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San Luis Obispo beckons outdoor athletes, car not required
By Pete Gauvin
As the halfway point between the Bay Area and Southern California, San Luis Obispo has always been a psychological midway station for Highway 101 travelers headed north and south.
But what dashboard drop-ins might not know is that San Luis Obispo, “SLO town,” has become a bit of a Central Coast petri dish for multi-sport athletes, cyclists, and outdoor adventurers of all stripes.
It’s easy to understand why when you consider the healthy ingredients that shape this easy-going community of 44,000:
• It’s a bike-friendly college town with a vibrant downtown core.
• It has a mild year-round Mediterranean climate moderated by its location 11 miles from the coast.
• There’s lots of protected open space (6,500 acres) with running, hiking and mountain biking trails in and around town, even rock climbing.
• Miles of great cycling roads bleed away into the countryside and along the coast.
• From Pismo Beach to Morro Bay, the coast offers surfing, kiteboarding and kayaking.
• Several inland lakes provide a place to cool off and a swim venue for triathlons.
• A number of established events, including adventure races, road and off-road triathlons, and century rides, provide competitive motivation for local and visiting athletes.
In recent years, SLO-town’s rich outdoor sports culture, particularly in regard to endurance sports, has fomented into such a viral bloom that one might be more apt to call it “SLO-twitch town.”
It’s evolved, and/or been discovered, as the ideal training ground and proving ground for endurance athletes.
HTC-Highroad, the most successful team in pro cycling the last three years, is based here.
“SLO is a very outdoor-fitness friendly location in general,” says Yishai Horowitz, founder and director of All Out Events, which produces the Central Coast Adventure Challenge and other races in the county (www. all-outevents.com).
“SLO town caters to bikes like Arizona caters to concealed weapons — they’re everywhere and encouraged.”
“You’ll find impromptu local races and rallies of all kinds, including peak-bagging challenges and hilltop criteriums. It’s just the mindset of those who settle here and take the pay cut for the inspiration that the coast, the lakes, the peaks, and the valleys give you,” adds Horowitz, a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who chose to make it his home after getting his degree.
Come and see for yourself. Spring may be the best time.
While SLO’s outdoor virus may be contagious, it’s unlikely to compromise your immune system.
By Road or Rail
Whether you live in Northern or Southern California, it’s a relatively easy drive, as you only have to go roughly half way toward the other and you’re at your destination.
But before you load the car, consider leaving it behind.
Amtrak provides daily service on the Coast Starlight train from the Bay Area and Los Angeles, as well as twice daily on the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego. And the station is just a few blocks from downtown.
Whatever you do, bring your bike (or bikes) with you.
SLO town caters to bikes like Arizona caters to concealed weapons — they’re everywhere and encouraged. There are bike boulevards, bike lanes, bike signals, bike racks and even bike valets; the SLO County Bicycle Coalition offers a free bicycle valet service during the Thursday night Farmers’ Market.
There are also deals for cyclists.
Book your Amtrak ticket through SLO Car Free (slocarfree.org) and get 20 percent off. Discounts are also available on lodging (10-30 percent off). Or in the case of the Petit Soleil B&B hotel near downtown, you can get a free cruiser bike rental with your stay.
Suds and Sustenance
Sure there’s lots of wine tasting in the region, but right downtown you can sample beers from the Central Coast Brewery while the mechanics at Cambria Bicycle Outfitter next door tune up your steed after a day in the saddle. Have a pint or try five beers for $5. The brewery’s tasting room is like a living room with taps, a big screen and free WiFi.
Prefer your brew caffeinated or need a quick bite, you don’t have to go far. At the same full-service address as the brewery and the bike shop (1422 Monterey St.), the Outspoken Café offers coffee, lunch specialties and fruit smoothies.
Two other downtown cafés, both funky and bike-friendly, deserve mention: Kreuzberg, CA, which serves Verve Coffee, sandwiches and wraps; and Linnaea’s Café, which features organic coffee drinks, baked goods and vegetarian eats.
For something heartier, the Creekside Brewing Company offers good pub-style comfort food and hand-crafted beers in a laidback atmosphere next to the creek.
Hiking, Trail Running, Climbing
The most popular hiking area is Bishop Peak, which overlooks town and offers views toward Morro Bay. It is the highest peak (1,559 feet) of the Nine Sisters, a chain of nine volcanic plug peaks stretching from SLO to the famous Morro Rock. (Note: “The Nine Sisters” are also commonly referred to as the “Seven Sisters,” leaving two sisters unaccounted for.)
