Bonk More! Taking Roads Less Traveled in SLO County

I don’t bonk very often, but ever since I got my RLT9 adventure bike from Niner, it seems to be happening more than I like to admit. The old excuses I had to cut big rides short–too much road burn on the mountain bike, or trails and fireroads rough and/or steep enough to be pleasant on 25c skinny tires–have been eliminated with the additional tire clearance, slacker geometry, and road bike efficiency of my new adventure rig. In early December 2014, my Team Clif Bar Cycling teammate Blake got to witness the effect as he nursed my sorry bonking ass around the approximate course of my SLO Ride to Hell gravel grinder event.





6 Hours


85 Miles
Directions and Maps
Northeastern SLO County hosts a great variety of quiet paved roads for the skinny tire bunch. The more intrepid among us connect these roads together with the dirt Forest Service routes out in the OHV areas of Los Padres National Forest. The wide adoption of cyclocross/gravel grinder/adventure bikes with lower gearing, clearance for little knobbies, and more relaxed road bike geometry has made these loops more accessible to those not willing to grind their five thousand dollar road bike up dirt roads and down rocky descents on 23c tires.

While it is possible to ride from the city of San Luis Obispo over the dirt Stage Coach road paralleling Highway 101 and then down into Santa Margarita, or to connect form the southeast by taking Hi Mountain Road to Pozo from Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande, the bigger loops are better if one drives over the hill and parks in Santa Margarita. There is a Cal Trans park and ride lot just off the freeway at the Hwy 58 junction, but my favorite starting spot is Santa Margarita Park, a tiny community center and park just across the train tracks where Hwy 58 continues east out of town. From there it's a nice dozen mile warmup on excellent roads before the adventuring begins.

Once you get out there on the dirt, remember to keep an eye out for other users. Bicycles and hikers are rare out there, so the moto, atv, and truck drivers aren't always expecting slower moving traffic. Don't descent like you own the whole road, because there's always a small chance that someone else is coming up at a pretty good clip and may not see you.

Back to the ride...
This loop starts with a nice roll out on Pozo Road, which turns upward for a mile long climb before the route veers off into the parking lot for Rincoñada Trail. Now the fun begins! To be blunt and upfront about it, a lot of people will be more comfortable on their mountain bikes for the first dirt sector of this ride. Rincoñada is a true singletrack, with a few rocky switchbacks that almost everyone will walk on their first attempt. After 15 minutes of climbing, Rincoñada ends at a gate and T's into Hi Mountain Lookout Road. Turning left on the dirt road, a twenty+ minute climb awaits up to the Condor Lookout at the top of Hi Mountain. At the summit, a short spur actually continues on up to the old fire lookout, where there is a pit toilet and a rainwater cistern that has saved me from dehydration several times in the past. From the summit at around 3000 ft elevation, Hi Mountain Lookout Road descends several steep and bumpy miles down to a T with Hi Mountain Road, where a left turn brings more descending with some small climbs before making it down to the Forest Service station in Pozo. Depending on the skills of the rider, a mountain bike might actually make a 2-5 minute difference over a cross bike on the full descent, so choose your bike wisely.

Around the time we rolled into Pozo, I realized that the Clif bars, blocks, and gels stuffed in my pockets might not be enough for the whole day. Blake had done a good road ride the day before, but I had done the yearly Giro di SLO all day adventure, and I was in a deep deep hole. It was time to start rationing food.

If want you to keep reading about my adventures, it continues below, but if you just want to see how sweet the SLO Ride to Hell will be, check out this video we shot in the area a few weeks before my ride with Blake.

SLO Gravel Gauntlet from Brian Popplewell on Vimeo.

From Pozo (after refilling bottles at the NF Station), we cruised east on Pozo Rd, continuing onto Parkhill road where Pozo Road deviates to the east. The second major climb of the day faced us, up the poorly paved Black Mountain Road to a dirt road intersection halfway up known locally as "Five Corners". The descent down the middle dirt road, called Navajo Road, is one of the more sublime of this route. Unlike the shale and sandstone underlaying much of the area, Navajo road is mostly in granite geology, and the reward is a nice DG surface without many rocks debris or outcrops.

At Navajo Flats, a OHV campground the bottom of the descent, the we made the decision to continue north on Red Hill Road out to Hwy 68. Turning south leads back over Pozo Grade, and is the bail out option to shorten the ride. Red Hill is a a washboard access road with a fair amount of OHV traffic, so stay right and keep your ears and eyes open.

At Hwy 58 we turned east, and the bonk started setting in. I munched on a few peanuts I had with me, and happily sat in Blake's draft on the nice descents into empty green valleys. Thirtyish minutes later, we spotted the sign pointing back to Pozo. Miss this turn and you'll end up at I5, and then in Bakersfield, so keep your head up! Not wanting to go to Bako that day, we took that right turn, passing some old barns before Pozo Road turned back to dirt at the start of the next climb, La Panza Grade.

