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Cyclists' Not-So-Little Secret

Five miles of the L.A. River Bikeway are open to the public, but the groomed stretch near Griffith Park is largely unknown.

November 09, 2000|WENDY THERMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Biking in the big city doesn't get much better than this.

The pavement is smooth and flat. It's entirely off-road. Overhead lights beckon you to ride early or late in the day. A river flows gently nearby, with birds and little islands of trees.

L.A.'s newest bicycling venue, the Los Angeles River Bikeway near Griffith Park, is by all accounts no ordinary bike trail. It cost a million dollars a mile to build this five-mile path stretching from Burbank to Atwater Village. It's part of an ambitious plan to pave a 52-mile "bike freeway" from the mountains to the sea along the L.A. River.

But on any given day, riders pedaling along the lonely asphalt lane might find themselves wondering: Does anyone even know this bikeway is here? Even on weekends, there are so few cyclists that its name might as well be Hidden Trail.

"It does seem to be kind of a secret place," muses Lorelei Pepi of Silver Lake on a biking-perfect Saturday morning during one of her occasional rides on the bikeway. "I haven't even seen 10 people out here today."

She ponders this a moment, then laughs. "If people knew about this place, there would be flocks of them coming here, and that would probably ruin it."

OK, popularity can mess up a good thing. It's the curse of the beach bikeways: There are so many bikes, pedestrians and skaters trying to occupy the same space that the fun meter dips for everyone. Still, lots more people could be using the L.A. River Bikeway and it wouldn't seem crowded at all.

"It's just taking a little time for the word to get out," says Ron Milam, executive director of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition and one of the bikeway's biggest drumbeaters. "Just the other day, I went riding with someone who lives only a mile from the river, and she didn't even know it was there. But her eyes just lit up when she saw it. It's slow, but it'll catch on."

That the bikeway even exists on the river is an urban miracle. In its former life it was a dull, dirty, anonymous service road. Today it's a user-friendly greenbelt. It took 10 years of work by a mind-numbing array of public agencies and organizations to build just the first three miles, which opened three years ago, from Victory Boulevard to Los Feliz Boulevard.

A two-mile extension from Los Feliz Boulevard to Fletcher Drive--where the awesome Heron Gate announces to the world that something truly different is going on next to the river--opened in early August.

Construction of the next three miles, south of Fletcher Drive, will bring riders within shouting distance of downtown L.A., and Milam thinks that will significantly boost the bikeway's popularity. Work could begin as soon as next year and be done by 2002.

While bicyclists are getting up to speed, other people are checking out the L.A. River Bikeway and finding that it's a grand new place for exercise on foot or self-propelled wheels. There are joggers, skaters, moms pushing strollers, kids on scooters, skateboarders, bird watchers, people in wheelchairs and folks ambling along on foot.

"You see all kinds of people that were not there before, like children and families and groups of older women," says Lynne Dwyer, one of the bikeway's movers and shakers. She is the executive director of a group called North East Trees, a beautification organization that is given much of the credit for the L.A. River's cleaner, greener look.

Concrete's Still There, But Also Birds and Trees

Many Angelenos are accustomed to thinking of the L.A. River as ugly, even toxic. Years ago, this lazy stream that provided an oasis for early settlers was fenced off and channelized for flood control. But now along the new bikeway you can see flocks of birds fishing and soaring. Trees and shrubs are flourishing. Garbage has almost disappeared. It is actually starting to look park-like.

Visitors like bicyclist Pepi, a 35-year-old creative director for an Internet media company, are thrilled to have this recreational niche in the middle of L.A.'s vast concrete jungle. It's one of the few places in the city where bicyclists can ride without the hassles of car traffic, intersections and hills. "Some friends of mine were training for the AIDS ride, and they had to travel miles and miles out of the city to find anything like this," she says.

And now that nature is creeping back to the once-sterile river, the wilderness setting is a huge plus. "I love this place," Pepi says, gazing happily toward a knot of ducks navigating a placid pool.

To be fair, some people may find the L.A. River trail and its setting a disappointment. The riverbed is hemmed in by steeply sloping concrete. Mammoth transmission towers loom overhead. The bike path roughly parallels the Golden State Freeway, and in places the roar of traffic is distracting. Getting to the bikeway by automobile requires a strategy session on where to park. (The best bet is to leave the car in Griffith Park and enter the bikeway where Zoo Drive meets Riverside Drive/Victory Boulevard.)

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