There's something about the Angeles Crest Highway that attracts motorcycle riders.
Some say the road's appeal lies in its severe and challenging curves. Some like it because of the scarce automobile traffic. Others are attracted by the mountain scenery and fresh air. Jim Miller, editor of Cycle Guide magazine, called the Crest "marvelous" and said it is one of the best-known roads in Southern California.
Whatever the reason, every weekend, hundreds of cyclists rumble up the 55-mile-long road, which cuts a winding path from Foothill Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge through the Angeles National Forest and into the San Gabriel Mountains.
But not all of them safely ride back down. Police say that there is usually at least one motorcycle accident on the Crest every weekend and that many of the accidents involve injuries.
So far this year, two cyclists have died in accidents there. Both were speeding, and each accident involved just one vehicle, police say. Last year, three cyclists died in accidents on the highway.
Inexperience and speeding are to blame most often, police and other bikers say. "They're doing it to themselves; they're killing themselves up there," said California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Munday.
As a result, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last month unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich to ask the county Public Works Department to study whether radar could control speeding motorcyclists on the highway. The study is expected to take several months. Meanwhile, the CHP this summer is operating two shifts a day on the Crest instead of one and putting extra officers there during weekends.
Munday said the CHP has not ruled out using helicopters to avoid a high-speed ground chase that would "unnecessarily increase risk to the officer or to other motorists."
"We have no vendetta against motorcycles as a whole; we're talking about a minority here," Munday said. "When an individual races against time from the top to the bottom of Angeles Crest Highway, it's an ignorance or outright disregard for the law that endangers the safety of other motorists."
Sheriff's Sgt. Santo Marino, coordinator of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team operating in the Angeles forest, notes, "You are coming across the superfast bikes, and a lot of people might not be experienced enough to handle them."
CHP officers concur, saying some motorcycles today are engineered to be better and faster than ones that won professional championships 10 years ago. At the CHP Glendale area office, they said cyclists like to test what they call their "superbikes" by using the Crest as a race track.
And that's where the fun can stop.
On July 5, the day of the fatal accident on the highway, there were two other cycle crashes there within seven hours. All three accidents took place on a one-mile strip about 27 miles above Foothill Boulevard. Police give this account:
At 4:30 p.m. that Saturday, Adrian Cisneros, 20, of Panorama City crashed while rounding a curve, killing his passenger, John Angelo Chavira, also 20, of Van Nuys. Cisneros was seriously injured and was later charged with speeding and felony drunk driving.
About two hours later and less than a mile away, cyclist John Hobbs, 31, of Glendale and his passenger, Cynthia Sciarrillo, 33, of North Hollywood, were seriously injured when Hobbs crossed the center lane and slammed head-on into a car driven by Eric Zappy, 21, of San Dimas, who was not injured. Hobbs was later arrested for reckless driving.
At 10:45 that night, D. J. Long, 33, of Los Angeles, trying to pass on a curve, leaned too much and crashed into a guardrail. He suffered head and internal injuries.
Police said the previous fatality occurred June 1, when a motorcycle ridden by 36-year-old Douglas B. Reynolds of Salt Lake City slid over an embankment. Reynolds was thrown off the cycle. Officials sometimes call in police helicopters to rescue cyclists who sail down the mountainside. Such accidents are more likely to happen when spring or summer morning mist and fog make the road slick or winter brings its ice patches and high winds.
Some experienced motorcyclists say the inexperienced ones put them in a bad light.
"You see these guys who think it's trendy and cool to wear no shirts and let their hair blow in the wind. These are the people who are a detriment to the sport," said 41-year-old Randy Choate, in a black and red leather outfit with red knee boots. He was interviewed at Newcomb's Ranch, a small restaurant about 26 miles up the Crest.
Choate, who often races at professional tracks, said, "People always seem to hear the negative side, but they don't hear about the 500 years of riding experience you see up here."
Mark Nicolitz, 23, of Arcadia said that he rides the highway mainly for its scenery but that many ride for thrills. "A lot of guys don't respect the mountain for what it is," he said.