Escape in LA
“Of course I’ll make it a double for two dollars more,” I reply to the bartender at Terminal 4. “He must be new,” I mutter to myself. Having spent most of my adult life living out of a suitcase as a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer, these were weekly LAX interactions. The stool next to me is yanked out of sight and instantly leased by a lumbering, 50-something gent proudly sporting his team’s baseball cap and matching sweatsuit. We exchange pleasantries, contort our bodies to avoid kicking over luggage and jockey for pole position on the lone cell phone fountain of youth below the counter between us.
“From L.A., or heading home?” asks the stranger.
“I am home, just traveling for work,” I reply.
“You live here, huh. I’m sorry,” snarks the half Tony La Russa-half Wilford Brimley traveler.
I’m intrigued. Why do so many visitors hold negative opinions about a place I find wonderful? The reality is, to truly enjoy a city’s offerings one needs to know where to visit and experience those moments in good company. In response to his curious statement, and in recognition of his proudly coordinated St. Louis Cardinals attire, I reply, “Well, I guess not everyone can live in Missouri. Hope you enjoyed your vacation.”
DISSECTING THE SPRAWL
Described as 70 suburbs in search of a city, L.A. is lassoed within the Pacific Ocean, mountain ranges and foothills. It’s those natural boundaries (and lack of public transportation) that contribute to the rage-inducing serpentine traffic nightmares for which L.A. is known. Although the mountains are the iconic backdrop to Tinseltown’s incredible landscape, they often only receive mass attention from Angelinos when they’re on fire–when local news helicopters hover above zillion-dollar homes propped up like Godzilla’s hillside lawn flamingos, endangered by the half-inch of rainfall and looming mudslides from the annual ‘Storm of The Century.’
So, how does one wrangle a story about mountain biking on such a far-reaching city and dynamic riding community? Approach it like L.A.’s popular celebrity online news source, “TMZ.” Obviously. Standing for Thirty Mile Zone, “TMZ” focuses on celebrity ‘news’ within the 30-mile radius of the historic studio zone at the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega Boulevards. Downtown L.A. will be our hub of this mountain bike-specific “TMZ,” working our way toward the Angeles National Forest through Silver Lake, and westward to the Pacific Ocean via classic Santa Monica Mountain terrain. We’ll zoom in the magnifying glass through the paparazzi-filled Coffee Beans and Tea Leafs and barren carpool lanes to ride with some of the aforementioned good company, all of whom embody the individuality of the city and the sport.
It’s a Monday afternoon and there’s a manageable flow of foot-traffic through Golden Saddle Cyclery, 4 miles from downtown in the trendy and energetic neighborhood of Silver Lake. Most of the neighborhood is huddled around Sunset Boulevard, and its side streets are packed with unique boutiques, tattoo artists, bars and restaurants. Each building you stroll past has the essence of an interesting story lingering behind its gentrified walls. A couple blocks from Golden Saddle sits Silversun Liquors, where members of the band A Couple of Couples would pick up late-night beverages after their Silver Lake Lounge gigs. The band changed members, and then their name to Silversun Pickups. The story behind the Golden Saddle Cyclery walls holds its own among the neighborhood lore–both real and perceived.
“Friends stop in for a post-ride beer, or to eat their burrito, with no intention of purchasing anything,” says Golden Saddle Cyclery co-owner Ty Hathaway.
The floor space isn’t crammed with inventory itching to be hustled. The main display case, where a customer would expect to find sparkly, high-zoot widgets and componentry, is instead loaded with conversation-sparking memorabilia of cycling days past. The uninitiated patron must wonder how the lights stay on.
The concept for Golden Saddle began when friends, Kyle Kelley, Ty Hathaway and Thomas Wood (Woody), joked that they should open their own shop to create a sense of community, a place for riders to hang out in the area–something they felt had gone missing in the L.A. cycling scene.
“Everyone at our shop is super knowledgeable,” says Hathaway. “For example, Woody, our lead mechanic, was a wrench for the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team prior to working with us. Whether someone is looking for a custom-built touring bike or a downhill machine, we’ll help them get the best build we can, drawing from our own backgrounds to get it done.” Ty grew up in Tujunga, California, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, which tower northeast of L.A., and his childhood home sits at the base of the Angeles National Forest. Ty describes himself as “just a bike rider,” but he is actually an accomplished off-road motorcyclist–he’s raced the Baja 1000–and in 2014 he was the top American finisher at the Trans-Provence mountain bike stage race in France.
