Friday, January 30, 2015

Road Trip: Biking the CA coast at night

The warm autumn air ebbed around us as we set out towards the water. The plan was to ride along the Marvin Braude path into Marina Del Rey and then cross through into Venice where we would be attending a film screening at a community garden for the film Growing Cities, a look at urban agriculture's development across the United States. It was late in the afternoon in the middle of November, but the weather was a balmy 80 degrees and even with the slight sea breeze, it was a comfortable day for a ride.

Cresting the final hill, we descended to the water and picked up the trail, joining the stream of cyclists and other pedestrians enjoying the remnants of the afternoon sunlight. The beach is always a wonderful place to be in Southern California. We pass by families with children building sand castles along the water line, people playing volleyball in Manhattan Beach, and hang gliders taking off near Dockweiler. As we cross the bridge into Marina Del Rey, the sun begins to cast that deep orange glow that signals that it is about to set. Another 30 minutes and we finally arrive to catch our movie, but the real adventure had just begun.

While I have done a fair amount of riding at night, I had not really done much of it yet hear in LA. The setting of the sun really changes the landscape and makes the ride so much more interesting. We departed from Venice and headed back towards Marina Del Rey to pick up the bike path. Riding along major streets has a very dramatically different feel to it at night -- with the much greater volume of cars than any other place where we have ridden this much, things felt a bit more precarious even though there were dedicated bike lanes along much of the route we selected. Luckily, this section of the ride was relatively brief and before long, we were back along the Marvin Braude path and headed back towards the beach.

The actual marina in Marina Del Rey is usually quite bustling during the day, with tons of shops and people arriving to enjoy their boats, especially on a day like today. However, at night, it feels like a ghost town. We must have come across one single person the entire time we were riding along the Marina and even though there were cars in the parking lots of the restaurants, none of them had windows that faced the street, making it feel cold.

Back across the bridge and down to the beach again, we pedaled briskly, enjoying the cool night air, out lights shining two solitary beams into the inky blackness as we glided along to the sounds of the waves lapping gently against the sand. Every once in a while, we would happen upon a pedestrian or two who would leap out of the way with a start as soon as they saw the twin headlight beams headed at them, probably assuming it was a car. The mechanical whine of the chain against gears soon overpowered the sounds of the water as the path took us behind a large dune. When we emerged on the other side, dozens of flames flickered in the distance, looking like candles at some devilish altar. As we neared, those tiny flames turned out to be roaring bonfires with huge crowds of people, listening to music, drinking, and otherwise reveling in the cool night air.

Off in the distance, an almost iconic image of Southern California slowly crept into view. The dark silhouettes of palm trees against a sky backlit by the street lamps of the city behind it greeted us as we got closer to home. The crowds also started to return as we approached the boardwalk around Manhattan Beach and then Hermosa Beach. Late at night, especially on a weekend, riders are fewer and further between, so our appearance certainly garnered a few odd glances, a subtle reminder that LA is still very much a car town.

Making our turn, we began the ascent away from the water towards home. Standing on the pedals and giving it all I had, I raced up the first section of the hill, barely even breathing hard as I reached the plateau before pausing to give my wife a chance to catch up. We descended the other side together and approached the next hill in unison, but we quickly separated again as I sprinted up the next larger hill, my lungs now clawing at the cool night air for oxygen. This cycle of getting split on the climbs and coming together at the top would repeat itself until we had conquered every last hill on that ride home, pulling into the drive way exhausted, but with big smiles on our face.

There is a certain joy to riding at night that makes it unique from riding during the day. The Marvin Braude trail is one that I have now done numerous times, including at least once flat out on my own just for fun, but being able to experience it at night, without the benefit of the ocean as a visual backdrop, changes things. It takes on a charming subtlety that I would have missed without taking away all of the other stimulus that is usually there to distract and it makes the ride so serene, with long stretches uninterrupted by so much as a light, much less other people. In many ways, the lack of ability to see much around allowed me to focus on the ride and really listen to my bike, helping me to appreciate just how great of a ride it really is.

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