is that I cannot join him.

Saturday, February 22. What a beautiful morning, especially for an Italian boy that left a Milan that was -7C before he climbed aboard the plane. We stuffed ourselves, as usual, with muesli, fresh bread (topped with Carol's homemade jam) and flagons of hot coffee. After years of complaining, Mauro, unlike his father, has resigned himself to American-style coffee. I think he actually enjoys it. My good friend, training partner and banker, Scott Gibb, joined us. We three rolled out into the cool air and met Ted, owner of Camarillo Bike Company with several riders from his cycling club, the "Camarillo Ravens". Young and strong, they were itching to go hard and fast. We planned one of my favorite rides, the Ojai loop. We would head west to Ventura, then circle north and east around Ojai and Santa Paula and back home. It should take a bit over four hours and put 75 miles (120 kilometers) on the odometer.

Almost out of the gun, the Ravens started hammering. After a few miles, I looked at my heart monitor. 171! That's four bpm from anaerobic threshold. There was no way I could do this for 8 days. I would run out of energy long before I ran out of vacation.

"Piano, piano! Easy boys, easy". But these bulls would not be deterred. Snorting and flexing big calves, they continued to sweep across Ventura County. Finally, I had to back off and let them go. Seeing me sit up, they relented, waited and went slowly for a couple of miles. But then, they were hammerdogging it again. Good, healthy, robust spirits on a perfect day are hard to control.

We went over the Santa Clara River Bridge. Every time I cross the bridge I think of that terrible day, over 70 years ago, when the San Francis Dam, 50 miles up the river, burst late at night. A wall of mud and water swept down this river though the little agricultural river towns of Fillmore, Santa Paula and into the sea at Ventura. Over 450 people died in the tragedy. After the Great Fire of San Francisco, it's the worst catastrophe in California history. The dam was the creation of William Mullholand, who is most famous for stealing the water of the Owens Valley for Los Angeles. The movie "Chinatown" is about some of the skullduggery that went on.........

But, I digress.

We reached Ventura and headed north up the road paralleling the Ventura river. It's only slightly uphill, so most of us stayed in the big ring. So much of this west end of Ventura is still devoted to oil extraction. When I was a boy, there were oil wells everywhere. But, we've sucked most of it out of the ground around here.

The Camarillo Ravens ride with Bill & Mauro along Creek Road near Ojai.

Just outside Ventura we started to head a bit northeast as we joined one of my favorite roads, Creek Road. It's lonely and rather quiet with a nice canopy of oak trees for shade. We're still going uphill, but the Ravens are being generous and doing all the work. With seven more days of riding, I'm happy to take advantage of their generosity. Then through Ojai and up a short, sharp climb called the Dennison Grade. I stop here. Looking out from a view point, the Topa Topa Mountains in the distance are beautiful, and the surrounding hillsides are green from the winter rains. In a few months they will be brown. But for now, the cycle of renewal has begun and life in the Southern California Coastal Desert is beginning anew. We really have two seasons here; a wet, cool season and a warm, dry season. In any desert, as soon as the rains hit, everything germinates and blooms furiously. That was true here.

The view of the Ojai Valley from this point has been immortalized. I believe that this is where the view of Shangri-La in the movie "Lost Horizon" was shot. Just as the airplane crash victims pass though the snowy gate they view the sunny valley of Shangri-La, where everyone is immortal. The panorama they see is the Ojai Valley.

We keep rolling along on a plateau with the mountains still looming to our left. Then we get a 5 mile descent. It's not technical in any way. We can take the curves as fast as our thighs will propel the bikes. Mauro stopped at the summit for water with the Ravens. Long ago I learned that I should just get on with getting down the hill and not wait for Mauro. He ALWAYS catches me on he downhill. Always. Scott and I took off. Scott was not content with the speed I felt like taking the descent, so every chance he got, he hit the front and pounded his 12.

At the bottom, we were joined by the rest of the group. We cruised though old Santa Paula. This little town was the first home of Union Oil Company. I think the first commercial oil well in Southern California was on the descent we just finished. The lemon business was the other source of financial life for little Santa Paula. First, Chinese and Japanese and then Mexican labor provided the hard work in the packing houses and the orchards. After falling on hard times, the old town has been beautifully restored with an added bit of Mexican flavor. Some store fronts have been painted in bright, Latino colors that makes the town almost exotic.

20 miles to go. We're all tired now. Too much fun. The chatter and mindless hard pulls have vanished. Everyone takes his turn at the front and does his duty, but mostly no more than that. Clearly, everyone wants to get home.

Of course, the headwind comes up. How does Mother Nature know? We rolled into Camarillo, tired and satisfied. I was ready for a plate of spaghetti and a nap.

