Mulholland

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Ira Ryan is complaining about Los Angeles because that’s what he does and because we’re on a plane headed south to L.A. We land a little after six in the evening, Trystan Cobbett and his Black BMW wagon are parked just outside baggage claim. A half an hour later, we are all eating half a chicken from Versailles on Venice Boulevard. For $8.50 you get a full plate of beans, rice, fried ripe plantains and one half of a chicken – all of it dripping wet in citrus and garlic, and buried under a coiled slinky of sliced white onion. We finish quickly and stop at a Trader Joes in Culver City to stock up on sparkling water, tea and chocolate while on the way back to Trystan’s.

The ground floor of Tyrstan’s combination studio-apartment-compound is a functioning art gallery; inside the lights are on and five Latinas perched on ladders are hanging oversized oil paintings. Once upstairs we go about claiming beds and couches and negotiate shower times. Trystan returns to LAX to pick up our friend and photographer, I write for a bit and try to con Ira into sharing my vodka, he’s resistant but in the end compromises with a glass of wine. It’s not enough to sabotage him for tomorrow and now my own condition is in question  Ira is a rock. Trystan returns with Brian and we inexplicably stay up until 2:00am watching Spike Lee videos.

The next morning we load Trystan’s wagon under a classic Southern California sunrise before driving downtown to pick up Ryan Thompson from the Standard – a hotel that tries too hard to not appear as if it’s trying too hard. Ryan and bike hop in and on, respectively, and we head back west towards mid-Wilshire to get Cole Maness. On the way we stop at a national coffee franchise for the worst coffee and pastries outside of an airport any of us have ever had. The croissants are the size, texture and taste of a flotation device.

Mulholland

Trystan knows just about everybody that has anything to do with cycling or L.A. He’s friends with Cole’s girlfriend so when we went looking for an exceptional Los Angeles local to guide and host a weekend of Continental riding, we found Cole. Before now we had only talked to him on the phone and seen a picture or two. This was a blind, internet-style date: would he be too slow or too fast; will we like him; does he know the riding here as well as he seems to?

Cole looks like the archetype of turn-of-the-century fitness, as if the cyclists in Triplets of Belleville were drawn or modeled on his stature and style. He has a silent-movie mustache, like he should be a weightlifter in a bathing suit in the 1920s. Cole was born in Tennessee but has been in Los Angeles for the last three years. He’s a minor celebrity in cycling circles and is actively involved in leading and participating in many hard group rides. In a word, he’s perfect…
for us.

Our crew is now Ira Ryan, Ryan Thompson, Cole Maness and myself. It’s 11:30 in the morning and we’re fully kitted out and standing on the corner of Heliotrope and Melrose, 100 feet from Orange 20 and College Café. We start by zigging and zagging north for about 15 minutes until we reach Sunset Boulevard. Sunset is brutal. It’s wide and loud and the traffic is unkind. We’re single file but not drafting, just surviving. In fact, we’re keeping about five feet, with enough time between us to bunny-hop over and swerve past all the ridges,holes and trash in the street. There’s so much of it, and some of it is so treacherous that calling it out was no longer an option.

Once we make the right onto Nichols Canyon we realize how loud and frenetic the last 30 minutes have been, it’s like we were just released from some man-made device designed to make holding a train of thought impossible. At this point nobody is pushing too hard. The streets are lined with pick-up trucks and L.A.’s flourishing migrant work force; an army of landscapers, gardeners, handymen, nannies, house cleaners. Rock n’ roll and Hollywood houses are stilted, wedged and tucked into any flat spot on the steep hills sandwiching the road.

With each switchback the tempo quickens and the reality of being on our first climb together is no longer deniable. I’m beginning to sweat and I’m working hard because Cole is too fast. Ira, sensing the top, around yet another 180-degree switchback, leans forward and into the climb a little bit. I think he’s genuinely surprised when Cole, talking and gesturing and seemingly just out for a ride, doesn’t leave his side. Ryan falters but maintains his composure. I fade—almost out of sight for a minute—but recover, though barely.

Mulholland is a theme park ride which runs from the Hollywood Bowl in the east and – if you’re willing to ride a fire road on a road bike – you end at just about the ocean, in the west. It’s rolling, undulating and riddled with blind corners and sweeping, banking turns. It goes up and down but is mostly constant. It’s steeped in Los Angeles mythology and it provides, like a tennis match, a back and forth view of the Valley, in the north, and L.A. to the south. Except for the obscene amount of erratic and hurried drivers and the lack of a shoulder, it’s a perfect road to be led (make that dragged) west by Ira and Cole, up and down, left and right, for 12 miles to the coast.

Santa Monica Mountains

We pass many canyon roads on our way west, each one of them coming up from somewhere different below—Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Studio City, Canoga Park—and dumping different kinds and qualities of traffic onto our road. We pass the 405 freeway and two miles later Mulholland, the real paved Mulholland, dives into the valley and leaves the apex of the ridge to continue, unmolested by motorized vehicles, on Old Dirt Mulholland.