The Bishop Peak Trail is two miles long to the top and moderately steep with some switchbacks. Dog friendly. No mountain bikes. Beware of poison oak.
Bishop Peak is also the top local climbing area, offering a surprising range of climbing — sport, trad, bouldering, and top rope — on three main crags: P-Wall, Cracked Wall and Shadow Rock.
For trail running, a popular spot is the Johnson Ranch Trail, a 3.5-mile loop that starts close town at the trailhead at South Higuera Street and Ontario Road. Bikes are welcome, too.
In spring there’s a nice hike in Reservoir Canyon Natural Reserve to a couple of waterfalls. The trail is just over six miles roundtrip.
There are a number of good trails close to town and a wealth of trails throughout the county. A good online source for most all of the legal ones is Mountain Bike San Luis Obispo County, mountainbikeslocounty.com. Nearly 30 riding areas are profiled and separated into central, north and south county zones.
Highlights include the riding right above town on Cerro San Luis, commonly called “Madonna Mountain” because of the large “M” branding the side of it. But it might as well stand for “Mistaken” because it was actually put there by Mission Prep High School in 1966.
Regardless, there’s good fire-road and single-track riding, with great views toward Morro Bay and south toward Pismo Beach. After a two-mile climb to the top, you can drop down the challenging Rock Garden Trail and eventually hook up with the sweet single track of the Lemon Grove Trail.
West of town, Montana de Oro State Park, a half hour drive through the charmingly funky seaside community of Los Osos, has a bunch of smooth singletrack riding in the hills overlooking the coast. Montana de Oro is also home to great hiking and the best camping in the area. The campground has 50 sites and is right across from a great little beach called Spooner’s Cove.
The San Luis Obispo Bicycle Club, slobc. org, which started 40 years ago, has a full ride calendar for all abilities and dozens of suggested rides. For rides averaging 20-30 miles, look at the “SLO Poke Rides.” For longer rides, generally 30-50 miles, check out the “Favorite Rides.” For some classics, check out the “Great Rides” and “Founder Rides.”
Choose a coastal route if it’s hot inland or ride out to Lopez Lake, which has good swimming.
For a substantial ride with climbing leaving right from town, try Cuesta Grade, a favorite loop ride just over 60 miles in length with 4,000 feet of climbing. It heads north, paralleling Highway 101 inland at first, up Cuesta Grade, and then loops west and south toward Highway 1 and Morro Bay, and back to San Luis.
The bike club hosts two century rides a year, the Wildflower Century (April 30; sold out) and the Lighthouse Century (Sept. 24; registration opens June 5).
In October, San Luis Obispo hosts the SLO Gran Fondo (Oct. 15, slogranfondo.com), which started last year and allowed weekend warriors to ride with pros from HTC-Columbia. The ride has 25, 50 and 100-mile course options.
Outdoor Events and Races
The San Luis Mountain Run 10k and 5k will be held April 17. The trail race begins at Laguna Lake Park and circumnavigates Cerro San Luis. The 10k has an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet, and is co-sponsored by Trail Runner magazine. (www.slomountainrun. com)
The 9th annual XtremeBigAir Kiteboading Expo will be held April 22-24 in Pismo Beach (xtremebigair.com/kitexpo). Demo the latest kiting and stand-up paddling gear, or sign up for rider clinics.
Central Coast Adventure Challenge, May 13-15, is a 12-hour adventure race held on 14,000 acres of private property. There’s also a shorter Adventure Sprint race of 2-4 hours. (www.ccadventure.com)
Stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California finishes in Paso Robles, 30 miles north of SLO, on May 19, after a 139-mile jaunt down the coast from Seaside.
The Morro Bay Triathlon on June 5 features a bay swim, epic road ride and beautiful run. Both Olympic and Sprint distances are offered. (www.morrobaytri.com)
The Lopez Lake Adventure Challenge, June 18-19, features a 6-hour adventure race on June 18 designed to bridge the gap between sprint races and 12-hour dawn to dusk races. On Sunday, there’s a 2-4 hour sprint adventure race.
The first annual Ancient Peaks MTB Classic on July 23-24 will be hosted on the 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch, 20 minutes from downtown SLO. With more than 30 miles of trails, it promises to offer some of the best cross-country and downhill races in California. (www.ancienpeaksclassic.com)
Scott Tinley’s Adventures (www. tricalifornia.com) is a weekend full of multi- sport races Sept. 30-Oct. 2, held at Lopez Lake. The weekend includes four on-road triathlons (Long Course, International, Sprint and Kids) and two off-road (Extreme and Sprint), plus mountain bike hill climb time trials.
Just remember, racers, you gotta go SLO before you go fast!