Wine & Bicycles – A Napa Valley Bike Ride
By Lizzy Scully, photos by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder
Ride 50 Miles? What!
I never once in the first 44 years of my life imagined doing a 50-mile bike ride in one day, let along multiple 50-milers over three days. I climbed rocks, sometimes a few thousand feet in one day. I hiked round trip 15-20 miles to get up mountains. I even once pedaled a road bike 70 miles over three days to get to and from a meditation retreat I wanted to do, because I didn’t have a car. But cycling 50 miles in a day, multiple days in a row didn’t cross my mind.
In fact, the spring I turned 45 I still hadn’t thought about a big day bike ride like that, let alone three. However, after having dated Doom, my professional adventure cyclist boyfriend for two years and hearing all his stories about multi-day bike adventures around the world, I thought, riding bikes for a few days might be a more relaxed, affordable and less frantic way to explore a landscape. And because he got me my first high quality, comfortable gravel bike, I thought it might actually be fun.
I wouldn’t start with one of Doom’s standard grueling, remote bikepacking desert tours, although that would come soon enough. And I certainly wouldn’t start with “big” mileage days. I wanted to explore 30 to 40 miles of California’s wine country each day for three days, carrying my own toiletries, snacks and a change of clothes. And, I would assuage the pain of all those miles riding with frequent wine and cheese breaks and a comfy bed to sleep in each night.
Thus began my quest to convince Doom and my equally avid cyclist, triathlete younger brother, Alec, to accompany me on a gravel bike and wine tour to Napa Valley. Both were skeptical of my inexperience, but I convinced them with promises of an endless flow of wine and beer. I’ll buy! They relented.
And because anything under 100 miles is like “a walk in the park” for obsessive, life-long cyclists, as Doom says, neither he nor Alec questioned my route. I, in fact, outlined 40 or so-mile days. But, unbeknownst to me, my desired itinerary transformed after I sent it to Alec. He found all the gravel and dirt side roads to bypass the highways I had identified to reach the wineries I wanted to visit. The end result: 50-mile days and a clueless Lizzy.
We would be starting at Alec’s house in Santa Rosa, passing through sweeping wine country in Calistoga, Napa Valley and end up in Sonoma, where we would part ways with Alec, who would ride home, while we rode to meet Steve’s aunt in Petaluma.
My First Bicycles
I don’t remember the first time I rode a bike or how I learned to ride a bike or if I had training wheels on my first bike. Growing up, I pedaled them in between spending 6 or 7 hours a day figure skating. I always just knew how to ride. Thus, as I grew older, cycling either for fun or for integral transportation felt totally normal.
In my late teens and early 20s I often borrowed college roommates’ bikes to get around. And, on all of the dozen trips I took to climb in Yosemite National park, I pedaled everywhere on “YOSAR townies”—Yosemite Search & Rescue bicycles rock climbers left and then re-appropriated when they returned year after year.
At 25, I acquired my very first bicycle through a nonprofit bike recycler program in Boulder. I “volunteered” for 16 hours by building a bike and by helping out in the shop, with the end result that I could keep the bike I built. One of my best climbing memories ever is of riding that bike to Eldorado Canyon on a perfect sunny New Year’s Day in 1999 to do, “The Naked Edge”—one of Colorado’s most iconic sandstone routes. I liked bikes. They carried me where I needed to go, often to rocks I could climb.
It never dawned on me to actually buy a bicycle because I found them all the time. “Blue” came out of a Utah State University student housing dumpster. I saw her black-taped handlebars sticking up over the edge of the bin while driving out of town. Why would someone throw away something so useful, I thought as I dug through old mattresses to extricate her? After my car died, I used Blue to get to and from work and the crags until someone stole her. I then ended up with a brown townie that someone left locked in front of Ed’s Cantina one winter.
However, eventually it became apparent that I needed a better commuter, for longer bike rides. I had moved to Lyons, worked mostly in Boulder and still didn’t have a car. I bought a used, green road bike for $600, which I regularly rode to and all around Boulder. Fifteen-mile days were normal.
But I sported neither the popular spandex of the cycling community, nor the fancy shoes, jerseys, gloves, etc. I used 1990s shit green clipless mountain bike shoes I bought at the sports recycler and wore my climbing clothes in inclement weather. Every time I rode to Boulder, 30, 40 and sometimes 100+ “real” fast cyclists passed me like the wind.
So how then, in my mid-40s did I find myself riding 50 miles per day on a wine and bike tour, with a fancy jersey and on a really nice gravel bike?
Riding & Whining in Napa – Days 1 & 2
Sometimes you don’t know how far you can push yourself on a bike ride until you badly want to reach your final destination. When delicious Napa Valley wine, fancy dinners and feather pillows lay at the end of our long days, and taking a cab would result in a lifetime of ridicule from my brother and boyfriend, I dug deep. At the end of each of the three days of our tour, I found myself passed out on a comfortable bed, hammock or futon, to be awakened at dark with a full glass of wine. Delightful.
Day 1, though tired, we had stopped often enough for wine and cheese throughout the day, that I arrived for our first evening at my cousin Sean’s house still able to walk almost normally. After a lengthy hammock nap and then 6 bottles of wine split between six of us (Sean is a wine writer), I thought, “I have this in the bag!”
Day 2 felt longer and harder. We rode all morning, only to stop in Napa for lunch and more wine tasting. Then, hours later, we took a lengthy detour to visit Artesa Vineyards, the swankiest winery of the trip. “You’re the only down to earth people I’ve served all day!” the waitress exclaimed, giving us a 35% discount. We joked she must have liked our two-day old chamois “perfume.” We were clearly the only cyclists out of the hundreds of people at that winery that afternoon.
Steve and Alec regularly waited for me at the tops of the numerous hills all that day, and by the time we got to our fancy Inn in Sonoma, my legs wobbled precariously under me. I collapsed on the lobby couch, only to have a nice waiter bring me a glass of wine. The boys went out for snacks and beer, and I soon passed out in the room. At dark, they woke me for dinner.
Day 3 and…
By Day 3, wine, naps and copious amounts of chamois butter weren’t helping. I walked bowlegged and felt as if someone had beaten my legs with tire irons. We took an early lunch at an easily accessible winery before Alec would leave us for home. It was then that the boys mentioned our daily mileage as 50 and not the 40 miles I had thought we were doing. “It was all those side roads!” Alec explained, mischievously.
“What!?” I exclaimed. We had been doing 50 miles per day!? No wonder I felt pummeled. On the other hand, I could ride 50 miles per day, three days in a row! No way! And somehow with this new knowledge of what was possible and with Aunt Mary’s futon, feather comforter and a homemade dinner in mind, I found within reserves of energy I didn’t know I possessed. We arrived just before 5, and drank a glass of wine to celebrate. A toast to the joy of new adventures! Woohoo! I felt elated, and then quickly passed out on the futon.
It took a few weeks to walk normally again, but to this day, I dream about that adventure bike ride and aspire to do another, longer one, wine involved, of course. I can’t actually imagine doing a 100-mile “walk in the park” ride, like Steve and Alec talk about. But, then again…
We won’t be offering wine & bike tours, but if you don’t think you can handle big bike rides, you might surprise yourself. Check out our bikepacking tours in Utah and Colorado! Thanks so much to Specialized Bicycles and Revelate Designs for making this trip a reality by providing me with the gear I needed.