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Heat, Mountains and the Ocean. There are few cities in the world that offer as much cultural opportunity as Los Angeles. World-class museums, restaurants, entertainment and sports teams make this metropolis a great place to call home. Despite all these attractions, I’ve always said, “My favorite thing about living in LA is how easy it is to get away from it.”
Words & images: Jordan Clark Haggard
Typically “getting away” means driving to a desired destination. While this can be great, I often find myself lamenting my dependence on a vehicle for recreation. In an effort to enjoy LA otherwise I devised a plan with friends Max and Mauricio. Our goal: stay away from traffic, find new roads, make it to the Pacific, swim before sunset, sleep in the dirt. The one contingency—we all needed to be back to our jobs and family by mid-morning the following day. To realize our goal we’d strap camping gear to our ’cross bikes and head northwest.
On the morning of our trip an extreme heat wave with red-flag warnings topped all local newscasts—summer temperatures in Southern California can push triple digits. So we set out early in an attempt to avoid the worst of the brutal weather. I left my door at 7 a.m. to rendezvous with the others in nearby Silver Lake. Over coffee, we studied maps and discussed our options. We settled on a route we were all familiar with…well at least the first 30 miles.
After a quick spin through the heart of Hollywood, passing movie studios and back lots, we arrived at the base of Nichols Canyon. Halfway up the climb we left the pavement and headed onto a gated fire road. This steep section of dirt connected us to Mulholland Drive—a two-lane strip of asphalt that twists along the ridgeline of the mountains on the north side of the LA basin. It provides sweeping views of the city and the San Fernando Valley, but more importantly turns into dirt that delivers hikers and bikers into the Santa Monica Mountains wilderness area.
When we made our first stop at the end of the pavement just before 9:30, near the remains of a Cold-War-era Nike missile silo, temperatures were already in the mid-90s. Only 30 miles in, we were happy to fill our bottles and give second thoughts to our route, deciding to maintain our current course. As we remounted, a clattering of voices made us look up—three friends were riding up the fire road. They had a similar itch for sand and cool ocean air. Cole puffed, “Thought we might see you out here, let us get some water and we will ride with you.” With our peloton now six strong we continued on toward Topanga.
The group moved quickly through the network of steep fire roads. It was on a particularly grueling climb to The Hub, a meeting point of several trails, that we found what lay in store for us. Hunched low on my saddle, my head dropped, and after wiping a pool of sweat from the face of my Garmin, I saw “108º F” displayed in black pixels. With grunts and groans, I slowly rotated the pedals up the 18-percent grade, aware of every extra ounce of weight in my packs. At the top, Mauricio was lying in the dirt under a tin-roof shelter, the only shade in sight, while Max was sitting on the bench to his right. I tipped my sunglasses down, shook the sweat from my helmet, and we all exchanged the same look. Without words the message was clear: “This hurts…let’s keep going.”
Our convoy reentered civilization at Topanga State Park. It was noon and the call for a lunch break was unanimous. A short descent down the canyon took us to Country Natural Foods for homemade vegetable brown rice rolls and dumplings. Our friends were yearning for the beach so they continued down the canyon road to Highway 1. Max, Mauricio, and I decided we had a bit more in the tank and turned back up Topanga Canyon and then over to another section of fire road climbing Red Rock Canyon.
While this fire road ascent was difficult—steep and loose—the 4-mile paved climb that followed up Stunt Road nearly crushed our spirits. After 60 miles, 5,000 feet of elevation gain and more than four hours of exposure to 100-plus heat, all three of us were in a tough place. The curving road was unrelenting. I kept looking up the road and thought, “That’s the top, just make it around that corner.” But each time I rounded the bend I’d be dismayed to see the ribbon of black shifting ever upward. Red earthen cliffs on the right blocked any chance of a cool ocean breeze and harshly radiated the sun’s heat onto our dried-out bodies. Near the top, Mauricio lamented sucking the last bit of moisture from his water bottle. I hopefully pointed to the saddle between two jagged mountain peaks: “It’s there…the top…you can see the ocean from there.”
On reaching the apex of Stunt Road, we caught sight of a black cargo van wrapped in green and yellow stripes, with round circles displaying the Helen’s Cyclery logo. A man with a smile on his face jumped out, dragging a large blue cooler behind him.
