Bernard Orozco's daily bike ride along the best beaches in Los Angeles County has finally gotten a lot smoother after completion of a 21.6-mile paved path for cyclists.
"It's wonderful," Orozco, a free-lance boat repairman, said as he rested on a beach bench next to his yellow, 18-speed Diamond Back. "The farther they open it, the better. I wish it would go all the way to San Francisco."
More than 20 years after it was conceived, the South Bay Bicycle Trail is now a continuous route hugging the Pacific Coast from Torrance to Pacific Palisades. The final link, left unfinished for years, officially opens this weekend--just in time for hordes of springtime cyclists.
Most of the path was completed 10 to 15 years ago. But beachfront property owners blocked construction of a 1.2-mile segment of the bikeway along Santa Monica's famed Gold Coast. The path ended abruptly north of the Santa Monica Pier, only to pick up farther north in Pacific Palisades, where it terminates in Will Rogers State Park.
Cyclists had to walk their bikes around the gap, squeezing by on a narrow shoulder, or ride their bikes among the cars that whiz up and down Pacific Coast Highway.
Actress Jane Fonda was only one of several people who, according to police, reported suffering bicycle accidents there. Fonda fell while riding on Pacific Coast Highway in 1987 and separated a shoulder.
The segment sat unfinished during years of public hearings, map redrawings and negotiations that involved everyone from local and state bureaucrats to patriarchs of some of the area's most exclusive beach clubs.
At issue was whether the path would be closer to the surf line or to several dozen homes, condominiums and clubs that dot the Gold Coast along the western side of Pacific Coast Highway. The beach in that area is about 600 feet wide.
"We wore out our plans, erasing the line so many times, moving it back and forth," said Stanley Scholl, director of Santa Monica's General Services Department, which oversaw the project.
County and city engineers agreed to place the route roughly midway between the private property and the surf line. Thus, cyclists would have a view of the ocean while keeping a distance from the water.
But the California Coastal Commission insisted that the path be closer to the property lines. Commissioners worried that a path too near the ocean would be eroded by waves and winter storms, and they didn't fancy seeing the sandy beach divided, in effect, in half. The path would have to be built no more than 50 feet from the property lines, the commission ruled.
Homeowners rebelled. The Palisades Beach Property Owners Assn., which includes several beach clubs, complained that bikers would invade their privacy. At the posh Jonathan Club, for example, the path would intersect children's swing sets and a volleyball court, club President George Thompson said.
And besides, property owners argued, wouldn't the bikers prefer to pedal closer to the sea?
Finally, after long negotiations and a dozen alternative plans, a compromise was reached. Construction started in November and the $430,000, 14-foot-wide segment was completed last month. The path meanders about 50 to 170 feet from the private property lines, and in most places it is no more than 500 feet from the surf line, officials said.
On peak days, the bike trail is traversed by as many as 10,000 riders, county officials said. The county, which spent $2 million to build most of the path, is responsible for maintenance and repair.
Not everyone is satisfied with the finished route. Some of the property owners would still rather see the path farther out toward sea. And some area residents complain that the increased crowds will ruin the beach.
Cyclists have already taken to the trail, even though the new segment won't be officially dedicated until Saturday.
"There's a lot of exploring going on. It (the amount of people) is just unbelievable," said Mark Bitler, a county lifeguard at the Will Rogers park station who watches the bike traffic.
Fred Harris, a member of the Palisades Beach Property Owners Assn., is resigned to the route. But he urged construction of bigger barriers to prevent cars and motorcycles from driving onto the bikeway; the city has erected metal poles to stop most vehicles but cannot block motorcycles.
"The bicycle has brought a new carnival aspect to the beach," said Harris, a financial planner and cyclist who has lived on the coast for 30 years. "It's enjoyable to see the entourage of people who come by."
Several cyclists complained of the pedestrians, skateboard riders and roller skaters who share the trail. Along most sections, the path is for bikers only, but it is a rule hardly enforced.
Bryan Pulice, assistant manager at a Santa Monica bike store and a lifelong resident of Pacific Palisades, has mixed emotions about the finished path. He's afraid it will bring traffic, litter and noise onto relatively pristine sections of the beach. But as an avid cyclist himself, he sees the advantage.
"You'll get tens of millions of people up there on our quiet beaches," Pulice, 27, lamented. But, he added, "it's nice to have a path that allows people to ride, safely, farther up the coast. It's a great ride."