The Angeles National Forest rises 10,000 feet above Los Angeles, and the San Gabriel Mountains are nestled within the range. On this morning, photographer Adrian Marcoux and I are joining Ty and Morgan Meredith of Mission Workshop for one of the most terrain-diverse rides in Southern California: the Mount Lowe descent, which drops nearly 5,000 feet over 7 miles. It is possible to grind up 7 miles of abandoned roads to make the ride into a loop, but the consensus is to utilize the Southern California Outdoor Adventures shuttle. The word ‘shuttle’ conjures images of Ninja Turtle-armored riders pinballing along with glowing-hot rear brake rotors. Yes, they’re occasionally out there. However, the tight, jagged and undulating Mount Lowe singletrack is ideal for capable mid-travel bikes. The SCOA shuttle runs nearly every morning, and on this day we shared a ride with Golden Saddle regular and passionate cyclist, Ed Ma, of the band The Glitch Mob.
Within a few minutes of ascending the Angeles Crest Highway, the sheer abruptness of the San Gabriels walls us off from the concrete commotion where our day began. Our ride starts at the Eaton Saddle near the entrance of the Mueller tunnel. Despite California’s long-running drought, our time in the San Gabriels in February was filled with rain, sleet and snow, and the much-needed moisture created an insanely atypically lush view of the greater L.A. landscape.
If there’s a single defining characteristic of the Mount Lowe descent it’s exposure. The chundery and sharp-edged terrain self-regulates speed with scrub-brush and yucca-plant passageways that limit our line of sight. As trails connect and meander through the carved-out mountainside, dozens of high-consequence corners are capable of humbling even the most experienced bike handlers. Lose focus and over-shoot one of these turns, or clip a handlebar on a rock outcropping at speed and you’ve got a problem.
As we rip through the Echo Mountain Chutes to the Middle Sam Merrill trail toward Sunset Ridge, and the finally to the El Prieto trail, we visit remnants of ‘Earth’s Greatest Mountain Ride,’ Mount Lowe’s Incline Railway cable car, which carried visitors in the late 1890s up the 3,000-foot incline with grades up to 62-percent to the now-abandoned resort and tavern. A little farther down, the telescopes of Inspiration Point indicate that we’re nearly halfway through the day’s ride.
Along the Sunset trail, the meandering singletrack darts and dashes into and away from the hillside and the rock formations cleverly spaced by Mother Nature require confident and creative line choices. Then the trail opens up to a ripping-fast ridgeline. At this point in the descent, we’re torn between stopping and talking about how sick the ride has been, or charging forward and keeping the good-time tachometer redlined. The landscape begins to transition from exposed, loose and rough to a lush canyon of swooping rock-filled singletrack of the El Prieto trail. Dozens of nearly 180-degree switchbacks spiral us into the canyon, signalling the final few minutes of this Los Angeles treasure. The terrain mellows and simultaneously so does the vegetation, from leg-piercing yucca plants to welcoming oak trees.
We regroup before the final series of switchbacks and prepare ourselves for re-entry into the L.A. atmosphere. I think about the beers and burritos waiting for us back at Golden Saddle.
“Honey, this is Le Roy’s. If you want smaller portions go to Denny’s,” says the waitress as she slides a stack of powdered-sugar-freckled hubcaps in front of Adrian. It’s 7 a.m. and we’ve joined Jon Buckell and his grandfather David at their regular pre-ride breakfast place 10 miles east of Pasadena in Monrovia.
“Jon and I got into mountain biking at the same time,” says David. “He was a young boy, and it was a fun way for us to get out and explore. We had no idea what we were doing at first, but we figured it out eventually,” he jokes with a jolly, Sean Connery-esque accent.
Although they didn’t have the most capable bikes and equipment, or the conditioning to endure the steep and relentless San Gabriel terrain, they were hooked.
“My family saw how much I enjoyed riding, and it was a fun way for my grandfather and I to explore new places together,” explains Jon, who is the lead mechanic at Pasadena’s InCycle bike shop. “It really became a team effort between my grandpa and grandma Annie, as she would drive us all over the San Gabriels giving us the chance to ride so many new places. She kept a journal of each ride she took us on, the locations and distances, and even wrote down the rides we did together that she wasn’t able to be a part of. There are certain trails in those mountains I’ve done hundreds of times since I was a kid, and thanks to her keeping track of those moments I can recall those rides today.”
