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Bike power in San Luis Obispo

In the small college town, traffic stops for bikes and a trestle helps riders cross railroad tracks. Maybe best of all: Wineries are a short ride away.

May 10, 2009|Jane Engle

SAN LUIS OBISPO — "Cycling is dope."

That slogan, spied on a rider's T-shirt along the sylvan Bob Jones trail, sums up what it's like to bike in the San Luis Obispo area. This is one pedaling place, I was reminded on a recent return to the region, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

Other burgs have skinny little bike lanes. San Luis Obispo, a college town of less than 50,000 souls, has those too, more than 25 miles of them. But it also sports a bicycle boulevard along a less-traveled section of Morro Street, where two-wheelers get the run of the car lane.

At one intersection, just by placing your bike on a designated spot, you trip a metal detector that turns the stoplights red for everyone else.

Talk about respect.

Crossing the railroad tracks is no sweat either, thanks to a million-dollar trestle fitted with gentle ramps that zigzag up the 25-foot-high span.

And here's the cherry on the sundae: At the weekly downtown farmers market, volunteer valets will watch your wheels for free while you shop.

Are you listening, city planners of America?

Mostly not, it seems. That sad reality, along with bucolic scenery, was why my partner, Wesla, and I spent a few days in April in San Luis Obispo County, renowned for 100-mile bike rallies such as the annual Wildflower ride.

We chose a gentler option: rides of less than 25 miles each, suitable for moderately fit vacationers and those whose knees, like mine, are no longer under warranty.

As a leisurely prequel, we had hopped Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner from L.A., a 5 1/2- hour journey that mostly hugged the Pacific, offering a movable visual feast of frolicking dolphins, bobbing surfers and rugged, sea-battered coast. Most Surfliners offer bike racks or baggage cars.

We stayed at the Heritage Inn, a wisteria-draped B&B in a century-old house that Susanne Teso, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, was refurbishing after buying it in December.

Teso's former career, managing the Princess Grill aboard the now-retired Queen Elizabeth 2, ensured superb breakfasts -- and riveting tales. (Ask her about the 90-foot wave that hit the legendary QE2 in 1995.)

Cribbing from maps crafted by the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition, Wesla and I rode three loops in three days, touring wineries, cruising to the coast and delving into history. Here's what we found:

Edna Valley Wineries,

14 miles

I can't say we weren't warned.

"That's the one thing about San Luis Obispo," said Andrew, a cyclist we met at a local cafe. "Even in the warm season, you can get a cold wind," especially in the afternoon.

Sidelined with a broken spoke, we got a late start way past noon, heading over the railroad bridge, onto the trackside bike path and south along unlovely California Highway 227.

Our first stop was the surprisingly charming San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, whose terminal is bedecked with dangling figures of luggage-toting birds by local artist Sandra Kay Johnson.

At Spirit of San Luis, a restaurant replete with aviation memorabilia that overlooks the runway, white-haired co-owner Doug Wagnon greeted us as if we were driving a Rolls-Royce, directing us to a spot to secure our cycles.

"I do bikes, bathrooms and windows, and I cook too," he said. Quite well, judging from the Wright cheeseburger, Kitty Hawk tuna sandwich and fries we gobbled while gawking at the comings and goings of small planes.

South of the airport the ride turned scenic, with tree-dotted hills and acres of grape vines. We turned left onto Biddle Ranch Road for a tasting at the 1,200-acre Edna Valley Vineyard, one of more than a dozen in the region. This one had a picnic area, gourmet shop and small demonstration vineyard.

We also stopped at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard and Wolff Vineyards, where Clint Grubb, the owners' son, obliged us with an after-hours tasting.

"It's not our style to turn people away," he said

From Clint we learned a lot about Petite Syrah, Alsatian Riesling and SLO-vintage hospitality.

Mindful of safety, we sipped sparingly. Regardless, our late-afternoon return over undulating Orcutt Road, fighting a relentless north wind, would have snapped anyone back to sobriety.

Tour d'Avila, 23 miles

We began our trip to the coast after breakfast, heading south out of town on Higuera Street and then on Ontario Road, skirting U.S. Highway 101.

About eight miles out, we ducked onto the 2 1/2 -mile Bob Jones trail, a pretty, forested path along San Luis Creek. The trail connects to Avila Beach Drive, leading to the resort town of Avila Beach and Port San Luis' Harford Pier, on a gorgeous bay teeming with barking sea lions and other marine life.

Avila Beach, which was rebuilt after an underground oil spill forced much of its downtown to be bulldozed a decade ago, has returned to its sleepy old self. Which is pretty great, I mused, as we shared fat crab cakes on the patio of the Custom House restaurant.

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