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SEMI-SECRET

Big whoooops

On this surprisingly tough stretch of single track, body armor is optional.

September 23, 2003|Steve Casimiro | Special to The Times

I always finish riding San Juan Trail with a buzz of happiness and a sense of relief. It's the best mountain bike trail in Orange County, and one of the most dangerous.

My good friend Joe was life-flighted from the trail after a bad crash and now has a titanium plate in his face. I once went flying into the chaparral and had to extract a pinkie-size wood chunk from deep within my calf. I leave the trail bloody, bruised, exhausted, cross-eyed and bonking -- yet always grateful I've arrived under my own power.

Located in the rugged, remote stretches of the Santa Ana Mountains, just off Ortega Highway, the sine wave that connects San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore, San Juan's 12 miles (one way) are unsurpassed in rhythm, rugged charm and the constant threat of disaster.

There are longer, wilder and rougher trails, but none such an aesthetic tapestry of the three. San Juan is the sum of its parts and then some, the mack daddy trail of O.C., known throughout the Southland and even the United States of Mountain Biking as one sweet ribbon of joy.

It begins in a deep canyon populated by deer, a seasonal stream and a smattering of small cabins. Saying "the trail begins at the bottom" is a big deal, because a lot of people who ride San Juan, maybe most, think it starts at the top. These cheaters, I mean friends, leave one vehicle at the bottom trailhead, then use another to shuttle riders and bikes to the upper one, reaping an almost 100% gravity-fueled ride.

On weekends, San Juan can be a shuttle-fest, with body-armored downhillers rocking by every few minutes. Lazy buggers. OK, I've shuttled it, too, but rarely, because the ascent is far easier than "12 miles of climbing" suggests. Certainly it grabs your lungs at the outset with 13 switchbacks that ladder straight up through hillside chaparral, but then it mellows a bit and meanders, gently climbing.

Once in a while, there's a tight corner to manipulate or a washed-out section to be walked, but mostly you put your body and bike on autopilot and enjoy the view.

The trail crisscrosses ridges of open chaparral, so one minute you face deeply clefted mountains and the next, the sun glinting off the distant ocean. Shaggy peaks rise like treasures of the Sierra Madre, while valleys drop away in mystery. On some stretches, you round a corner and spy the trail ahead, across a long expanse of clean air, and catch a minuscule figure creeping up the hill. It's the only time you'll see sign of humans.

Discovering near-wilderness in Orange County, the Orange County that brought us Irvine and Fashion Island, is a revelation. Twelve miles of uninterrupted single track is rare in Southern California, especially single track that swoops and dives, folds back on itself and plays hide 'n' seek, berms around corners and pops playfully over rocks.

Rugged terrain

San Juan has rock gardens and a few deep ruts and a roller-coaster section we call Valley of the Whoops. Near the top, trees block the relentless sun and a campground faucet dispenses water.

Variations abound too: Round-trip from the bottom, San Juan is a tick under 24 miles, but you can expand or contract it easily; I often ride to a junction called Lunch Rocks, which is 13 miles round-trip. It takes me an hour up -- and just 15 minutes back.

Gravity has a strong hand here. The trail pulls you in and sucks you down, begging for speed while every shred of common sense tells you to grab a fistful of brake. The gradual climb has become a downward sluice, always milking the terrain, carrying momentum over whatever slight ups threaten your lack of pedaling.

Turns flash by. San Juan's soil is loose, gravely like tiny ball bearings, and either you learn to feather the brakes and steer with subtlety or you dump it alongside steep, thorn-guarded hillsides.

The corners are often blind and off-camber -- too far to the inside and you hit an ascending rider, too far to the outside and you taxi off a cliff.

And yet, you ride faster -- you just can't help it -- until you're struggling to make all 13 switchbacks and then you've run out of down and you realize your whole body is shaking with adrenaline and whatever chemicals make up the passing of fear, and you say, "Whoa."

At least that's how it is for me, still, after dozens and dozens of rides.

Steve Casimiro, founding editor of Bike magazine, lives in Monarch Beach near the San Juan Trail.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ON COURSE

Made for the mountain bike

Where: San Juan Trail. From Interstate 5, take the Ortega Highway exit east and drive 12.5 miles. Turn left just before the U.S. Forest Service cabin, onto Hot Springs Canyon Road, and you'll hit the parking area and trailhead less than 1 mile ahead.

Difficulty: The climb isn't very steep, but it's long. The soil is loose, many corners are tricky, falls are magnified by steep hillsides and help is far away, so beginners should skip this trail.

Tips: Take lots of water and a first-aid kit, avoid the summer months and, if you ride on weekends, hit the trail before 8 a.m. to avoid downhillers. For post-ride Mexican food, hit Las Golondrinas in San Juan Capistrano; (949) 240-3440.

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