“Jon has certainly come a long way with his riding,” David says, while failing to hold back a proud grin.
“My goal is to win the Oregon Enduro Series pro overall title this year,” Jon says with a sincere matter of factness between bites of toast.
There aren’t many people who can make a statement like this (and have a shot at actually pulling it off) without instigating an in-your-dreams eye roll from their riding buddies. However, in 2014, Jon raced two of the series’ five events, and at the opening round in Hood River he finished just off the pro podium in sixth place on the heels of the faces you can’t turn a page of a magazine without seeing in advertisements. Later that season, at the series’ Mt. Hood/ Sandy Ridge event, he finished on the podium in fourth place, one spot above the racer who clinched the North American Enduro Tour championship at that very event. I’ve witnessed Jon, now 26, evolve from curious teenage racer to one of the best riders in California. However, one doesn’t have to spend nearly that much time with him before his humble personality and genuine love and appreciation for riding becomes apparent. He comes across as the kind of guy who’d write you a thank you letter for lending him a zip tie for a race plate.
The competitive spirit must be hereditary. David, now 72, a former British Merchant Marine turned general contractor and minister, enjoys racing cross-country and downhill in the Southern California series. “He loves going to the races, and has a few guys in his age group he likes to battle with out there,” says his proud grandson.
Within minutes of leaving Le Roy’s we’re entering the Big Santa Anita Canyon in pursuit of the Chantry Flats Recreation Area.
“At a consistent pace, this Chantry Flats loop only takes about 90 minutes,” explains Jon. “It’s super-convenient in relation to the city life below, and is really just a gem of a ride.”
Big Santa Anita Canyon is also a window into the pioneer era. Gold was discovered at the lower end of the canyon in 1850s, and although the strike didn’t amount to much, what resulted was the construction of trails that are still utilized by hikers and bikers today. The ride begins by motoring along the Upper Winter Creek trail en route to Hoegee’s Camp, before we eventually descend into Lower Winter Creek. Pedaling out of serene Chantry Flats, we’ve completely forgotten that downtown L.A. is merely 20 minutes behind us.
“There’s a pack station in this area that’s been operating since the 1930s,” David informs us. “It’s the last of its kind in the U.S., and it still services the cabins and camps in the canyon with supplies because they’re only accessible by foot or mule.”
The undulating, bench-cut loop traverses the hillside clockwise and is often narrow with consequential exposure. Although the ride never becomes uncomfortably steep in either direction, the consistent smattering of rock outcroppings beneath our wheels keeps us spinning the cranks simply to maintain momentum.
In the blink of an eye, the terrain widens, points downward and becomes a playground of roots and rock formations. Descending into canyon, the rocks and water crossings glisten with a rainforest-like sheen thanks to the recent moisture. Before continuing into the canyon, we take a moment to appreciate Jon’s array of creative line choices through nature’s bike park. After a few more uncharacteristically well-hydrated creek crossings, we roll through one of the final campgrounds, stopping to admire a recently renovated cabin and its still-operating hand-crank phone. Before we know it, we’re beginning our climb out in the direction of where our ride began. As we casually pedal up the road toward the parking lot, there wasn’t a single mention of Strava, recovery drinks or wheel-size favoritism–it was purely riding a fun trail in good company–or, as Jon and David call it: mountain biking.
“I am the prototypical Westside L.A. native,” says Kevin Waterbury, over coffee at Peet’s on Montana Street in Santa Monica. “I was born and raised on the east side of Santa Monica, and today I live on the same paper route I had as a child. My friends and I grew up on the heels of the Dogtown & Z-Boys revolution in the area.”
Although as a teen Kevin identified as a skateboarder and break dancer, he took up volleyball to impress a girl who was into the sport. Turns out, that was a pretty good decision.
“For six years in the late 1990s, I played professional beach volleyball,” says Waterbury. “It was like living inside a beer commercial 24-hours a day–nothing but beaches and bikini babes. I see these X Games guys now with their amount of celebrity and social media attention, but they have no idea what it was like in the beach volleyball glory days.”
