I’ve ridden Carmel Valley Road and Highway 1 to the summit of Laureles Grade and back several times before. It’s not the most difficult of rides, but the 5000 feet of climbing combined with the likely headwind on the way back can sting the legs, even if it’s under 30 miles. It was the distance that convinced me to switch it up a little. It was my last weekend before Levi’s Gran Fondo and I wanted a few extra miles. Before I set out, I settled on a 40 mile day.
Carmel Valley Road from Highway 1 to Laureles Grade is wide and offers a decent shoulder much of the way. There is very little cross traffic which is nice, but the, mostly, two lane road has a high marked speed limit of 55 in some places and not much lower in others. Overall, the road feels safe, but not comfortable. The terrain rolls past strange combination of golf resorts, trailer parks, vineyards, cow pastures, churches and farms. The road drags on, up and down short, sometimes steep climbs.
Civilization starts to fade just a bit as you pass Garland Ranch Regional Park and approach the left turn to Laureles Grade. To this point, the ride is fine but not spectacular. Most of the landscape that might have offered views of the valley has been converted into the unnatural greens of planned golf courses. Things improve, at least slightly, if you take the left but I was looking for 12 more miles (six out and six back) so I plodded along down Carmel Valley Road.
Almost immediately, I regretted my decision. The road narrowed and the shoulder thinned. Traffic seemed to calm slightly and the sight of other cyclists made me feel like I wasn’t an anomaly that would go unnoticed until forced into off the road or into the tree that had grown in the small shoulder. For 2 miles I thought about turning back and I might have had I not rolled gently into the town of Carmel Village.
The road widened slightly, the speed limit dropped and pedestrians crossed the street. As I exited the town the shoulder didn’t come with me and for a split second I was worried about traffic again but, before long, I realized the traffic hadn’t come with me either. The lush valley jumped up around me and the road snaked along the valley wall. I struggled to keep my speed up and started to worry about fatigue, but I plodded on and, just as I was ready to turn and head back, I passed another cyclist, in his 60s, with long, curly gray hair and a matching beard. He was probably headed to climb on Cachagua Rd., but I didn’t have the time and turned back surprised to find I was headed down a long descent. I cruised back to Laurels grade quickly and much more confident in the safety of the roads.
Laurels Grade starts out as a fairly easy, fairly steady climb. The shoulders are narrow but the cars seem to expect cyclists and leave plenty of room as they pass. After a mile or so of quietly grinding out a reasonable pace, with the occasional glance to the left and a view of the valley (and maybe the ocean on a clear day) the climb stiffens. The legs begin to ache as the 6% grade goes up past 10%. There is no rest until the road suddenly flattens and passes to the other side of the hill and along the ridge, offering the rider a view out to Salinas. Then, just one short steep push to the summit and, for me, a u-turn at the entrance to a private community.
Once past the short flat along the ridge, the descent is fast. A more aggressive rider may not touch the brakes as often I do, and there is little reason to worry about being passed by the traffic behind. A small group of riders looked at me with envy as they toiled up the climb. The cool air chilled my sweat dampened jersey but before I got chilled I was at the bottom turning onto the valley road and sliding into the drops for the last rolling 11 miles.