NorCal? SoCal?

I’ve never heard anyone seriously dispute the contention that riding in NorCal is harder than riding in SoCal. When local riders head north to test their legs in the NorCal road races, they invariably come back beaten.


If the riders who effortlessly drop me get effortlessly dropped, that’s all I need to know.

Levi’s without the 7,000 friends and the sordid doping past

“I’m in good form. What’s a hundred miles? And how tough can a hundred miles and 8k be?”

Answers below…

Doing the route that encompasses King Ridge, Seaview, and Coleman Valley is plenty hard in a group. Without wheels to suck it’s exponentially worse.

From Santa Rosa to Bohemian Highway it’s all uphill. Not steep, and it’s early so you’re still fresh, but it’s ALL UPHILL. You don’t really grasp how uphill until you return.

There’s no traffic turning off Occidental. These are ghost roads with the occasional vehicle. On King Ridge I saw one car over the entire stretch to Tin Barn Rd. This is truly solitary riding. I hope you like the noise inside your own head.

The oddest thing about the entire route is that with one or two very brief exceptions, there are no proper downhills on which you can rest. King Ridge is an endless series of short walls punctuated by too-brief downhills. There is no sensation of recovery anywhere.

Downhill with the beast

When you do hit downhills they are short, technical, and deadly. Hauser Bridge saw a fatality a few years back, and on Levi’s fondue this section is so screamingly awful that you are escorted down it by cops and ride marshals.

Alone, the drop is maddeningly hard even with disc brakes. With calipers, prepare for skids and cramped hands. On this day there was nothing but pavement and silence. If you wind up in in a fetal ball due to a miscalculation and you will lie there for a long, long time.

After Hauser Bridge and the dentist chair of King Ridge you hit Seaview, where you can expect a gorgeous view of the sea and a long downhill, but will be disappointed as there is neither. More up, more silence, more trees. I never thought I would hate trees just for standing.

Figuring I’d not have phone service I memorized all the turns, which worked out fine until I forgot one and hooked a right on Ft. Ross Road instead of continuing straight to what I’m told is the awesome Meyer’s Grade descent.

Ft. Ross plunges two miles and is far worse than Hauser Bridge. Wet roads even on dry days, carpets of redwood needles, hairpins and crazy steep declines wear your attention to a frayed rag. As you drag brakes beneath the giant redwoods you can hear the surreal sound of barking seals on the beach far, far beneath.

Thankfully at the bottom you hit PCH. “Thankfully” because everyone from SoCal knows what PCH means: Tailwind, mostly flat, roll the eleven.


After less than a mile you realize, again, that NorCal ain’t SoCal. From Ft. Ross Park to Jenner you hit awful, killing walls that max you out, drop just enough not to afford any recovery, then hit you again.

I hadn’t done any course recon and wrongly assumed that Coleman Valley Road was, you know, a valley rather than an 8-mile bitter ascent featuring a 17% climb to get you off the coast.

The only time I got a meaningful, recoverable downhill was at the end of the ride, when it no longer mattered.

The sound of silence

The scenery is beyond compare. I’ve ridden all over the world and have never seen so much diverse natural beauty on one ride, but I don’t know why you would do this jaunt with a group. You won’t be talking; the descents are too technical and the climbing eliminates all possibility of conversation except grunting.

The magic of the route is the silence. Even the bike trail leaving Santa Rosa is completely still, and except for some brief, unremarkable “traffic” on Occidental, you have the road to yourself.

From the bottom of King Ridge to PCH I saw eight vehicles. This section is so untraveled that huge swaths are covered in redwood needles, wholly undisturbed by cars.

Even PCH was mostly car-free, and there were none at all on Coleman Valley. The only benefit to a group on this route is drafting, but riding it with thousands of other riders, all in varying stages of emotional and physical collapse? Really? It would be like going to see the Vienna Philharmonic and sitting there the whole time with earphones playing the Sex Pistols.

Doing this monster I wound up with about 115 miles and just under 10k. It took all day and left me completely wrecked.

No person is an island

There can’t be any serious discussion about whether the riding here is harder, more technical, more scenic, and more challenging in almost every way than the roads at home.

But the utter emptiness isn’t my cup of tea. I saw two bicyclists the entire day, in Jenner. We were so shocked to see each other that we waved, excitedly. “Look! Bicyclists!”

Think how awful it must be to wake up to a cold, drizzly morning and know that although you have the entire county to yourself, yourself isn’t all that interesting after several years and a couple hundred thousand miles or so.

Despite the claw and fang of the Bay Area sprawl yearly engulfing more and more of Sonoma County, this land is still pretty empty. Which, you know, is the way they like it.



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17 thoughts on “NorCal? SoCal?”

  1. Levi’s Gran Fondo is one of the two hardest rides I have ever done but it is beautiful. I was ready to do it for a second time but had to pull out of the last second due to shoulder pain (had surgery weeks later). Unfortunately, that was the year Ed Lund lost his life. It really made me reevaluate doing such rides until after my kids are grown. Oh, and Coleman Valley Road is one bitch of a climb! You should consider doing the Grizzly Century ride up here in my neck of the woods. It is tied as the hardest ride I have done.

    1. I’ll definitely but not for a mass ride. Too much respect for the formidable nature of these roads. Nice LA detox, too!

  2. Having been licensed in both districts (as well as Ohio, Colorado, Washington, and Chicago), I can say that Socal has devolved more rapidly than Norcal into crit-madness. However, true road racing is in decline everywhere, because, well, cars (and in California, the CHP). In the future, I think maybe that circuit races (with a hill in them) on a manageable closed course will be an easier permit to pull for promoters.

