Los Angeles is a car city. Once the old red car trolley system was dismantled by oil and automotive forces, the city was set up as a car centric place catering to every driver’s needs. And that might be part of the reason LA has such a terrible reputation for cycling compared to most other major US metropolitan areas. But, I’m here to say LA is a cycling mecca offering everything a cyclist could wish for.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic, I’ve found increased solace in getting on the bike five, sometimes six days a week. And I like to climb, so most days I find myself heading to the Hollywood Hills. My regular morning ride is to the Hollywood Sign. Follow my Instagram, and you’ll see photo after photo of the Sign, some with bike, some without.
I live in the mid-Wilshire district, so I start my ride heading north toward Hollywood. I pass the impressive homes of Hancock Park, where I often see residents in bathrobes coming out to collect their morning paper. There are plenty of walkers and joggers out early, so there are a lot of hellos and waves. Once through this idyllic neighborhood, I enter Hollywood.
Hollywood is a mixed bag. I take El Centro, a small street that traverses a residential neighborhood which is slowly being gentrified. Once I reach two of the city’s main east-west boulevards, Santa Monica and Sunset, I start encountering tent camps erected by the homeless. Some of these areas are kept rather clean, however most have gathered piles of everyday abandoned objects and have the unagreeable odor of trash, smoke and human waste. It’s a sad vision to start the day, and unfortunately, has become part of LA living.
One of these homeless encampments has a makeshift bike shop with a mountain of bicycles nearby. Seems this is the spot to try and build yourself some sort of functioning bicycle. I ride quickly by, as I dread the thought of my bike becoming part of that pile.
Hollywood Blvd is next, and the iconic street always has something to show the casual observer. From the tents to the notable folks living in luxury condos coming out to their Porsches, it’s always a sight. Los Angeles is a city of contrasts. I especially like taking note of the iconic buildings I pass – the art deco Pantages Theater, and my favorite, the round Capitol Records building.
Leaving the flats of Hollywood, I head to the hills. As soon as I start climbing, LA changes noticeably. Beautiful houses with beautiful views dot the hills. The streets are very narrow – you could almost be in Italy. The climbing can be steep, and there are myriad ways to get to the Sign. I’ve lived in LA my entire life, and the fascinating thing about this city is how every day it’s possible to find a new route and street you may never have seen before.
That’s now part of the routine. Every ride, I seek out streets I’ve never ridden on. A lot of them are dead ends, but worth the short steep climb. Some of them are dead ends for cars, but offer small single track trails for walkers and cyclists. These are my favorite finds, as it would be impossible to discover these from a car. The more I explore, the more I enjoy these rides. Chancing upon unusual homes, vistas, or personalities is one of the best parts of being on a bicycle.
None of this is to say I don’t put in some efforts in terms of riding. I have several climbs bookmarked on Strava, and every time I come across one of these, I put in an all out effort. It’s an excellent gauge of my cycling fitness, and if I manage a consistent upward swing, that’s all that matters.
Back to the Hollywood Sign. After a lot of ups and downs, loop after loop, I arrive at the gate that keeps automotive traffic from driving to the Sign. Now, the houses stop, and it is just one long and steep climb with views of all of LA spread out before you. From here, on a clear day, you can clearly see the hills of Laguna to the south, Catalina Island to the west, and as far east as Mount San Jacinto, the towering peak over Palm Springs. And laid out before you are all the perfectly straight streets of LA crisscrossing their way across the city.
As I climb, I run into the regulars. The older woman walking her two dogs, one of which is intent on eating me. I say hello, and she will sometimes say hello back after grabbing her killer pooch. Then there is the walker that always jumps sideways when she sees me, startled each time, even if I’m on the other side of the road. The older gentleman with his beautiful mutt will always give me a big smile and say hello. It’s part of a routine that I’ve become especially fond of.
At the top, which for the uninitiated is actually above and behind the Hollywood Sign, I stop and stare out at the expanse of the city while having some sort of power bar. It’s my breakfast on the days I ride, and having this magnificent view makes it especially pleasurable. Looking down at the city, I plot potential rides to unknown parts. What’s over to the east of downtown LA? What’s over the hill to the south? The city seems endless, the possibilities infinite.
And now for the descent. I really enjoy going down, and I like going fast. It’s not something terribly intelligent, but I do feel I ride with some sort of caution. That said, I need to brag here for a moment, because I currently have the KOM on the Hollywood Sign descent. Again, not a terribly bright accomplishment, but what the hell. I’ve got it, so I’ll brag for now. I’m sure I’ll get a disappointing note from Strava telling me someone else has taken my KOM soon enough, so I might as well point it out while I can.
The way down gives a completely different perspective, and again, I try and find different routes to explore. Descending also lets me weigh in on a hot topic for serious cyclists: are disc brakes worth the extra effort, cost and weight? Yes. Absolutely yes. I wouldn’t have it any other way. They make descending safer, especially if using carbon fiber wheels, and they are a must. I wouldn’t go back to rim brakes.
Usually the end of this ride is a bit of a rush. All the exploring takes time, and at some point, I regrettably look at my watch and realize I’ve got to get to work. So, I pedal with efficiency, and hustle home.
The Hollywood Sign ride happens to be one of my favorites, but there is a ride for every kind of cyclist in LA. Major mountain climbs, leisurely rides along the coast, some of the best mountain biking in the state, and gravel for endless stretches. It’s all here. And, it really is possible to discover new things on each and every ride. LA goes on and on, so it truly is an explorer’s paradise. But, don’t tell anyone LA isn’t just for cars. We’d like to keep it our little cycling secret.