On the Edge of Glory
Local pros say Laguna Beach is poised to take its rightful place as an international mountain biking mecca. All it needs is a little help from authorities.
On a clear and balmy afternoon, professional mountain biker Richie Schley is on his daily sunset ride. He drops in and surfs down the mountainside, winding through singletrack hugged by a profusion of greenery so lush he could be in the British Columbian forest or the Costa Rican jungle – but the Laguna Beach resident is riding in his own “backyard,” a winter haven for mountain bikers from all over the world. However, in this surf-centric town, the magnitude of the sport’s presence goes virtually unnoticed.
“All of the best professional mountain bikers pass through Southern California, and many come to Laguna regularly to train in the offseason,” says British Columbia-born Schley, who likens the local wilderness to that of his verdant home province. “On one ride, I saw five of the world’s top downhillers training on one of our trails and thought, ‘Wow – we’ve got so much action in mountain biking happening right here, but no one really notices it exists.’ ”
That’s surprising, given the number of locally based mountain bike-related companies (Oakley, Crank Brothers, and Bike magazine, to name a few) and the fact that three of the most famous names in the sport reside in Laguna Beach – Mountain Bike Hall of Famers Hans “No Way” Rey and Brian Lopes, and Schley. German-born Rey relocated here for the “coastal climate, charm, and proximity to brand sponsors.” Lopes, a downhill racer who has more wins than any other mountain biker in sports history – including four World Championship titles – is a native of nearby Mission Viejo and has ridden in Laguna all his life. He made it his permanent home for the same reasons. Schley, who pioneered the Freeride and Slopestyle movements and now focuses primarily on product testing and endorsements, migrated to Laguna for 10 winters before planting roots four years ago.
“So much of the industry is here, so if you’re a pro and you’re looking for somewhere to go in the winter and ride, this is the best place,” Schley says. “The trails are good, your sponsors are here, and you can’t beat the weather without heading south of the U.S.”
This region boasts more than 20 parks and open wilderness areas, many connected by a vast network of some 400 trails. Laguna alone has 20,000 acres of open space, all accessible right from town. The rainy season (November to March) helps cultivate terrain ideal for trail riding, making it a prime draw for pro bikers.
“My favorite trail is [the Laguna Ridge Trail] because it offers a little bit of everything,” Lopes says. “It drops into Laguna Canyon and is pretty long – three-and-a-half to four minutes from top to bottom. That’s a good length for around here. It starts off super rough and gnarly and goes into some fun high-speed turns. Then you get some medium-speed flow trail. The lower part is rockier and more technical.” Schley also likes it for its challenging elements.
Meadows is easy but long at about three minutes, with nice flows and turns, Lopes continues. “It’s a fun trail to ride with friends, because you can dice and do passes on them and it’s not dangerous. Nearby Cleveland National Forest is great for a full day of epic rides.”
In an area that offers so many trails, you’d expect the local pros to have more than a few – even a long list – of favorites. But 40 years past its advent, mountain biking still hasn’t made the same impact here that it has in other parts of the world equally conducive to trail riding. Virtually all of the open trails here are multiuse, which means no bike-specific trails with ideal features like jumps or ramps or big bank turns – in other words, satisfying for skillful riders. And many of the public trails are too difficult (steep or technical) for beginners and intermediate riders, which means land that could be shaped for novices or seasoned adventure-seekers is essentially wasted.
“Some public trails aren’t even usable to most riders,” Schley says. “We have some that are like eroded creek beds, and most bikers, even good ones, cannot ride them. I’d love to see repairs on some of these so we can utilize them.”
Orange County has been home to mountain bike enthusiasts and such riding groups as the Laguna RADS and SHARE (originally Del’s Angels) since the 1980s, which initially drew attention to the then-emerging sport and prompted the demand for greater trail access, trail maintenance, and rules of common courtesy (essentially, that mountain bikers yield to all pedestrians and equestrians on multiuse paths). But growth of the sport on a professional level, across more disciplines, has expanded the community of athletes who ride the local routes.
The mainstream influence of the sport and its subsequent evolution as a popular hobby among Southern Californians has also seen the formation of groups such as the Laguna Beach Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team as well as a swell in the number of mountain bikers using the local trails in general. This means improving and diversifying the group of trails has become imperative as more bikers come to Laguna. Heavy traffic on the same small circuit of challenging trails also beats them up, augmenting the need for better maintenance.
“In the beginning, nobody understood why we were getting out there and screaming down hills and knocking people off trails,” jokes SHARE president Steve Larson of Huntington Beach. “Because of trail access issues and conflicts between hikers and riders in the park, we started working with the state and county parks to really legitimize the sport.”
His club, along with other volunteer groups, collaborates with parks personnel on trail maintenance when budgets are low – mainly, making sure the ones that do exist remain open. This entails everything from physically repairing tire damage and putting in features such as switchbacks and water diversion systems to playing “damage control” and encouraging fellow riders to play by park rules.
Larson is referring to bikers who use illegal trails or build jumps or ramps because they’re looking for more fun, technical routes that “meet their needs a bit more.” He says parks staff finds those trails and will do whatever they can to close them off. The threat of a fine, or even having their bikes confiscated, appears to be worth the risk to these high-adrenaline seekers.
