7 Things to Know About Bicycle Tour of the Unknown Coast: California’s Toughest Century

By Cheri March

There are plenty of scenic bicycle tours in California, a cyclist's paradise of mountains, wine country and coastline. But none can match the remote, rugged beauty of Bicycle Tour of the Unknown Coast, which rides into Ferndale again this Saturday, May 20.

Billed as “California’s Toughest Century,” the Tour of the Unknown Coast has been both challenging and charming West Coast cyclists for nearly 40 years. Now, 2017 is bringing about changes to further sweeten the ride. With that in mind, here’s what to know about this epic Northern California bicycle event:

1. It boasts one of the most brutal climbs in California

You might think a coastal bicycle route means mostly flat cycling, but not here on the Lost Coast. Tour of the Unknown Coast’s 100-mile course boasts a staggering amount of climbing - nearly 10,000 total feet. Riders hit "The Wall," an infamously steep section with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, on the return from the ocean up the Wildcat, the twisty rural road leading back to Ferndale. While there are other bicycle tours in the world with similar climbs, none have you hitting a 20 percent grade at mile 80, says Tour Director Vic Armijo.

Cyclists begin ascent of "The Wall" above Cape Mendocino. Photo courtesy of Tour of the Unknown Coast.

Cyclists begin ascent of "The Wall" above Cape Mendocino. Photo courtesy of Tour of the Unknown Coast.

“You still have 3,500 feet of elevation left to go,” Armjio says. “Your legs are done and you still have one-third of the climbing on the route ahead of you. Usually there’s a lead group of 10-12 riders who hit the wall together and then they spread out. Being in a pack doesn’t help a whole lot once you’re on that climb – you’re on your own.”

Fortunately, the scenery makes it all worth it.

2. Speaking of scenery, the Century's breathtaking backwoods beauty can’t be beat

There are a handful of bicycle routes in Northern California that manage to include both redwoods and coastline. But none feature as much untamed wilderness at Tour of the Unknown Coast’s Century Ride, where riders traverse the verdant Eel River Valley from Ferndale to Rio Dell, through tall trees on the Avenue of the Giants, and along windswept bluffs overlooking waves crashing on the remote Lost Coast, before returning to Ferndale via the famously curvy Wildcat.

Photo by Brandi Easter

Photo by Brandi Easter

Along the way, they are few visible homes, very little traffic, and only two stop signs, making it easy to get swept up in the North Coast's stunning natural beauty. For the 60 percent of riders not local to the North Coast – especially those seeing the Redwoods for the first time -  taking it in can be surprisingly emotional.

“If you’ve been in Humboldt County a while, you can kind of take it for granted,” says Armijo says. “But I’ve had lots of people tell me they practically cried. Anywhere else like this, you’d have million-dollar homes along the view. You get to see what really is the last stretch of undeveloped coast.”

3. It’s officially a Gran Fondo this year

The Tour of the Unknown Coast reached a major milestone in 2017 when it became a Gran Fondo thanks to the addition of computerized chip timing, which allows for fraction-of-a-second accuracy, and awards. Gran Fondo, which translates to “Big Ride” in Italian, has become one of the most popular types of cycling events in the past decade.

Chip timing occurs at the Dyerville (the 100K turnaround), at the base of the infamous “wall” and at the finish line. Medals will be awarded for the top three men and women finishers in each ride.

4. A new vintage category celebrates the ride’s history

While the Tour of the Unknown Coast is officially celebrating its 39th year, the first ride happened 40 years ago when a group of hardcore Humboldt County cyclists mapped out and completed the course for training. They had so much fun they decided to put it on as an official tour the next year.

In honor of that inaugural ride, participants this year have been invited to dust off their 1986-or-prior road bikes and gear (modern helmets only, though!) and enter a new vintage category. Vintage category riders will be timed separately in the 100-mile, 100K and 50-mile rides, with medals awarded to the top three finishers. Special “retro-look” jerseys will be awarded to the fastest finisher in the 100-mile, as well as to the owner of the bike deemed most authentic by judges. See the full vintage category rules here.

5. Riders should come prepared for anything

The most common questions Armijo gets are about the conditions of the course: “People will call and ask, ‘Is it gonna be cold or warm, windy, wet?’ And I just say, ‘Yes.’” Coastal California – and the North Coast especially – is unpredictable, and temperatures and conditions can vary wildly within hours. It’s a good idea to come prepared with layers, Armijo says.

Think a pair of cycling shorts under tights, a short-sleeve jersey worn under a vest and light jacket or vest, and arm warmers or leg warmers that can be stuffed in a pocket when the sun comes out and things heat up.

One thing riders don’t have to worry much about is food. Due to the remoteness of the ride, organizers make sure there are plenty of opportunities for snacks and hydration stations. Lunch stops are at Immortal Tree and A.W. Way Park, with fruit, cookies and beverages also available at rest stops and aid stations.

6. For many, it’s a family tradition

With a reputation as a ride you have to do at least once, the Tour of the Unknown Coast sees new faces each year from all over California and Oregon. But it gets nearly as many repeat riders, some who have patches going back 20 years or more. Sometimes, doing the Tour of the Unknown Coast is a tradition that spans generations.

In particular, the 10- and 20-mile fun ride events – mostly-flat rides through Ferndale farmland – often include bikes towing kid trailers and young riders working up to the more serious routes. “What I love is when I meet a young rider maybe 18 to 20 years old, and they say, ‘My first time here, I was in a baby seat on the 10-mile,’” says Armijo.

Photo courtesy of Tour of the Unknown Coast

Photo courtesy of Tour of the Unknown Coast

7. It’s all for a good cause

The Tour of the Unknown Coast is a nonprofit event and over the years, it has given over $170,000 to charities in the North Coast community. Proceeds of the event are donated to the local nonprofit organizations that help produce the event, such as Humboldt State University Cycling Team, Redwood Acres BMX, Green Wheels, Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuters Association, Humboldt County Search & Rescue Team, Humboldt Amateur Radio Club and others.

Riders can register online through noon on Friday, May 19, 2017 or at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds the evening of May 19, from 5-7pm. Race day kicks off at 7am Saturday with the 100-mile, followed by 100K, 50-mile, 20-mile and 10-mile rides. Visit tuccycle.org for full schedule and other information about the Bicycle Tour of the Unknown Coast.