By: Brian Ecker
The Tour of the Unknown Coast is a long standing event held annually in May down in Humboldt County California. It’s dubbed as California’s toughest century and it lives up to it. One hundred miles, 9,000ft of climbing, wind, rough roads, and technical descents make for one heck of a great day. It is a timed event with official results yet it is still a bit different than your typical century or race. I had the pleasure of partaking last year and came away with top honors after 70+ miles of solo effort; definitely a great day at the office. From the moment I finished that year I already had my mind set on coming back!
This year Dave Bishop and I were accompanied by 4 additional great friends: Rusty Dodge, Stewart Bowmer, Chad Clarke and Patrick Means. It was great to have some friendly faces knowing that I would be a marked man after last year. We pulled into Ferndale, CA with enough time for a gentle ride out to the coast. Fortunately or unfortunately I suffered some serious mechanical issues about half way through the ride. My rear shifting was quickly becoming non functional and upon inspection back at the car it was pretty clear I needed some serious help. A few quick calls to Adventures Edge (local shop that sponsors the event) and we were high tailing it to their shop hoping to get there before they close. The folks at the shop we very welcoming and immediately threw my bike up in the stand. The funny part is that they immediately recognized the bike and then me as “that out of towner” from last year. A good 45 min of love by the mechanic got the frayed derailleur cable out of the lever, a new one in, with new housing. They stayed way past close and totally saved my ass! THANKS MAN!!
On with the ride! It was up in the early morning cold to get ready for the 7am start. True to form, the ride started quick with the local team setting a nice tempo to discourage any forays off the front. About mile 35 the route passes under Hwy 101 and into the dense redwood forest. Below is a video shot from a remote control helicopter:
Here I gathered our forces and began throwing down a much higher tempo. The road is narrow, bumpy and snakes through the forest. My goal was to thin the group, stay out of trouble, and get this thing under way. We reached the base of Panther Gap(7 mi and about 2,500 ft) with a relatively large group which thinned quickly once on the climb. About 1/3rd of the way up the climb the group began to thin more. About 5 guys drifted ahead of me with Patrick Means hanging tough. Knowing that the climb is long but a bit easier towards the top I kept it steady and kept the group within site. The gap hovered between 15-30 seconds for the majority of the climb. I was confident that if I could keep it under 45 seconds I would bring them all back on the highly technical and fast decent. Over the top I could still see the group and threw it in the big ring for the chase.
The down hills on the route are just as challenging as the up hills. Section of potholes, steep grades, numerous hairpins, and even short sections of gravel make for some exciting riding. Coming off of Panther Gap I closed the gap quickly. Luckily, Patrick sat up a bit to wait for me and we soon took turns railing the decent. With over 9 hair raising switchback all with a grade of well over 18% we quickly made up time on the remaining two guys up front. By the bottom, Patrick and I were in the lead with one local Adventures Cycling guy in tow. If the decent doesn’t rattle you enough the bridge at the bottom surely will. It’s an old school bridge with wooden planks that have a varying amount of distance between the seams that run parallel to the path of travel. Yikes, don’t want to get your wheel stuck in one of those slots!!
The three of us rolled together for short bit and decided it would be best to wait for the two chaser hovering 15 seconds behind us. The infamous winds were blowing strong today which made a group of 5 a way better strategy than a group of 3. We joined forces and set a reasonable tempo over the many rolling hills on our way to the coast. A few sneaker descents to keep you on your toes and plenty of short steep walls to keep the quads awake. We continued to keep a modest pace with everyone pitching in.
The edge of the Unknown Coast
We eventually descended down onto the Unknown Coast and were quickly met by the infamous head wind. While it was strong this year our group seemed to make good work of this 10K flat section. A few times we were blown to some pretty slow speeds but we kept at it and soon the infamous “Wall” was in our sites. Everyone later talked about how bad the winds were and all I could think of was Furnace Creek back in 2009 which made 10K of beach breeze seem pretty darn nice.
The “Wall” is the only way out of the Coast and you must climb about 4K which has at least 2K of sustained grade well over 18%. Throw in a stiff headwind and you’ve got some slow moving and suffering cyclists. About 2K out from the wall our group slimmed down to 4 active members as one of the local guys complained of cramping. Up onto the wall it soon became 3 with the intent of just getting through it. About ½ through this section, up came the guy with “cramps” whom instandly threw down an attack which gapped me off. The head cross winds continued to be strong and I fought hard to claw my way back. Near the top the climb stair steps a bit with alternating flatter and steeper sections. I dug deep and pulled them back. Once in the draft I knew it would be much easier. Again, the light weight local guy threw in a surge and once again I was off the back. I could quickly stabilize the gap and found that I could keep them within 10-15 seconds. This gave me some confidence. Yes, I couldn’t handle the surge but my legs were letting me ride all out without blowing up. That’s always a good sign for me; I can dig way deep and yet continue on at a high pace. Just before the top I latched back on and quickly found the front so I could lead the decent.
The local guy and I forged a small gap but all came together a bit at the base of the “endless hills” climb. Patrick was 10-15 seconds back. I remembered the endless hills well from last year. I had been solo for 60 mi when I got to the base. The climb is quite steep for the first 3.5 mi and I had suffered tremendously. This year, I was with a group but the suffering would end up being just as much. Soon into the climb, the local guy threw down another surge and quickly gained 10 seconds on me. It slowly inched out to 20. Patrick came up and through me with a steady intent to make contact with the two leaders. I could not match Patrick’s pace but was heartened that the gap had stabilized. I put in a few surges of my own but could not cut the gap down to less than 10 seconds. With the harsh winds, I knew if I could just latch on I would have a chance of staying with them. (A great shot of me clawing my way back)
About 2 mi in I had made some additional progress and the gap was just 7-10 seconds. I made a resolve that it had to be now or never and surged hard to make it successfully across. I wasn’t there more than 200m when the local guy looked back and saw me there. He promptly put in another surge and I was right back to where I had been. This time the gap stayed steady right away, about 15 sec. I slowly clawed it back and once the grade lessened I surged hard and was again in contact. From here I knew there was still plenty of climbing but the majority was a much lesser grade and came in doable chunks. With the strong winds, I was able to get significant draft and the featherweight climber seemed to lose his advantage.
Now, with all of us on a more even playing field we all took turns lighting some fireworks. Each of us made bold moves but nothing would stick. Back and forth we went and the closer we got to the finish the stronger my resolve was to not let anything get away. I knew the finish would come quick as the decent into town is long, technical and very steep. There are a few sneaker up hills within it where the local guy threw down a few more surges. Once on the decent proper he, being a local boy, threw down hard. Again, my resolve had become stronger than ever that either Patrick or myself needed to finish this off. Local guy led the way, bombing close to 50mph down a narrow hairpin decent. Several times, he overcooked it a bit and I thought for sure he was going over the edge. Each time he brought it back and we continued down at break neck speed. At times I could smell the odor of overheating brake pads on carbon. (His not mine)
Once at the bottom, he had a 2-3 bike link gap. We went through a quick right and then a quick left. He threw down a hard charge for the finish which is now about 1k out. I matched him and soon was able to tuck in behind him. We sat up and played a bit of cat and mouse while Patrick and the other ride were charging hard. Local guy, hit it hard with 400m to go which I was able to match, wait briefly and then put him away.
Two for Two at the Tour of the Unkown Coast! 5hr 11min.