Lost Angeles—A Misguided Bike Tour
Learning to love a city built for cars on a bicycle
It’s easy to be judgmental from a distance, and even more so when you live here. I admit I used to cringe when I heard someone say, I love LA.
The very words would just trigger a montage in my head: aggressive synth stabs, rockin’ guitar, and some mullet-headed guy singing with the strained tones usually reserved for those in medical distress.
Boulevards, headbands, and leg warmers. My feverish vision was definitely hewn from a mid-eighties aesthetic and Schwarzenegger movies.
I love LA. Almost nobody says that, ever, and people will just look at you confused, sad, and more than a little worried for your mental state. But when you sit down and tally up the options outside of driving, you are deceptively spoiled for choice.
First impressions don’t fade quickly. Just travelling in from the airport can truly be confronting: it’s all walled highways, concrete and cars.
It wasn’t without trepidation that I started riding my bike here. It really doesn’t look inviting from the outside. Locally you’ll hear—let’s go for a hike—but never bike.
Everyone will drive to the hike, of course.
Our image of modern LA is carmageddon. The 405 is the arterial highway that you’ve seen on the news. It makes regular guest appearances on TV, usually in a long helicopter shot of vehicles, bumper to bumper, not moving anywhere. A static river of red lights going one way, and headlights the other.
This is a city colonised, and firmly constipated by, the car.
And when I say city, I mean more a conurbated chunder of boroughs, all distinct in their differences as much as their reliable sameness.
Car travel provides the illusion of safety, efficiency, and directness from door A to door B. The highways protect us from whatever madness we hallucinate lies in-between.
Indeed, the highways spill all over as if rendered by a cartographer’s non-dominant hand. They partition neighbourhoods by economic status. There’s always an abrupt transition from city block to block, between the gauche sports car mansions of the haves, to the unprotected, desperately poor have-nots. This becomes more dreadfully poignant, when you learn the highways were designed to segregate.
This place. It has its problems.
But I’ve never experienced a problem of any significance, while on a bike.
Given the impression from the air, by highway, or the TV news, I had assumed that it would be a tricky place to get around. I would need to have my defences turned to 11 to survive. I was fresh from Sydney’s aggressive and unforgiving attitude to cyclists. When I left in 2016, Sydney was in a tiny and exclusive club of cities that actually ripped up bike lanes, rather than roll them out. To be fair, LA has since had issues removing bike lanes too. However, to counter that, a limited but increased number of protected bike lanes with priority signal triggers have appeared downtown. Progress is visibly being made and talked about. I was prepared for something much worse.
When you come off the highways, onto the surface roads, people are more polite. More polite than Sydney, at least. Case in point, people in cars actually give priority to pedestrians crossing at stop signs, and they are just as likely to wave a slowing cyclist through. This almost blew my mind.
It’s not all amazing. They are less practised at stopping at actual pedestrian crossings, and give a few seconds at traffic lights, because someone is likely to blow through well after the change. Many locals won’t think twice about driving after more than a few drinks… although the car share services and ever-expanding Metro are hopefully making a dent in that malfeasance.
The roads can just simply suck — like any huge city that has failed to adequately address transport beyond motor vehicles for decades. The pedestrian and bicycle death statistics are a grim reminder of that. Los Angeles lags far behind where it should on that score. This the dark side of the #lasucksforcycling hashtag.
While we may be rethinking travel in the wake of the pandemic, I always found in regular times that the actual speed I can traverse parts of the city on two wheels will sometimes far outstrip times you can achieve in a car. This is regardless of the safer deviations and backstreets I might need to choose. I can only imagine how fast I could go if the infrastructure was better thought out. The lesson here though is for those slavishly attached to their cars. Highways don’t make travel faster by default.
In a 2017 interview, resident scrutineer Werner Herzog startled everyone when he favourably framed Los Angeles this way:
…the glitz and glamour of Hollywood …that is a very thin crust. Behind it is an enormous intensity of culture and creative energy and things that ultimately decide the big things, the big internal movements of the planet. Things get done here.
He is correct, of course. It’s that unseen depth that I believe exists for the cycling community as well. While it is somewhat metaphorical—things do get done here—it is really most true in the physical sense. There is a spirit of entrepreneurship and positivity. The variety and proliferation of bike related businesses and activities are testament to that—from Machines for Freedom, to Omata, to CicLAvia.
I was pretty surprised by who I saw while riding, and this really skewed towards the positive. I saw a greater variety of people road riding than in Sydney. Men, women, old and young, all classes, races and occupations. It was, and still is, invigorating.
I do believe you can wear whatever you want on a bike (no, really)— trends be damned. But I have to say, five years ago, coming from the velominati-abiding Australia, I was struck by how the roadies here were generally sartorially troubled. At around that same time, Rapha opened a pop-up in Venice, and shortly after opened permanently in Santa Monica. Say what you want about the company, but it had a palpable effect on the deadly treadly fashion over here. Then Black Sheep was suddenly everywhere, Team Dream proliferated, Eliel stepped up their design game, and a whole new level of kit affection hit the streets. A more casual attire appeared on many roadies as well, or maybe it was already there, but spread in popularity and style with thanks — no doubt — to the gravel boom, and some terrific local makers.
