[finally getting around to finishing this up – Andrew 5MAY2010]
I had been looking forward to the Thanksgiving trip to LA for a long time. I was excited to see my family and friends, but what I really wanted was a chance to ride my bike over the territory where I grew up.
My family lived in the canyons of West Los Angeles, specifically Roscomare Road through the west gate of Bel-Air. We moved there just after I was born and I lived in the same house until I left for university 18 years later.
It was not a convenient place to live without a car. There was a no public transportation at all. I suppose you could have walked the mile to Sunset Boulevard and waited for a bus. But the ironically named RTD (“Rapid Transit District”) was so awful and went nowhere, it was just unthinkable.
There was no place to buy anything within a mile and a half. No shops. No convenience stores. Nothing. We had Bel-Air Foods at the top of Roscomare, more than 2 miles distant up a very steep climb and we had Bel-Air Shop Easy through the wining and dangerous hills to the west near the 405 freeway. Neither was a good option.
In the summertime, trapped in the house and desperate, my brother and I would choose one or the other and head out, sometimes on foot and sometimes on our little banana seat Schwins. Inevitably we ended up pushing the bikes up the hills and fearing for our lives around some of the tight corners. But the bounty of baseball cars, chips, and coke made it worthwhile. Sometimes.
Anyway, I hadn’t ridden a bike in Los Angeles in over 20 years and the prospect of rolling around the Santa Monica hills on my Cannondale was compelling me southwards.
I wanted to ride up Roscomare. Plain and simple.
But I didn’t just want to drive to the bottom, ride up and then descend. I wanted to make a loop from my dad’s new place in Encino that took in some of the highlights of my youth.
So I contacted a few local cycling clubs in LA to try to suss out a route and I finally cobbled together something that took me out to Malibu via Topanga Canyon, back to West LA on San Vicente, up through Bel-Air on Roscomare and back. It wasn’t a huge ride. Only 42 miles. And it didn’t really have that much climbing, only slightly more than 3000 feet, but it was going to be fun and memorable.
I headed out just before 9am from Encino. My dad and his family live up in the hills and there are some seriously steep inclines up around their place, so I was going to have to leave some energy in the tank for the return journey.
I mapped out a route along the back roads to avoid traffic snarled Ventura Blvd and wound my way through the suburban streets to Topanga Canyon. I though it was going to be all flat once I hit the valley floor, so I was shocked to see this wall looking ahead of me on Wells Drive in Tarzana that was between 15 and 19 percent grade. I didn’t expect to be sucking wind so early in the morning.
I took a left at Topanga and started the long ascent to the ridgeline above the San Fernando Valley. I had been warned that the climb was steep, but it was really very easy—just a nice steady incline of 5% with a smooth surface and wide shoulder all the way to the top.
The view back across the valley from the top of Topanga Canyon was startling. It was just so clear. It felt like you could reach out and touch the San Gabriel mountains. When I was growing up here, there were some days like this, but they were very rare. The mountains were mostly shrouded behind a veil of ugly brown smog. So the day was just exceptional.
The great thing about Topanga is that the climb up is only about 700 feet from the valley floor to the ridge, but you have over 1500 feet to descend from the summit to the beach in Malibu. I knew I’d have to make up this difference later in the ride, but for now, it felt great to be flying down Topanga for miles and miles over freshly paved road with loads of room for cyclists and not too much traffic.
I zipped past the Inn of the Seventh Ray and all the antique shops in the hippy center of the canyon and flew down to the beach where surfers bobbed up and down waiting for swells large enough to ride. I felt like I was taking it easy, but I still managed to cover more than 15 miles in the first hour. Not bad.
I headed down the Pacific Coast Highway past the re-opened Getty Villa Museum. It was closed for several years while the new Getty was opened in Brentwood. I used to go there every year with my teacher Mrs. Bali and my Latin class to check out the classical collection.
I stopped for a break at Gladstone’s “Where Sunset meets the Sunset”. We had lunch there after my graduation from high school. I know the food is overrated and overpriced, but it’s hard to beat the location. Sitting outside on a nice day with a bowl of clam chowder and a bloody mary is hard to beat. Not today though. It was time to move on.