Sunday, February 23: Today I get to show Mauro a bit of wild California. We picked a trip down the coast and then over the Santa Monica Mountains. Then, through a series of valleys back into Camarillo.

While Mauro was staying with us, I tried to replicate the food we eat when I travel with him in Italy. It satisfies and fills us for a good, hard four hours of riding. I set out cheeses, muesli, cake, juice, fresh bread so that we could eat to threshold of pain. In two days we consumed a half-pint of Carol's home-made Meyer Lemon Marmalade. That's just the jam! I think that it was Greg LeMond that said one of the determining factors in becoming a successful stage racer was the ability and the will to eat huge quantities of food before a race. We have that ability, at least. Riding with a full tank gives a rider an edge. He's not putting his body under the stress of trying to draw upon its stored energy to drive the bike forward.

After demolishing the breakfast table,we were in no danger of that happening to us. We slathered on our Qoleum (medium today; it looked a bit cooler) and headed on down the flat road leadiing to the coast. The day was overcast, but the temperature was in the mid 60's. Perfect weather for a ride.

We joined the Pacific Coast Highway, the famous Route 1, and headed down the coast towards Mailbu. The ocean was flat and we had a mild headwind. The recent rains had dislodged rocks from some of the sheer cliffs that were carved from the hills to make room for the road. We have to be extremely careful because the rocks lying on the road are razor sharp. At the Los Angeles county line we turned inland to go into the hills. Out on the ocean, dozens of hopeful surfers sat on their boards hoping for a good wave. The ocean was pretty flat. It looked like these boys were going to have to be patient, very patient.

We turned left at Yerba Buena, headed up the steep start of the climb.

I cannot tell you how much this road has intimidated me. When I was 13, several friends formed a cycling club. We didn't know anything, but we had 10-speeds. We were ready to ride, or so we thought. Some had 42 pound Schwinn Varsitys. The Schwinn owners, a bit snobbish about it, thought they had the superior bikes until it came time to use them for more than riding to the ball field. Most of the rest of us had the first generation of European "lightweights" that started to show up in the early 1960s. My bike was a good example. It was marketed by Sears and made in Austria by Steyr. It had a mild-steel (it was called "high-tensile steel" in the mid 1970's) lugged frame frame with some of the worst derailleurs ever made, Huret Allvit (the same as the Schwinns). I had the good fortune to be about the only rider with aluminum rims, these were made by Fiamme. The high-pressure clincher tires, 27 x 1 1/4, carried 75 psi. The hubs were Normandy cheapies with big wing nuts. The crankset was steel-cottered by Nervar, 52-42. The brakes most of us had were Weinmann side or centerpull.

The saddle. Oh that saddle. It was leather, badly shaped by Ideale. I have never forgiven the French for making this saddle and selling it. I rode it in pain, knowing no better, considering it part of the price to pay to ride a bike. This is the same situation women found themselves in before the industry had the courtesy and marketing smarts to make saddles that didn't torture women. If no women rode back then, I can't blame them.

On my trusty 28-pound bike, I had affixed Campagnolo fingertip shifters. They didn't work well with the Huret derailleurs, but nothing did. It was very hard to find the special long gear wire for fingertip shifters back in the early '60s in little Camarillo. A lot of my cycling life centered around trying to make a splice of two shorter wires hold together so that I could shift gears.

One Saturday, those many years ago, our club decided to do the same ride we had chosen for today. I still remember the difficulty we had, wearing tennis shoes, trying to get our little, untrained bodies over the hill with our 42-28 low gearing. We climbed and rested, climbed and rested. Finally, after what seemed like an endless time, we surrendered. We gave up. The mountain was too much for us. We turned back down the hill and headed home. We were so exhausted that riding back up the flat road to Camarillo was beyond one friend of mine. Every few miles he would stop and I would have to almost scream at him to get back on the bike or we would never get home.

That memory of a ride almost 30 years ago had stayed with me. I never again went up Yerba Buena. There are other roads that criss-cross the Santa Monica mountains, most notably the Mulholland Highway, and I have ridden them hundreds of times. But Yerba Buena? Never.

A few months ago, curiosity overwhelmed my adolescent trauma. I decided to try to get over Yerba Buena. Armed with a big 25 low (close to what I used on the Stelvio and the Gavia, I was that intimidated) in the back. I headed up the dreaded hill. Of course, as you expect, it was quite easy, needing nothing more than the 21 and the 23. My strength as an aging baby-boomer riding hundreds of miles a week is very different from the skinny boy who rode around town from drug store to drug store reading comic books (until I was thrown out by each tolerant merchant tired of my using their premises as a public library). It was also the prettiest road in Ventura County. I have been riding up this hill almost every week ever since.

