San Francisco-based photographer and cycling enthusiast, Brad Wenner cycled 1300 miles along the Californian coastline during the summer of 2012 and documented it with photographs on his blog, Further Farther. Here he sheds some light on the some of the aspects involved in an epic journey like this.
Firstly, what were you doing at the time the idea of cycling 1300 miles entered your mind?
As most of these adventures tend to start out, I was having some beers with a good friend of mine. We had done a self-supported bike trip the previous year down the Pacific coast, which is a very developed and popular cycling route. With every trip we do we try to step it up and do something longer, more challenging, and this time, through a much more remote part of California than we had done before.
It was his idea to try to take on the Sierra Cascades mountains, which are made up of a series of very steep and long mountain pass climbs through a part of the wilderness that is snowed-in and inaccessible the majority of the year. So we’re sitting around talking about doing this extreme route and I’m thinking—this isn’t good enough, I want to go farther. So I decided to keep pedaling another 500 miles down the coast as well.
What prompted you to embark on this mission?
Mostly it was a part of the west I had never been to, it seemed like the perfect setting for an epic adventure—high altitude lakes, bears, and some of the world’s best national parks.
“These trips are a constant reminder to me that all the things we think we ‘need’ are mostly an illusion.”
Give us a background to your cycling prowess…
I’ve never been very competitive. I started cycling first as transportation and then decided to completely ditch driving after I moved to the west coast. This left me with a problem though, as I wanted to get out and explore California but didn’t really have any way to get out of the city. The original catalyst for deciding to do trips like this was actually a freelance job I was offered shortly after moving. It was a month assignment about 2 hours north of where I lived in San Francisco, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make it worth it if I had to rent a car and get a hotel at the job site.
While I was looking at maps of the area I noticed there was a state park not far from where I would be shooting, so I started thinking, “Well, what if I just camp there and ride to work on my bike like I normally would?” So I strapped a tent to my bike and rode up there without any real planning. That ended up being one of the best summers I can remember, and all I could think about after I got back was how it was possible to go anywhere on my bike. I started spending a lot of my free time looking at maps.
What are some personal attributes that are essential for a trip like this?
I really think that doing long distance cycling like this is really more about your mental state rather than physical. No matter how tired, hungry, or sick of riding you are that day you can always pedal a little further, so really the biggest obstacle is yourself.
I imagine that the concept of ‘packing light’ is crucial for cycling. What essentials did you take with you?
Weight is definitely a huge deal since you are carrying everything you need on your bike with you. Besides the obvious survival gear—sleeping bag, tent, stove, bike tools—it’s surprising how little you actually need. To be happy on the road I don’t need much other than a camera and a notebook to write in.
What were people’s reactions when you told them about your plans? Everyone’s first comment is, “You’re crazy.”
What does one need to do to prepare themself for a venture like this?
I’m not sure you can really prepare yourself much beforehand. My friend always says, “You don’t train for the tour, the tour trains you.” After a few days of riding there’s no going back, and you get to this mental place where you feel like you can go on for forever. It really is amazing what your body can adapt to.
What was the average length and/or duration that you rode each day? Anywhere from 50 to 100 miles a day, you pretty much spend all day in the saddle and try to pull off the road to camp a little before sunset. The distance covered mostly depended on the amount of elevation gain. Some days in the mountains you just go straight up for miles and miles and it seems like it’s never going to end and then some days along the ocean the wind pushes you effortlessly down the road.
How did you spend your downtime?
Eating! I always tried to do a little hiking at the places we set up camp, but at the end of the day sitting around a fire with a beer, some warm food, and good friends was all I needed. Along the coast you meet a lot of other cyclists, so there’s this sense of camaraderie as you camp with the same people and share stories every night.
What did you find hardest to live without?
Mostly my friends and dog back home. These trips are a constant reminder to me that all the things we think we ‘need’ are mostly an illusion. I was always grateful for a warm shower when that was possible though.
Were you travelling solo? If so, what sort of things went through your mind while you were cycling?
For this trip I did the first half with a good friend of mine who’s a pretty hardcore cyclist, and the second half I did with my girlfriend. I’ve done solo trips in the past and it’s a very different experience. I do enjoy it, but I’ve found my limit for solo trips is about a week. You spend a lot of time in your own head while you’re riding, so just being able to share a meal with someone and look over the map together at the end of the day helps keep you sane.
What is the greatest highlight from this journey?
There are so many things. Picking strawberries by the handfuls in the foggy fields along the Pacific, sitting huddled by a fire in the backcountry of Big Sur after a long hike, crashing in a Forest Service bunkhouse and sipping coffee while the rangers told us stories, reaching the top of Tioga Pass and looking back down from where I’d started, watching the sunset after the thunderstorm clouds that had drenched us all day cleared, sitting in a remote hot spring and just feeling all the soreness drain out of my legs…it’s hard to pick one thing.
What is the greatest lowlight that you can recall?
I remember going up Monitor Pass was really hard, about a 9000’ climb up a very steep and winding road. It was probably the hottest day of the whole trip, and I hadn’t eaten enough before we left town and was running out of steam near the top. I must have looked pitiful because some German tourists pulled over, and although they didn’t speak any English, they insisted I take some ice and fruit they had with them. The view from the top, and then going over 50mph down the other side, was so amazing, though. I grinned the whole way down, even though I felt so beat.
What are the benefits of seeing a country by bike?
It’s a very direct experience. You’re traveling at a speed where you can take everything in, from the sunshine to the smell of roadkill, but you are covering so much ground. At times it’s almost hard to process it all. Everywhere you go people go out of their way to offer their help, whether a glass of water, directions, or even their own homes. That is one of my favourite parts, when there’s not a layer of glass separating you from the people around you really see how far people will go to help a stranger, even ones who smelled as bad as I did.
What are some of the disadvantages? Some days you are just exhausted, maybe you didn’t bring enough food for the climb or you didn’t sleep well, and you sometimes lose sight of why you are doing this. It always works out in the end though.
Do you think anyone is capable of a mission like this?
Yes, absolutely. The only hard part is convincing yourself to do it.
What hearty advice would you give to someone considering cycling cross-country?
I always try to remember that if nothing goes wrong, I won’t have any stories to tell in the end. I think that’s crucial to remember when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you have, what seems like at the time, a catastrophic mechanical problem or whatever that you have to work around.
What was the greatest achievement you gained from this trip?
It’s always amazing to look at the map and see how far you’ve gone on your own two legs. For me that is the most rewarding part, just knowing that this thing that seemed impossible at the beginning you’ve conquered one mile at a time.
If you could do anything differently to how you did it, what would you change? (if anything)
I always wish that I had given myself more time, as it’s a daily trade off between going further and covering more miles and stopping to really explore a place.
Finally, did cycling via the coastline forge a new appreciation of the ocean for you?
When I first moved to California, the Pacific felt so strange and foreign to me with it’s dense layer of fog and rocky cliffs—almost intimidating. After spending two weeks in the mountains, one of the brightest moments of this trip was finally reaching the ocean. It felt like coming home, before I could see the water I could smell the salt and feel the wind pushing me closer. When I looked out over the water and saw the sun poking through the fog, it washed away my road weariness and I felt so ready to continue on.