I headed away from the beach on West Channel, past where the fitness freaks run up and down the stairs on Entrada, and past Kingman Avenue where one of my best friends, Andrew W. lived. Andrew and I went to school together every year from 3rd grade except two (7th and 8th) and then we both went off to UC Santa Cruz. If it weren’t for Andrew, I never would have applied there. I had never even heard of Santa Cruz until his brother decided to go there the year before. I visited. Fell in love with the place and never really left Northern California. For that, I’m really grateful.
Once I reached San Vicente and started to head east away from the Pacific Ocean, it was time to relax. The terrain was mostly flat from here until I reached Bel-Air and this was the part of the ride that would conjure some of the most vivid memories.
You worked at All-American Burger! 20 years ago. Uh-huh. I knew it.
I rolled into Brentwood, past Bundy, a few blocks from where O.J. slaughtered his wife, and stopped at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at Barrington. When we were kids, this the spot of the All-American Burger. In fact, it’s the All-American burger featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie which somehow takes place in the valley, yet has main characters working minimum wage jobs in Brentwood. Go figure.
The place was slightly less than American when I worked there in 1986. Dennis Taylor didn’t run the joint. It was owned and run by Amal, a woman from Iran. Brad wasn’t doing any of the cooking. The chef, named Jose, was from Rose, TX, but didn’t speak a word of English. Other than the food, I was the only thing American about the place.
It was great working there. Obviously, I didn’t get paid much. I think I was making about 4 bucks an hour, but the fringe benefits, which included all I could drink Orange Bangs and all I could eat Hickory Burgers, were excellent. When the franchise went out of business, it became a Sushi Boy, a slightly disturbing microcosm of the Japanese ascendency in the late 80s. Now it’s a coffee shop and it has been for many, many years.
This intersection at Barrington and San Vicente was the locus for a lot of my life growing up. My brother and I played on a succession of horrible baseball, basketball and football teams at Barrington Park just up the way. A little ways past the park sits my high school, Brentwood, which was also the site for a summer camp, Tocaloma, which we attended for many years.
Across the street north was the barber shop where my dad used to get his hair cut. To the west was Pioneer Chicken, now a dry cleaners. Down San Vicente to the east were two restaurants we frequented, Regular John’s, excellent pizza with magical crust, and Hamburger Hamlet, home to the best lobster bisque in the world. There are still a few Hamlets around but Regular John’s lives on only in film (it’s featured in a scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
After a brief stop just long enough to reminisce and take some photos, I continued east through the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital, past Jackie Robinson stadium, now home to the UCLA Bruins baseball team, but at the time it was built was used mostly by Tocaloma campers.
I rode out of the VA via Constitution Ave and was hoping to continue through the LA National Cemetery. I started riding through, but a truck pulled up next to me and asked me to leave. I don’t think there was an exit out to Veteran on the other side anyway, so I just went back to Sepulveda and headed north.
I made a right on Cashmere, the childhood street of Sean Astin, who attended Tocaloma with me for a few years and on to Montana into Westwood. I made a quick foray into UCLA to the Tennis Center which was built just in time for the Olympics. My brother and I used to have epic battles there on the stadium court. No one was ever watching, of course.
I headed back to Gayley and made a right on LeConte, stopping in front of Sepi’s Subs. I haven’t eaten there in years, so I have no idea what the quality is like now, but growing up, this place was the Mecca of sandwiches. Many of these kinds of authentic sub places have been put under with the rise of the generic crap of Subway and Quiznos. Sepi’s is still hanging tough on the north edge of Westwood serving the UCLA student body. I liked this place so much that I actually sought a job there. I spent a whole day learning how to craft Italian sub sandwiches in 1987 but was saved from a summer of what surely would have been minimum wage drudgery by my aunt Sandi who offered me an office job in her accounting firm (she was the office manager). Now that I think of it, I don’t think I ever got paid for that day.