So, up the hill, about 12 miles to the summit. There are a few houses along the way, but I thnk most of the route is in a protected State Park. A building permit is very hard to get here. It should be impossible. We rode though a valley with wild California Chapparal: Cactus, Ceanothus, Toyon and Lemonade Berry covering the hillsides. The recent rains brought out all the wildflowers. Part way up the climb, a set of huge rocks, Sandstone Peak, loom up through the gap in the valley. Although California red instead of limestone grey, they do look a bit like a little 1/2 scale Gruppo Selle, the famous massif in the Dolomites.

I wish the air had been more clear. As we climbed to the top, a rider can usually see down into the north side of the

"Il Diavolo" Mondonico on the downhill.

mountains as well as out to the sea. Today, we couldn't see very far either way. But, there was nary a car on the road and the natural beauty of the mountains was enchanting.

At the top of the climb, which took about an hour, I stopped to put on a windbreaker. Mauro and Scott pressed on. There was absolutely no hope of catching either one, as both are fine descenders. Mauro is called "Il Diavolo" for his awesome willingness and ability to fly down hills at astonishing speeds. The Westlake Boulevard descent is highly technical, requiring an alert rider. I respect this road.

At the bottom, both Mauro and Scott were eating, waiting for me.

"Who got to the bottom first?"

"We arrived together," Mauro said.

Scott added, "I was tearing downhill, thinking I really was getting away. I looked back and there was Mauro, taking it easy. Combing his hair, I think."

The route then takes us around Lake Sherwood. So named because the lake was originally formed to make a set for a Robin Hood movie. Then, through Hidden Valley with huge horse ranches. The pastures were covered with green grass. What a day!

Then, up a steep grunt of a short hill and then to the last real fun, Potrero Road. I was first to the start of the descent, but I let Mauro take the point. It is humbling as I give it everything to try to roll downhill with him. He looks so relaxed while my heart rate is in the 800's. Even though I go down this road weekly, he put a good 50 yards on me at the end.

We cut through the newest University in the California State College system, Cal State Channel Islands. The site is the old state mental hospital, Camarillo's old claim to fame. It was built in Mission Revival style with red tile roofs and white stucco walls. It is surrounded by lemon orchards and fields of row crops, conjuring up nostalgic feelings of an old California.

And of course, closing the state hospital to save money, we put those helpless mentally ill people on the streets to find their own way. Now we can use the money to subsidize the children of yuppies as they gain that extraordinarily poor education that we now call college. Who says we don't know what we are doing?

For the final tow into town, I noticed that we had become rather quiet. We were smoked and didn't have the energy to talk.

58 miles and boy, were my legs sore.

We had an over-large lunch of spaghetti and pizza, two of the major food groups. Don't listen to the Department of Agriculture on this. The major food groups are pizza, spaghetti, chocolate cake and apple pie. Each of these important foods are required for good cyclist health. With a doctor's permission, lasagna may be substituted for spaghetti.

We loaded the truck and headed north up the coast to Cambria.

North of Santa Barbara, what was a lot of pasturage for cattle has been turned into vineyards. For now, these new vineyards are a financial disaster for their owners. Overplanting has caused a glut of wine grapes. This is forcing some of these new vintners to rip out their newly planted vines. I wonder how long some of those pastures have been devoted to cattle ranching.

In the 1830's, Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast stopped in Santa Barbara for cattle hides. This was already a well-established trade in the early 19th century as Yankees came with finished manufactured goods to trade with the isolated Rancheros of California for hides. When I was a boy, Santa Barbara was an elegant, beautiful city.

Back in the 1830's Dana described it as a wretched, poverty-struck little pit with little to speak for it. Like most of California before the Gold Rush, it was a California Dogpatch.

Going to grade school in Santa Barbara, we were taught about the glamorous life on the Early California Ranchos with bold Vaquero cowboys and beautiful Senoritas living a life of luxury on huge, well-tended ranches. Facts are ugly and difficult things. The life was primitive and poor. The Indians were exploited and harassed to extinction. Communication between the cities on the California coast was nearly impossible except by slow moving ship. The rugged topography of California made land travel very difficult. And the sailors who worked the ships that made the trade and commerce possible were worked unbelievably hard. It was all in another chapter of the main leitmotif of California history, greed.

I juggle two Californias in my head. One is the beautiful semi-rural life I have enjoyed most of my life, surrounded by wild country and well-tended farms. A person could, as the late Ralph Story said, never die as long as he could reach up and grasp an orange from the nearest tree. People here have always been kind to me and allowed me to make a fair living selling what I love, bicycles. So, I have a deep and abiding love for this semi-arid coastal dessert.