Rey, a pioneer of Trials and Extreme Mountain Biking who’s legendary for stunts like jumping a car on his bike on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles or his “volcano dance” in Hawaii, also enjoys the “mellower” side of mountain biking at home, including weekly rides with fellow RADS members, when he’s not traveling the globe documenting mountain bike adventures for magazines and films.
Emphasizing the desire of having a variety of trails for beginners and experienced mountain bikers alike, Rey says he hopes Orange County will be recognized as a major mountain biking destination and that the community will see the implementation of a more advanced trail system.
“Things seem to slowly be getting better, but there still aren’t enough quality trails for mountain bikers, especially beginner-friendly trails (with lower grades) and flow trails,” he says.
“The Santiago Oaks area has been a nice first effort to create some mountain bike-specific trails for all skill levels and with some flow elements, but OC is way behind the rest of the country and world when it comes to purpose-built trails. Mountain bike-specific trails with features and stunts don’t need to be extreme or dangerous; many other mountain bike destinations around the world have [enlisted] experts to build incredible trail systems.”
Rey has personally worked with some of these resort cities to create this sort of infrastructure, as has Schley, who has a trail in Whistler named after him, the “Schleyer.”
“Until now, mountain bikers were merely tolerated on some existing fire roads and hiking trails – both types are far from the ideal biking trail,” Rey says of the scene in OC. “It’s time we grant bikers a better infrastructure.”
Schley agrees, citing lack of education about the sport as a primary problem and noting that he’d like to see the mountain biking community and the city and parks “work together on some sort of compromise.”
Plans for a bike park in Fullerton are in development (“a great improvement,” says Rey) but it’s not necessarily a solution for riders who thrive on backcountry adventure, or for those who don’t want to drive the distance when better options could be had nearby.
“There are many kinds of mountain bikers out there, each of them with a slightly different motive for where and how they ride,” says Rey. “Land managers often think that four or five legal trails should be enough, but the fact is many riders like myself ride up to six trails in a single ride – if one rides five times a week, you can see how quickly riders run out of options.”
Parks staff has worked diligently to open a number of new trails to mountain biking over the past few years, increasing the opportunities to ride, says Marisa O’Neil, public information officer for OC Parks. “Opening new trails and providing more recreation opportunities must always balance recreation with habitat and wildlife preservation,” she says. “OC Parks is legally bound to preserve habitat in many areas, which often restricts the ability to add new trails, and trails must be sustainable over time and with regular use.”
Hallie Jones, executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which supports OC Parks’ maintenance of the trails system, echoes these sustainability issues as well as Schley’s sentiments about working collaboratively on the issue. “I agree that our trails have incredible potential and we need to find a way to balance that potential while protecting our open space,” she says.
Jones, a “hardcore hiker” and environmentalist, surmises that all mountain bikers care about the habitat and that most are unaware that “blazing their own trails” is destroying it. Take a bobcat, for example: “It won’t cross a trail where a human has been. When you carve new trails through its habitat, that habitat gets fragmented. So now instead of 100 acres to roam, the bobcat has 50,” explains Jones.
Jones acknowledges the importance of keeping mountain bikers in mind when building trails. “It will avoid user conflict and keep trails safe for all groups using them,” she says, adding, “And supporting the people who are out there using these trails creates the passion that helps keep our land protected.” Jones, however, doesn’t advocate mountain bike-only routes: “I think it’s a mistake to convert trails to single use; it’s better to have multiuse trails that include fun features – like firm turns – for bikers.”
Schley agrees that making trails more fun will divert renegade riders from using illegal trails – but he’s referring to the employment of purpose-built, mountain bike use-only trails. These would, more importantly, also make the area even more appealing as a major mountain biking destination.
“There are a whole bunch of great trails here that we’re not supposed to ride, but those are the trails experienced riders like because they’re the best ones: less ridden, steeper and way more exciting,” says Schley. (Though he doesn’t admit to riding them or even condoning it.)
Hailing from a place like Whistler, the epicenter of biking, Schley says he has a hard time wrapping his head around any resistance to embrace the sport. Whistler’s high alpine trails and amazing scenery aren’t the only things that make it the top biking destination – the town is also home to a mammoth bike park designed to attract mountain biking tourism.
“The government gives hundreds and thousands of dollars to the industry to build trails,” Schley says. “You ride down a trail in Whistler and there might be 250 jumps on it and they’re open for business. We can’t have one jump on a trail here? That’s kind of crazy when you think about it. If it’s built right, the whole thing works.”
Lopes echoes Schley’s position. “We should cater more to the international scene and make it more of a mountain biking destination than it is currently. The city thinks jumps are dangerous, but they’re only dangerous if you build them incorrectly or don’t know what you’re doing. We can build [structures] that are safe and can also be very challenging for pros like us.”
Lopes’ wife, Paula, an intermediate rider, says she and her fellow biking buddies would also like to see more moderate trails. “I started riding when I met Brian. He made it look so easy and I thought, ‘I can do this, no problem.’ He got me a bike, I got out there, and I ate it – right over the handlebars. The trails here are too extreme for beginners or even intermediate riders,” she says. “And once you’re out there on these steep trails, you’re committed.”
Jones says that things can be done to make existing trails more beginner-friendly, provided there are no habitat constraints. “We are now assessing each trail individually, park-wide, to identify use problems and deciding what we can do to make it better.”