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Life in the Bike Lane

30 miles of road that's off-limits to cars make the Santa Ana River Trail paradise for cyclists

June 16, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Yan Louie tries to ride every day. He jumps on his bike and picks up the Santa Ana River Trail near his house in Yorba Linda. About an hour and a half later, the 47-year-old satellite scientist for Boeing hits the coast near Newport Beach, stops for lunch at an Italian restaurant and heads home.

For many bicyclists, including Louie, on his high-priced Mongoose titanium bike, and more casual riders on single-speed bikes with coaster brakes that would embarrass a 10-year-old, the Santa Ana River Trail is among the best places to ride.

If you ride on the streets, you can always head down Pacific Coast Highway for miles and miles or follow the roads into the hills and challenge yourself by climbing. But there's one huge advantage to the river trail: no cars. No one to cut you off. No parked cars whose doors suddenly open in front of you. No one to come behind you and honk, just for fun, to see you jump.

The trail is a 30-mile paved highway for bikes, with a broken yellow line separating the two lanes. No stoplights. A straight shot from the coolness of the beach to the heat of Riverside County. A street sweeper even cleans the trail, like a regular road. Just watch out for joggers and roller skaters.

In three to five years, the trail will to go to San Bernardino National Forest, about 60 miles from the coast, said Jeff Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit group that tries to protect wild lands. And someday, you will be able to ride to Big Bear, said Jeff Beehler, environmental project manager for the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.

Bryan Kim of Ontario rides the river trail three or four times a week, starting at Yorba Regional Park, sometimes heading to Huntington Beach when he hits the coast. He brings a light so he can ride in the dark.

"I've tried to ride around my house, but cars get too close," he said. "This is the safest place."

Other riders are not so serious. Medio Sarrocco rides his 7-year-old Key West Suncruiser 18 miles one or two days a week. He started riding a bike in 1996, shortly after his heart bypass. When he rides with his shirt off, you can see the scar.

Sarrocco, 65, doesn't wear a helmet. "I don't go fast enough," he said. "I just try to keep a steady pace."

Like Sarrocco, you don't have to ride the entire trail. There are entrances and exits along its length.

A cautionary note, though: An offshore wind usually blows along the entire route, and in the afternoon, it seems to get stronger the closer you get to the coast. So if you feel like you're riding fast and effortlessly on your way to Yorba Linda, it's not that you're ready to challenge Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France; you're just getting a little push. The trade-off is that on your way back, that sense of effortlessness will be replaced one of heading into a tornado.

The path begins just south of Brookhurst Street at the border of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. If you start at the beach, you can leave your car in the parking lot for $5. Ride your bike onto the beach path south, follow the twist under PCH, and you're on your way.

At 2.5 miles, you'll hit the first of three wooden bridges along the path. A rule to follow on the trail is that whenever you come to a wooden bridge, cross it. If you keep going straight, you'll hit a dead end.

Ride another 7.5 miles and you come to the second wooden bridge, just west of the golf course.

About 2.5 miles farther and you ride past Edison International Field, with the giant red A looming.

You can avoid the traffic snarl when you go to an Angels game by taking the bike path to the Big Ed. Few people have tried it. There are racks for about 20 bikes at the park, said John Drum, the Angels' director of operations, but they haven't been much in demand.

Half a mile or so later, you hit the Arrowhead Pond. The trail takes you onto the sidewalk at Katella Avenue, across the river and onto the other side. This time, there isn't a wooden bridge.

The most beautiful part of the ride begins here as you head upstream to the county border. The trail is no longer straight, but weaves in a series of S curves. The river itself is no longer lined in concrete and is filled with catfish, bass, bluegill and carp. Elegant white egrets and great blue herons, along with cormorants and ducks, dive for food.

Along with squirrels dashing across the path, you can encounter raccoons, bobcats, gophers and garter snakes, even deer and the rare rattlesnake, Myers said.

You never know what you'll see, and that doesn't necessarily mean the wild animals. On a recent day, several women had scrambled down the steep embankment and were crouched on the riverbank photographing wildflowers and moss.

Howard Rishel of Westminster tools down the trail on his recumbent bike. He may look like he's lying down, but he says his body takes less of a beating than it does on a regular bike.

The Boeing retiree rides 20 miles of the river trail, and he makes sure he picks the right spot.

"This is the prettiest piece of trail I know of in Orange County," he said.

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