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Los Angeles: Ride of Angels

Marc Abbott
22 Jun 2016

Just a short hop from downtown Los Angeles, Cyclist discovers a blockbuster ride in the mountains of southern California.

The day before leaving the UK for Los Angeles, I compiled my Californian playlist. Alongside contemporary favourites like Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg and NWA are such classics as Albert Hammond’s 1970s folk hit ‘It Never Rains in California’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘California Sunshine Girl’. Now, as I clip in to my pedals at the intersection of Highway 39 in the northern suburb of Azusa, my choice of music comes back to haunt me in spectacular fashion as the cloud that has been obscuring the foothills all morning finally breaks.

Rain spots turn to showers, which turn to downpours as Alex, an LA-dwelling ex-pat Brit, and I push on quickly through the dips and ramps of the initial nursery slopes. The smooth road surface quickly transforms into a polished mirror, raindrops firing off the tarmac.

For 5km we splash northwards through the sinuous San Gabriel canyon, flanked by steep walls of rock. A gap in the hillside reveals the Morris Reservoir, just visible through the water on my glasses, and Alex explains that California is currently in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record. The irony isn’t lost on either of us.

Welcome to the Golden State

Mention ‘Los Angeles’ and you invariably think of Hollywood movies, car-choked freeways or maybe race riots… but probably not ‘great cycling destination’. However, lurking just beyond the skyscrapers and smog of America’s second largest city are the San Gabriel Mountains, a playground of tough climbs, quiet roads and epic scenery that feels a million miles away from the grime and glamour of the urban metropolis sprawling on its doorstep. 

As the rain eases and our mood lightens, we find ourselves on a rollercoaster of sweeping turns and out-of-the-saddle sprints for the next 12km. The wide road undulates fabulously as speeds rise, and our wet brake blocks are tested for the first time on rapid descents. We slip through Islip Canyon and on past the San Gabriel Reservoir, at the end of which is a right hand turn onto a bridge that points east towards Mount Baldy, a mountain that was host to a stunning summit finish on the penultimate stage of last year’s Tour of California.

Our plan is to tackle Mount Baldy later today, but we ignore the turning for now and keep straight on down Highway 39 for a lesser ascent that still promises fine riding but, more importantly, also leads to the only available feed stop on our route. A sign tells us we have 23km to go before we can rest and eat, but I am spurred on by our destination’s magical-sounding name: the Crystal Lake Cafe.

An arrow-straight stretch of highway rises before us at a gradual incline. As we climb slowly, the scenery opens up, giving us a clearer view of the ridges and peaks ahead, layer upon layer of mountain range, fading in colour as it stretches into the distance. We gain 500m of altitude over the next 10km, our passage through the mountains alternating between easy false flats and power-sapping short ramps touching gradients of 20%. 

Eventually the road levels off and we begin to skirt the rocky cliff faces that flank the road to our left, the tarmac hugging the twists and turns of the mountainside. Occasional stray rocks, some the size of fists, litter the opposite lane where they have fallen from the cliffs above. I make note of these for when we will return down this road on the descent later on. 

The relentlessness of the climb starts to make itself felt in my legs. It’s an ascent on a par with some of the big cols in Europe when it comes to making a mess of a rider. What’s more, it’s getting cold. 

Rounding a tight left-hand hairpin, my physical hardships are momentarily forgotten as the road unravels itself to our left like a dropped ribbon on the mountain’s edge. It’s what a road cycling Scalextric track would look like. Arcs of tarmac coil into the distance amid the browns and greens of the Californian wilderness. It’s a beautiful moment – no sound, no traffic, just us. And a few handfuls of bullet casings.

We stop to admire the view and Alex unclips into the scattering of spent rounds. It serves as a timely reminder of where we are. Perhaps life in the city is frustrating enough to make someone drive into the mountains just to fire off some ammunition – or maybe there is a more sinister reason for all the bullets. Right now it’s serene, but the idea that we might bump into someone armed to the teeth is more than a little unnerving. 

Clouds brush the treetops ahead. My stomach growls at me, and I realise how hungry I am. It’s at this point that I momentarily entertain the terrible thought that bad weather may have forced the cafe to close. We clip in and make haste towards the Crystal Lake.

The hut in the woods

Water from a natural spring trickles from the rock face as the road once more tilts skywards. The moisture in the air is cloying, and soon we are lost in cloud. Visibility decreases as I hang on to Alex’s rear wheel. 

