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Episode 7: Playing Bikes in Santa Cruz

So how did I end up in Santa Cruz? Well, the start of the year have been hectic with work and family engagements so I was desperate to feel some new dirt underneath my feet and wheels. I looked at what were the cheapest flights available that also happen to have some good riding and Oakland came up top of the list - return flight was $153 with Spirit airlines. Once in Oakland I knew there were lots of options. The last time I was in the area I rented a car and headed to Lake Tahoe for paddleboarding adventure. Although I’ve always made the intention to go back there and ride the trails, it was still far too cold and snow covered - plus it’s a good 5 hours drive from Oakland. So instead I focused my attention south towards Santa Cruz where I have heard there are some classic and real good old fashion Northern California style riding amongst the Redwood forests. With the destination and a rough plan set, I called up Roberto to see if he would fancy making the long drive from Southern California. He gladly obliged to my request.

Base camp for us was Sunset State Beach campground, 16 miles south of Santa Cruz. it’s a nice campground amongst the pines and sheltered behind the dunes. Flush toilets and warm showers facilities are a plus. We arrived on late afternoon Thursday and the campground was pretty empty. But since this is California, families flock to the campgrounds for the weekend and it’ll get packed. So much so that I could not reserve the same campsite every night, and for Saturday night we didn’t even have a site available for us - more on that later. My rental car, after a free upgrade, was a huge 7 seater Ford Flex. This turned out to be pretty handy since we had to be moving to different camp sites every night, I could just sleep in comfortably in the back with the seats all flattened down, and avoiding the unnecessary fumbling of pitching tents up. Roberto opted to do the same, except in his less roomy Scion hatchback.

Another logistical detail worth pointing out is Capitola, which is a quaint and picturesque coastal city just north of Sunset State Beach. It has the typical laid back surf vibe, but without the crowd. More of a local hotspot rather than a touristy hotspot, which is perfectly fine with us. This ended up being our go to place to have breakfast and dinner. Rather amusingly, Roberto has the hardest time remembering the name, which to me sounds like a Spanish word for Capital. Everyday he would stutter “Capi...Capi…”. He then explained to me that although it sounds like Spanish, it does not mean anything in Spanish and just sounds like a totally made up Spanish word. Finally on the last day he managed to remember by associating it with two words - Capital and Pistola. Another oddity about Capitola, and I think it’s true for this part of California - is the abundance of Pizza restaurants. I have never seen such a dense concentration of Pizza places. Northern Californians must love their pizzas, so much so that in addition to the normal public trash bins, you would also find a specific bin for pizza boxes to be stacked up instead of plugging up the normal trash bin. Interesting.

The first trails we sampled are located in the Soquel Demonstration State Forest, about 40 minutes drive from Sunset SB. There are about a dozen of trails in the area, and I already had an idea of the ‘must hit’ trail, and this was confirmed after we spoke to a few local riders at the carpark. With that we set off climbing which perhaps took 40-50 minutes. The climb was gentle on fire roads and the lush green and cool forest was a welcomed distraction from the climbing. At the top, it wasn’t hard to find Flow trail, and boy it did not disappoint. As the name suggests it is very fast and flowy trail, cutting through majestic mossy green forest. The dirt was tacky-tastic and the berms are just magnificently built. One of Roberto’s favorite berm was one that had moss lining the entire top edge. The trail is broken into 6 segments and I was thoroughly impressed on how well it was all designed and built. I’m not a big fan of flow trails as I don’t have much experience riding them and always struggled holding the right line and speed through berms. But Flow trail gave me a newfound appreciation and respect for this type trails. When we got to the bottom Roberto had the biggest smile on his face and said that was like riding a rollercoaster. He would gladly have done the 7 hours drive to get here just to ride this trail again. That’s a pretty strong endorsement. We climbed back up to the top do another run, this time we chose Braille Trails. In contrast to Flow trail this is a much more technical, steep and chunky descent. There were plenty of drops and jumps - plenty of them are blind so we didn’t even attempt. Because the trail pretty much points straight down, it is much shorter than Flow trail. Strangely, although it is more difficult and challenging trail, I am more comfortable with these kind of trails. We later learned that this whole area was shut down last year to rain damage and had just recently reopened. We salute the volunteers and organizations that have helped restoring these trails.