But I know that there is another California. Starting with the first Spaniards that tried to claim huge tracts of land for Spain and dispossess and maltreat the Indians that had lived here for thousands of years, the tendency has been to gain the fast dollar. The list is long: the Gold Rush, Hollywood (founded by film makers escaping Thomas Edison's agents who were trying to rightfully enforce his patents for the movie process), the railroads, water rights for farms (Mark Twain said whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting), exploited farm workers, farmland, the Dot-Com fiasco, many, many others and one of the worst episodes of all, the Japanese internment.

In order to get their hands on the beautiful farm land that Japanese farmers owned, it was said that the Japanese were a danger to the security of the US (dare I say homeland?) during World War Two . They were given almost no time to sell their property. It was all sold at fire-sale prices and these fine people were rounded up and put in prisons for the duration of the war. Of course, if the security problem were real, the Japanese in Hawaii, living next to the Pacific Fleet would also have been rounded up. The history of California is writ large with the lookout for the fast opportunity, to be seized on any terms.

We arrived in little Cambria, situated on the California coast, about 200 miles south of San Francisco. It's a pleasant, undemanding town filled with art galleries and restaurants that sell a plate of pasta for $15.00.

Monday, February 24. We were supposed to get a serious storm today. We had been worried about it for almost a week. We headed to the restaurant to get breakfast. The sky looked threatening, but no water came out of the sky. After breakfast, still no rain. Are we going to be lucky?

As a precaution, we put on Hot Qoleum. I do this only when threatened with really miserable weather. We rolled out of town with a little bit of sun poking through the clouds. We headed north (actually, the coast runs northwest here) with a great tailwind. The ocean was spectacular, as the coming storm made giant breakers spewing salt spray high in the air. On our right was William Randolph Hearst's "San Simeon" castle. Before the great depression of the 30's, Hearst controlled a large piece of the American press, owning newspapers across the country, as well as distribution syndicates and God knows what else. He was wealthy enough to spend $10,000 a day (remember, this was the 1920's when men traveled to Detroit to work in Ford's factories for the huge sum of five dollars a day) for years building his dream castle.

I must pass on one story about Hearst that I love. It tells a lot about the relative scale of things. Hearst's father became fabulously wealthy owning some of the greatest mines in the west, including a share of the Comstock Lode. Young William Junior asked his parents to buy the San Francisco Examiner for him. Papa dutifully investigated the situation, asking how much his boy would make owning the Examiner if it were well run.

He was told $600,000 a year. This is 1870's money, many millions in today's inflated currency.

"$600,000 a year? Hell, that ain't no money!"

Everything is relative.

Young Hearst did prevail upon his mother to buy the Examiner, and thus was born the Hearst Empire. And more than that, Hearst, in his relentless desire to increase circulation, ginned up the Spanish American War. And with that, we took the Philippine Islands, massacred several hundred thousand of the Philippine Islanders subduing them and making them safe for democracy. To paraphrase Bill Mauldin's Willy and Joe, we liberated the hell out of them. The American Empire was born.

Lonely road near Ragged Point.

But, I digress.

Hearst kept an exotic animal collection on the huge grounds that surrounded his castle. As we rode by we saw a zebra grazing among the cattle, looking quite out of place. He must have been a descendant of those animals Hearst brought there, many zebra generations ago.

We kept riding up the coast. The further we went, the closer the mountains came to the coast and the worse the weather became. The rain clouds were stalling at the mountains and dumping the rain on the foothills. At Ragged Point, the beginning of the rugged "Big Sur" coast, we turned back.

The tailwind out was nice, but the piper must be paid. Little cells of hard rain hit us and then it would stop and then we would be splattered again. At Point Piedras Blancas, about 10 miles from our turnaround, Scott yelled at us to stop. There were hundreds of Elephant Seals on the beach. They had come ashore for their annual calving and mating. At first, I thought they were rocks. The enormous still, resting bulk of the seals blended that well with the sandy beach. The giant bulls were all covered with scars from dominance fights with other bulls. The little pups were nursing. Some had milk mustaches. It's hard to wipe your face when you have only a short flipper. What a sight. And out in the ocean were whales migrating north, their spouts giving away their location.

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.

The headwind relented. The piper was happy with a token payment. And the roads stayed dry the rest of the way back into town.

"Mauro, what did you think of this ride?" I asked when we got back.

"I saw on the map that this was a road up the coast, but I did not expect anything this beautiful. This was very special."


Upon arriving back at the hotel, it started to rain, really rain. We went over to see our good buddies across the street at Cambria Bicycle Outfitters. We wanted to head inland the next day and we knew they would be able to give us the scoop. The night before, a very kind and help waiter had drawn us a map of the local roadies favorite ride.

