"Would love for you to join us, mate"
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I received a call from a former EMJ teammate, Travis McKenzie. I'd spoken with Trav a few times and knew him to be a good dude. He's also got an incredible story. Soon after having been on the cover of Triathlete magazine as a top age-group triathlete and Kona qualifer, Trav was hit head-on by a car while doing a training ride. Nearly killed, he was given a 3% chance of walking again by doctors. Six months later, in Nov of 2015, he proved the doctors wrong and ran the NYC marathon. He then raced two speedy Ironmans this year (2016) trying to get back to Kona. Total boss.
Anyway, in our convo, Trav and I discussed NTSQ Velo, a company he recently launched with help from friend and world-renowned chef, Jonathan Cartwright. Three weeks later, I was en route to Carmel for the first of their cycling retreats.
In short, NTSQ Velo combines the best of a cycling trip with the luxury of a beautiful vacation. As Trav puts it, "[NTSQ Velo] was born from the desire to explore the world by bike. I want to share that journey with as many people as possible... Allowing them to experience the joy of riding their bikes in stunning locations, staying at the finest hotels and dining with some of the world’s most talented chefs." Game on.
I hit the runway at Monterey Regional Airport at 5 PM on Monday December 12. While I'd be riding a bike for the next three days, I had just a carry-on bag. No bike. No bike kits. Just my helmet, cycling shoes, pedals and some casual clothes. NTSQ would provide everything else. I could get used to this. Traveling with a bike is like traveling with a baby. It's stressful, and it sucks for you and anyone else involved.
I exited the airport and was greeted immediately by Nic Tickner, employee number three at NTSQ Velo. (As Nic shared with me later, Trav was my triathlon coach for a few years. Soon after his accident, he was out on the track in a neck brace giving me splits on a cold, rainy day in Vancouver. When he asked me to join him at NTSQ earlier this year, I was 100% in. Given my background in cooking and hospitality, he knew I was passionate about this type of work. I'd follow him anywhere.) Twenty minutes later, we were at L'Auberge Carmel. After being greeted by the owner and getting a quick tour — the place is beautiful, reminiscent of a luxurious yet quaint European hotel — I headed up to my room before dinner.
In my room, I had a had a gift bag waiting. And by 'gift bag', I mean a nice Herschel backpack filled with a couple NTSQ t-shirts, a rad pair of pants from DU/ER, a training shirt from RYU Apparel, water bottles and tabs from Nuun, along with some other goodies. As far as clothes go, I could have just brought what I wore on the plane. No need for much else. (I'd end up wearing the DU/ER pants daily. Too comfortable to take off.)
After a quick shower, I went down to the hotel lounge to meet up with the rest of those on the trip. I had arrived a day later than the others, but quickly got up to speed on introductions over a cold foamer. We were a small group — ten in total, including the NTSQ guys — which was nice. The others had done a 100km ride earlier in the day, but looked relaxed since most were fresh off the massage table. A few drinks and an amazing dinner later, I was off to bed around 9:00pm.
reacquainted with route 1
We kicked off the day with a 7 AM beach walk. Then came breakfast, then my bike fit. All before 10am, with nothing rushed. One just rolled into the next at a relaxed pace. The beach was peaceful and allowed a bit of quite time for us to simply sit still and soak in the beauty of Carmel. Afterwards, the group gathered in the dining room of L'Auberge for breakfast. I had coffee, avocado toast, fruit, and a fruit smoothie. (Wishing all could be served to me right now as I type.)
After some emails and more relaxing, I met up with Brad from Cervelo who was taking care of all things bike related. Having shared my bike measurements with Trav prior, my bike fit took all of 5 minutes. Brad had my Cervelo C3 ready to rock. Seamless. Even water bottles were filled up for us with Nuun and GU at the ready. Chef Justin also made some unreal granola bars. What?! NTSQ's attention to detail and service was next level. They wouldn't even let me bring my bike outside — already handled.
We rolled out at 10:30am. Today's ride was to Big Sur and back. It did not disappoint. Video below gives a taste of the awesomeness.
Almost a year ago to the day, my girlfriend Marla and I drove down Route 1 through Big Sur after picking her car up in Sacramento. We both commented on how amazing the route would be on a bicycle. We were right.
Our ride time was just under 4 hours, with the distance at 100km. While we largely stayed together (this was a strong group of riders), we were free to do whatever we wanted. Hammer, coast, whatever. All bikes had the route loaded up on new Polar GPS devices. And, both Trav and Nic were able to manage things by splitting up; one taking the lead group, one hanging back.
We got back to the L'Auberge around 3 pm. Lunch was waiting. I devoured my vegan Bánh Mì sandwich along with a tasty salad and a vegan (cashew)cheesecake. Justin Cogley (AKA simply, Chef), the Executive Chef at L'Auberge and an endurance-sport enthusiast himself, totally hooked me up with custom vegan meals through the trip. Just look at that sammy I've got in the picture below! He also joined in on the rides. What a legend.
After a shower and change, I had a chance to catch up on some work. The relaxed pace of everything (save for the actual riding) was great. I even got to strap into a pair of Normatec boots while knocking out some emails al fresco.