La Panza translate to "tummy" in Spanish, but I have on good authority that the more accurate translation is "beer belly". This is pleasantly appropriate for a ride that passes the Pozo Saloon twice, with all its enticing beer and burgers. But even a person with a big beer belly can make it over La Panza, since it's a short and evenly graded climb.

That reasonable climb is followed by a nice easy descent, and then the road T's back into Pozo Road, and a left turns begins Pozo Grade, the final major climb of the day. Twenty minutes doesn't seem like very long, but with the state of bonk I was in, it felt like an hour. I was out of food at this point, and Blake was portioning out single Shot Blocks like a worried mama bird. I think he was actually enjoying the experience, since most people are only ever on the receiving end of the Menso Pain Train. Some crazy OHV routes cross Pozo Road at the summit, including Queen Bee and the famous Pozo Stair Steps, which are a great challenge on an all-mountain bike, but that's a story for another day.

Dropping down Pozo Grade is perhaps the best reward this route has to offer. Four miles of rocky fireroad gently descend through a larger canyon, steep enough to not need much pedaling while not causing white knuckles from constant braking. From the bottom of the dirt to the end, it's rolling pavement with a short false flat dirt interlude on River Road, and a final rolling climb on Parkhill Road before a joyful ten minute descent on Las Pilitas Road. Of course, back in December there was no joy to be had, since I had been out of food for an hour, and riding in the dark for an hour and a half.

And now, little review on my new favorite adventure bike
I had been looking forward to getting my hands on a Niner RLT9 all of last year, and I finally got mine built up in December 2014, right before I moved from the Bay Area to SB for grad school. I ride a 62cm frame, and at 6'5 it's a fairly relaxed fit with a 130mm stem, though I do run my bikes unusually long, so most people my size will opt for a 110 or 120mm on a 62cm. Brady Kappius hooked me up with some killer deep wide and carbon Kappius cyclocross disc wheels. I had two goals in building this bike up: low cost, and versatility.

I was fortunate enough to have some 2012 Red 10 speed shifters sitting around, 180mm Rival cranks, and BB7 road brakes, so having all that and getting some sweet wheels kept the cost down. One the things that drew me to this bike was the wheel configuration- while I recognize that thru-axles are an improvement over QR in many ways, the fact that this bike is standard QR front and rear means that I can use all my older mtb 29er wheels on it, set up with different tires. That way, I can have a set with road tires for commuting, and leave tubeless cross tires on the Kappius wheels for racing and adventuring. With the low cost taken care of, I needed to make it as versatile as possible. The crankset I had sitting around is a 53/39 standard, so I paired it with a 10spd 11-36 SRAM mtb cassette and X7 long cage rear derailleur. Mixing SRAM 10spd mtb and road componenets is not a problem; it shifts fine and gives a great range of gears. I like having the 53:11 for the long paved descents I ride in Santa Barbara, and 39:36 is a great low gear, only imperceptibly harder than the 34:32 low gear yielded by a 34/50 compact crankset with an 11-32 WiFli road cassette.

The Adventure Bike

A recent addition has been a pair of VP Components VX Trail Race pedals. VP's design team is based near me in Goleta, CA, and I always enjoy working with local companies, so I'm happy to be on their pedals this year. I actually only stopped by to grab the pedals on my way out of town for the Tainthammer, and did what nobody should do and installed brand new parts the morning of the race. I'm excited to report that they worked flawlessly in the horrendous mud that day and the mid-platform provided a nice wider base for the long miles compared to the XT pedals I had on before. As an added bonus, they worked without complaint with the Shimano SPD cleats I have on my shoes, so there was no need to replace and adjust cleats.

As of mid February 2015, I have almost 1500 miles on the bike on all sorts of terrain. I've commuted on it 10 miles each way almost every day for the last two months, ridden roads, trails, and fireroads in the Santa Ynez mountains, and even threw my Quarq on it and did my road training intervals until I got my Argon 18 Gallium team road bike built up, though it was difficult to find space for the required Quarq cadence magnet since I'm using press-in GXP adapters on the PF30 frame.

After all my riding in a short time, I can say with confidence that this bike is awesome! It's obviously not a road racing bike, and comes in a little on the heavier side if you are used to riding 16 pound bikes around, but compared to the mtb you'd normally take on trails, 19 pounds is plenty light. I've been really impressed with the handling, especially now that I got my road bike built up again and have been riding that. I have to admit- I'm the kind of bike curmudgeon that doesn't sweat small changes in geometry/shock rate/what have you. So it wasn't until I started going back and forth between my race bike and the RLT9 that I could perceive the differences. It won't come to a surprise to many, but those slightly longer stays, slightly slacker angles, and slightly wider rims all make a big difference in comfort and rough-surface handling! And of course we also need to leave rim brakes where they belong, back in twentieth century. Disc is where it's at.
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