"Be careful, there is a wall with a 10% climb", he said.

Mike at the Outfitter confirmed that there was a tough climb, but he did not quantify the degree of elevation. Mauro and I had regularly tackled climbs tougher that 10% so we were not worried.

Tuesday, February 25: After raining most of the night, the streets were drying up by breakfast time, seven in the morning. We are lucky dogs. We loaded up on pancakes, eggs and oatmeal and headed out of town.

Just north of Cambria we turned onto a little lane, Santa Rosa Creek Road. The road is what cyclists were born to ride. It was little more than one lane. We had almost no traffic.

Santa Rosa Creek Road, near Cambria.

The Santa Rosa Creek flowed by the road. It was nestled in the rolling coastal hills that were a bright emerald green. The old, gnarled oaks lorded it over the road, creating an almost storybook perfect place to ride.

We wound down and up the narrow twisting road. We just couldn't believe our good fortune. Every time we came to a small rise we thought that this was the "wall" we were warned about. No, not yet. We just kept rolling along. Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

Then the road started to rise, really rise. We went around a bend and a very steep wall faced us. Here it was.

I know 10% climb. 10% climb is a friend of mine. And this, sir, was no 10% climb. This was a leg-busting, muscle-shredding wall. I still had my 25 on the back and I dropped to it immediately. Mauro and Scott had 39-23's. That was not really a low enough gear. To keep the bike going, they had to go faster and work harder that was normally prudent. I was afraid to hit it too hard for fear of blowing up, not knowing how long the climb would go. Mauro took the point and wrestled his bike over the road, almost twisting the bars out of the stem.

Auggghh! I was in the 25 and I was at 170 on my heart monitor. This was as steep as any climb in the Dolomites, including the Stelvio and the Gavia and tougher than anything in the Apennines that I had ridden. This being day four of our tour, our legs were already feeling very weak. Any suds we had left were going to be used up today.

I didn't clock the time on the climb, but it was long enough to count as a real mountain. Mauro, our expert, agreed. Later on I saw a sign that said 1,700 feet of elevation, and this after we had already dropped some. So, coming from sea level at Cambria, we really had done some work.

We stopped to regroup at the top. What a view! We could look over the rolling green valleys and see all the way to the ocean. This was worth every calorie spent.

We did a short drop down to Route 46, a rolling good road with a huge shoulder. We had some extra time, so rather than head straight back to Cambria, we headed east until we ran out of time.

Going back, we started to really ride hard. We had recovered a bit from the climb. On one long rise Mauro really started throwing high heat. He was climbing hard! Then, it happened. For the first time, I think, Mauro burned me off his wheel on a climb and there was nothing I could do. I had no more to give. For years, I have been able to beat Mauro to the top of every mountain so that we arrive at the bottom of the hill together. Not today. He got the Polka Dot Jersey. Wait till next year.

There was a long, screamingly fast downhill to town. The winds started to buffet us from several directions. I got the willies with the big trucks passing us. Even with the wide shoulder, I felt nervous. I let the guys go on ahead while I did a death grip on the bars and the brake levers.

It ended up about 38 miles. If the reader ever gets to Cambria, ride this road. You will thank me.

It was time to pack up and go to our next stop, San Francisco. We were extremely pleased with the hotel we chose, "Sylvia's Burton Drive Inn". The rooms were spacious, immaculate and comfortable. The service was absolutely first rate. I'll be back.

I would have liked to take Mauro up the Big Sur Coast, but time forbade it. We couldn't do everything in one trip. We headed up the old 101 freeway which follows the Salinas River.

One of the chief glories of the Central Coast are the thousands of California Live Oaks. Sadly, they are all being killed by a virulant fungus. It comes over the trees so fast, a mere matter of weeks, that naturalists call it "sudden oak death". Interestingly (or tragically), the fungus, just isolated a couple of years ago, is closely related to the fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine. As we went up the Salinas River Valley, mile after miles of oak trees stood dead, with their grey, leafless branches a sorry reminder of their former magnificent beauty.

Wednesday, February 26: Rest Day, or as Mauro says, Riposo. I can't ride 8 hard, long days in a row. I have found it necessary to take a day off in the middle so that I retain a little freshness and strength. One year, in Italy, I tried to go 8 days straight and I deeply regretted it. I was dragging; pathetically, barely turning the cranks the last couple of days.

For the rest day, we did a short walking tour of downtown San Francisco. Driving across a town tells one nothing. A city must be seen on foot or bike. And San Francisco, one of the great, beautiful cities, should be enjoyed. I won't bother you with the tour.

