Beyond the concrete jungle: A guide to cycling in Los Angeles
When I talk to cyclists about riding in Los Angeles I’m almost always asked, “What about all the traffic?” It’s true, traffic and LA go together like peanut butter and jelly, but not nearly as sweet. However, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind of when I think about the LA riding scene. Believe it or not, the traffic is even avoidable if you’re not afraid to get dirty. You just need to know about a few westside shortcuts in order to dodge the infamous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) altogether and find an abundance of panoramic views, twisty mountain roads, and more than a few characters.
My favorite not-so-short short-cut is the Sullivan Canyon fire road. After meandering through hilly Santa Monica neighborhoods filled with Teslas and architecturally significant homes, you hit a rugged road of busted concrete that’s virtually never inhabited by cars. Back in these canyons you’ll come across an old Nazi sympathizer camp that was just recently demolished, only remnants of graffiti and chain-link remain. And when coastal fog rolls in between dusty hilltops, my friends and I have taken to calling this eerily quiet stretch of road “Zombies”, because even though you are just a stone’s throw from the dense city, you get the feeling that nothing exists back here but you and a few scrappy lizards scurrying beneath the brush.
Duck behind a yellow gate and you’re on Sullivan Ridge Fire Road, a steep gravelly climb a few miles long that takes you to the abandoned Nike Missile Tower. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the islands of Catalina or even the peaks of Mt. Baldy on the eastside of LA. From there, you fly downhill over ruts and sandy patches, maybe even hopping onto the singletrack running alongside the main road and end up in Calabasas – the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Once you’re in the mountains the routes are endless – Stunt Canyon, Latigo, Encinal. You can zigzag between the Valley and the coast all day long depending on how far north you want to travel and how many hours of sunlight are in the day. Racking up over 10,000’ of climbing without doubling up on a single climb is completely in the realm of possibility.
But my favorite climb of them all is Piuma. It’s the only climb that doesn’t connect the valley to the coast, so over the years I’ve found it to be the most quiet. The twists and turns give you a variety of vistas, from long expanses across the dense city to dramatic views of the coastline below.
About halfway up there is a small hiking trail that leads to an ultra-quiet lookout. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s the perfect spot for some R&R. My guess is that most cyclists are so focused on reaching the top that few even know about this hidden gem which makes this secret hideaway all the more special.
If PCH epitomizes the slick Los Angeles entertainment culture with flashy convertibles, blonde hair, bikini-clad women, and selfie-sticks; Mulholland is the Wild West. A sister road that parallels PCH on the valley side of the mountains, Mulholland is home to motorcycle gangs, car clubs, and on any given weekend, groups of regular folk gathered along the side of the road checking out the parade of classic cars and motorcycle riders doing tricks for photographers that religiously document the spectacle. Bomb down the Rock Store climb and you’re guaranteed your own photo-worthy thrills as the road swoops and free-falls like a rollercoaster. Those same roadside photographers will even capture that stomach-in-your-throat, no-hands expression of joy/excitement/fear just like the amusement park snapshots of your youth.
Mulholland runs the full length of the mountain range and the rolling terrain will catch up with you if you’re not careful. About halfway through, you’ll stumble upon old western film sets at Paramount Ranch, or a restaurant called The Old Place that used to be a favorite hangout for Harley aficionados and Hell’s Angeles that owned the mountains long before the homes of Justin Bieber and the Kardasians came to be. The original owners have since move on, but if you catch their son in a talkative mood he has some stories to tell! And if you’re really lucky, you may even meet one of the wild peacocks that patrol the area.
What I’ve come to love about riding on the Westside of LA is the variety. Whether you’re in the mood for flat miles and coastal breezes, dirt adventures, or big vistas and big elevation, you can find it not far from home. That’s why, after years of traversing the same roads more times than I can count, these roads never get old.