Head for the Hills
Written by Anne M. Russell | Photographed by Bryce Lowe-White
I get asked a lot if I jump off cliffs on my bike. I don’t. People who’ve seen the death-defying stunts of Red Bull Rampage’s elite riders or maybe watched Olympic competition get the impression that mountain biking is a high-risk, adrenaline-fueled sport practiced only by skinny, young dudes.
But on Valley trails, you’ll see every kind of mountain biker—young and old, male and female, fat and thin. Sure there are some adrenaline junkies in full body armor bombing high-skill trails like Hummingbird off Rocky Peak, but you’re more likely to encounter recreational riders who are in it for camaraderie, fun and love of nature.
Although it’s impossible to get an accurate count of the number of riders in the Valley, “The growth in the sport is obvious when you look at the high school groups,” says Steve Messer, president of the nonprofit Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association (CORBA). Messer notes that in 2009 the SoCal High School Cycling League, which oversees secondary school mountain bike clubs, had 70 participants; today it has 1,000. “It bodes well for the future of mountain biking,” he says.
“As an intense person, mountain biking gives me a sense of calm,” says Wendy Engelberg, who has been riding for 11 years and is one of the founders of Girlz Gone Riding (GGR), a 1,500-member women’s mountain bike club. Her favorite local spot is the part of the Backbone Trail that runs through Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park in Tarzana. Liz Kurtz, a GGR member and mountain bike veteran with 27 years of riding, echoes Engelberg’s sentiment, saying, “I love the challenge and how it helps me focus. I’m AD/HD and I love the adventure; you can go so many places on a mountain bike.”
Kimberly Cofield, co-founder with Engelberg of GGR, says her favorite trail is the recently completed Backbone Trail off Encinal Canyon Road in Malibu. “Beyond the camaraderie, I love being out in nature and getting away from the stress,” she shares. Kurtz says her preferred trail system is in Cheseboro Canyon Park in Agoura Hills.
Christian Soleta, a rider with 17 years experience, including enduro (downhill-oriented endurance) racing, says, “I’ve made more friends riding than anywhere else. My best friends are my riding buddies.” Soleta says his top-rated trail is the technical downhill El Prieto single track above La Canada Flintridge.
Navigating the Trails
Almost all of the Valley’s trails fall within the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). NPS senior communication fellow Zach Behrens says area trails that are open to mountain bikers comprise 53% of the 538 miles of SMMNRA’s public trails across its 155,000 acres.
Although the Park Service hasn’t done a user survey since 2014, Behrens estimates that hikers represent about 60% of park traffic; mountain bikers, 10% ; and horseback riders, 1%. There are no dedicated trails for bikers; any trail open for bikers is considered multiuse.
One helpful resource for finding local trailheads and routes is the guide Where to Bike Los Angeles Mountain Biking by Jim Hasenauer, Mark Langton and Steve Messer. Another is the highly detailed and accurate maps by Tom Harrison.
So now you’re inspired to ride, but you haven’t taken your bike out of the garage in a couple of years. How do you reboot? “If the bike has been in the garage a long time, you need to check the tires and make sure there’s air in the shocks,” says Engelberg, who is U.S. team manager at Canyon USA bicycles.
Or, perhaps you need a new bike. Mountain bikes get better and more sophisticated every year. For all-purpose, dry weather riding in Southern California, your best bet is probably a trail bike, but before laying down a lot of cash, figure out how and where you like to ride and find a bike shop you trust.
Another suggestion: visit the free monthly skills clinic that CORBA conducts the first Saturday of each month in Malibu Creek State Park. The class covers bike-handling basics and trail etiquette, which is important in the Valley’s multiuser environment. Messer says the group has been teaching the class for over 20 years; he estimates it has as many as 4,000 graduates at this point.
Joining a local bike club for a group ride is another good way to get back into it. Choices include: CORBA; GGR (some rides are coed); and North Ranch Mountain Bikers. Many of the Valley shops host weekly rides too, including JRA, Santa Monica Mountains Cyclery, Serious Cycling, and Topanga Creek Outpost. Shop rides tend to be at a higher skill level, so call ahead and ask questions if you’re unsure if you’ll mesh with the regulars.
Although you may think safety depends on the helmet and pads (if any) you choose, it’s really about a rider’s confidence and judgment. Engelberg suggests newbies take an introductory or refresher ride on a paved bike path first, then move on to flatter dirt, specifically the wide paths at Malibu Creek State Park. “Get your confidence and skills up and you’ll have fun,” she says.