I made a left on Westwood Boulevard and headed through the heart of UCLA. I rolled past the Jules Stein eye institute where I had surgery around 1975. It’s still the only hospital where I’ve had to stay overnight. I was there so long that the nurses sewed matching PJs for my Smokey the Bear doll.
Prior to 1984, Westwood Blvd dissected the UCLA campus, running through to Sunset. When the Olympics came around, the street was blocked off and converted to a plaza which is now at the heart of the campus. My brother and I haunted this place. My mom is an alumnus, so we had access to various facilities. We played hoops at the Wooden Center. As I said before, we haunted the Tennis Center. We played football on the field next to Drake Stadium. We played baseball at Easton Field, which was closest sports venue to our house. Swam at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. We rode our bikes like maniacs into the darkest corners of campus searching out the best vending machines. We terrorized students in Skateboard Alley, bought school supplies at the bookstore, sucked down cokes and burgers at The Cooperage, and played video games until we ran out of quarters. For us, UCLA was a just a gigantic playground close enough to our backyard to be our backyard. It was awesome.
I rode around the campus thinking about the great times we had. I tried to find the sculpture garden, but failed. I guess I could have asked somebody, but there weren’t many people around and I couldn’t find a campus directory to save my life, so I headed on.
I rode past Pauley Pavilion, home of the UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball team and possibly one of the ugliest stadiums in the world. I spent countless hours inside living and dying with my Bruins, who more often than not would let me down. There were some high expectations and lean years in the post-Wooden era in which I grew up.
I don’t know if they still do this, but back in those days, Fatburger used to give students a free burger if the Bruins scored more than 100 points. I remember going to one game with a friend against New Mexico. New Mexico. We bought our tickets certain that UCLA would crush New Mexico, easily score 100 points and lead us into free burger land. The Bruins lost. They got stomped by New Mexico. We had front row seats for the slaughter.
I continued up past the Tennis Center on the left and Drake Stadium on the right and continued through the dorm area past Sproul and Hedrick and all the other soviet-like block dorms, making a left at Bellagio down to Sunset and the West Gate of Bel-Air.
I sat at the gate and took a few pictures. I was a little nervous about the ride up Bellagio because I remembered it having no shoulder at it, which it really doesn’t, but also with lots of expensive, large cars speeding around the blind corners. They didn’t seem to be around today, which was lucky.
Bellagio winds along the south edge of the Bel-Air Country Club and dumps out into the Roscomare Valley. I’m riding along looking down at all the golfers and thinking about all the fun we had on the golf course back in the day. We used to break on to the course and do everything but play golf. I think maybe we brought clubs a handful of times. But it was really about football, frisbee, and this game we invented that was sort of like field hockey but played with tennis balls and racketball rackets. It was designed to be played on the 14th tee and it was a perfect.
Chris & John W., who lived up the street, Marcus P., who lived a few doors down, Aaron R. whose family moved in across the street, my brother and I formed the crew that would invade the golf course almost every day after school to play around.
It was simple to get on the course. We entered through the backyard of the house which was directly opposite the traffic circle. I think the home was owned by an older couple. We didn’t bother them or ever really see them. We just skirted their property and trudged down the ivy to the 14th tee. Nowadays there’s a fence behind the tee, put up to thwart us, in vain, and a gate in front of the house, which is a bigger problem for neighborhood kids looking for fun on the golf course. But there were many ways onto the course, so it can’t really be a problem now.
Anyway, we would go down there to play. Mostly we played sports, but we would also wander in the trees looking for lost golf balls, explore the sewer tunnel that ran north-south on this distant part of the course, and have orange fights in the bunkers. On weekends, we sold balls to the golfers who probably thought we were cute. We were. The only people who didn’t think we were cute were the groundskeepers. The 14th tee was sufficiently distant from the clubhouse and had an excellent view down the fairway, so it was easy to spot the carts that were sent to chase us off. Of course, we were trespassing and we knew it, but there were no parks in our neighborhood and we had to play somewhere.
