On Sunday we had our irregularly offered Apple Blossom ride out of Sebastopol. This year it is part of the Forty & Fab ride series, justifiably so since not only is it an early club ride that had faded from collective memory due to membership attitrion—there aren’t many oldsters still in the club—but because the riding experience and scenery are topnotch. This year it was just three of us, Roger S and me and my husband Roger H. Perhaps it was the ominous weather forecast and lack of sunshine that drove you all away. But to our astonishment (not!) the forecast proved to be completely wrong: we had bright sunshine and perfect temperature for climbing the west Sonoma bergs.
The Apple Blossom is in reality a set of rides done in the early days of the club that all took you from Sebastopol to Occidental and back. They differed in length and plied slightly different rural roads but all the routes were clockwise heading south of Sebastopol and then west while gradually working their way to Occidental. The traditional lunch stop was the Union Hotel in Occidental; for some reason we never ate at Negri’s across the street perhaps because there was no outside dining nor other conveniently safe place to leave our bikes. El Mariachi, Howard’s Station, and Hazel did not exist back then. The other reason probably was due to Mike Reedy, who did not originate the Apple Blossom—it was MJ—but he loved this ride and was responsible for creating one of the routes by shortening the original. (Mike was, uh, heavy and didn’t take kindly to steep hills.) Mike was Italian-American and loved Italian-American cooking, and his choice was always the Union Hotel. When the Apple Blossom was revived for the 30th anniversary, of course I followed tradition and set lunch there. However last year we broke tradition and ate at El Mariachi and discovered that their burritos were excellent. I was actually looking forward to going there again but I got outvoted in favor of the Union Hotel and that turned out to be an excellent decision. But I’m jumping ahead…
Because we knew it was going to be a very cozy group this club ride had a very casual atmosphere. We actually did end up leaving at the scheduled time of 10 AM but that was more by happenstance since I had told Roger S that I wasn’t going to be a martinet about it. Of course it wouldn’t be a Different Spokes ride if something predictably unpredictable happened and that was my ancient Garmin 800, which has been nearly bombproof in over ten years of dependable use, locked up a mere one block from the start necessitating a stop—going uphill, natch—and the revival of some long dormant brain cells on how one reboots a Garmin 800. That done we continued without a hitch for the rest of the day.
Riding in west Sonoma is both heavenly and infernal. On a good day like we were having the scenery is an oh-so-good massage for your eyes, ears, and nose. It was sunny, cool but not cold, and clear air made everything shine in brilliant colors and detail. But the road quality varied from “are we dirt yet?” to reasonably smooth tarmac with a distinct emphasis on the former. Because we’re the trendsetters that we are, all of us were on tires of 30mm width or more and that helped to ease the shock of the innumerable potholes, patches, rubble, and other road incongruities that pepper Sonoma country roads like a case of bad acne on a teenager’s face. And it didn’t take long before we were merrily bouncing our way south on the narrow road euphemistically named Pleasant Hill, dodging pavement heaves and sadistically poor asphalt patches whilst playing tag with the cars who all seemed in a hurry, obviously late for church!
After turning off Pleasant Hill the traffic almost disappeared except on Roblar, which is a cut-through from Highway 116 to Valley Ford. This was rural Sonoma, faux farm houses soon giving way to the real thing along with orchards, vineyards, and pastures. Time has not been kind to the Gravenstein apple. Whether its popularity has diminished due to the newer variants such as the Gala, Pink Lady, or Honeycrisp or just because apples in general are less profitable to grow, Gravensteins are vanishing quickly from Sonoma, which used to be their production epicenter. In fact there is still an annual Gravenstein Festival in Sebastopol. We passed a few abandoned orchards, trees hoary from the lack of pruning and overgrown with tall weeds. Places that used to be acre after acre of apple trees are now growing wine grapes no doubt because every bottle of wine made in California can be sold at a nice profit. The switch may be good for the farmers but it’s made it difficult to find Gravensteins in markets. Thirty years ago Gravensteins regularly showed up in Safeway, Co-op, and other NorCal chains. Now, outside of Sonoma you’re lucky to find them at all. Roger S stopped to take a picture of some apple blossoms in an abandoned orchard thinking that we’d likely not see anymore. Fortunately that turned out not to be true.
We stopped and dawdled when and wherever we wanted and there was plenty to dawdle over. The views from the tops of the hillocks we surmounted were just pastoral in the best sense of the word—green pastures and hills seemingly undiminished by the drought, Holsteins lounging in the fields munching away. As we tooled along we kept running across metal art placed in front of farms, fanciful rabbits, octupi, centipedes, and tin men! There were also plentiful wildflowers including California poppies whose color just ‘pops’ against the green grasses.
West Sonoma may be farm land but it is not the least flat. Instead it’s rolling hills and depending on which road you take you’ll either confront something reasonable like an 8% grade or something less reasonable like a 12% grade. Today it wasn’t so bad with the worst being less than 10%. Even so it felt more like rockclimbing than climbing. Tempering these climbs were the numerous photo ops and vista breaks we were taking. But the climbing eventually took its toll on my legs and I was getting hungry. Just outside of Occidental we passed by Ratzlaff Farms, one of the few remaining commercial Gravenstein orchards left. It took us nearly three hours to ride from Sebastopol to Occidental, which is just 23 miles away!
We dined at the Union Hotel in their outdoor courtyard beneath their blossoming Judas tree or Eastern redbud. We weren’t sure which was correct but those were the two guesses that Plantnet gave us. Incidentally that was another great find of the day: Roger S used the app Plantnet on his phone to identify the many plants we were curious about as we rolled along. No need to have a degree in botany and know how to key out plants—just use the app! Although the Union Hotel constructed a monstrous parklet in front for Pandemic dining, the courtyard has a more cordial atmosphere and today it wasn’t crowded at all. We grabbed a table and looked over their menu. Alas, the Pandemic has led them to drastically reduce their tasty menu down to a mere handful of choices, better I suppose for the kitchen so that they don’t need to prep so much for a small or unpredictable number of meals. We decided to split a pizza and Roger S selected the Garlic Gold, which has a creamy garlic instead of tomato sauce as well as mozzarella, sausage, caramelized onions, and sautéed mushrooms. None of us had ever had their pizza before and it was a revelation. Although predictably American—no wood fired oven here!—it was marvelous with the caramelized onions lending an interesting sweet flavor to such savory toppings. We couldn’t finish the whole thing even though it was only about 12 inches. (Where have I heard that before?)
We spent nearly an hour and a half over lunch. It was a very Italian pranzo: cycle somewhere really chill, sit down and have a proper meal, chat, linger, and finally roust oneself back on the bike for the completion of the ride. The ride back was ten miles and most of it downhill, so delaying our departure wasn’t to avoid a scarf ’n barf session—it was just ‘lunch’, the type which you rarely see on a Different Spokes ride.
Back in the saddle we had but three or four tiny hills to surmount on the generally downhill rush back to Sebastopol. More beautiful rural countryside, more sculpture, few cars. Just outside of town we ran into a large apple orchard in bloom. Nice. And adjacent to it was another abandoned orchard. Sigh. The run into town goes almost immediately from farm land to residential neighborhood. Now that’s a green line!
We were back at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, our start, and it was 3 PM—five hours to cover 33 miles. That was a bike ride to relish: good food, good company, and occasionally good road. It’s still spring up in Sebastopol so if you’re hankering for your country road fix, this is the place to go. If and when you go the apple blossoms may have vanished. But you’ll still be able to enjoy this little piece of cycling heaven.