  3. It’s different than riding near the coast, but as UC Davis alumni, I recommend the Davis Double Century. There are 100 and 45 mile rides, too.

    The ride has been going on for 40 years that I know of, but I think it’s much longer than that. For info on the most recent event, see

    In 2017 the fastest riders, including a tandem team, finished the ±200 miles in about nine hours. Whew!

    Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when I lived in Davis and the national speed limit was 55 mph, I heard that the CHP ticketed some riders for speeding. Supposedly a tandem team was written up for 70 mph. I also heard that the Davis Bike Club and the Davis Chamber of Commerce had a spirited meeting with the local CHP supervisor after the event, and no tickets were issued the following year.

    Ahhhh… legends!

  4. I rode the first Levi’s Gran Fondo. I hooked up with Levi’s small group on the descent from King’s Ridge, and rode with him the rest of the way. Levi, riding on the front, ocean side in the wind, chatting away to those near him. Me, at the back, inland side, hiding as much as I could. Levi hit every rest stop from Coleman to the finish, allowing me to just catch back on so I could cross the line with him, even though I was so out of my skull I almost crashed on a traffic cone next to Levi on the finish line. Never did it again. How could I beat that?

  5. Welcome to NorCal cycling – Glad you enjoyed the roads up here! The riding is both brutal and amazing at the same time.

    As a transplant from SoCal to NorCal (3 years now), I can say there’s a metric assload more climbing up this way. My in-laws live up that way and Coleman Valley Rd, Occidental and Kings Ridge are (painfully) familiar to me, so are the ones closer to home – Old LaHonda, Kings Mountain, Tunitas, Pescadero, etc.

    Something I learned quickly after moving up here – switching to an 11-32 is a really really good idea. Compared to PV and the SMMs down south, the roads up here pitch up much more steeply. You’re going to want that 11-32 and heck, I even have an 11-36 cassette floating around for those days I’m feeling like a baby seal.

    I LOVE the solitude you get with some of the roads up here. Up here in the mid-peninsula, I can be at the bottom fo Old La Honda in 25 minutes and for that entire 25 minute climb up a narrow twisting road, I might see *one* car and 3 – 4 cyclists going up the hill. I don’t feel like I’m gonna get mowed down by some squid on a crotch rocket or some middle-aged guy trying to re-live his high school days with a meticulously restored muscle car with a bazillion horsepower.

    As for racing up here – its no joke for sure. Lots of crits but also LOTS of road races that cater to both featherweight climbers like you (Patterson Pass and Pescadero RRs for example) and fat old guys like me (San Ardo, Turlock Lake, etc..) – and the depth of talent in both the Elite and Masters fields is pretty deep

    That being said, for a crit race, my money’s on the SoCal teams. For a road race, I would not bet against the NorCal guys. They will grind you to dust over a 75 – 90 mile distance.

    I do wish we had more events that would attract SoCal and NorCal racers – the closest out there would be the former Poor College Kids RR and the crit in Goleta along with San Ardo.. . too bad we don’t have anything in S.L.O. during the middle of the season…

    Welcome to NorCal! Hope you come back soon 😉 Let me know if you end up in the mid-peninsula, be happy to take for a tour of the local roads (and views that don’t suck).

  6. One of my most favorite places to ride. Have done it with the masses and with one or two people. I recommend getting a room or place up there for a few days and exploring.

    I actually felt pretty good going up King Ridge and Coleman but that meant being pretty empty towards the end. Like leave the bike and hitchhike empty.

  7. There’s no PCH up here, Seth, and wtf is wrong with you — descending Ft. Ross? You’re only supposed to ride Ft. Ross in one direction, the opposite to the one you took.

  8. One of my favorite rides. First rode it in 1993. Talk about solitude and quiet. Very glad to hear that you skipped riding it with 7,000 friends. People seem to forget that those roads are open 365 days a year, free.

    1. Funny you mention that. I think we spent $10 on coffee and a pack of nuts; brought our own sandwiches. The other thing that was kind of amazing is the thought that anyone would take a large group of riders down these descents. And of course the primary attraction of the place, its solitude, is destroyed by packing the roads with thousands of people. I was told that this year they are only planning for 1,200 riders. I think 10 years ago when fondues were a new thing and options were few, this was a can’t miss thing. But now there are fondues everywhere, cheese and non-cheese versions alike, and they run throughout the year. People are probably also getting pickier. $250 for snack stops and the opportunity to be remarketed to throughout the year? It works for some folks, obviously. The one good thing I can say about every grand fondue is that they really put cyclists on the road and force cars to truly take account of of them. It’s not a happy interaction for the cars, as I heard repeatedly from various people. But so what? Sometimes reality isn’t smiles and unicorns.

  9. Nice ride Wanker. Got a cabin in Guerneville with the family this summer. Left the bike at home (rare selfless act), but got to see all the great places to ride up there. Drove W to Jenner and Bodega Bay to enjoy oysters and E to SR, Sonoma and Napa. Hitting the Russian River Brew Co in SR and enjoying a Pliny the Elder on tap while the wife and daughter were at the Charles Schultz Museum was a large win. Thanks for continuing to deliver on the blog. Don’t know how you do it. Always loved when Hemmingway would talk about the whole process of being a writer – not easy…

    You’d love Guerneville and you’d also love Mustard Grill in Napa.

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