It’s August 2016. The hills surrounding our little valley town have been breathing flames, rolling like a crimson tide and reaching their apogee around 2 p.m. every day. It’s time to escape, time to find cooler roads, new mountains and fresh experiences.
With our bikes nestled snugly in the Küat rack we turn the nose of our truck west to the coast, where the Pacific Ocean douses the inland fire with cool mists and gentle breezes. We’re heading to Santa Barbara, a city best known for sky-high mortgages and Oprah’s Montecito estate, but also a place tailor-made for summer riding and a quick weekend escape. Santa Barbara’s mix of Spanish heritage and rolling costal terrain—known as the American Riviera—creates a decidedly European atmosphere. It could be the Côte d’Azur or a sleepy town on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
We pull up in front of the Santa Barbara Mission, the queen of California’s 21 Spanish missions, thanks to its imposing and gorgeous twin bell towers. This mission, founded in 1786 and built a single day’s horseback ride between the Ventura and Santa Ynez missions, was a fitting place to begin our journey. Unlocking the bikes and pulling them from the Küat racks took but a moment and we were soon on the road, already appreciating the cool breeze on our skin and moist air in our lungs.
Santa Barbara’s downtown was carefully constructed to pay homage to the town’s Spanish roots. Red-tile roofs and terra-cotta tiles bracket Saks Fifth Avenue and Apple stores—but shopping holds no sway for us today. It’s a different experience we want to consume as we roll down State Street. We head to the beach and Bud Bottoms’ famous Dolphin Family Fountain, which the sculptor says was deeply influenced by the local Chumash Indians. We stop by the massive bronze installation and pay our respects to one of Santa Barbara’s most popular meeting places. When riders tire of the big group rides that roll out from the Bath House to the south, more than a few text messages “bing” on Friday evening saying simply: “Dolphin Fountain 7 a.m.”
We have an afternoon challenge planned, but before the real riding begins we head back up town a few blocks to a place called Handlebar Coffee Roasters. Santa Barbara is full of little gems, but this one shines especially bright. It’s a place where the owners are the coffee roasters, and the coffee roasters know the family that farmed the beans they roast because they took the time to travel to Colombia and see where the chain begins—fittingly so, because owners Kim Anderson and Aaron Olson turned their own chains for years as professional cyclists.
Their love of coffee was born in the cafés of Europe—the traditional mid-training-ride coffee stop for pro racers. Aaron shows us Hercules, his 1993 Probat drum roaster; and his passion for coffee shines. Each day that he roasts beans, he’ll spend 12 to16 hours at the machine, the cast-iron drum spinning to ensure the beans never get scorched. It’s the hot air that roasts these beans.
As we sit outside, sipping our coffee, we’re surrounded by Santa Barbara locals—Handlebar Coffee Roasters is a bit off the beaten track to attract the tourist crowd. The owners may be ex-roadies, a Tour stage may be repeating inside and a few of the patrons are clad in Lycra, but most are just here for the truly great coffee and relaxing atmosphere.
As our cups empty our gaze turns to the northeast and the Santa Ynez Mountains that loom above the city. The easy chatter begins to quiet as we contemplate the true nature of our afternoon trip: the climb of Gibraltar Road.