San Diego to Sea Otter with the Litespeed Ultimate Gravel
The Trip North
Every spring the cycling world gathers in the coastal city of Monterey, California for a four-day event considered the largest bike festival in the world. Hosting nearly 10,000 athletes and over 70,000 fans, the Laguna Seca Raceway becomes the focus of brands and consumers alike. In making the trip from San Diego I wanted to take advantage of all there was to explore on my way north. The plan was set to camp at two spots, with a good measure of gravel exploration mixed in.
The first campground would be the lesser known of the two California State Parks to visit, El Capitan State Beach. 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, El Cap features generous campsites and miles of pristine coastline. Only as recent as 2002 did the park expand from under 200 acres to the 2500 acres that is boasts today. On my radar was the Bill Wallace Trail, one the park brochure barely describes but appears to be a passable trail on it’s map. Leaving from the campground it climbs north up steep canyon walls towards Los Padres National Forest. Although short, the 12 mile dirt loop proved challenging given the multiple hike-a-bike sections and overgrown condition.
For the trip I was fortunate to bring along the Litespeed Ultimate Gravel. Admittedly the first titanium bike I’ve had the opportunity to put some time on. I had the Ultegra Di2 model with Stan’s 650b wheels and 1.9in GravelKing SK tires. Not knowing what to expect from the frame material I was quickly impressed by the overall ride quality and noticeably more compliant feel beneath me. It was certainly the right choice for the Bill Wallace Trail, that was void of any smooth dirt or paved sections.
Bill Wallace Trail
Relying on Strava Heat Maps I was confident in the trail’s accessibility, but only on the western side of the canyon. Eventually the trail would bring me back to the canyon floor and the inevitable water crossing. Earlier that day we had walked over the mouth of that creek at the tip of El Cap’s peninsula, so I knew there would be a fair amount of water to cross. After six miles of grassy slopes and often highly exposed, loose terrain I could see the furthest reaches of the loop as I crossed under a large fallen tree that had probably been there for some time. Ahead of me was even less of a trail, and more chaparral backcountry. With the minimal reception I posted the question on my Instagram story, unsurprisingly I was encouraged to push on. My better judgement told me to turn around. Later I learned that the trail was once an old oil road from the former El Capitan Ranch.
After leaving Santa Barbara County we headed further north, stopping first in San Luis Obispo for lunch and a quick visit to Art’s Cyclery. The guys there were super helpful with some quick adjustments of my rear derailleur, and asked if I couldn’t stay to explore some of their gravel around SLO. But that would have to come another time as we pushed on to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. An extremely popular campground and state park, we were fortunate to find a good site for the stay.
The more time I spent on the Ultimate G the more I was beginning to appreciate the details of its "handmade in the USA" frame and well-appointed build. Internal cable routing allows the classic naked finish and matte black decals to impress. The geometry is more similar to a road race bike than one designed for endurance. The truncated airfoil downtube provides some aerodynamic benefit, while the swooped bladed seatstays offer added vertical compliance over harsh terrain. As for clearance, the Ultimate Gravel handled the 650b x 1.9 Panaracer GravelKings just fine. 700C/45mm tires would also fit.
Old Coast Road
After our short stay that involved hiking, campfires and enjoying the Redwoods of Big Sur it was time for the final leg of my journey. Just 45 miles to the Laguna Seca Raceway, I would leave on Friday morning with hopes of finding some dirt along the way. On the map I noticed an alternate route that diverged from the Coast Highway inland at Andrew Molera State Park, then connecting again at the scenic Bixby Creek Bridge. Some additional research revealed that the Coast Rd was the only way to reach Big Sur from the north prior to 1919. I took my time through this old California stretch of dirt road, soaking up the expansive ocean views and blooming wildflowers that surrounded me. The road took me over two mountain passes each climbing over 1000ft, and at least one bridge crossing in between. Gates on either side prevent vehicles from passing, and the only people I encountered were a couple of trail runners near the northern entrance. This was easily one of my favorite stretches of gravel I had ever ridden.
I left that dirt section and crossed back onto the pavement with a renewed gratitude for my curiosity. This trip was a reminder to never stop pursuing the unknown, and that the right equipment can help amplify the experience. I eventually made it to Monterey and the craziness that was Sea Otter, but what I remember most about the trip was the solitude on remote dirt roads along the way, and the titanium gravel bike that took me there.
Learn more about the Litespeed Ultimate Gravel at Litespeed Bicycles
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