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Biking the California coast from San Francisco to L.A., with a doing-good spin

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A lone cyclist during the California Coast Classic bicycling tour organized by the Arthritis Foundation.
(Kelton Mattingly)

Hills are not easy for Oren Noah.

He weighs 300 pounds — 280 on a good day. He’s had two knee replacements. For the 5-foot-10, 62-year-old attorney from Sebastopol, Calif., pedaling up a 1,000-foot incline on his bike is often uncomfortable and painful.

And yet, in the four years that he’s done the California Coast Classic — an annual 525-mile, eight-day bike tour that hugs the state’s spectacular shoreline from San Francisco to Los Angeles — he’s done hundreds of hills, without ever cheating.

Even on the stretch from Carmel to Cambria, which includes a daunting 9,000 feet of climbing and the famed twisty-turny byways of Big Sur, Noah ignores the soul-sucking soreness in his legs. He refuses to hop in the van or borrow an e-bike, as many of his lighter compatriots on the ride do.

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His secret?

“Two things,” he says. “First, this is a spectacular route, world renowned, and I want to ride every inch of it. And next, no matter how cooked my legs are, I remind myself on every hill why I’m here. After all, my pain is temporary — I can stop it by resting for a minute or two — but they can’t stop the pain ever.”

“They” are people with arthritis. The joint-debilitating disease comprises more than 100 varieties that strike 54 millionon Americans, including 300,000 kids — including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune condition that swells joint tissues; ankylosing spondylitis, which causes the spine to fuse; and osteoarthritis, a widespread deterioration of cartilage often linked to the wear and tear of aging.

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A group of cyclists on the road during the 525-mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
(Kelton Mattingly)

The cause

The California Coast Classic is staged by the Arthritis Foundation, which has helped raise almost $19 million to fight arthritis. Founded in 2001, the ride followed the lead of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the AIDS/LifeCycle and other charities that use one- to two-day bike rides and weeklong bucket-list adventures to motivate cyclists to give to a worthy cause.

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Required to collect a minimum of $3,500 each in donations from friends and family, 195 riders raised $1.1 million at the 2019 coastal ride earlier this month. (I was invited to tag along and wasn’t required to raise funds.) Some participants were cycling-savvy, multiride returnees, others raw rookies with little biking experience. Some were there just for the adventure.

But for many, it was personal.

The cyclists

Jennifer Ramsey, a 47-year-old Santa Monica accounting manager, has done the benefit ride 14 times. Her legs and arms don’t straighten all the way. She was born with arthritis all over her body, mostly affecting her ankles and elbows.

“I ride to help advance cures I didn’t have,” she says. Like many, she spreads the word, having recruited her uncle and a friend to the 2019 event.

Four-time California Coastal Ride cyclist Danielle McDermott of Woodland Hills, 39, did it because her mom has osteoarthritis.

Matteo Telli, 41, an electrical engineer from Pleasanton, Calif., who has raised $20,000 in five tours, did it because he wanted to ride Highway 1 and because he has a daughter diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. At age 2, she limped so badly she couldn’t walk. New drugs helped. She’s now a happy 11-year-old cheerleader.

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The route passes coastal dunes along Monterey Bay.
(Roy M. Wallack)

Some riders have no connection to the disease.

“I just always wanted to do the world-famous California Coast — and it did not disappoint,” said avid cyclist Ed Tidik of Boulder, Colo., 62.

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Same for Solvang, Calif., rookie cyclist Matt Taylor, 44, seen celebrating after legendary Day 4, a 73-miler with 6,082 feet of climbing from Big Sur to Cambria. “My hardest day on a bike!” he exclaimed. “My legs are sore, but I’ll sleep well tonight.”

For Noah, the heavyweight hill-slayer, the coastal ride represented a new start. In 2015, up to 350 pounds, knee wrecked and so stressed out that he quit work, he became a new man when he discovered and trained for the ride. He became a self-described “arthritis warrior,” who soon earned the prestigious orange jersey as a top fundraiser. In four years, he’s built monster muscles in his legs and pumped up the Arthritis Foundation with $43,000 in donations, including $13,000 this year.

“I needed a big, unattainable goal,” he says. “This awesome adventure was it.”

The ride

The adventure is indeed awesome, relentless and beautiful, starting with massive coastal climbs out of San Francisco, Daly City and Half Moon Bay during an 84-miler to Santa Cruz.