At the end of Bellagio, I rode around the traffic at finally hit Roscomare, passing the homes of the Taylor’s, Pappas’s and Kellum’s before arriving at our old house at 942, four houses up from the circle on the right side. It’s really strange coming back here. It just looks so different. There’s a gate on the driveway and rows of trees above a little stone wall that shield the house from passersby on the street.
My family moved in just after Brian and I were born in 1970 and I stayed there until 1988 when I left for Santa Cruz. I continued to come back for summers and holidays until 1994 when my dad sold it and moved to the Valley. I’ve been back several times before and it’s always with a touch of sadness that the house is no longer in our family. While it wasn’t the most convenient place to grow up, it was a great place for many reasons.
Our house was shaped like a U, with three bedrooms on the north end bridged by a long hallway and the living room, with the den, kitchen and dining room in the south end. There was also a small room behind the kitchen which housed a series of housekeepers and UCLA grad students until I took it over around 1982.
When the house was purchased, it didn’t have a pool, just a large grassy backyard. My mom once tried to grow corn alongside the garage and for a while we had a patch of corn stalks like a mini-Iowa, but it all came up inedible Indian corn for some reason. In 1977, Leslie Abramson, who was a family friend and has since become relatively famous as the attorney for Erik Menendez and Phil Spector, was married in a torrential rain storm in that backyard.
The yard ended in a low cinder block wall above which was a section of ivy on which the deer would come down and feed. I don’t know why but my dad was fastidious about maintaining the ivy and would shoo the deer away. As a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing ever to have a family of deer hanging out in our yard and would try to get as close to them as possible without spooking them away.
My dad mounted a basketball hoop above the garage and after that it became the main arena where my brother and I would do battle. Cracks in the driveway served as markers for games of “Around the World”. As I grew up, I found I could launch myself off the springy garage door and dunk, which was fun as hell, (though not so great from the garage door’s perspective.) Every so often, the ball would get loose, head down the driveway and towards the traffic circle, which sort of sucked. I guess now that they have the gate, it’s no longer a problem. Why didn’t we think of that? Would have saved us a lot of trouble.
One summer, I’m not even sure when, but probably in the early 80s, my parents had a pool put in. It was one of those shallow pools designed to play water volleyball, which we never did. My mom created the basic geometric design which included these ruddy Mexican tiles. I really wanted to see the backyard, but I wasn’t about to knock on the door in my cycling kit. Maybe some other time.
I sat for a while on the curb and contemplated this past and my future, the 2.5 mile climb up Roscomare to Mulholland.
I rode along up the hill, not really sure what to expect. I knew it was steep. I knew that the steep section started in about a mile or so. But I didn’t really know how steep in terms that my cycling brain would understand.
I pedaled past the houses, both new and familiar. Past the house where Martha Rae lived and up into the steeps. The road kicks up around Verano Road and gets steeper as you climb to the stop sign at Stradella. When I say steep, I’m talking about out of the saddle, heart-bursting, grinding as hard as you can to stay upright kind of steep. It’s not messing around. It’s about 15% grade. Not for the faint of heart.
When I stopped at Bel-Air Foods at the top of the hill I was drenched in a sweat. I was a little unsure about going inside the market in my condition, but I needed hydration, so what the hell. I needn’t have worried. What a dingy place this market has become. Was it always this dark and unwelcoming? I grabbed a Gatorade and took a seat at a table outside and waited for my heart rate to come down to normal.
At this point I’m a little more than 35 miles into the ride. It’s almost over. Just one more climb, almost as steep as the last one, up to Mulholland, a scary descent down Calneva into the Valley. Across Hayvenhurst past the old Jackson Family estate. Across Valley Vista to the climb up to my dad’s place in Encino, which was not going to be any fun.
I did it though. I had climbed Roscomare. There was still that section up to Mulholland, but I had ridden up a section of road that had haunted my childhood. It felt awesome. Even though I had more work to do, I felt this brilliant wave of accomplishment wash over me. The road and the sights brought up so many memories. It was a great day on the bike.
More photos here.
Ride Time 3:13:13
MPH 13.1 mph
Max Speed 38.9 mph
Elevation Gain 3,794 ft
More ride details.