October 18, 2021

Topanga —Paradise on Two Wheels


Marathon runners have Heartbreak Hill in Boston. Swimmers have the English Channel. Cyclists have Topanga —the gateway to L.A.’s backyard in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Their alarms go off in Manhattan Beach and Culver City, West Hills and Thousand Oaks. They gather at places like Jamba Juice and Starbucks. They click into their pedals as the sun creeps over the horizon. By the time most of us are staring at that first cup of coffee, these intrepid souls on two wheels have 20 to 40 miles under their belts. They climb into Topanga from Mulholland and Pacific Coast Highway, their legs pumping, their chests heaving, their eyes set on a ribbon of asphalt winding towards the sky.

Topanga has been a prime destination for recreation since State Highway 27 opened between Ventura Boulevard and the ocean in 1915. In the ’20s, picturesque rental cabins drew weekenders from the city. Lucy and Mose Cheney entertained day-trippers with venison barbecues and dances at their ranch. The Horseshoe Bend Inn promised health enthusiasts the restorative powers of Topanga’s air, sun and mineral water.

Today’s visitors may arrive on titanium frames with 24 gears and opt for a different menu, but they are drawn by the same natural attractions. “My husband and I took a trip to Tuscany and rode through the mountains,” says a woman cyclist from West Hills, who gives her name as Tracy while making a pit stop outside Country Natural Foods. “So when I came back I looked around for something similar, and Topanga was the closest to it.”


Topanga —Paradise on Two Wheels

Riders from Conejo Valley Cyclists, one of the many clubs that pedal for miles to enjoy the scenery, thrills and challenges offered by Topanga. From left: Roberto, Glen, Mike Fair and Mike Brand. Like many other out-of-town cyclists, Roberto and Glen declined to give their last names.

A fellow rider, Mike Brand a member of the Conejo Valley Cyclists, totally agrees: “We love Fernwood! Fernwood, Stunt Road and Piuma are great climbs with beautiful views.” But having pedaled all the way from Thousand Oaks, he’s got more than beauty on his mind. “We like to regroup here because of the market. It has a lot of goodies and stuff you can fuel up on.”

The market in question—Country Natural Foods—is Topanga’s “gas station” for cyclists. Owners Charles and Sunny Choo offer an eclectic menu. There are no venison barbeques offered, but there are, of course, the standard protein bars and drinks. And what would a 70-plus-mile ride be without egg salad and tofu sandwiches? Casual observation reveals two hands-down cycling favorites: the brown rice roll and the vegetable pot stickers. Most of us would probably polish that off with a pint of Häagen-Dazs. “Oh no,” Mr. Choo says. “They like to eat healthy.”

With their bellies full and water bottles topped off, the cyclists ease carefully into a steady stream of traffic. Gone are the days when Topanga legend Herta Ware and her daughter Melora could bike down to the beach for breakfast with nothing more than the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk to break the silence. Topanga is no longer a sleepy village. The volume of motorists has increased significantly.

The game of bicycle “survivor” played by some motorists can set hearts to pumping even more than the uphill climbs or the downhill speed. “People really race along these roads,” says Topanga resident Josh Cochran, whose funky bike came home with him from Burning Man. “An old, blue Chevy pickup nearly hit me. He was driving really fast and close to the shoulder. I try to stay on the white line or on the other side of it. He was only a couple of inches from my arm. I don’t know how these packs of bicycle riders in their fancy spandex get-ups do it, ‘cause there’s just not room.”

Topanga —Paradise on Two Wheels

A pack of cyclists sweeps by on one of the milder downhill stretches of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Riding in a pack actually reduces the danger. There is safety in numbers. All those colorful jerseys make a driver sit up and pay attention. “Of course, the fantasy would be that we’d have a little bit more shoulder,” says Ian Murray, a rider from Pacific Palisades, “but I find the motorists in Topanga are very courteous. I don’t get horns here at all, and it’s hairy, because you’re going slow. It’s very steep, and it’s very narrow, but I find everybody’s pretty understanding.” A smile breaks across his face. “There’s a good vibe in Topanga.”

Most drivers are unaware that bicycles have the same right of way on the road as cars. Though most ride as close to the shoulder as possible—out of courtesy or self-preservation—they are under no obligation to do so. Many drivers “think you should be on a bike path,” says Bob Simon of Brentwood. “Or not on a bike at all,” smiles his friend, Shauna Biggs. So, what’s the answer? “Pray,” intones Bob. But for some cyclists, life in the fast lane just isn’t worth the hassle. They find their biking nirvana off-road.

Any sunny weekend will find scores of riders pulling wide-wheeled mountain bikes off roof racks or out of hatchbacks on the side roads surrounding Topanga State Park. The park is a mountain biker’s paradise. It is considered the world’s largest wildland within the boundaries of a major city. Covering 11,000 acres, the park offers 36 miles of trails through open grassland and rugged canyons featuring spectacular ocean views. Two-thirds of those trails are fire roads open to mountain bikes. Single track trails are closed to cyclists except for the Backbone Trail from Will Rogers State Park. So, say local rangers, keep off the Musch Trail if you’re on two wheels instead of two feet. But if the coyotes are howling at the moon and you feel like a midnight ride on your Fat Possum XO, you’re good to go as long as your car is out of the Trippet Ranch lot, which closes at dusk.

Topanga resident Charlie Hanson has been mountain biking in the park for 25 years. By all appearances, Charlie seems like a sensible man. But there’s something about being on a bike that makes even the most sensible man turn into a 12-year-old kid. “I was listening to Elton John sing ‘I Love L.A.,’” Charlie recalls, “and I was cruising down the hill, and I just got too excited.” He landed in a great heap and tore his knee. [We hope Charlie didn’t hit his head as well; “I Love L.A.” was written and performed by Randy Newman, not Sir Elton.]

“Mountain bikers are more seriously hurt than hikers and horse riders,” says Ranger Lee Hawkins. “We get maybe a half-dozen serious injuries a year. Sometimes they have to helicopter guys out.” Poor Charlie didn’t get to have a dramatic airlift out of the Canyon. His wife drove him to the hospital.

Most mountain bikers are satisfied with the scenery, but others are pure adrenaline junkies. Eighteen-year-old Conor Colburn, a native of Topanga, loves downhill racing. Flying down the slopes of Mammoth, Tahoe or Whistler at over 50 miles per hour is his thing. Eager to share his passion, he is opening Epic Cycles in Pine Tree Circle at 120 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Whether you need a chain replaced on your old Schwinn or want to step up to a custom-built mountain bike, Conor and his experienced service manager, Jonathan Crawford, will be there to help you.

Whether they end up making Topanga their home or continue to pedal miles to enjoy what the rest of us take for granted, whether they cruise the open highways or bounce along the rocky trails of Topanga State Park, Topanga, with its own high performance bike shop and service center now adding to the allure of “fine dining” at Country Natural Foods, will continue to lure two-wheeling city dwellers to the panoramic vistas, challenging climbs and wild terrain of the Canyon, just like Lucy and Mose Cheney lured flatlanders to their ranch years ago. So, next time you’re screaming up those S-curves and you come upon a cyclist, cut them a little extra slack. The Santa Monica Mountains are their backyard, too.