By Randy Kraft, Special to the Independent
In the winter 2014 issue of Das Gravity, a German biking magazine, Laguna Beach was ranked the second-best mountain biking destination in the world, after La Palma, Italy. Entitled “Mutterland des Bikers,” the motherland, weather and trail diversity were cited as prime assets. Steep and winding topography is especially attractive to advanced riders.
“Trails here have a huge reputation in the biking world,” says Hans Rey, a champion mountain biker born in Germany who migrated to Laguna Beach in 1990, followed by British Columbia biker Richie Schley, among others.
Thus, when arts festival booths come down and surfers take to warmer shores, mountain bikers provide an off-season boost to the economy, as well as luring tens of thousands of visitors year-round, according to Rey.
Biking in all forms, like skateboarding, continues to gain traction, and trails, like city streets, must be shared and preserved. As a result, both users and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that the open space is taking a beating. Even as usage has grown, county resources have not kept pace.
Laguna Beach, which owns much of the open space traversed by mountain bikers, ceded its management to OC Parks in 1993, when the park was designated, says the city’s Public Works Director, Steve May. The city only issues permits for special use.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park (LCWP) includes 40 miles of “authorized” trails on 7,000 acres within the 20,000 acres of South Coast Wilderness, incorporating Aliso & Wood Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park and the city of Irvine’s open space. There are also many “unauthorized” trails, carved out by weather and avid bikers seeking new terrain.
Social media may play an even greater role in the popularity of the pastime. Two interactive sites feature trails and racing options. Strava, one of the first apps to be included with the Apple watch, encourages bikers and runners to share photos and experiences. www.GeoLadders.com rates and describes hiking, running, biking and ski trails, reports trends and hot spots, and invites competition.
Park Ranger Barbara Norton, land manager for LCWP, reports a 30% increase in bike traffic since 2010. In the last year, 7,000 bikers and 50,000 hikers signed in at Little Sycamore and Willow Canyon entrances, though Norton expects the figures are higher because just a third of park users sign in, and bikers are less likely to dismount to register. Norton pegs total use at nearly 200,000 people in 2014.
Patrick Fetzer, proprietor of Laguna Cyclery, the epicenter of sales and rentals in town, also reports a dramatic increase in demand. His mountain bike rentals are up 15% in the last year, versus 3% for road bikes, and 70% of online reservations are for mountain bikes.
Fetzer traces the trend to Lance Armstrong’s ascendance in 1990 and when biking became an Olympic sport in 1996. He says mountain bikes are also more agile now, hybrids between the lighter weight cross-country and heavier downhill versions.
“These trails were not built for this much use and there has been serious erosion,” says Hallie Jones, executive director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, which supports OC Parks. “We need to make existing trails more sustainable, and more fun, so bikers won’t need to carve out other trails.”
Jones also frets about hiker-biker conflict. There are several hiker-only trails, but no designated bike trails, and bikers are often accused of missing or ignoring signs. Blind corners and minimal shoulders make shared use increasingly dangerous.
Laguna’s Dr. Ed Kaufman, once a passionate biker and now a hiker, says, “These days, I’d rather bikers weren’t on the trails at all.”
Environmental builder Chris Prelitz, a long-standing commuter biker who took up mountain biking a year ago, echoes concerns about sustainability.
“Most of these trails are derived from washouts, while in other countries, there are more purpose-built trails, using sustainable materials,” Prelitz says.
Newer and wider trails may be desirable for safety; however surrounding native habitat presents another challenge. And, Jones believes, both users prefer single-track trails for a more natural experience.
“Like it or not, mountain bikers are here to stay, and it is important for us all to work together to protect open space,” Jones says.
Despite the dramatic upswing in use, there are currently no plans to revise county park preservation priorities, set in a General Development Plan finalized 22 years ago, says OC Parks spokeswoman Marisa O’Neil. Modifications are considered strategically, and piece-meal, in light of limited resources.
For example, The 5 Oak Trail at Aliso & Wood Canyon, a hiking and biking trail, was recently restored, and the popular but “unauthorized” Lizard trail in Laurel Canyon is being stabilized to open to the public shortly, the first new addition to the trail system since 1993. The trail is a favorite of both avid and novice riders, like other hidden trails, for its mixed terrain and vistas. Authorization requires approval by a dozen agencies and at the moment the trail is under review by state and federal Fish and Wildlife Departments.
In other mountain biking regions, options are being developed for sustainability and diversity of use, said International Mountain Biking Association spokesman Mark Eller. More than a 100 bike parks now exist throughout the country, notably in Colorado, which vies with Marin County as the home of the sport. But even these prestigious trails don’t have the international appeal of Laguna Beach.
Part 2 takes a look at plans to establish sustainable alternatives and Visit Laguna Beach’s collaboration with Laguna Cyclery to distribute authorized trail maps to tourists.
Randy Kraft is a freelance writer and novelist, and a former reporter and columnist for the Indy. www.randykraftwriter.com