The next day we headed to Wilder Ranch State Park, behind the University Santa Cruz campus. I mistakenly thought that this is where legendary Santa Cruz trails are located - but more on that later. The trails here are more cross country oriented and since Flow trail set a very high standard - the trails itself were quite ordinary. I decided to take a loop which connected most of trail network, but half of the trails I picked looked half abandoned and more popular for horses than for mountain bikers. However the landscape definitely made up for what the trails lacked. Each trail seems to go through its own unique ecosystem from redwood forest to open grassland, to shrubs and we finally ended up on the coastal trail which ran along the steep cliffs. Dolphins and whales were reportedly sighted that day, but we didn’t see any. Just a bunch of lazy sea lions sunning themselves. Roberto adequately compared the riding thus far - ‘If yesterday was like driving a Porsche GT3, today was more like cruising down the streets in a Mustang’. That’s the beauty of mountain biking. It’s not just all about the gnar but also the opportunity it provides to explore and soak in nature.

With the day’s riding done we decided to visit Amando, a friend of Roberto’s who lives close by in Mountain View. Amando had just had an unfortunate incident on the bike which resulted in a severe concussion. He was recovering and thought a visit would cheer him up. I have never met Amando, but Roberto’s friends are always an ace bunch of people, and Amando is no different. He is an impressive, kind and dedicated family man. We were worried that our visit would get in the way of his bed rest but our company and conversation delighted him to the point that his usual headache didn’t make an appearance that day. We still had a minor issue to resolve for the night which was that we didn’t have a campsite. Amando’s wife came to the rescue by generously hooking us up with a room (at a heavily discounted rate) in a nice hotel she used to work for. Thank you so much Amando and family for your hospitality and kindness!!

Refreshed from a night at the hotel we headed out to Skeggs Point - another favorite of the locals and also recommended by Amando. The drive alone was interesting enough. We came up a long narrow twisty mountain road, they was some rain earlier in the morning and the road looked slick. But this was a popular route for road cyclist. There were plenty of them that morning doing the steep climb and zipping down. I cringe every time I see them with those skinny slick tires and imagined how nasty a fall would end up on these roads. I’d rather have a mouthful of dirt than tarmac any day. Skeggs Point has its own microclimate. At the top we were immersed with forest cloud. As we descended droplets of rain turned into droplets of sunshine. I found access to the trail network to be well designed. There are fire roads along the ridge which provides access to the trails, which shoot down into the valley where they are met with another set of fire roads. We decided to do a loop, hitting Manzanita, Giant Salamander, Methuselah DH, North Leaf and Fir Trail. These trails proved to be narrower and slicker with roots, compared to what we’ve experienced so far and required added focus. In my mind this where mountain biking belongs - within the dense mossy and damp redwood forest. We encountered a handful of banana slugs. It looks very much like it sounds, but we were warned by Amando to avoid running them over. If you do the resulting slime will be a permanent feature on your bike. Good thing it’s easy to spot them with their bright banana yellow appearance. End the end of ride, Roberto had to head home to put in some hours paying off some bills. We parted ways and I headed back to Sunset SB.

Last day, and I had this unsatisfied feeling of not having found the Santa Cruz trails that I’ve heard so much about. I thought they were in the Wilder Ranch area but evidently I was mistaken. So I decided a bit more digging and it turn out that the trails I was looking for are unsanctioned, and there is an unwritten rules that their location should not be advertised and made public. That explained my I couldn’t find them anywhere on MTB project and Trail forks app. I happen to know some of the name of these trails as one of the locals mentioned it to me the previous day. Googling the trail only mentions that it is next to the University Santa Cruz campus, but not enough detail for me to figure it from a map. I was about to give up, when an idea struck me. I recalled a news piece a while back about some US Navy seals operating (in secret) somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of them wore one of those fitness tracker gadgets and uploaded their activity - inadvertently revealed their location to the entire world. So I figured, I bet there are some Strava obsessed riders who had done the same on these secret trails. In desperation I was forced to open up a Strava account (I’m not a numbers/Strava kinda person), searched for the trail name and voila! Unfortunately, in respect for the unwritten rules I can’t tell you what the trail names are. Anyways I was totally blown away by these trails. Every single mountain biking trail features can be found here - flat turn, berms, rocky chunks, log drops, table tops, gap jumps and the list goes on. Santa Cruz, as in the bike company, is rumored to use these trails to test and develop their bikes, so that tells you the quality of the trails. I hit my biggest jump ever on these trails, and ended up with a broken spoke on my rear wheel. It already had one broken spoke, but since it’s a carbon rim I was confident it would remain structurally sound. However, I now have two broken spokes next to each other. And even though the rim remained true, I didn’t feel wise to take unnecessary risks, especially now that I’m riding solo. With that, I called it quits on the trip, headed back to hang out on Santa Cruz wharf and reward myself with some delicious fish ‘n’ chips.