Despite spending each day on the most famous beach volleyball court in the world, Kevin always had one curious eye on the Santa Monica Mountains backdrop, wondering about the trails and adventures hidden in the ridges and canyons.
“One day in the fall of 1996, my friend Steve and I decided to ride our fully rigid Rockhoppers from the beach up into the mountains,” recalls Kevin. “For probably the first 10 rides, we adhered to a strict ignorance-is-bliss policy, meaning we didn’t bring any supplies: no food, no tubes, no tools, nothing. I think I even did the first few rides in flip-flops, straight from the beach. We had a blast. To this day, I still marvel how I can pedal a bike 10 minutes into these mountains and not hear a single car and rarely see a person, while being completely surrounded by one of the biggest cities in the world.”
After competing in the 1996 Olympic Trials, Kevin realized he wouldn’t exactly be able to retire from his volleyball earnings. “I did what every washed-up athlete does in Southern California: I got into the real estate biz.”
The economic meltdown of 2008 had a well-documented catastrophic effect on real estate, especially in Southern California. So Kevin poked around his Rolodex for an opportunity in the industry for which he had the most passion.
“I contacted an old friend who was the sales manager at Knolly Bikes,” says Kevin. “He offered me a job as the SoCal sales rep, which quickly expanded to the Southwest USA territory. After about a year of strong sales in my region, I was offered the position of director of global sales at Knolly Bikes. I finally have my dream job, and it sure was an interesting route getting there.”
TENDING THE GARDEN
Kevin and I began riding together about six years ago, and it didn’t take long for me to realize he was the go-to person for trail information in the Santa Monica Mountains. After just a few rides, I not only knew the history behind my favorite trails, but had also learned about dozens more.
“Humans have inhabited the area for at least a thousand years, which means there are trails on every ridge and canyon,” Kevin explains. “Much of the terrain is a patchwork of different land owners and managers, including Topanga State Park, L.A. Department of Sanitation, The Gas Company and the L.A. Dept of Water and Power. All of these different land managers create a bit of a gray area when it comes to rules and enforcement. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think we’ll be seeing a Department of Sanitation Ranger patrolling the trails anytime soon.
“I’ve never cut my own trail in the Santa Monicas, but I have been known to give the more fun trails in the area a haircut from time to time. I love doing trail work and have been a member of CORBA (Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assocation) and IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association). But, I like the solitude of going up there alone, and sculpting a trail that nobody has ridden in 10 years and bringing it back to life. On average, I do about 30 days of trail work per year.”
BACK TO THE BONE
If we didn’t have a calendar, we could probably guess the time of year by the quantity of smooth, snake-belly imprints squiggled across the climbs. Yet, on this spring day, riding up from Sunset Boulevard toward the Backbone trail in Will Rogers State Park, we leave the hum of traffic behind us. Although we haven’t traveled far as the crow flies from our morning coffee, the only signs of civilization are the cargo ships lined up in the distance outside the Port of L.A.
Like most trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Backbone singletrack is tight and twisty and lined with handlebar-hungry scrub brush to keep us on our toes.
“My favorite parts of riding out here are the solitude you feel, and the focus required to stay on your line,” says Kevin. “If you don’t concentrate, you’re off of the trail, upside down in the brush, and wondering if you’ll find your sunglasses. No matter how lousy my day has been, once I’m on my bike and on these trails, I have no choice but to focus on my riding. When the ride comes to an end, and I’ve gotten my dump of adrenaline and endorphins, I always regain perspective on how my day wasn’t really that bad afterall.”
We opted for an out-and-back ride within Will Rogers, with the return route providing views of the city from various ridgelines. As we approach our initial Backbone point of entry, we take the sharp turn down a rutted, swooping, berm-filled roller coaster of a trail that drops us at the foot of the graffiti-covered remnants of Murphy Ranch. “This was a compound run by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. As the story goes, the ranch was raided and closed not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor,” explains Kevin. “The ruins remain a bizarre piece of LA history, but an even more bizarre place for graffiti–if someone wants their work to be seen.”
After admiring some of the newer artwork, we remount and begin our climb out through the glamorous Rustic Canyon neighborhood. We’ve ridden past these jaw-dropping hillside homes countless times. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the residents have any idea of the natural riches nestled in their backyard, or if they’re just hoping they don’t catch fire.