Fifteen miles in and we stop for a moment before starting into the dirt,we talk status and assess food and water. Ryan is concerned he’s getting sick. I would be concerned he’s getting sick too if I wasn’t more concerned that I was getting sick. Ira is concerned about the traffic and the state of the world in which a place like Los Angeles can exist. Cole is concerned that we are not properly enjoying an amazing and epic tour of Los Angeles roads and riding he loves so much.

All-road wagons and sport utility vehicles with pretty roof-racks populate the first parking lot and wait, like obedient dogs, for their masters to return from mountain biking and trail running. Passing them, we’re reminded of how self-important and heroic riding road bikes on dirt and gravel roads can feel in the presence of suspension. For several miles we pick and shuffle, thread, and body-English our way up the first few miles of Dirt Mulholland. Vacillating between a single-file slow motion paceline and the criss-crossing of each other’s line we flock, unflock and reflock as if choreographed by an innate understanding of the road, which, at this point, has become a canted slalom course. We top-out on a ridge and squeak past a gate blocking unconvinced cars and drivers from proceeding any further into the wilderness.

The next seven miles is fun.

The road surface is hard-packed sand and dirt and mostly free of loose gravel and washboards, and clearance is not an issue. The hills are tan and sporadically covered in an emporium of plants and colors best described as desert camouflage. The terrain rolls up and primarily down, with our progress marked by smaller ridges and valleys butting perpendicularly against our road like a ribcage. We are skirting the northern edge of Topanga State Park and headed west to the coast.

Ira is working the cement-like embankments on the side of the road like a velodrome, depositing and withdrawing momentum through the turns. Cole, riding a pink ‘80s-era Schwinn Paramount with down-tube shifters is playing, not riding down the mountain. Ryan and I drive and pedal through the bottom of the road looking for the perfect speed where the rattling and vibrations dissipate, if not cease, and we can high-speed float, smooth and quiet and fast. It’s 25mph.

We are deposited, with smiles and dusty bikes, onto a paved road lined with nice homes in Topanga Hills. We make our way as a group, nice and easy, to Mulholland Highway. Cole and Ira take the lead as the road begins to climb and push for several miles through Calabasas Highlands, ending with a high-speed descent into the Santa Monica Mountains and Las Virgines Road. Las Virgines is busy and loud but a beautiful vantage from which to watch the surrounding mountains fold and unfold into countless valleys and hills marked by rock outcroppings, like prehistoric battlements and cairns, and chaparral-dominated vegetation. We are riding through a Western movie set; actually, feels like we are riding through the Planet of the Apes. I notice now that with the return of cars and noise and Los Angeles paraphernalia, since Dirt Mulholland, we have slowly slipped back quietly into our own heads. Ira is moody, Ryan is cracking, I am fading, and this is forcing Cole to baby-sit not guide us west.

Malibu

As Las Virgines begins to climb in earnest over the last ridge between the valley and the ocean we spread out along the edge of the road in 500 yard intervals. Ira, Cole, me then Ryan. For a mile it’s a loud solitary grind and then the top. The descent is fast and dramatic with speeding cars, a massive tunnel and views of the Pacific. On the way down fresh salty air goes quickly to our heads and causes inspired riding and sprints. We rush past Pepperdine University and skid to a stop at the 101 and the north end of Malibu. Across the street is a park with a Coke machine and a place to assess our situation.

Through the valley and up the last pitch Ryan has cracked. He is getting sicker and his hip, an injury and pain fast becoming chronic, is killing him so he decides to jump in the wagon with Trystan and Brian Vernor. We decide to deal with our lack of food and insistent hunger in the Malibu shopping center at the bottom of the hill. Hermetically sealed sandwiches and lattes, one sugary and salty calorie at a time, return our optimism about the next 30 miles. We sit outside under an umbrella and watch, like a crew of construction workers, as a constant stream of young ladies in Ugg boots, blonde hair and sunglasses get in and out of expensive cars. The setting sun reminds us we’re not home yet.

Highway 1 is mostly flat and easy with a generous shoulder, tail winds and the Pacific inspiring high average speeds and pace lining. Every 20 minutes the day gets nicer, the wind, sun, water, our legs, our bikes and each other start working together in concert for the first time today. We peel off the highway and pick-up the Santa Monica bike path, which runs right through the set of David Hasslehoff and Pamela Anderson’s finest acting achievement. The path is wide and smooth and occasionally covered in sand. We follow it through Santa Monica, past the Pier and the rollerblading windsurfers in the parking lot, into Venice and its markets, street vendors and general weirdness to Lincoln Boulevard.

For the next hour we make our way east and back into the city with the sun setting behind us and traffic at it’s worst. With so many cars on the road and things moving so slowly we easily picked, zigged and zagged our way home–often sprinting and racing to make lights and for hole shots. It was the perfect way to end a 100-mile epic tour of Los Angeles and it’s surrounding towns.

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