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Biking California's Highway 1 is a little like spinning class. Only instead of the sound of a wannabe Marine drill instructor yelling at you to "Feel the burn," you hear seals barking and waves crashing on the rocky shore.
And instead of the odor of sweat-drenched people who haven't washed their workout clothes since gas was under $2, you breathe in invigorating salty air mixed with the scent of cedar and eucalyptus. And instead of riding a stationary bike inside a windowless room that has all the charm of a German U-boat, you have dramatic views of waterfalls plunging to the beach, lighthouses and Spanish missions standing sentinel, redwoods climbing to the sky and cliffs tumbling hundreds of feet to the vast blue water of the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, I am barely noticing any of this at the moment. Hell, Maria Sharapova could be mud-wrestling the Laker girls and I would barely notice. Right now, my focus is on the 10 yards of gray roadway in front of me, the ball of sweat forming on my nose and the thought that has been rattling through my head for the past mile or so.
"Are we ever going to get to the top of this @#&$%# hill?"
I'm 80-some miles into the Volvo Best Buddies Challenge, a 100-mile bike ride from Carmel, Calif., to Hearst Castle outside of San Simeon. And right now, I'm finishing up the last major climb of the ride. Actually, it's a double climb. First, an approximately 600-feet gain in just over two miles followed by a dip of about 250 feet, followed immediately by a steeper climb back up to 800 feet.
As mountains go, this is hardly Alpe d'Huez. Then again, I'm not exactly Floyd Landis. I have ridden up longer, steeper roads -- there is a long one with a higher grade on one of my usual biking routes in the Seattle-area hills -- but never after an 80-mile ride. It's not the hill so much that is bothering me -- it's my ass. I've been in the saddle for more than five hours, and my rear hasn't felt this uncomfortable since I had to sit through a showing of "Maid in Manhattan" in a middle seat on a flight to Chicago.
Eventually, though, I reach the hill's crest and point my bike down the long, curving stretch of highway. Figuratively and literally, it's downhill from here. Pedaling only occasionally, I take in the magnificent views while coasting down to the rest stop at Ragged Point where there are free bagels, oranges, Gatorade and sugar cookies -- and masseuses -- awaiting along the edge of a glorious seaside vista.
This so beats spinning class.
The Hearst Castle ride is an annual fundraiser for Best Buddies, the international charity dedicated to helping the intellectually disabled fulfill their potential by arranging employment opportunities and one-on-one friendships. It was started in 1989 by Anthony Shriver, who had been profoundly affected by his relationship with his severely mentally disabled aunt, Rosemary Kennedy.
"The one day that's embedded in my mind was when I was a kid and I would go swimming with her and I realized that she was an enormously strong swimmer -- the best swimmer in my whole family," Shriver says. "All the time when I was a kid, my memories were of all the things she couldn't do. She couldn't have a job. She couldn't go to the bathroom on her own. She couldn't get into bed on her own. She couldn't drive a car. Until I got in the pool with her, I didn't realize there was something she could do on her own, independently, and better than anybody else. And I didn't know that until I got in the pool with her.
"I think everyone with intellectual disabilities has a pool in their life and has the ability to swim. They swim in all different shapes, forms and fashions. Our challenge is to find what their swimming pool is and celebrate it. Then they feel empowered, they feel engaged, they feel a part of the community."
In just 17 years, Best Buddies has grown to 1,300 chapters in 25 countries, with programs touching hundreds of thousands.
"Our ultimate goal is that we go out of business," Shriver says. "The vision is that one day Best Buddies doesn't need to exist. That people with disabilities are totally integrated into community. They make their friends naturally and get their own jobs and own housing, go to sporting events and get married and have kids totally on their own."
There are two other Best Buddies rides (Hyannis Port and Dublin) and Shriver is working toward adding a 1,000-mile ride along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a ride in Dubai. But I can't imagine a better ride than these 100 miles from the Monterey Peninsula to San Simeon.
This might be the most spectacular stretch of uninterrupted roadway in the country, if not the entire world -- with the possible exception of that bit of road in Peoria, Ariz., where there is a ballpark across from an In-N-Out Burger drive-in next to a Krispy Kreme. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson described the Monterey Peninsula as the world's greatest meeting of land, sea and sky, and he might have been understating it.
