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Hot Wheels 

Summer motorcycling in and around L.A.

Wednesday, May 24 2000
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I took my GPZ out for a ride

The engine felt good between my thighs . . .

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. . . I headed for the mountains feeling warm inside

I love that GPZ so much you know that I could kiss her.

--Lou Reed, ”New Sensations“

While a motorcycle can certainly get you from here to there, anyone who buys one solely to commute is missing the point. Sure, it‘s got its advantages -- parking’s a breeze and the cops let you cut between cars -- but the truth is, if you‘re in a hurry to be somewhere, a motorcycle’s probably the last thing you should be on. The true joy of riding is not in the arrival; on a motorcycle, it really is the journey that counts. And in summer, with hotter temperatures, three extra hours of daylight and no rain, journeys beg to be taken.

Riding is an intensely visceral experience. On a bike, open and unprotected, you‘re at the mercy of the elements -- hot or cold, wet or dry, you feel everything. Steering uses your whole body, as you shift your weight and lean into turns, feeling and responding to every dip, twist and bump in the road. The wind rips at your leathers and roars in your ears. Every scent -- pine, orange grove, paper mill -- and every slight shift in temperature are inescapable. You are acutely aware of your surroundings; sight, smell, touch, even taste -- every sense is saturated. On the best roads, the great ones, as you throttle down, lean and accelerate into curve after curve and thought gives way to response, you, the road and the environment almost merge into one; you feel totally present and completely alive.

So what makes a great road great? In general, they’re all variations on the same basic theme: a two-lane road (the longer the better) through scenic and varied terrain, with smooth pavement, a good number of twists and turns, little traffic and, crucially, as few intersections (where most motorcycle accidents occur) as possible. And, however much of a daily cycle grind L.A. may be, the basin‘s blend of ocean, mountains, forests and deserts offers some of the best summer day rides anywhere, a good number of them ridiculously close to the belly of the beast. Here’s a quick tour:

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

When you need a quick fix, you can‘t do better than Mulholland Drive. Leaning through the first two miles alone, as it climbs and curves from Cahuenga until it levels off at Runyon Canyon, will bring a smile to even the most jaded biker’s face. The view south across the city is world-class, and in another mile and a half the northern vista opens up, the Valley sprawls out flat to your right and the dark bulk of the San Gabriels looms in the distance. It‘s far from perfect -- there’s too much traffic and way too many intersections -- but the location can‘t be beat; I had to ride at least 60 miles for this kind of action when I lived in Manhattan. And who knows, you might to myself. And that possibility should only increase as the days lengthen and the light lingers ever longer past the rush-hour blues.

MULHOLLAND

SCENIC CORRIDOR AND

THE ROCK STORE

Almost every great motorcycle road has a great roadhouse somewhere along it. You know the spot: an old mom-and-pop place in the middle of nowhere serving up hot burgers, cold beer and loud music. Originally an old stagecoach stop, the Rock Store on Mulholland Highway (30354 N. Mulholland Hwy., Cornell; 818-889-1311), built in 1910 of the same red lava rocks strewn throughout the corridor, has been the Spago of L.A.’s biker community since Ed and Vern opened it in ‘61; that epitome of motorcycle cool, Steve McQueen himself, used to frequent the joint. If you’ve been wondering where all the motorcycles are in L.A., swing by any Sunday afternoon -- the bikes are lined up, polished and shining, by the hundreds. But it‘s the road you’ll want to come for. Take the 101 to Topanga, then pick up Mulholland Highway and follow it west, past the horse ranches, through the steep, brush-covered hills of Malibu Creek State Park. Just beyond the Rock Store there‘s a mad, twisting climb, past the uplifted and tilted remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions, to a stunning view across the entire corridor. You’re on your own from here -- the Santa Monica Mountains are laced with myriad canyons cutting through to the Pacific. Try Encinal and Decker, full of wildflowers and long, looping curves all the way down to the sea, and then maybe charge back up Latigo, a crazy, endless series of sharp switchbacks and hairpin turns that pumps the heart and puts any roller coaster to shame. Or dive into the cool, shadowy recesses of Malibu Canyon itself, its sheer walls hemming you in all the way to the ocean, then wind your way back to the 101 through Topanga, a canyon that alone would make any trip worthwhile.

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST

You‘d be hard-pressed to find two more perfect runs anywhere than the main roads through Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains. The longer, more celebrated route, running for 66 miles from La Cañada to Big Pines, is Angeles Crest. First surveyed in 1919, this twisting highway of banked turns and dazzling vistas wasn’t fully completed fully completed until ‘61, at a final cost of about $1 million a mile -- and to this biker, it’s worth every penny. Only a couple of curves out of La Cañada the last of the Valley‘s tract houses fall away, leaving nothing but blue sky, rugged cliffs, deep valleys and 65 more miles of smooth pavement. Twenty minutes later the air’s suffused with pine, L.A.‘s a distant memory and you’re on the lookout for bighorn sheep. What more could a rider want?

The other main route, the Angeles Forest Highway, branches off Angeles Crest about 15 miles in, cutting a shorter, more directly northern path through the San Gabriels to Palmdale, beginning with a full 18 miles of constant bends, curves, dips and dives. Palmdale itself isn‘t much, all heat, dust and faux-Mexican strip malls, but beyond it there’s a terrific 25-mile backroads run to Saugus and Santa Clarita: Start northwest up the N2, past a working vineyard and a bison ranch, then cut between hot desert hills down Bouquet Canyon Road, sliding around glittering Bouquet Lake before plunging into the cool, oak-shaded canyon itself. Near its southern end you‘ll find the Big Oaks Lodge (33101 Bouquet Canyon Road, Saugus; 661-296-5656), a century-old roadhouse with a dark, wood-paneled bar, red Naugahyde booths, an outdoor boxing ring -- heavyweights come up here to train -- and shots of Dylan and Sinatra in the dining room. Feel free to stop for a little surf and turf (there’s a great lobster tail on the menu), even if it‘s getting dark; service is quick, and, hey, you’re only 45 minutes from town.

ORTEGA HIGHWAY

Finally, south of L.A., the Ortega Highway winds for 20 joyous miles from San Juan Capistrano to land-locked Lake Elsinore. After a hot 10 miles of choppy, chaparral-covered hills and horse ranches with hawks and vultures circling overhead, you hit one light before the road abruptly dives into the Palomar Mountains, swerving for another 10 miles through the shaded lanes of Cleveland National Forest. Then, bursting out of the woods, you lean through several curves and are suddenly faced with a jaw-dropping view of the spring-fed lake from the dusty edge of a 2,000-foot-high cliff. Just up the road is the 50-year-old Lookout Roadhouse (32107 Ortega Hwy., Lake Elsinore; 909-678-9010), serving country-style wood-smoked barbecue ribs and breakfast all day (try the Hog Break, a tortilla wrapped around scrambled hash and eggs) on its outdoor deck. After that it‘s all downhill, literally -- four miles of steep switchbacks and sheer drop-offs as you wend your way down the side of the mountain to the narrow shores of the sprawling lake. As always, ride safe; this last stretch of road is particularly unforgiving, and you’ll definitely want to make it to the bottom -- so you can turn around and do it all over again.

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