But, I was struck by Richard Henry Dana's (Two Years Before the Mast) impressions of the city.

When he first came in the 1830's there really was no San Francisco. There was the run-down Franciscan mission, built in the 1770's, and a few ranchos in an area then called Yerba Buena. The capitol of Upper California, as it was then called, was Monterey. Dana was forced to camp out under miserable circumstances while he spent several days gathering firewood.

He returned 20 years later, after the Gold Rush had had its way with the city. Steamers plied the bay and he could eat in French restaraunts. He was astounded by the transformation of the desolate outpost to a great, cosmopolitan city in less than a generation.

For the afternoon, we had planned to visit the De Young Art Museum. I called Owen Mulholland to tell him my plans.

"I don't think there is a De Young right now. After the earthquake, they had to close it. Why don't you go to the Palace of the Legion of Honor? They have a lot there, especially Frenchie stuff. Can you stand to look at all the Snail-Eater Art?"

By the way, Marc Reisner, author of the great book of western water history, Cadillac Desert, noted that the greatest insanity of California is how we go contrary to wisdom of normal civilizations. Usually cities are built near the water and away from the earthquakes. Here, we build our great cities away from the water and on eathquake faults. Someday, our game of russian roulette using plate tectonics, aqueducts and dams will sever the supplies of water to Los Angeles. I don't want to be around then.

But, I digress...

Well, we took Owen's suggestions. The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a fantastic place. The setting is on a high bluff with beautiful views of the water and the city.

What a fine collection this is, so nicely displayed. The museum is dedicated to Eurpean artwork, and what they have is first rate. The Palace has El Greco (a St. John the Baptist that will stop you dead in your tracks), rooms of Rodin, Rembrandt, Hals, Watteau, Cezanne; I could go on. It is very moving to see this much of Rodin's work in one place. Next to many of the pictures are superb commentaries that really add to the enjoyment of the pictures.

There is one picture, by the great French painter, De La Tour, of an old woman that could have kept me in the museum past closing. The visit was worth the whole trip. Thanks, Owen.

Thursday, February 27: Today we ride, and ride long and ride hard. We had Len Luke, owner of the Bike Nook, select the route. We wanted to go north, over the Golden Gate Bridge and head into hills of Marin.

We met Len and several of his riding companions including Bob, "The Butcher" and Vicky. Joining us was good-guy Terry Shaw, his son too-strong Nathan, and Jerry, Terry's wrench at Shaw's Lightweight Cycles.

We headed over the Golden Gate Brdge. What an awesome sight! I never, ever get tired of looking at this magnificent, beautiful bridge. We dropped down into Sausalito on the north side of the San Francisco Bay. We then followed along the eastern edge of the hills that sit just off the Pacific Ocean north of San Francisco. We passed the summer homes of days gone by when the people of San Francsico, to escape the cold fog of summer, would escape here to Marin to warm their wet, chilled bones.

"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." - Mark Twain is reputed to have said this. The evidence of attribution is as weak as the strength of the truth of the statement.

Along the way, we came to a few stiff, short climbs. We took them pretty hard. A few guys got shelled. Not Vicky. Vicky can ride. I don't mean this in a patronizing way that she rode well for a woman. She rode superbly, in the absolute sense.

Then, we came to paradise. At Samuel Taylor Park, we rode through tall groves of Redwoods. The road was narrow and the beautiful giants made us feel small. Along with the coastal desert chapparral of Southern Califonia, the redwoods groves speak to me of California. I love them. There are places like them nowhere else.

We reached the northernmost tip of our ride at Olema, a gathering of a few houses and rode down Route 1 towards an intersection with the Pacific Ocean, about 14 miles away. The road follows the most famous earthquake fault of all, the San Andreas. The road didn't have a straight centimeter. It gently curved and rose and fell. It's a perfect road for cycling with beautiful views of pastures and untouched forested hillsides.

At Stinson Beach, it was time to get serious. To get back to the road leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, we had to go over Mount Tamalpais, famous as the birthplace of the Mountain Bike.

We dropped to the little rings and went to work. About a mile into the 4+ mile climb, I stopped to take a picture. Len, Vicky, The Butcher and Mauro kept going. I got back on the bike and did what I thought would be an absolutely fruitless chase. Len is the best climber I know.

After about 2 miles of hard work, I was astonished to see them just disappearing around each corner just as I came to them. This was a surprise. I grunted extra hard and got within about 15 yards on them. I called out that I was about there.

And Len increaed his speed about 1/2 mile an hour.

"@#$#$#$%^&^&&*&*!", I said.

