Gibraltar Road meanders up the rocky and rugged Santa Ynez Mountains with almost no regard to pitch or direction—it’s steep when we need respite and the gradient eases long after our legs start begging for mercy. The climb really starts at the sharp, banked turn onto Mountain Drive, just after the Santa Barbara Mission, but it doesn’t officially count until nearly ten minutes later when we pass the mailboxes at the intersection of Cielito and Gibraltar. The climb then kicks up with a vengeance.
At the first wide, swooping right hander after Mount Calvary Monastery, we get a sweeping view over Santa Barbara Harbor (where a yearly marina slip will run six figures) to the distant Channel Islands—the Galapagos of North America as they are often called. As the road twists across the shale rock face of the Santa Ynez and we slow to a manageable climbing tempo, the pace of our breathing picks up.
Once we reach a section protected by concrete crash barriers, views to the south poke their heads over the horizon, including the towns of Carpinteria and Ventura; even the Malibu mountains are visible through the Pacific coastline mist toward the City of Angels. A gentle breeze then picks up from the west and we’re pushed along the tarmac, ever closer to the skyline.
The gradient softens and we head into the mountains, the ocean at our back and the tailwind blowing us into our big ring for the first time since we started climbing. We marvel at the beautiful blacktop surface, freshly laid for pure road-cycling joy—but it wasn’t always like this. The road was repaved for the pros who swung through in May for the Amgen Tour of California’s toughest stage, which ended atop the mountain.
After a short respite for us, the climb pitches up again at a sharp left turn. Ahead, a long, winding driveway falls square into view as the shade of oaks to our right keeps us cool. Another right turn and the road kicks up again—this time we catch a glimpse of the ocean as we grind up the road out of the saddle.
Finally, “No Shooting” signs come into sight, and we reach the second-flattest section that we’ll pedal on this hour-long Gibraltar Road climb. We catch our breath, find some quick calories in our pockets and sip from our bottles after the 180-degree turn.
Now heading more north—with UC Santa Barbara’s Storke Tower campanile and Campus Point surfing beach in view—the wind blows across our faces. A difficult climb just became more challenging. And as we chew our stems a bit more, the undulations of the mountains disappear into the distance along the Gaviota Coast.
After snaking our way around a few sinuous bends, Gibraltar Rock comes into view, with a daring climber clinging to its face. In that moment of suffering, we crack smiles, because conquering this climb on a bicycle at least keeps us planted on the ground—hanging from a rope on the mountain’s face seems far more daunting.
We get another brief respite on a 20-second descent through Flores Flats, an eclectic community of individuals living off the grid, where no less than a dozen forms of “No Trespassing” signs pop up in a 100-meter stretch. We wonder: has this community discovered something worth investigating further? But the road pitches up too steeply and too quickly for us to care enough to make a stop. We’re out of the saddle now and the suffer is in full force.
Our final mile is nothing but a glamorous blur of sweat dripping from beneath our helmets and into our eyes as we heave and ho our bikes for an extra bit of power. Where Tour of California winner Julien Alaphilippe kicked clear for his stage victory, our leg muscles beg for a break, but the top is too near as we wrap around the backside of the last kilometer and into the shade of the final ridge.
Upon reaching the Gibraltar Road summit, we reach a decision point—tuck our bikes safely onto the back of our truck’s Küat rack, continue up to the true peak of La Cumbre at an elevation of 4,000 feet, or travel west along Camino Cielo for a roller-coaster ride along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains that we just struggled to conquer. We agree that decisions are worth suffering for and we take a moment to enjoy our current reward before wandering off to the next.
The backcountry finally reveals its true scale, reaching out for miles and miles in all directions, beckoning us to drop into the valley and explore. Perhaps, in this moment, we’ve just made our plans for tomorrow’s adventure?