The Chainlink

Travel Review: Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours

By Brett Ratner

Chicagoland offers a lot of great cycling. We have the Lakefront Trail, the Prairie Path, top-notch mountain bike trails, the North Branch Trail (which takes us to the Chicago Botanic Garden's doorstep), not to mention miles and miles of bike lanes.

But even with all these opportunities to happily pedal our bikes, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. A change of scenery is exactly what we got when The Chainlink visited Solvang, California.

You might know Solvang from the 2004 film Sideways. Whether or not you liked the movie (or even like wine), it's hard to argue that Santa Barbara County offers some seriously epic scenery...which makes it a prime destination for cycling.

Chainlink head honcho Yasmeen has visited the area several times prior, really understands fine food and wine, and as such knew the best spots to visit. Adding bike riding to the mix made it a dream vacation.

Ahead of the trip, we reserved a pair of rental bikes from Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours, which is part of Dr. J's Bicycle Shop, located in downtown Solvang. In addition to straight up bike rentals (road, hybrid and mountain), they offer a wide range of single-day and multi-day guided bike tour packages, as well as packages that include hotel.

We opted to rent road bikes and do self-guided tours using a bike map of Santa Barbara County, available for sale at the shop. The color-coded map was easy to use and outlined suggested routes based on difficulty (red lines, for example, denoted lots of climbing). This, with the addition of helpful suggestions from Dr. J's knowledgeable staff, allowed us to plan three days of challenging and fun riding.

For $85 per day each, we were issued road bikes with carbon fiber frames. Mine was a Specialized Tarmac Comp, a $3,000 retail bike that features Shimano Ultegra components. Yasmeen was issued a Specialized Ruby Elite, which retails for $2,500 and offers Shimano 105 components. The bikes came equipped with a seat bag containing a spare tube, tire levers and a CO2 tire pump. We provided our own pedals.

My Specialized Tarmac Comp, rented from Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours, proved to be a trusty steed. Here it's shown on Ballard Canyon Road, which takes you from Solvang to Los Olivos. Like most routes in the area, Ballard Canyon Road offers challenging elevation changes and stunning views of local vineyards.

Much to my chagrin, I neglected to bring Yasmeen's and my bike measurements. A few months ago, I wrote a story that offered suggestions on renting bikes while traveling. One of my tips in the story was to bring a tape measure with key measurements (like saddle height) marked with a sharpie. Well, I forgot mine. Fortunately (with the help of the shop), we were able to put my rental bike on a stationary trainer and get a good fit based on memory and feel. We struggled a bit more with Yasmeen's setup, and it unfortunately compromised her enjoyment of the bike and the ride.

The next time I rent a bike, I'm going to make a point of keeping all key measurements saved in my phone. Also, since I personally prefer hand pumps to CO2 cartridges...and like to have a multi tool on hand in case of a mechanical issue, I'm putting together a bike rental "kit" that contains a multi-tool, mini hand pump, and all the other things I'd prefer not to do without perchance they're not included with the rental.

All this said, the bikes were new, well-maintained, offered plenty of gearing for the hilly terrain, and neither of us encountered a flat or mechanical issue. So, if I wasn't a butt-head and forgot our measurements, we would have both enjoyed nearly flawless experiences.

Anyway, being flatlanders, one of our main goals for the trip was to get some climbing in. Aside from the "category 3" climb up to Blue Mound State Park near Madison, Wisconsin, neither of us have personally done a long, sustained climb on a road bike.

Fortunately, Solvang is a short pedal from "The Fig," a 3,500-foot "hors catégorie" climb up nearby Figueroa Mountain that features an average grade of 9.5% and a maximum grade of 20%.

This T-Shirt on the wall at Dr. J's Bicycle Shop outlines the area's toughest cycling challenge; the 9.5-mile ride up Figueroa Mountain (known by locals as "The Fig").

Starting from Solvang, you take Alamo Pintado Road, which is about 10-miles of false flat (1-2% uphill grade) to Los Olivios, another town featured in Sideways.

Yasmeen's rental steed in front of Blackjack vineyards, located between Solvang and Los Olivos on Alamo Pintado Road.

From there you get on Figueroa Mountain Road, which gives you another five miles of false flat to the base of the climb...not to mention a scenic view of your mountainous foe.

Figueroa Mountain Road, which takes you North out of Los Olivos, gives you a panoramic view of the challenges that lie ahead.

The base of the climb arrives with minimal fanfare. You cross one of those cow grate thingies and then the road points skyward.

After a mile spent getting my spiked heart rate under control, I settled into a rhythm and pedaled up switchback after switchback featuring panoramic views, and grades that generally alternated between 8% and 14%, with a few short flat sections and really steep pitches thrown in. Once I got used to sustained climbing, I started to marvel at my ability to "rest" on an 8% grade, which under normal circumstances would seem pretty steep to me. Halfway up, I started to zone out and enjoy the ride like I would any other.

The top arrived with even less fanfare than the beginning of the climb. There was no sign, nor was there a gaggle of exhausted cyclists swapping stories. The "top" was just a small gravel pull off. It was so nondescript that I actually rode past it. I didn't realize that something was wrong until I started going downhill FAST. Ultimately, I was so unsure I made it to the top that I rode down the back side twice (the second time farther than the first). So ultimately I ended up summiting the climb three times.

Achievement unlocked. The view from the top of Figueroa Mountain. The total ride added up to 45 miles and 4,800 feet of elevation gain.

The ride back down the front side was a little less fun than I had hoped. The road itself was barely wider than a lane, with lots broken up concrete and bits of rock and gravel strewn strategically around the apex of hairpin turns. I believe myself to be a confident descender (particularly on a mountain bike). But on an unfamiliar road bike combined with the ever-present danger of cars lurking around blind corners, I favored caution over speed. That said, spooling up to 40mph mere moments after letting off the brakes was pretty entertaining. I was back at the bottom before I knew it and then enjoyed a fast, slightly downhill ride through Los Olivos and back to Solvang.

The following day, the shop gave me the "training ride" route the locals do. The whole thing was awesome, but highlights included Ballard Canyon Road. This road has a little of everything, including challenging switchbacks, rolling hills, scenic vineyards, and ranches full of horses and goats.

Ballard Canyon Road's switchbacks offered quad-burning pitches.

Foxen Canyon Road, meanwhile, offers a couple of longer climbs and takes you by some of the area's most famous vineyards.

Foxen Canyon Road, shown here, is home to many of Santa Barbara County's best-known wineries.

While this was primarily a cycling trip, it wasn't ALL about cycling. THE highlight of the trip may very well have been our visit over to Buellton to eat at the Hitching Post II, another spot popularized in Sideways. I'll admit, Hitching Post has a lot of hype, and trust me when I say that I won't automatically like a place because it is hyped up and/or popular. But this place more than lived up to its hype. The wine was amazing, and the steak (grilled over an open fire of red oak) may have been the best I've ever had.

Doin' the tourist thang at The Hitching Post II.

The town of Solvang, meanwhile, is a quaint tourist hamlet, with lots of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and boutique shops to enjoy. Since, all said and done, you're going to spend more time off the bike than on it, having things to do après velo is important. And of course, it's fun to visit the vineyards and do the wine tastings.

Solvang is touristy, filled with quaint boutiques, but fun nonetheless.

All in all, this was a fantastic trip. The riding was some of the best I've ever experienced. The food and wine was amazing, and Dr. J's took really good care of us for the three days we rented bikes. I'd gladly rent from them again, although next time, I might rent a mountain bike for a day or two and see what the trail riding is like out there.

Visit http://www.winecountrycycling.com/ for more information.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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