Well, I'm this close. I'll just go completely anaerobic and bridge the gap. I put it in the 21 and sprinted for them. This 51-year-old aging baby-boomer had his bpms in the 180s. I just got on Mauro's wheel as the road took a sharp rise. Len stood up and reopened the gap. I was too far gone.

"*&^$#^$&!", I gasped.

We got to the top, bathed in sweat. We put on wind breakers and did the 4 mile descent down to the valley floor. We had about 61 miles under out belts with about 12 to go. Mauro and I were shot. But the rest of the ride, with the exception of the sharp climb out of Sausalito to the bridge, was not particularly challenging.

We finshed the ride of 73 wonderful miles desperate for pizza.

Friday, February 28: We're checking out of the motel today, so we have to keep the ride down to 3 hours. Today was an easy day, a trip around the Tiburon Penisula. The Tiburon Peninsula is a little arm of land that sticks out into the San Francisco Bay. You reach it just after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and passing through Sausalito and Marin City.

Mauro and I met Len and his crew and headed over the bridge again.

The Golden Gate Bridge, looking toward Sausalito/Tiburon.

Whenever I cross the bridge on my bike, no matter how much I want to look out and enjoy the view, I can't. I have to look straight ahead, avoiding both the speeding cars on one side and the 200 foot drop on the other. Everyone else is relaxed crossing the bridge. Everyone but me with my grip of death making an imprint on the hardened aluminum bars.

After Sausalito, we had a little climb followed by a set of switchbacks. Who did we see coming up to meet us? Owen Mulholland. We waited for him at the light. Instantly, the entire atmosphere got festive. Owen brightens any place he goes. He knows just about everyone in the world. As we crossed the freeway and started out clockwise tour of the peninsula, Owen moved around the pack, giving everyone a greeting, restarting conversations left unfinished months ago.

My legs were shot. For Len and the guys, the pace was easy. For me, it was really tough. At each new city, we get a new, fresh, rested set of riding companions.

The road around the peninsula is a narrow, winding lane lined with houses the entire way. Trees shade the road. Every so often, a view of the bay peeks out. The weather is perfect, in the mid 60's. Another giornata bellissima. Mauro is tickled with our good fortune. A week in February should have at least one lousy morning. Not this week. So far, so good.

We packed up and headed to Solvang, about 30 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara.

Solvang is a little faux Danish town nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, at the base of the San Rafael Mountains. It was founded by Danish immigrants just before World War One. These men and women were teachers seeking to set up a Danish Institute. The city thrived.

My father and mother would take me here when I was a boy. Even now, I really enjoy coming here to do nothing useful. I wander down the streets looking at the useless objects offered for sale. But wait, are they really useless? I'm perfectly happy to burn up an afternoon looking at this stuff.

The rough edges and the local homespun feeling Solvang used to have are going away, being replaced with slicker, more corporate businesses. I like my kitsch served raw.

Morning on the main street of Solvang.

Saturday, March 1: Cyclists for many, many miles around know the roads we traveled today. The Solvang Century is one of the most popular rides in the West. Our trip up Foxen Canyon Road is an integral part of that ride. And that is for good reason: it is just plain perfect for riding.

Scott Gibb, who had joined us for the first four days of riding met us a Solvang for the final two days of our tour. We rolled out a little after eight in the morning. The air was cool, but the sun promised to warm things up to short-sleeve weather. Just as we left town, we were faced with a climb up Chalk Hill Road. It wasn't the Stelvio, but for just getting on the bike, being in the first couple of miles, it did hurt.

The hills here at the start of the ride are a little sharp. The road was really narrow and the climbs regular. Dozens of wineries lined the road. Besides the glut of wine grapes causing a plunge in the price of wine grapes, the wineries have another foe. The Glassy-winged Sharpshooter, a nasty little bug, is spreading a bacteria that is killing the grapevines. The disease is called Pierce's Disease. As we rode by, a farmer was harnessing a tractor to an old, thick grapevine. He was working to pull out what looked to be a well-established vineyard. How sad.

The entire way out, a stiff wind was in our face, keeping our speed under fifteen miles per hour.

When we actually arrived in Foxen Canyon, with the Solomon hills on our left and the San Rafaels on our right, the road leveled out.

Our plan was to ride for two hours out and then turn back. Just shy of the little town of Sisquoc, we turned around and headed back to the barn. We were now going very slightly uphill with a stiff tailwind. There, as on the way out, were some tough sections of road that really bounced us. Training for Flanders, Mauro?

Foxen Canyon

As we did the final climbs to descend into Solvang, I reached that point that I come to in every week-long cycle tour wherein my body just gives up. I try to time this so that I run out of gas on day eight of an eight-day ride. I came pretty close, five miles left on day seven. That's why I wear a heart-rate monitor on these tours, to keep me from working too hard. Sometimes, one can be caught up in the moment with a group and be hammering along for an hour or two before one realizes that everyone's been at anaerobic threshold.