Speaking of local, Los Angeles has quite a storied past when it comes to bicycles. I was surprised to learn that early Los Angeles had some of the most innovative, elevated bicycle paths of any city in the world 100 years ago. However, like the trolley car, it all disappeared under the rubber tread of the auto industry and those detestable highways.
Nevertheless, there is such a remarkable variety of rides available in modern LA. Road riding in the Santa Monica mountains is a common off-season training option for so many pros. It is easy to see why. You can get good, scenic rides done and still be close to civilisation.
Heading out along the Pacific Coast Highway, just pick a canyon road and head up, you’ll probably hit Mulholland Drive, and can trundle along its rollers until whatever canyon you fancy gives you a chance to pop out onto the coastal highway again.
There’s Decker, Encinal, Malibu, Las Flores, Topanga, the magnificent Yerba Buena and my favourite, Latigo. The same area is crisscrossed by fire roads and trails, making for enjoyable off-road sojourns that mostly are tame enough to handle on a road bike if you wanted to. At the top of each canyon, or as you plummet down each sweeping descent, you are rewarded with views west, over the pacific, or east, towards the next set of mountains. Each one a worthy climb, and a rewarding few hours or even a day on the bike.
Head south down the coast and you can loop through the Palos Verdes peninsula, riding past deep, geologically temperamental cliffs that end in kelp beds harbouring the occasional cluster of braying seals.
You might stop on the way back at Randy’s Donuts near the airport. But then, you could also take an architectural tour of LA. Mid-century landmarks? The Eames House? The locations of Blade Runner? The high school from Grease? Or maybe the school from E.T.? In fact you can occupy yourself with nary a hill and find plenty of interesting cultural curiosities too.
My favourite tourist ride is to ascend up to behind the Hollywood sign, and take in the vista over downtown, then wind-down through the hills past Paramount Studios to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, head back up to Griffith Park, past the James Dean memorial and the Observatory, into the backroads, via the LA Zoo and onto the LA River bike path. Yes, a river runs through LA: it’s that concrete reinforced trickle that you have seen in more movies than you care to recall. Coming off the bike path you can trip past the Disney Concert Hall, grab a coffee at Grand Central Markets, steal your way through the University of Southern California over to the Science Centre to walk under the belly of the space shuttle, then breeze past the ’84 Olympic Coliseum and head back to where you started or maybe just stop at a west-side brewery and (responsibly) while away the afternoon…
The east-side of the city is equally endowed with excellent riding, and Angeles Crest, as well as the Mount Wilson observatory should be on every cyclist’s bingo card. Climbing up Highway 2 towards the Clear Creek ranger station (water stop!) opens up a number of options at the three-way intersection. Or you could go and get your fill of gravel and single track.
You could move a little south, and find the unforgettable Glendora Mountain Road, which leads up to Mount Baldy—a regular queen stage on the now defunct Tour of California. Or head east a little, to the Verdugo mountains, which rise closer to Burbank and offer sampler of the dirt and tarmac you can find in the Angeles Forest. There are so many pockets of opportunity, stuffed full of options.
Of course a ride doesn’t always have to be directed by you alone. There are club rides. Outside of pandemic times, some of the more famous fast group rides are the NOW ride (Saturday 7:30am 7th and Montana, Santa Monica), NPR (Tuesday 6:30am Westchester Parkway, Westchester), Montrose (Saturday 8:30 corner of Mission and Grand, Pasadena), and Nichols canyon ride (7:30am La Grange & Westwood Blvd, Westwood). The groups are nowhere near as drilled, regimented and exclusive as you would find in Australia. It can get a bit random… but significantly, they are inclusive, and there are many like-minded locals (always generous with tips on where to ride). Besides, the craziness can be a lot of fun.
It isn’t without a considerable dash of irony that the hashtag #lasucksforcycling is attached to so many social media posts. LA sucks for cycling simply because it hosts some of the most memorable, easy-to-access rides of any major city. The weather is amazing, mostly temperate, and definitely dry and warm enough to ride outside all year. While planning is essential as always, it is difficult to have a bad ride with so many options. The further you venture, the more you are rewarded with surprisingly empty roads and tremendous vistas.
It isn’t a quiet village nestled into European mountains, it’s much bigger, busier and—dare I say it—brashly Hollywood, than that. However, the more you ride, the more you discover the easily found serenity. At times you have to marvel in the quiet that you are actually living in a tens-of-millions strong megalopolis.
So in so many ways I have to admit— I learned to love LA—but only thanks to a bike.
There. I said it… now cue the montage.
Some ride options
Strava guide to Los Angeles
The climbs of Southern California
A list of group rides in the Los Angeles area
A general guide to riding and food and sights in LA
Some more sedate ride options in LA
Critical Mass LA
Some shop options
The Cub House (Pasadena)
Golden Saddle Cyclery (Silverlake)
Helen’s Cycles (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Manhattan Beach)
Incycle (Chino, Pasadena, Rancho Cucamonga, San Dimas, Santa Clarita)
Rapha (Santa Monica)
Swrve (near Glendale)
Road Runner Bags (Downtown LA)
Eliel Cycling (ok, technically San Diego)
Machines for Freedom (cycling kit for women by women)
Fierce Hazel (sustainable bike goods)
Omata (file under things you didn’t know were from LA)
Fascinating history of bike in LA (when LA was a leader in travel by bike)
My Los Angeles sights ride (starts with doughnuts, goes to the Hollywood sign, ends with beer)