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Tour de sand

Pack your sunscreen and helmets and hit the Southland's bike trail by the beach. One family -- finally -- shows how to get it done.

October 05, 2008|Jordan Rane | Special to The Times

Here's the Sunday plan: Get up early, zip into the parking lot at Santa Monica Pier hours before the weekend masses, sign out some wheels, and pedal the world's most-taken-for-granted ocean-side bicycle trail to the South Bay and back before the rental counter closes at 6 p.m.

What family within 10 miles of the coast hasn't vowed to do this? And how many of them (besides mine) have let it sit dormant and neglected on the weekend to-do list for far too long?

My relationship with this benignly flat 22.3-mile-long shot along the ocean (now officially named the Marvin Braude Bikeway) from Pacific Palisades all the way down to Torrance began auspiciously enough when I first arrived in Los Angeles. Pedaling the length of it with the breeze in my hair and miles of bronzed Southern Californians cheering on their newest recruit would be, I giddily pledged, the first order of business here.

Fourteen years of hair loss, one marriage and two kids later, it looked as if it was finally going to happen.

7:38 a.m. Santa Monica Freeway. Orange wedges have been sliced. Sunscreen has been applied.

"Are you sure this is going to be fun?" asks my 6-year-old son Jackson, crunching dry cereal in the back seat. He's the only one in the family with a bicycle, its wheels the size of medium pizzas.

"Well, yeah," I reassure him. "That's the point."

8:01 a.m. Santa Monica Pier. Nobody's here except for us, some garbage trucks out on the freshly groomed beach and a dash of early-bird joggers and golden-age walkers.

Even the dozy bike rental guy at Blazing Saddles, which officially opened 60 seconds ago, isn't totally here yet. "Can you come back in 15 minutes, or maybe 20?"

We wander down the empty pier, past a closed trapeze school, an off-duty Ferris wheel and roller coaster and a vacant video arcade where the mechanical fortune teller Zoltar glowers at us. What else is in store for us on this historic day? Zoltar's lips are sealed. But a minute later, my sunglasses fall off my head and crack, which may or may not be a sign.

"Can we go on the roller coaster when we get back?" Jackson asks.

"Look at that bicycle path," I quickly chirp. "Did you know it goes all the way from the top of Los Angeles to the bottom?"

"Wow," says Jackson, staring up at the roller coaster.

8:33 a.m. We're finally off, pushing south toward neighboring Venice. I'm in front, shouldering a knapsack fit for Kilimanjaro. Jackson's in the middle, followed by my wife, Jemma, and our 2-year-old, Quincy, screaming in a baby seat and pawing maniacally at her bike helmet. Half a mile into this family vision quest, Jackson rear-ends me and spills softly into the sand.

"How much farther are we going?" he mutters, while I dust off his calves.

"How about some pancakes?" I reply.

9:07 a.m. Seated at a plastic patio table at Figtree's Cafe on Ocean Front Walk, overlooking Venice Beach's underrated runway of sand, we all get our second wind in the nick of time.

Coffees and crayons arrive, followed by tasty omelets and "funny face pancakes." Conveniently, one of Venice's 8,000 sunglass shops is next door with a replacement for mine. Biking this coast will be a snap; we've already bagged at least a mile of it.

10:28 a.m. On the short but winding Venice leg of the bike trail, one learns quickly that those "Bikes Only" signs every 100 yards or so are more or less optional for the mass of weekend drum circlers, hoop dreamers, interpretive dancers, sun-damaged artists, looky-loos, exhibitionists and Summer of '69 leftovers wandering blindly into our path over and over again.

"I'm not really liking this too much," Jackson says, his front tire right on my heels again.

"You're doing great," I tell him.

"And did you know there's an aquarium on one of the piers where we're heading? Maybe we can go there after lunch."

The trail's short inland jog through Marina del Rey works like a reset button. Gently rocking yachts. Flocks of hovering pelicans. A guy on a bridge with a halibut in his net. They roll in and out of the frame like kid's book illustrations, even interesting Quincy, who has since made friends with her helmet.

11:11 a.m. A warm, salty gust hits us when the surf reappears at Playa del Rey, a mini-Bermudascape of lounging grandparents and their kids and their kids' kids frolicking in the sand. Biking the L.A. coast has turned out to be its own breezy little study in urban demographics. And environmental awareness.

"I thought you said the air was really fresh by the ocean," says Jackson as the belly of an outbound 747 howls above our heads at LAX-adjacent Dockweiler State Beach.

12:10 p.m. Somewhere between the restrooms of El Segundo and the first snack bar of El Porto (northern Manhattan Beach), we pass a bicycle sitting unlocked beside the trail with a baby seat and a surfboard hitched to it. Somehow, this signifies that we've made it to the Promised Land, the South Bay. Today's finish line is Manhattan Beach Pier and its tiny aquarium crammed with tanks of moray eels, anemones and odd little fish.

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