We made it back to the hotel in well under four hours, the tailwind having help us fly us over the roads back home.

"Do you approve of today's ride?", I asked Mauro.

"Approvato, cento percent."

Besides the little tourist traps selling useless junk, Solvang also has one of the California Missions, Santa Ines. Started in Baja California, Spain set up a chain of missions up the coast. These missions were self-sufficient working churches set up to proselytize the Indians. In Upper California (that's the State of California as we now know it) there are 21, each about a day's walking distance apart. Started by the Jesuits, the Franciscans took over the job of building the missions after Spain threw the Jesuits out.

Santa Ines Mission

Early in the 19th century, these missions fell into almost complete disrepair, some virtual ruins. The one here in Solvang has been beautifully restored and is a full, working church. While we were there, a girl was having her confirmation.

The nature, purpose and execution of the Missions is now a tender subject. The Indians were brought in to the missions from their native lands and ways, their existing social structures destroyed. It was always said to be for their own good and completely voluntary. Yet Indians that ran away from the missions were usually hunted down by men seeking bounties offered by the missions.

One thing must be noted. And that is, for better or worse, the Franciscans that built the missions and the Spaniards that settled California were men of iron. Just before 1800, historian David Lavender says there were only about 500 men of Spanish or mixed Spanish-Indian descent living in Upper California. These very few men and their wives had carved a living from the coastal desert almost by force of will alone.

It is also easy to see why it way so easy for the few American immigrants living in California in the 1840's to sever Upper California from Mexico. There were really very few Mexicans living there to hold on to the land. Spain's and then Mexico's arcane and self-serving agricultural and trade policies exacerbated dissatisfaction among the recent American immigrants. A coup, overthrowing Mexico and giving California to the US, was absolutely inevitable.

Sunday, March 2: The last day of riding. Because we had to check out a little after eleven this morning, we had to hold our ride to three hours. That was fine with me and it was fine with Mauro. That's about all we had left in our legs. Today we planned to head west to the little town of Lompoc. As we rode west with the poppies blooming, the hills an intense green, peppered now and again with purple lupine and yellow mustard, Mauro grew pensive.

"I was thinking last night, " He said.

Looking around us without a car in sight, "You say you like to come to Italy to find the perfect place to ride. Why do you say this when you can ride on a road like this?"

Good point. I guess there is something magical about places far away. It's easy to forget how fine things are right here.

At the outskirts of Lompoc, we did a one-eighty and headed towards the completion of our last 20 miles. Scott started to feel frisky and began hitting the hills rather hard.

"Scott needs a couple of days with Len, Vicky and The Butcher," Mauro said.

Mauro cannot resist the temptation of any competiton, no matter how tired he is. So, when Scott shot off the front, we all followed Mauro's wheel and started hammering away in big gears, doing burn-off pace lines, re-grouping and attacking again.

We were finally reduced to exaustion. Scott dragged us the final 3 miles back to the hotel. I know I've been more tired, but I cannot exactly remember when.

That was it. Vacation over. We all had to head back to our homes and resume our lives as responsible grown-ups. Mauro didn't even want to think about it. He certainly wasn't looking forward to going back to that wet, disgusting cold of Milan.

Well, Mauro liked our California trip we decided to make the turnabout permanent. Next year I go to Italy and in 2005, he comes over here. We've already got a lot of that trip planned. Mauro's going surfing................

Reading suggestions.

Richard Henry Dana: Two Years Before the Mast. This is a masterful book of non fiction that reads as well as any novel. In the 1830's Dana signed up to go around the Horn and back again to try to recover his health. He writes factually, unemotionally about the beauty and the brutality of the sailor's life. His story is exciting and the quality of his prose never lags.

David Lavender: California, Land of New Beginnings. This is the best one-volume history of California that I have found. After reading this book, I found that Lavender changed many of my thoughts and opinions.

Mark Twain: Roughing It. Mark Twain's hilarious story of going west is one of the classics of American literature. You'll get the flavor of the time and laugh yourself silly at the same time.

Marc Reisner: Cadillac Desert. Getting water to the thirsty towns of the west is dirty, nasty work. Mr. Reisner tells the whole ugly story, and tells it very well.

Scott O'Dell: Island of Blue Dolphins. The classic children's book about an Indian girl alone on San Nicholas Island, off the California coast for 18 years, from the age of 12. In the 1960's, all California children either read this story or had it read to them. It remains popular to this day for good reason. It's a good book.