“You guys want some water?” he asked.
“What are you doing up here?” Max responded.
“I am saving lives!” he said.
In retrospect this may be an exaggeration, but at the time, for us, his words rang true on that baking-hot Saturday afternoon. As we took in the sweeping view of the ocean, now only a few miles away, and swallowed ice-cold water we had no words. Max chuckled, I sighed, and then we
Four miles and just a few minutes later we were at the corner of Los Flores Canyon and the Pacific Coast Highway. It was 20 degrees cooler by the water—and the end of our day was in sight. Some 15 miles northwest on Highway 1 and we’d be on the Los Angeles and Ventura County line at Leo Carrillo Campground. We first stopped for pizza, beer and snacks, precariously strapping the provisions to our already overloaded bikes and rode the remaining 5 miles into a strong headwind—only later to discover there was a campsite store that sells beer.
We pulled into Leo Carrillo at 4:30 p.m., handed over our $10 per person site fee, and placed our sleeping pads and bags on the “first come, first serve” hiking-and-biking sites. On cracking our now slightly warm beers, the only other bike camper there walked over and introduced himself as Hans from Germany. He told us about his adventures, riding across Europe a year earlier to board a freight liner in Spain to cross the Atlantic, then riding through the South and Pacific Northwest, to end up here in Malibu. He was continuing down the PCH to Long Beach to hop on another freighter, this time to New Zealand, and he’d somehow make his way back home over the next two years. As Hans finished his discourse I handed him a beer, lifted my can in recognition of his endeavor, and proclaimed, “Now, the beach!”
The cool salt water lapped against our tired legs as the sun hung low in the sky. We laughed, talked about our journey and thought about the ride home the next day. We were, for the all intent and purposes, content.
Morning came quickly. I was woken by Max rolling up his sleeping bag in the dark of 5:30 a.m. I followed suit, loaded everything back on my bike and pulled on still-damp bib shorts. We turned on our taillights and exited the campground. As we headed south on PCH the sun cracked the ridgeline to our left. The only others on the road were surfers driving to the beach, eager to catch waves at first light.
Our pace was brisk. In no time we were in Santa Monica. After a short stop for coffee and water, we pace-lined across the city along boulevards and through back alleys. It was only 10:30 when I rolled into my home in Eagle Rock. We’d ridden 120 miles, climbed 8,000 feet, drunk vast quantities of water, swum in the ocean, and slept under the stars; and I still had the better part of Sunday to spend with my family—and elevate my legs as long and often as possible.
• Barking Bear Bag Works seat bag
• Marmot Nano 45 sleeping bag
• Black Cat Bicycles T-shirt
• Prada Sports shorts
• Pentabike wool socks
• 2 Presta inner tubes
• Revelate Designs Gas Tank
• Little Debbie brownies
• Nuun hydration tablets (these are the best and help with cramps in high heat)
• Ibuprofen and salt tablets (again, heat cramp prevention is key for me)
• Apple iPod Shuffle stick with 512 MB capacity—what a relic! (Auto filled: lots of Carly Rae Jepsen and High On Fire ended up on it)
• Apple iPhone
• Mocha caffeine gels
• ID/credit card
• Patch kit
• Yanco handlebar bag
• PDW Magic Flute pump
• NiteRider headlight/taillight
• Petzl headlamp
• Exped Airmat Lite sleeping mat
• Spare Velcro straps
• Disposable toothbrush and chamois cream/sunblock (don’t put these on the toothbrush!)
NOTABLE ITEMS BOUGHT ALONG THE WAY
• Dumplings and deviled eggs at the little market in Topanga Canyon
• D’Amore pizza slices in Malibu
• Dale’s Pale Ale and hummus wraps from the fancy grocery store before the last stretch of highway to the campground (note to self: they sell beer/junk food at the campsite, so skip buying it here)
FROM THE CAMPGROUND CONVENIENCE STORE
• Cup O Noodles (chicken flavor because that’s all they had—unfortunately the scent reminds me of wet diapers)
• Klondike vanilla bar
• Chile picante corn nuts
• Big bag of potato chips