A weekend in Southern California. Part 1

A new weekend and a new destination. Orange County, California.

My view of southern california is entirely skewed by TV, rumour and stereotype. I imagined the sprawling highways crisscrossing the plains, smog filled air hanging above the the parched dusty city. I imagined hurried unhappy people around every corner and nowhere to stop and breathe. I was proved wrong, mostly.

I took off from Denver on Friday morning. The plane was ram-packed with holiday makers heading to the sun. With i-things in hand, most people seemed glued to their screens, too much to appreciate the view out of the window. We took off to the north and banked quickly left. The fresh sunrise was coating the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in a pink hue – like someone had dipped their snow covered domes in paint. I could see Long’s Peak standing at the north of the Indian Peaks, but rather than the imposing figure it seems from Boulder, it was just one in an endless run of mountains heading north. The never summers just behind Rocky Mountain national park gave way to the open expanse of the Walden valley, and the Medicine Bow peaks of southern Wyoming just rose their heads above the horizon. As we flew southwest, the Gore Range gave way to the Flat Tops, and eventually the fissures between the peaks grew until we reached canyon country. The map onboard told me we were cruising above Moab, but I couldn’t pick the town out from the mottled orange, brown and red sandstone canyons.

Cutting right across Utah, the Colorado River canyon gained in magnitiude; like a scar ripped open across the vast horizon. We sailed above it for 45 minutes. I had no idea of the towns or roads, they seemed so insignificant compared to the canyon. Eventually we left it’s path, heading instead across the Mojave desert and into California. The orange and pink of the canyonlands had now given away to baron brown hillsides, before the coastal mountains west of Los Angeles started rising out of the sand. The Mountains were bigger than I thought – snow clinging precariously onto the tip of the highest peak, Mount San Antonio. Those hills marked the start of the endless city. The grid of roads and houses was now endless, just partly obscured by the thick layer of brown smog hanging above them. I couldn’t work out what was the city. I realised that looking at a map of the greater LA area gives you no idea of the scale. This place is massive. The plane darted between huge buildings on its way into ‘John Wayne’ airport.

Landing and getting out into the warm air was a relief. The slight taste of petrol fumes in the air was exactly what I expected, but certainly no worse than Innsbruck on a cold winter day.

I navigated my way to the rental car smoothly and set off on the highways northwards in search of San Dimas and Frank G. Bonelli regional park.

It’s at this point that I should say I am now a full supporter of technology in all its forms. I would have been entirely lost this weekend without my phone. I checked in for my flight on it, I booked my rental car with it. I picked up my rental car with it. I told it “OK Google, take me to San Dimas” and it did. The slightly robotic english lady navigating me smoothly through eight lanes of traffic, her voice a reminder that home is somewhere so unbelievably different from California. I answered (hands free, of course) when Bryan called, and told google to actually take me to Klatch coffee instead. And it did. From then on I realised that a smartphone is the single most important thing to traveling smoothly in the US.

Mount San Antonio, through the smog of LA

I met Bryan for lunch before heading into Bonelli Park for the pre-ride. I didn’t really get a sense of whether San Dimas was a town or just a collection of roads. I kind of feel like it was the latter. Riding around Bonelli park was a weird experience. I knew I was in the midst of one of the largest cities in the world, but the reserviour next to the course, and the shade of the trees around the singletrack was a huge contrast. The Mountains rising up above the city were a huge reminder of the outside world, and I wondered what it’s like to be up there looking down on the metropolis. I’ll have to find out at some point.

Bonelli Park

On the drive down to Josh’s house I stopped in at Trader Joe’s, a californian supermarket with an excellent selection of fresh fruit and veg. I was starting to feel a little more comfortable. As I cruised through Santa Ana on the way to Aliso Viejo, the towns started to get a little more sparse and eventually they opened up into rolling hills. I knew the pacific ocean was on the other side of the ridge, and I really wish I had enough time to detour that way and look at the sea. I love the water – it brings me home.

I arrived at Josh’s house bang on 5pm, and finally got an introduction. Josh is the connection to Red Ace Organics, the company that is providing so much support to my cycling this year. Teammate Sam and Josh met up this time last year and got talking, and we were super happy when they decided to come on board as title sponsor. I’d heard plenty about Josh, and had seen his rides on Strava over the last six months. It’s interesting to piece digital artifacts together and try to get a picture of who someone is. It almost never works! Meeting Josh was great – he invited me into his home and treated me like a king for the weekend – food provided in endless quantities, and lots of bike talk to keep us occupied. His wife Sonya, also a cyclist, was around too, and I really enjoyed staying somewhere with real people, rather than the anonymity of a hotel. It makes me much more comfortable.

Saturday morning was race day at Bonelli. I love to get out for a quick spin in the morning to freshen myself up, relax and forget about racing. I had some porridge then left the house at 7:30am. The house backs right up against the Aliso Woods wilderness park – a tiny smudge of green on the map that is much larger in real life. I dropped down into the bottom of the canyon under a thick layer of fog. Misty wet fog so heavy that my clothes shined with beads of water, and my glasses soon steamed up. The tacky sand under my tyres picked up in a gentle crunching sound, and I cruised up the dirt road.

Down in the bottom of Aliso canyon

Josh had told me of the endless singletrack options splaying off in either direction. He’d ended the conversation with “but you won’t want to ride them today, they’re too steep before a race”. I agreed and thought nothing more of it. That was until the sun started poking it’s head through the thick fog. I could just make out the top of the ridge above, and curiosity get the better of me. I found a small path pointing in the right direction and started climbing up. I weaved through a couple of groups of early morning hikers – everyone happy and friendly to be out in the warmth. As I climbed higher, the fog parted and the hills opened up ahead of me.

Looking back down into the canyon after climbing out of the fog

The humming of the city that I’d traveled through last night was completely muffled by the thick blanket of clouds below, and only the high peaks peaked their heads into this elevated world. I stopped and listened. Nothing.

With 25 minutes already on the clock, and not wanting to push much further before my race later in the day, I took the first trail back down into the fog filled canyon. The trail meandered through low scrub bushes, then dipped steeper down, the sandy soil occasionally giving way to rocky drops and ledges. I came down a lot quicker than I went up. I cruised back to the house and washed my bike, before taking on second breakfast. It was a little bit surreal leaving Aliso Viejo that morning. The neighbourhood road spits you back out into the winding metropolis, but I’d just explored a secret little corner, accessed through a little garden gate.

There are definite advantages to riding in the morning

The racing was an experience. The country park that has been so quiet and peaceful yesterday had been transformed into a huge mess of parked cars and mountain bikers buzzing around. There were obviously families who hadn’t been told of this incursion; groups of people picnicking next to the race course that seemed more bemused rather than intrigued. It did the racing thing; no errors but the ones inherent in my legs from the start. ¬†After the race I lay down on the grass and felt the goosebumps of overheating cover my body. The breeze seemed to pick up from nowhere – the perfect antidote to the suffering heat I’d just experienced.

Bryan and I reconvened.We were in a little bit of a daze. Shocked by the intensity of competition we’d just experienced. We Wondered up the course with our bikes to watch the Super-D race that was about to start. We stopped and chatted to people in a similar state: we got the same message – no one had experienced a race so fierce from the gun, and everyone was a little confused as to whether they’d done terribly, or just their finish number didn’t reflect their strength.

First experience of LA was what I had expected; noise and people and highways. But there was escape, too. And wild natural beauty that had stayed hidden long enough from the encroach of the suburbs. With another weekend in the city to look forward to, I altered my expectations and looked forward to a second weekend of fierce racing.