Skid Row

By Ryan Cleek | Photography by Adrian Marcoux

Klunker culture lives on in the hills above L.A.

We couldn’t have been standing on the UCLA campus for more than a single minute when our mood shifted from curiosity to apprehensive giddiness. The reason was Carl’s question. “Want to see me air the campus sign?”

“Absolutely,” I responded, while simultaneously realizing I had no idea what he was talking about. Out of the corner of my eye I glanced at our photographer, Adrian, to see if he shared my sentiment. Verbal confirmation wasn’t necessary for us to understand that this was either going to be one hell of a memorable day, or the quickest shoot ever.

Seeing a guy jump steps or launch over concrete barriers while riding street on a mountain bike isn’t unique. However, Carl isn’t some skinny-jeaned, half-shell-helmeted crankflipper–I’m talking about 300-pound former UCLA nose guard Carl Hulick sending it on his fully rigid, coaster-brake equipped klunker. Go ahead, say it out loud.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t feel like,” I tell Carl. “I don’t want Coach Mora on my bad side.”

“Are you kidding?” replies the environmental studies major. “He follows me on Instagram and has seen the videos of my friends and I riding our klunkers. Although he feels we’re crazy, Coach thinks it’s pretty cool.”

Cool is right. It’s one thing to try to be original and separate oneself from the herd. It’s another when originality is a byproduct of simply having fun doing what you want in your own style. The latter is why I’m going riding with Carl and his friends.

whoops, where it is

The 405 freeway divides the University of California, Los Angeles campus from the eastern ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains, where the Whoops trail lives. It’s been featured in countless videos and photo shoots, and a simple online search reveals detailed directions to the no-longer-undisclosed location.

Although a couple of years have slipped past since I last rode there, it remains the single most important stretch of dirt in my life. Not only as a 21-year-old kid did it become my five-day-a-weekuntil-dark riding zone on my $800 hardtail, but it represents countless hours of personal introspection while viewing L.A. from above, attempting to sort how the cog of my being fits into the universe’s grand machine. Perched above some of the city’s most audacious mansions, I met lifelong friends and future business partners, all while dodging rattlesnakes, lizards, bobcats and bees.

The Whoops aren’t difficult to locate now but when the trail was introduced to me 16 years ago, it was an invitation-only type of place. Regulars who rode there actively maintained the 30 or more jumps, but also realized the fruit of their labor wasn’t supposed to exist. Keeping our mouths shut about its location in one of the most expensive zip codes in the country was believed to be the best way for it to remain our overlooked personal playground. My time as unofficial steward to that zone has passed, but in respect of today’s regulars, if you want directions to the Whoops, I will show you, but I won’t tell you.

Riders looking for well-groomed BMX-style dirt jumps will be disappointed. Most of the features are linked-up, rock-embedded mounds of dirt twisting through bushes alongside a canyon. I’ve consulted board members of CORBA–the Los Angeles-based mountain bike advocacy group founded in 1987–and lifelong Whoops-riding locals, and have yet to find a consensus on the trail’s history. The most commonly repeated story has something to do with a real estate developer putting a fire road in the wrong area of the mountain, and subsequently instructing crews to place mounds of dirt along the length of the road to keep vehicles from driving on it. The land was then acquired by a utility company. And today, decades later, I reminisce about the positive influence that forgotten dirt road had on so many of us.

wheels of time

The process of the senior nose guard loading his Transition Klunker onto his back before mounting his scooter is an impressive one, which must be seen to be appreciated. After a 10-minute drive along Sunset Boulevard, we turn up toward the foot of the Whoops to meet Tucker Hopkins and Paul Jackson, Carl’s klunking buddies.

“I kind of ride for Deus Ex Machina (motorcycle shop) out of Venice, and one time they put on a klunker ride in the Santa Monica Mountains,” explains Carl. “My friend Tucker is a lifeguard on Venice Beach, and has a background racing motocross. We got to know each other on that Deus klunker ride, and had so much fun we realized we needed to make riding our klunkers together a regular thing.

“Paul was a neighbor in my apartment, and is currently working on his master’s degree in engineering. He’s a really good jumper. After seeing how much fun we were having klunking, he decided he had to have one of his own.”

A native of nearby Orange County, Carl grew up riding modern mountain bikes and used to race downhill on a Specialized Demo 9. So, why the drastic change from the most technologically advanced form of mountain bike to what’s basically a burly beach cruiser?

“I love the simplicity of the klunker,” explains Carl. “I can basically do a complete tune-up with a screwdriver and an openended wrench. When I was riding downhill, I’d always break forks, handlebars and derailleurs. On the klunker, I’ve really only bent some rims and forks, but that’s what 3-bills jumping to flat can do to a rigid bike.

“My Transition Klunker actually handles really well. It’s long, slack and is super stable on fast and loose trails, which is surprising, because one would expect a bike of this style to be a death machine on any real trail.”

There’s not a big contingent of Los Angeles klunker riders, but there have been underground coaster brake events and races in the Santa Monica Mountains for years. Paul de Valera of Atomic Cycles in Van Nuys puts on a few coaster brake events a year, and according to Carl, Paul is the go-to guy for any kind of old bike service or coaster brake repairs.

Obviously, not being equipped with modern components can pose a challenge to riding technical terrain, but according to Carl, that’s what makes klunking fun.

“Relying on the coaster brake is probably the biggest challenge,” he says. “Whether we’re screaming down fire roads or descending steep, technical singletrack, having to pedal backwards to slow down can be awkward. And, there’s no guarantee the brake’s even going to work.

I’ve got the technique down pretty well now, but it’s really common to unintentionally hit the brakes when I’m trying to have my feet level. When I first started riding the klunker on real trails I would blow through corners and end up in the bushes by unintentionally skidding. Klunking is just a different experience altogether. I don’t look at it as a compromised version of regular mountain biking, because it’s truly its own thing. No matter what trail you’re riding on the klunker it’s going to get sketchy, but be really fun.”

While visiting the Whoops with Carl, Tucker and Paul, and witnessing their genuine enthusiasm for the rough and loose sensation the klunkers deliver, I couldn’t help but feel silly aboard my 5-inch-travel, disc-braked equipped, carbon-fiber super bike designed to mute the very terrain input they’re excited to feel.

When I was their age, I didn’t fully understand the impact that abandoned road would have on my life. But each time I watched the sun set over one of the biggest cities in the world, I always had the sense I was standing exactly where I was supposed to be. One day, I’m sure Carl, Tucker and Paul, will be able to point to that very spot in the mountains and recognize the impact it had on who they became as people and riders.

In case you were wondering, Carl greased the landing over the UCLA campus sign, marking the beginning of one hell of a memorable day afterall.

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