Sarah Williams Interview: Cycling the Pacific Coast Highway & Baja California

Sarah Williams is the founder of Tough Girl Challenges, a platform aimed at motivating and inspiring women and girls. She is also the host of the hugely popular Tough Girl Podcast where she has interviewed over 180 inspirational female explorers, adventurers, athletes and everyday women who have overcome great challenges. I’m a big fan of Sarah’s podcast, if you have never listed to it you should definitely check it out!

“You just have to do it. Stop dreaming and start taking action. Be a doer. Take responsibility for your life.”

Sarah is also a keen endurance athlete and adventurer. In 2015 Sarah was named by the Guardian as one of the most inspiring contemporary female adventurers! Sarah ran the Marathon Des Sables in 2016 and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017. Most recently she cycled the Pacific Coast Highway from Vancouver to San Diego. She then headed to Mexico and cycled through Baja California to Cabo San Lucas.

In this interview I got to ask Sarah lots of questions about her epic cycle trip from Vancouver to Cabo San Lucas. We talked about her training, her preparation, some of the challenges she faced and the lessons she learned along the way. Enjoy!

How did you feel in Vancouver when you were cycling the very first mile of your 4000km cycling journey?

There was definitely nerves and apprehension but there was also excitement. I had never done a cycle touring trip before and I was a very inexperienced cyclist. Before I started I didn’t even know how to fix panniers onto a bike! I remember cycling down the street in Vancouver and thinking: “O my goodness, what am I doing?”. So it was really scary but at the same time really exciting.

What was your biggest fear before you set off?

I wouldn’t call it a fear but I think what I perceived as the biggest challenge was probably the traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. I had never cycle toured before and I really didn’t have much cycling experience so I knew it would take me some time to get comfortable riding on the highway and getting used to the traffic. But apart from that I didn’t really have any other big fears before setting off. I think it helped that I had done quite a few big endurance challenges before. That did make me feel confident in my ability to complete this journey.

This is not your first endurance adventure; you ran the Marathon des Sables in 2016 and you hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017. What drives you to take on these big endurance challenges?

I would say that there are two main motivations behind my challenges. One reason is to lead by example and inspire others. As part of the Tough Girl Challenges initiative I often go out to schools to inspire and motivate girls to get out and explore. If I want to promote this message I feel like I can’t just talk about it. I actually need to take action and do. Doing these challenges myself allows me to spread this message much more effectively.

The second reason is that I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing these challenges. I want to be able to challenge myself, I want to travel, I want to explore, I want to push myself physically and mentally, I want to experience life, I want to be out there living my best life possible. These endurance challenges just make me happy.

What type of training did you do to get ready for this cycling journey?

I worked with a personal trainer which was super helpful. I have very lazy glutes and my hip flexors are super stiff so he helped me work on that and improve my strength and flexibility to make sure I wouldn’t get injured during my trip. On top of the strength and flexibility workouts I also did three to four indoor bike sessions a week. Initially they were about 45minutes long and I gradually increased it to about three hours.

Most of my training was gym based because that’s all I could fit in around my life at the time. I did cycle outside a few times. But I live right by the beach so that wasn’t ideal in terms of getting used to cycling up hills.

So I probably didn’t get as much training in as I would have ideally liked to but I did the best I could based on the time I had available. Plus, I think that with cycle touring you learn and get stronger as you go along. When you are out on the road that’s when you are going to be figuring it out. I completed the trip and didn’t get injured so I guess my approach worked out in the end :-).

From a logistics planning point of view, what were the main things you had to sort out before you flew out to Vancouver to start your adventure?

Not a huge amount actually. The main thing to sort out were the bikes. I was planning on doing the Pacific Coast Highway (which is road cycle touring route) and the Baja Divide (which is an offroad mountain biking trail). So I had to figure out where to get a touring bike for the Pacific Coast Highway section and where to get a mountain bike for the Baja section. 

I decided to buy a touring bike in Vancouver rather than take a bike with me from the UK (mainly to avoid the cost of putting a bike on a plane). So I prepared a list of all the bike shops in Vancouver I could go to and also a list of the cycle gear I would have to buy in Vancouver. For the mountain bike, a very kind member from the Tough Girl tribe offered to lend me her mountain bike for the Baja Divide. Her parents live in California so at the end of the Pacific Coast Highway section I cycled to their house, left my touring bike at their place and picked up the mountain bike. And after I got to Cabo San Lucas I just posted the mountain bike back to them.

In terms of accommodation, I only booked my accommodation in Vancouver and my first camping site in advance. That’s as far as I looked forward.

