Of Mice and Mountain Men

Route Scout: Tour of California

When the pros hit Gibraltar Road there are fireworks. But what’s it like to climb it if you’re just a regular rider? To find out, we convinced a local Santa Barbara rider to take on Gibraltar and discovered along the way that riding bikes is a lot like making beer — you can be part science, part gambler, but you cannot be timid.

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Crazy with a Side of Crazy

“How you feeling?” I ask, peering out the window of the mini-van as our rider, Andrew Firestone, rolls to a halt. He’s about to ride this short section of Gibraltar again, for the third time this afternoon. He shrugs. Chuckles.

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Pure, Natural, Raw Ingredients

Some climbs are internationally known — ones for the bucket list — with dossiers and fact sheets. But after seeing Gibraltar during the Queen Stage of the 2016 AMGEN Tour of California, this climb may just get penciled in on some of those lists. It’s a raw and naked climb, relentlessly carving its way through canyons, slicing back and forth with hooks and squiggles.

“Sometimes you get this epic-looking fog in the morning before noon. It usually burns off by the afternoon, but that kind of makes it mysterious. There’ve been times when we’ve climbed it and you can’t see more than a car length in front of you.”

- Ryan Ung, route scout for the Tour of California

Earlier in the week, I’d spoken to Ryan Ung, a real route scout for the Tour of California. Having never seen the road, we needed to get some intel on what to expect.

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Beer Before Glory

Gibraltar Road sits comfortably in Santa Barbara’s 805 area code. It would be an easy enough leap to say, “Hey, 805 is a beloved local beer. Let’s talk about how cyclist’s love beer” and be done with it. But in exploring the subject of beers and Firestone Walker Brewery (Andrew’s brother Adam is one of the founders) a second connection emerged — that of obsession. Obsession with craft. Obsession with details. Obsession with the relentless pursuit of perfection.

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Welcome to Beer Vegas

Buellton, home of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks facility, is where sour beers reign and the wild things are. Earlier in the week, Andrew offered to escort us around the facility before the shoot. It was obvious that we were in beer geek nirvana from the moment we entered.

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Where the Wild Things Are

The fog is back on Gibraltar, albeit much higher up than before. We’re rewarded with a clear view, right up until the rocky section of the climb, where an eerie mist rolls over the lip of the road to make its way up. Andrew is also making his way up, and I hear him breathing as he methodically taps out a steady cadence behind us. It’s not long before Andrew has to stand to dispatch the pain of the grade and muscle on up.

“No. Nobody does. I mean, little Spanish men do, but not 185lb., 6ft tall fathers of three. They don’t.”

- Andrew Firestone, on if he likes climbing

Climbing is awful. Climbing is wonderful. To be good at it, you either have to be genetically blessed with a supreme mix of ideal physical characteristics that help you fly effortlessly up mountains; or have that unpredictable wild-card element that allows you to roll the dice, ignore your limitations, and just go all-in for the win. A victory on Stage Three of theTour of California is probably going to take a little bit of both — the scientist and the wildling.

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