‘That sign says 5,000 feet!’ Alex proclaims breathlessly. I perform some rapid imperial-to-metric calculations. We started at close to sea level, which means we’ve climbed around 1,700m in the last 48km. With just 3km to go before the cafe, it’s all I can do to force the cranks over and over. The cloud is so dense that I almost
miss the sign for Crystal Lake Recreation Ground, which directs us off the road to the right. Even this access road continues to climb. We pass a signpost declaring ‘Half Knob Trail’ is near. Yes, it really is that cold.

Rarely has a small wooden shack shrouded in mist seemed so inviting. A neon ‘OPEN’ sign in the window lifts our spirits, and convivial owner Adam makes them soar with his suggestion of breakfast burritos – my thousand-yard stare must indicate I’m in need of hot food, and quick. Still-drenched socks and damp shoes are removed and placed on a 1930s stove heater as we take a table and tuck into the mother of all lunches. Scrambled egg, potato, peppers, sausage and chorizo, piled into a tortilla and topped with salsa. Silence descends as we get down to business and take in the rustic surroundings. 

Adam wanders over proudly. ‘My wife makes the best Belgian chocolate brownies,’ he says. We’re not going to argue with that, especially when Adam returns to show us the bar of chocolate from which it was created. I know they say everything’s bigger in America, but he’s struggling to hold it. It must be two feet long. 

Fully satiated and suitably dried out, we make our preparations to get back on the road. As we leave, Adam cheerily reminds us to watch out for bears, one of which has been known to chase cyclists for the food in their jersey pockets. I resolve to pedal quickly.

Road to Baldy

Alex’s bike computer is reading 2°C. With rain jackets and gilets zipped to our necks, the first kilometres of ascent are slow but mercifully easy. Then the road tips into a descent, and we quickly gather momentum. Suddenly we blast out of the cloud cover on the drops, like X-Wings from an exploding Death Star, speed rising all the time as we lock into position for the 20km long drop to the reservoir.

The rate at which we’re descending means the wind chill is almost cancelled out by the rise in air temperature. With an occasional glance rearward under my arm, I scan for any traffic we might be holding up. A pick-up follows me as I tuck in and let gravity do its thing. I alternate my view between the road ahead and my speedo. 55, 60, 65, 70kmh… The pick-up is dropping back. Road signs state ‘35mph speed limit’, but we’re rocketing as we hug immaculately surfaced bends and drop down through canyons, using the entire width of the road to optimise visibility and speed. Quarter-Swiss Alex lets loose his inner Cancellara, topping out at almost 90kmh. In all, it takes us just 20 minutes to return to the bridge on the San Gabriel Reservoir that directs us eastwards towards Mount Baldy.

Queen of the mountains

Up and out of the saddle again, we begin a gentle 8km climb along East Fork Road, which takes us via a 180° switchback onto Glendora Mountain Road. We’re now reversing the route of the 2015 Tour of California’s queen stage, and the road still bears the faded graffiti left by fans. The winding climb takes us up to a ridgeline, and we turn sharp left at a junction with the aptly named Glendora Ridge Road.

A further 8km of little-ring attrition sees us gain a further 500m in altitude, with some of the sharper ramps shooting well north of 15%. Majestic views open up of the high mountains to our north. Clouds shroud the peaks in the distance, and the only sound is the gentle buzz of our tyres. We’re only 20km from suburban LA, but the sense of wild America is acute.

Before us, the road zig-zags upwards, following the sharp ridge perfectly to its highest point. To our left and right, the slopes fall away into deep valleys where birds of prey circle on the updrafts. This feels like the final push, and I give everything I have left to keep the pedals turning over for the last few kilometres.

The road levels off with 3km to go before the village of Baldy, and I’m thankful to be able to re-engage the big ring for the first time in what seems like hours. Soaring into Baldy, I pause at a crossroads to stretch out my legs and ravenously devour the remaining edible contents of my jersey pockets. 

The precipitous descent from Baldy Village is the first time we’ve encountered any real traffic. The wide lanes shoot almost directly down the canyon to the first view of low-level suburbia we’ve had all day. Too exhausted to pedal, we ride cautiously, feathering the brakes round the big, sweeping bends. 

It’s over in minutes. It comes as a shock how quickly the barren, bold and beautiful Californian countryside is replaced by urban sprawl. As we head towards Azusa to complete our loop, we skirt busy intersections and ride parallel to multi-lane routes carrying trucks and commuters. From here, the foothills to the north give only a hint of the cycling treasures that lie beyond, and I’m struggling to comprehend that I’ve just spent one of the most arduous days of climbing I’ve ever had within such a short distance of the city’s four million inhabitants. 

LA may be where dreams are manufactured, but there is nothing cosmetic about what we’ve experienced. Those mountains offer more adventure and wonder than anything created on a Hollywood movie lot.

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