First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 106. For subscriptions options click below:
Chipps gets his long-held prejudices about Los Angeles blown apart by friendly locals and incredible trails within sight of the city.
Words by Chipps, pictures by Brian Vernor and Chipps
Absolute, deafening silence. Ahead of me I can see nothing but jagged hills, several thousand feet high. I’ve just topped out on a climb that took me over an hour of bottom sprocket spinning, but this is my reward. The view, the tranquillity, the silence. Nothing stirs apart from the low hum of birds and insects and the scrubby bushes and grasses blowing in the wind.
And yet, if I turn around, I can see a sprawling city that starts at the base of the mountain, perhaps five miles away and there, in the near distance, is the group of high-rise buildings that mark downtown Los Angeles. Down there are the freeways, the neighbourhoods of Beverley Hills and Hollywood and beyond those towers lies Venice Beach and the curving blue horizon of the Pacific Ocean.
Here, though, is silence and solitude. My riding companions are quietly taking in the view as well, sipping on a beer as we wait for the sun to dip a little for the light to be just right; the low sun that lights up every puff of dust around every corner. The golden hour.
Not loving L.A.
I have always been vocal in my dislike of Los Angeles, California. Admittedly, it’s been based on a few years of the Interbike show being held in Anaheim (which isn’t ‘proper’ L.A. apparently), a few visits to friends in Fullerton (which also isn’t proper L.A.) and some airport transfers. A pretty limited exposure, but I simply didn’t want to experience any more. Los Angeles is the land of the car, of the 12-lane freeway, drive-thru burgers, banks, off-licences and nail parlours, and a sprawling metropolitan area of some 18.6 million people. How could that offer trail-riding nirvana to someone used to green and pleasant (some of the time) British scenery?
That was my challenge to photographer and filmmaker Brian Vernor. Brian had been over to stay at my house last year and was very keen that I see a different side of L.A., the side of small, independent bike shops, after-work rides and endless mountains full of singletrack. So, with a visit to the Sea Otter in Northern California in April, I extended my trip for a few days and made the six-hour drive south to Brian’s house, just off Sunset in the Silver Lake area of north Los Angeles.
I arrived in a quiet neighbourhood and found Brian’s modest apartment. He suggested dinner, despite it being past 10pm, and we walked down the street to a very cool late-night bar/restaurant, past ice cream parlours and other bustling restaurants, still going on a Sunday evening. The feel was less urban and more villagey than I was expecting. There, Brian explained his plan to show me several different trails and to introduce me to several of the surprisingly close-knit mountain biking community in this part of L.A.
Golden Saddle, golden sunshine
My induction took place the next morning as we rolled Brian’s two town bikes to the local bike shop, 400 yards away, to pick up some spares. Golden Saddle Cyclery is a small bustling shop filled with a mix of retro bike parts and state-of-the-art bikes and gear. Ty Hathaway, behind the counter, would be joining our afternoon ride and when he’s not running a bike shop, he’s racing the Trans-Provence or being a poster boy for Specialized’s adventure cycling division. We’d also be joined by their friend Moi – a born and bred local, a history professor and a similarly keen rider of any bike with air in the tyres.
After lunch, and fetching what seemed to be the obligatory beers, we drove out to the mountains in a couple of cars. This is where I started to appreciate that the busy, wide freeways go both ways. As well as bringing workers into the city, they also help escapees leave its clutches in surprisingly short time.
It seemed that we were on the freeway for ten minutes and then, suddenly, not. We were on a winding road up into the mountains and it was shocking how quickly any trace of the city disappeared. Taking windy roads suitable for any L.A. film (and I’m sure they have been used that way) we gained a couple of thousand feet in ten minutes. Within half an hour of leaving the bike shop in L.A. we were in the mountains, parking up in an empty mountain lot in the Angeles National Forest. The silence, even here, was profound; deafening in its lack of volume. Occasionally a car would cruise by on the road overhead, but that was it.
Our goal for the afternoon was a ride called Strawberry Peak. Like any around here, it seemed to start with three miles of climbing. My three companions effortlessly sped away from here – the difference between cold British spring fitness and ‘ride all year because the sun is shining’ fitness obvious. Look ahead and you’d see 10,000ft peaks, look over your right shoulder and you’d see downtown L.A. All very surreal. After a summit snack and a look at the view, both citywards and deeper into the San Gabriels, we started on a loose, fun singletrack descent, seemingly further into the mountains.
The slowly setting sun washed out the distant mountains into an airbrushed backdrop as the scrabble of tyres on broken rock and granite sand was the only thing we could hear. The sun slipped lower, backlighting every corner into a hero shot. Ty and Moi both power wheelying the slightest rise and generally having a great time showing off for the camera.
Eager to catch the absolute last rays of the sun, we stopped a few times for photos. And then the sun slipped behind the hills, casting everything into a penumbral grey. It was at this point we remembered that the car park we were in had a sign saying that it was locked at sunset, so speeds started to unconsciously rise. Brian punctured on the only serious rockfall section of the trail and then Ty managed to clip a pedal on a short rise, throwing him over the bars as he simultaneously flipped his bike into the poison oak of the steep creekside below. Bike, rider and thoughts collected, we finally bottomed out at a campsite, washed the poison oak off in a stream and found our cars untrapped by gates, free for us to drive back into town for Mexican food. If this was a taste of the riding, then I was already converted.
The next day’s ride was another afternoon meeting with Moi and another hour of climbing. The narrow fire-road showed traces of long-gone tarmac under encroaching dirt and plant life, another sign of man’s unsuccessful attempts to tame the San Gabriels with roads and housing developments.