Drinks and dinner kicked off again around 7pm. This was an awesome group of people. The time sharing stories and laughs was made even better by outstanding food and wine.
17 Mile Drive
We kicked off with 7 AM yoga at the beautiful Carmel Refuge — a brilliant combination of spa, fitness center and yoga studio. If this place were within 50 miles of me, I'd go there daily. The yoga session was awesome. From there, it was back to L'Auberge for breakfast and a bit of down time prior to our 10am roll-out.
Today's ride was another 100km that would bring us up Robinson Canyon, then up Laureles Grade before riding through Pebble Beach on 17 Mile Drive. It's tough to rival a Route 1 ride to Big Sur, but today's ride certainly did so. I'm honestly not sure which I liked more. It may have been today's. It was pretty incredible to hit two well-known climbs (Robinson Canyon & Laureles Grade) and have those not even be the most scenic part of the ride (Pebble Beach is ridiculous).
We got back around 3pm and had lunch waiting for us. While the others devoured some BBQ that looked outstanding, I got my veggie on with a bomb plate of Asian stir-fried vegetables prepared by Chef. I then took down a large portion of the vegan berry crumble that was served as our desert. A+.
After a nap and a massage, it was almost time for dinner. Tough life. Tonight's dinner was truly exceptional. As the last dinner of the trip, it was a multi-coursed tasting menu incorporating a handful of ingredients selected by Chef. Oh, and a wine pairing for each dish. NBD. Honestly, it was one of the best meals I've had in my life. On par with the vegan tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, a THREE STAR (yes, that's the highest rating) Michelin restaurant. Chef knows his way around a kitchen.
Continuing with the hilarity of the trip, we ended this incredible meal with a game of Beanboozled. For those without 6-year-old kids, this is a new Jelly Bean game where two people pick a Jelly Bean of the same color. One has a traditional JB flavor, while one has a flavor like "booger" or "stinky socks". Seriously. This game exists. And, it's freaking hilarious. Video below shows the game in action...
After a fun night of eating and drinking, it was nice to have a chilled out coffee ride on the docket. It got us up and moving around 9AM prior to heading to the airport, but was nothing strenuous. We rolled a section of 17 Mile Drive and headed back towards Robinson Canyon. The ride ended up being only 20km or so, lasting just under an hour. We had coffee afterwards and then got packed up.
My flight was a bit later than everyone else, so I chilled at the hotel after seeing the rest of the crew off. While getting some work done on my computer, the staff at L'Auberge offered me everything under the sun. They couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating. While the others had to-go lunches packed for the airport (seriously, NTSQ thought of everything), Chef had mine prepared and served as lunch. After this, along with a few additional coffees for good measure, I was driven to the airport in the hotel's private car. The driver wouldn't even accept my tip. I was through security and at my gate in 10 minutes. Hell of a trip.
As a reward for those who've made it this far, here are a couple of the funnier stories from the trip. I thought these were simply too good not to share.
No direct quotes here. Just some paraphrasing to capture the essence.
SOME MISSING WINE
I grew up middle class. My dad worked as a detective. He wasn't one to spend money but he did appreciate wine enough to develop an impressive collection. He had gout though, so didn't actually drink the wine. Anyway, a number of years ago, a mate and I brought back a couple girls when I was home on break from university. We wanted to impress them so figured we'd crack open a few bottles. After the third bottle, I don't remember much.
When we woke up the next day, we saw that we drank six bottles. I was horrified, but figured we could replace them before my parents came home the next week. At the wine store we learned that we drank over $5,000 worth of wine. Remember, my dad's a detective, right. Have you seen Misery? He's the type of person, like Kathie Bates, who'd know when a small figurine in the house has been slightly moved.
We ended up buying bottles of the same make, but different years. It was still like $800 or something. I was shitting myself for weeks. To this day, my dad has never said a word.
I played pro hockey with a guy who was a great player and a household name in Canada. We'd go out drinking on occasion and then just Uber home. But for him, given that he's a celebrity, he was always paranoid about putting his real address in. Instead, he'd have Uber drop him a couple blocks away and then walk home from there.
Well, this one night, he messes it up and the Uber drops him like 5K from his place. The next morning, he wakes up in someone's front yard. A couple little kids stumble on him going out for the bus and realize who it is. He's probably their favorite hockey player, so they're over the moon to see him. It's like finding Kobe Bryant asleep on your lawn in LA. The best part is that the kids' parents just brush it off and make up something to explain it to the kids. They're equally as excited to meet him. They don't bring it to the press and all continues as normal.
Can't Wait to Join Again
This cycling retreat was incredible. Trav, Jonathan and Nic are tremendous hosts, and Chef Justin along with the staff at L'Auberge are the best in the business. I've done many triathlon and cycling camps, but NTSQ is truly something unique. It's rare to be able to enjoy both a five-star vacation and world-class cycling. Typically I need a vacation after any triathlon or triathlon or bike retreat. This IS the vacation — you get to do epic rides, then simply kick back, relax and enjoy a beautiful hotel, incredible food, and great company. We'll done boys. I'm already looking forward to next time.
These awesome photos were taken by Matt Clark. More can be found at http://ntsqvelo.com/stories/