If Shoeless Joe had visited Big Sur first, he never would have confused Iowa with heaven.
The Hearst Castle ride may be 100 miles with a total elevation gain of 6,000 feet, but for me the most daunting part is just waking up in time for the 7 a.m. start. More than 500 riders are registered for the ride (you must raise $2,000 in pledges to participate) and though some settle for shorter 62-mile and 15-mile rides, there are at least 100 cyclists ready to go the full monty, including a couple Best Buddies participants.
I ride a fair amount -- I logged about 2,000 miles this summer -- but looking at all the other riders, I feel way out of my league. For one thing, they're all wearing black biker shorts. I haven't quite gotten myself to the point where I would feel comfortable wearing such things in public. I mean, it's kind of like wearing a speedo to the pool or stirrup socks to the company softball game, isn't it? More importantly, where do you put your wallet, keys and cell phone?
Dawn is just breaking as Anthony and Maria Shriver wish us all a safe, enjoyable ride at the Chateau Julien winery start line. It's an overcast day and unseasonably chilly for the central coast. The temperature is in the low 50s as we start, and it won't crawl much above that all day. But this is much preferable to a warm day that would leave me sweating like Oprah in a Turkish bath. Or a windy day that would make the flat sections seem like hills, the hills seem like the Himalayas and the descents feel like Lambeau Field in December. Nor is it raining. All in all, these are pretty good biking conditions.
We ease into the ride behind a police escort down Carmel Valley Road until reaching Highway 1 near the Carmel Mission and turning south.
Pebble Beach is back a few miles to the north, but that enclave has little on the magnificent homes in the Carmel Highlands, an area so upscale that the lone gas station offers a tremendous variety of fine wines and cheeses. To our left is the sublime Highlands Inn (where Madonna and Sean Penn honeymooned) and to our right is Spindrift Road, where Sharon Stone's home in "Basic Instinct" and Clint Eastwood's pad in "Play Misty for Me" are located. And dead ahead is Big Sur.
Building restrictions are such that the road is nearly the same as when it was first paved in the 1930s. Billboards are banned and new construction is not allowed if it can be seen from the highway. There are no fast-food chains. No Starbucks. There are no real towns until you get to San Simeon. All there is is jaw-dropping view after jaw-dropping view. There is the view from Rocky Point, where the restaurant offers the most beautiful dining experience short of sitting across from Angelina Jolie. And the view across the Bixby Bridge, the familiar single-arch span seen in about every other car commercial ever filmed. And the view from Nepenthe, the cliffside restaurant built on the site where Orson Welles supposedly bought a love nest for Rita Hayworth and himself. And the view looking down to the waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
And hell, the views from all the vista points seemingly around every curve of the highway. The phrase, "This is the most beautiful view I've ever seen," has a shelf life of about three miles here.
I've driven Big Sur several times, occasionally under skies as blue as a Kansas City Royals cap. But there is no better way to appreciate the route than on a bicycle. Passing riders on hills as if they were paperboys on Schwinns, pursuing others at 30-35 miles per hour on descents with U2's "Beautiful Day" blasting through my iPod -- the ride is so exhilarating I feel as if I just injected myself with steroids and testosterone.
Even when I'm panting up those last steep hills, I pity the poor schmoes who must experience this road from inside their cars.
I cross the finish line at the turnoff to Hearst Castle with a time of 7:35. Subtract the breaks I took to tape video segments, and I probably rode the 100 miles in about 6:30 to 6:45, or about 15 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the "winner" finished in just under five hours (Daphne Zuniga, the actress from The Sure Thing and Melrose Place will win the 15-mile ride in under 45 minutes).
Shriver says the ride has raised about $2.5 million. There is a small contingent of Best Buddies participants around afterward, and watching them enjoy the race, I see smiles as dazzling as the Big Sur coast itself.
"The most important thing I learned from my aunt is that everyone has a gift," Shriver says. "When given the right kind of support and guidance, everybody's gift can be important and they can feel important when they share it."
(To learn more about Best Buddies, to make a donation or to inquire about future rides, go to BestBuddies.org.)
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com who has covered sports on five continents and written about them all across America. His work can also be found on Page 2, and his book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," can be ordered through jimcaple.net.