The only thing more striking than the sheer cliffs tumbling into the sea at the Devil’s Slide in Pacifica, a former stretch of Highway 1 wracked by landslides, is the sight of the bodies at the rest stop at mile 30: They’re not cut and lean like avid cyclists at a century ride but regular-folk shapes and sizes, proudly peacocking their ample profiles in green, skin-tight California Coastal Classic jerseys. They’re ordinary people doing something difficult and extraordinary.

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The Bixby Canyon Bridge, shrouded in fog, is on the coastal bike ride.
(Kelton Mattingly)

The first half of the ride is a highlight reel of Kodak moments. After pit stops at old tourist faves such as the Lone Cypress on the 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, it’s ocean on the right, mountains on the left for 79 miles. Heading into Big Sur, we’re awestruck by jagged vistas plunging into the horizon, dazzled by the graceful and grandiose 260-foot-high Bixby Canyon Bridge, and turbocharged by air so fresh and pure that it seems like a constant injection of medical-grade oxygen.

A mile before our Day 3 campsite at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park comes a gem that an old San Francisco-to-L.A. bike tourist like me never knew about: 25 riders kicking back in chairs, beers in hand, in the middle of the river at the Big Sur River Inn.

Day 4, known as “two-turn Tuesday” because the course is entirely on Highway 1, save turns out of and into campsites, is easily the toughest of the route, with three major climbs and more than 6,000 feet of climbing in 74 miles. Many riders availed themselves of van hitches up the initial 1,000-foot climb out of camp and over the equally forbidding “Two Sisters” later in the day.

If you rode every inch, rest stops were framed by majestic views of rocky offshore outcroppings teeming with seals and birds, which assured off-the-bike gawking. By the end of the day, leaving the plunging cliffs of Big Sur for flatter terrain to the south, we passed hundreds of elephant seals cavorting on the beach at Point Piedras Blancas and coasted into Cambria — legs beat but spirits not.

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That’s because the easy half of the ride lay ahead. The rolling farm and wine country from San Luis Obispo to Buellton and coastal tailwinds from Santa Barbara into Malibu is a coronation of sorts. Out of all the beauty and drama she’d seen, the magic moments for Meaghan Smallwood, 31, a police officer from Paso Robles, Calif., were the stories of young arthritis victims at the nightly campsite presentations and crossing the finish line in Pacific Palisades.

“I wasn’t a cyclist before this,” she says. “I didn’t train. I did it on a $200 department-store bike that kept breaking down. But I told my friend Jenn (two-time finisher Jenn Fox, 32, a Paso Robles nurse) that I would do a crazy bucket-list thing with her when she turned 30. And I finally did it!”

Like many, Smallwood will be back next year for the ride’s 20th anniversary, which is expected to draw the legal limit of 300 riders; 150 have already signed up.

“From bucket list, it’s turned into an annual thing for us,” she says. “Next year we’re going to expand our charity golf tournament and reach out to more bars and restaurants. We’re aiming for the $7,500 orange jersey. I’m getting a better bike and training this time. We’re going big.”

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The California Coast Classic bike ride takes eight days to travel from San Francisco to L.A.
(Kelton Mattingly)

Climbing tips from the route

“Remember that your pain is temporary. Arthritis victims’ pain is permanent.”
Oren Noah, Sebastapol, 62, four-time finisher

“Stop every 20 minutes, drink, stretch and start again.”
— Gail McVay, Ventura, 61, 12-time finisher

“Train. In the hills in Palos Verdes.”
— Dan Wilkinson, El Segundo, 50, five-time finisher

“Do CrossFit or other all-body strength training.
Danielle McDermott, Woodland Hills, 39, four-time finisher

“If you’re not a good rider, at least have a good-looking bike.”
Paul Levitt, Long Beach, 64, first-time rider (on a $4,000 Eddy Merckx bike)

Charity bike rides in 2020

AIDS/LifeCycle

Sponsors: Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation
Route: 545 miles from San Francisco to L.A., half on the coast and half inland
Dates: May 31–June 6 (seven days)
Info: aidslifecycle.org

California Coast Classic

Organizer: Arthritis Foundation, sponsored by Amgen
Route: 525 miles from San Francisco to L.A. on the California Coast
Dates: Sept. 21-28
Info: arthritis.org/CaliforniaCoastClassic

Pablove Across America

Sponsor: Pablove Foundation (childhood cancer)
Route: 550 miles from South Lake Tahoe to L.A., through Yosemite and Sequoia national parks
Dates: September-October (dates to be announced)
Info: pablove.org


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