In terms of route planning, navigation is very easy on the Pacific Coast Highway (just keep the coast on your right hand side). So I didn’t need to do a huge amount of route planning in advance.

I also did some research on the Baja Divide route, which was going to be the second part of my journey. The Baja Divide website was super helpful for that.

Let’s talk about the Pacific Coast Highway. Was it easy to find accommodation on the route?

I only booked my accommodation for Vancouver and for the first campsite in which I was planning to stay at. Finding accommodation on the Pacific Coast Highway was pretty straightforward. I camped a lot, I used Warm Showers a lot, I stayed with friends and I occasionally stayed in motels. Camping was very easy to do because there are state parks every 20-30 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway. 

What is your best memory from your time on the Pacific Coast Highway?

There is no real single highlight or best memory. Having the opportunity to ride every day, see new things, meet new people, hear their stories, be inspired, was just fabulous.

Big Sur down in California was incredible from a landscape point of view. But my best memories are probably some of the awesome evenings I spent with great people I met along the way. Having barbeques in the evening, chatting and talking around big camp fires on the beach with beautiful sunsets and the waves crashing down.  Those were really my best memories. They revolved mainly around the people I met.

After arriving in San Diego you crossed the border into Mexico and started cycling the Baja Divide. Can you tell us a bit more about the Baja Divide route?

The Baja Divide is a different kettle of fish. It’s an offroad 1700 mile long mountain biking trail which has been open since 2015. It starts in San Diego in California and goes all the way to San José del Cabo through the mountainous desert of Baja California. Even though there are farms on the trail it is very remote. Compared to the Pacific Coast Highway where there are shops and campsites every few miles, you need to be much more self-sufficient on the Baja Divide.

Baja Divide

What are the main differences in terms of gear between road cycle touring and off-road bike packing?

The main difference is around the bike and the bike set up. For road cycle touring you can use a bike rack with panniers and you can actually take quite a lot of gear with you. For off-road bike packing, you need a bike with bigger tires. You need a set up that allows you to carry more water. And most importantly, your bike packing set up needs to be lightweight with the weight spread evenly. A back rack set-up really isn’t suited to offroad cycling because of all the vibration.

That’s a lesson I learned on the Baja Divide. On the forth day my bike rack broke as I was coming down a steep descent. I ended up having to leave the off-road Baja Divide route and continue my Baja journey on the road.

What did you find most challenging on the Baja Divide?

The day on which my rack broke was the most challenging for me. I was in the desert, about 13 miles from the next town. The rack had locked onto the wheel so I couldn’t cycle and I had to carry my panniers and push my bike. The back of my legs were getting shredded by the pedals and my panniers were digging into my flesh so I knew it was going to be a long walk.

But the hardest part about that day was the feeling of being let down by the two guys I had been cycling with since the start of the Baja Divide. They hadn’t waited for me when my rack broke and kept cycling. When I finally saw them in town that evening after having walked out of the desert they tried to turn the situation and made me feel like I was in the wrong.

I know you need to be self-sufficient when you set off on an adventure like this and even if you are cycling with other people you are 100% responsible for yourself. But I just felt disappointed and emotionally exhausted that day.

What would you say is the main lesson you have learned from your 4000km cycling experience?

I wish it was an emotional one or a deeper one. But my main lesson was realising how different offroad bike packing is from bike touring on the road. In hindsight I shouldn’t have tried to cycle to Cabo via the Baja Divide. I should have just kept my road touring bike after getting to San Diego and plan to cycle across Baja California on the road from the get-go.  That would have saved me a lot of money and a lot of hassle. But you can’t plan for everything and when you go on an adventure you need to learn to be flexible and adapt your plans based on the situation. 

What advice would give to someone who dreams about setting off on a cycle touring adventure but is afraid to take the leap?

You just have to do it. Stop dreaming and start taking action. Be a doer. Take responsibility for your life. Otherwise I tell you what’s going to happen. You are going to wake up in forty years time and you are going to be looking back on your life thinking: “Why didn’t I do that? What stopped me?”. And you are going to realise that the only person that stopped you was you.

So decide what you want to do and why you want to do it. Write it down and stick it on the wall. Tell one person. Pick a date, lock it down, book your flights. And then start working backwards. Write down everything you need to do and break it down into smaller and smaller chunks so that you can do something everyday to take you closer to your goal. And before you know it you will be out there, you will be cycling, you will be camping, you will have done it.

To learn more about Sarah Williams and her inspiring adventures:

Pacific Coast Highway


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