Opinion: There’s Trouble in Them There Hills

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By Billy Fried

Steve Spiro is a 62-year-old Army infantry vet. Sue Wong is a 52-year-old high school coach. Mick Donoff is a 77 -year-old retired schoolteacher. Stanley Ramsey an 82-year-old retired police officer. And Greg MacGillivray is a “youngish” filmmaker with a younger, fitter wife. They all have one thing in common: electric, power-assisted bicycles have kept them in the mountain biking game, with some going so far as to say it’s keeping them alive.

And yet, with the pandemic causing a surge of biking popularity as alternative, safe and healthy recreation, these individuals are prohibited from riding in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, our open public space. The reason? An old law that restricts motorized vehicles from entering the parks. As OC Parks explains, “Trails concerns related to crowding, speed, safety, trail etiquette, widening of existing trails, and creation of unauthorized trails have been raised by the public, advocacy groups, and Park staff.”

And even though a 2018 revision to the ordinance now allows Class 1 and 2 electric bikes on a select 75 (of their 350) unpaved miles, none are in Laguna. Instead, signs were recently installed at all trailheads expressly prohibiting them. Steve Spiro is doing something about it. He’s the Executive Director of the Electric Mountain Biking Association. And they are advocating allowing electric, pedal-assisted bikers to enjoy the same terrain as “muscle bikes.”

But according to OC Parks spokesperson Charlene Chang, “Due to safety concerns, all classes of eBikes continue to be prohibited on unpaved trails within regional and wilderness parks where there is reduced long-distance visibility and/or width to accommodate trail users who need to veer out of the path of another user traveling at a high rate of speed.” Well that judgment is certainly arbitrary, and not aligned with the veteran stakeholders who’ve been riding these trails for decades.

Laguna is home to three of the greatest legends in the sport. Brian Lopes is a Hall of Fame BMX champion with 19 titles under his belt. Hall of Famer Richie Schley is a free riding pioneer and former BMX champion. And Hans “No Way” Rey is a trails riding world champion who practically invented the sport. This is like having Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James living in the same small town. Why Laguna? Because our trails are world class!

You’d think our hard-core mountain biking community would be stoked to prohibit eBikes and keep the trails to themselves. But Hans Rey says, “The parks, city and community should embrace all bikers and our history. Biking contributes so much to the community. People visit from afar, not only from SoCal but all over the country and world.” And these well-heeled consumers come hungry—and thirsty.

Brian Lopes agrees. “As for eBikes, I’m all for them. Laguna is a HARD place to ride, and the eBikes are helping so many to be able to enjoy the outdoors and get exercise they might not otherwise get.” Lopes believes the real damage is coming from OC Parks. “I don’t see the strain on trails from bikes like I do from the destruction horses, rangers, & workers who know nothing about building trails cause.”

As for powered engines, Schley doesn’t fear them, because Class 1 eBikes, “are pedal-assisted with a top speed regulator. What is the difference in that and another bike? I have heard all the arguments and don’t really see much strength to any of them.”

As for thickening crowds, all three understand the concerns but feel there’s room for all, perhaps with a little management. They’re more concerned about the Parks’ sudden and wanton war on Laguna’s legendary steep terrain. The Parks recently destroyed PG, a favorite (unauthorized) bike trail enjoyed for the past 30 years. Rey fears the iconic Telonics trail, considered to be the “Pipeline” of the sport, will be next.

They all feel that OC Parks is an adversarial bureaucracy, unconcerned with the significance and value of this sport to the region. Rey would like to see advocacy from our city government, our Chamber of Commerce, and our Visitors Bureau. Certainly our city leaders can exert some sway with the County to work cooperatively with the biking community.

OC Parks claims they listen, and the Trails Subcommittee is having their quarterly meeting on Sept 24.  The focus will be “to explore if more of the trails should be single use, one way, or limited use to help enhance the experience for different user groups.” Hopefully rather than restrict use they will expand it, and eBikes will be part of the discussion.  But that depends on the biking community (and perhaps members of our government) showing up and making their voices heard.

Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX FM. His company La Vida Laguna, hosts a first Sunday community bike ride through town.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Two small corrections. Mick Donoff is only 76 years-old, and Han Rey is a “trials” riding champion, not “trail.” My bad, Carry on.

  2. Ebike ‘laws’ remind me of when snowboarding was just beginning and I lived in Steamboat. We weren’t allowed to ride the gondola with our boards and had to wind our way up to the cool runs by riding several chairs. Snowboarding saved the ski industry from a floundering demise..and ski areas adapted. I love my Ebike and ride everywhere but it’s disappointing to keep getting banned from the OC trail system. I believe Ebikes will break through the bans with persistent education and mobilization.

  3. There is no Trouble in Them There Hills. Billy rents electric bikes and gives electric bike tours. (Notice how he failed to mention that?) Get the bikes in the hills, more money for Billy.

  4. Um, Ted, sorry to disappoint your conflict of interest theory, but our eBikes aren’t made for off road, and we don’t allow them. Strictly road bikes. I’ve been transparent in my promotion of our Back Roads Laguna eBike tour and rentals, and I thank you for the plug!

  5. I’ve always wondered how home builders can get away with destroying entire hillsides and small trails that have been present for decades are a problem. People need access to the trails so there isn’t so much congestion. The congestion of the trails are the problem. Mountain biking is a great healthy activity where many in the community benefit not just exercise. The industry here in OC is vibrant. Riders, engineers, marketing apparel and press all live and work in the industry. Let’s get those long standing “illegal” trails open and keep them flowing.

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