What I learned while biking down the CA coast: A personal essay

Photo of a bicycle next to a lake
Pixabay/Creative Commons

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In the first half of January, my partner and I rode our bikes from Berkeley to the U.S.-Mexican border.

The ensuing questions from our friends and family illustrated the many ways we could quantify such a trip. 

How many miles was it? How many did you ride per day? How many days did it take? 

The answers: 700-ish, 45-ish and 16.

But these numbers don’t paint a full picture, and while probably nothing can, these three revelations might.


I am, in fact, a cyclist

With our bikes loaded down with camping gear, we started down Milvia Street, most likely a familiar ride for those who commute around Berkeley. Two and a half weeks later, as I stared across the border into Tijuana, I was struck by the absurdity of the fact that I still did not self-identify as a cyclist.

Granted, I was woefully underprepared for the trip. The most I’d ever biked was about 16 miles, and most of my “training” was the 1-mile commute to and from campus. 

By the time we reached the end of the road, the 16-mile mark had long been surpassed. Despite riding more than 700 miles, I still felt like I was somehow less than someone who might be more experienced or faster than me. I felt like it was an insult to someone who actually cycles to call myself a cyclist.

Nearly all of the men we met on the road directed all of their bicycle-related questions to my male partner, not me — even questions as simple as “where did you camp last night?” or “where are you heading today?” Even when I answered, my response often went ignored, as the men continued to wait, unflinchingly, for my partner to respond.   

I will admit that my feelings of inadequacy were bred in part out of my own proclivity for impostor syndrome. But the unbridled misogyny certainly didn’t help. 

When it was finally time to head back to Berkeley, though, it became clear that not allowing myself to be called a “cyclist” was a diminishment of my own accomplishments. I decided not to give into my impostor syndrome that easily. It seemed ridiculous to have come all this way, only to still doubt my own abilities.

When it was finally time to head back to Berkeley, though, it became clear that not allowing myself to be called a “cyclist” was a diminishment of my own accomplishments.

So yes, I am a cyclist. And, if you ask me, anyone who knows how to ride a bike is a cyclist, too.


Biking is my preferred method of travel

When you’re road-tripping down the coast by car, it’s easy to speed through the “in-between” sections: the rundown gas stations, nondescript shopping centers or neighborhoods ravaged by poverty. Traveling by bicycle, you don’t get to pick and choose which places aren’t worth your time. Coastal California enjoys the image of an oasis full of happy, carefree people who spend all day surfing and climbing, but reality is much different. Tourist attractions and Instagram-worthy waterfront views are just fleeting blips on the landscape. 

The “in-between” sections are, in my opinion, the places most worth visiting. While I loved seeing the staggering cliffs of Big Sur, the elephant seals of Morro Bay and the frenzy of Santa Monica Pier, I learned more about California by riding through the towns most travelers know only as exit signs on the highway.

I learned more about California by riding through the towns most travelers know only as exit signs on the highway. 

In these “in-between” sections, I also experienced kindness from strangers: the man who handed us a $5 bill outside of an REI, the couple who brewed us tea and cookies in a beachside parking lot and the many, many people who told us we inspired them.  

The vastness of California melted away as we closed in on the border. When we reached the border fence, I was struck by an eerie feeling.

Huh, I thought. Well, that was that. That’s all of it.

Oddly enough, the bike tour felt like a farewell tour of the state I’ve called home my entire life. California is starting to feel smaller, and I think that means it might soon be time for me to leave and explore someplace new. Until then, though, there’s no place I’d rather be than Berkeley. 


Lemon Oreos are better than original Oreos

It was a bit after 7 p.m., and we were in a Walmart about 10 miles north of our campground in Monterey. It was a situation we found ourselves in quite often — riding after dark because our grocery stops took too long. After a lengthy deliberation in the Oreo aisle and a tense conversation with Walmart Asset Protection (bikes aren’t allowed in the store), we decided to take a risk on the lemon-flavored Oreos. After grabbing a few more essentials — barbecue potato chips, tortillas and kombucha — we were on our way out.

That decision in Walmart proved formative — lemon Oreos are decisively better than the original ones. But that wasn’t our only food discovery.

Fritos, refried beans and olives make for delicious burrito fillings, and a loaf of sourdough bread that’s been riding around in a moist pannier is the perfect appetizer — especially if it is washed down with diluted Nuun water. Popcorn dipped in unrefrigerated hummus is the perfect pick-me-up after a long day of riding. And if you talk to the right people at the Trader Joe’s in Ventura, you might get some free jelly beans for the road. 

Here’s the thing: Food doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. The absurdity of the situations we found ourselves in, reflected in the absurdity of the food we found ourselves eating, made us laugh even through our deepest fatigues. If chocolate, Scandinavian Swimmers (the Trader Joe’s take on Swedish Fish) and potato chips can power a 700-mile bike ride, they must be superfoods.

Sometimes eating like an 8-year-old left alone for the night is exactly what you need. “Health” itself is a social construct. After all, is biking even considered “healthy” if you’re doing it on the freeway? 

Who knows. 

I’m just glad to have enjoyed the lemon Oreos while cycling under California’s lemon sun.

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].