The San Gabriel Mountains, bordered by the Mojave Desert (and the San Andreas Fault) to the north and Los Angeles to the south are among the fastest rising mountains in the world. They’re also decaying at a similarly rapid rate. Shot through with ravines, fault lines and made of a pretty rubbish granite, they’re dry, loose and scrabbly at the best of times. Vegetation struggles to stick to the steep, unstable mountainsides and then, when it does grow, there is often the chance of wildfire. Hot weather and the even hotter Santa Ana winds turn the mountains into a tinderbox every summer. The recent ‘Station Fire’ of 2009 burned 160,000 acres of mountainside to the north of the city, leaving much of the interior of the range barren and unstable. Even then, that’s not the end of it as flash floods and debris flows follow as winter storms hit the mountains and their now-waterproof soil, causing millions of tons of rocks, trees and debris to wash down the mountainsides towards the housing developments that line the very edge of the mountains in an unbroken line for tens of miles.
Our goal for the afternoon was the Ken Burton Trail. Named after a local firefighter, the 2.7 mile singletrack trail had been built in 1991 entirely by volunteers, but it had been closed for seven years since the Station Fire wiped out the hillside. Rebuilt by local mountain bike volunteers over the previous winter, it had just reopened the previous weekend.
With only minimal photo stops, we took this precipitous, switchbacked beauty towards the far valley floor. The steep corners and loose trail surface seemed to pay no attention to the exposure and I admired the trailbuilders’ approach to personal responsibility. This was no beginner’s trail; it was sketchy, lined by rocks and pointy or poisonous shrubs with a definite chance of a painful tumble or worse if you got it even remotely wrong. Evacuating a casualty would be an incredibly tough job here, and yet it wasn’t flagged or signed with ‘Is this trail for you?’. It was almost French in its letting you get on with the job of riding your bike and enjoying the trail in all its rawness. Impressive.
As was now customary, the light started to fade well before we got to the end, we missed a turn on the riverbed and had to bushwhack for a while before finding the right trail and Braille-riding our way the final mile or so in the dark. It was then a surprise to leave the woods and come out almost in the parking lot of JPL – Jet Propulsion Laboratory, maker of Curiosity, the Mars rover, among other high-tech NASA things. It was another reminder of how this huge city butts up against these silent, soaring, crumbling behemoths that guard its northern edge.
Time for more Mexican food to celebrate.
By the dawn light
Vernor had got his sunset shots, but he wanted more. He wanted dawn light shots. And so the next morning the two of us were out of the house by 5.30am, had bought breakfast at a local restaurant and were at the trailhead by 6.30am. We met Ty again, along with Erik Hillard and Matt Lay, both from the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association. The MWBA was formed in 1986 and predates IMBA in being a trailbuilding and trail advocacy association that has worked with the Forest Service since day one to promote trail etiquette, help fix trails and to campaign for the rights of mountain bikers in the mountains. They’ve been incredibly successful at it, too – you just have to see some of the conflicts around L.A.’s northern cousin, San Francisco, to see how things could have been. And yet mountain bikers coexist here with walkers and horse riders seemingly without issue. It might be something to do with the hundreds of volunteer hours that the riders put into building and repairing trails here.
Our ride started next to the JPL car park again, but this time we’d be riding across the base of the mountains and heading up the singletrack climb to Echo Mountain. Despite it being early, the air was already warming up at an alarming rate and I’d finished my first water bottle before 8am and our halfway stop. This was the site in the 1890s of a 70-room Victoria hotel, built at the height of Victorian showing off. It featured a dance hall, casino, an observatory and a zoo, and was reached by an incline railway from Altadena at the base of the mountain. All that’s left of it now are the foundations and the once balustraded staircase – that Ty promptly threw a nose-manual down for the camera.
The climb wasn’t over. Way beyond us towered Inspiration Point and after a surprising amount of reluctant play-acting, we all decided that we’d be heading up there anyway so we might as well get on with it.
Following the route of the old scenic electric tramway tracks for some of the climb, the trail wound round the back of the mountain to the site of a former mountain bar and now wild campsite. More climbing and we’d earned our view – and the second of our breakfast sandwiches.
Erik and Matt talked about some of the problems of maintaining trails on a mountainside that either wants to fall down, catch fire or wash away, but it didn’t seem to have put them off. They’d been part of the trail crew that had cleared and repaired the Ken Burton Trail over the previous months and could count on getting scores of people turning up at their monthly dig days or fundraising pancake breakfasts.
We looked out at a surprisingly green Los Angeles displayed below us, all the way out to the Pacific, and marvelled that somewhere so full of humanity could have such an accessible, relatively quiet network of trails on its doorstep. It would be like having the Helvellyn range rising out of Richmond Park. Easily accessible, always visible; impressive enough to daydream about at work, yet close enough to ride there after work.
Talking of which, we had a trail to descend. Our morning of climbing had earned us a long, long descent. We saw perhaps six walkers on the way down, rode some more sketchily French-style unprotected switchbacks and all with that view of downtown L.A. ahead of us. It was time to celebrate another incredible trail with some more food. Pizza this time.
Ruined by Instagram
Something that one of the locals quipped to me early on was that the great riding in L.A. is being ruined by Instagram. So many people are seeing great photos of good looking rides in the city on sites like Instagram and the Radavist (whose editor happens to live above Golden Saddle Cyclery) that they’re coming to see for themselves. For the moment, though, the locals are happy to show off what they have.
And what they have is a vibrant riding scene, some great characters that bind it all together and some incredible places to ride. And we’d not even touched the southern part of the city, home to places like Laguna Beach, and Hans Rey.
Later on, as we rode city bikes from Vernor’s through the night streets of L.A. to our last meal of a Korean barbecue, not far from downtown, I had to accept that I’d been completely turned around by a city I’d never liked, or wanted to like. It was time to head home, and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m was already looking forward to coming back to Los Angeles to ride bikes again.
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