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Motorcyclists gear up for the full Angeles Crest Highway experience

A 9-mile stretch of the scenic, twisting roadway that has been closed since 2005 is reopening Wednesday.

May 19, 2009|Susan Carpenter

It's 9 a.m., and the toilet seat is, predictably, up at the Shell station in La Canada Flintridge. It is Sunday, sunny, warm. Perfect riding weather for the (predominantly male) motorcyclists making their pilgrimage up Angeles Crest Highway, where they will power through scores of turns over several miles at ever-increasing altitudes.

The Shell station is their last-chance pit stop -- for Pop-Tarts, Starbucks and other high-octane fuels that will propel them east along one of the most beloved stretches of asphalt in Southern California -- and manager Sabir Enabi is ringing up customer after leather-clad customer. A bottle of Mountain Dew goes to a man in a Ducati jacket. A pack of Camels is sold to another in a back protector and jeans.

More than 100 motorcycles stop at the station to fill up on any Sunday, Enabi said as he scanned bar codes and swiped credit cards to a live soundtrack of revving engines.

"Maybe closer to 1,000," said a tall man in a Vanson racing suit, paying cash for a bottle of Dasani before wading into the alphabet soup of sport bikes parked on the pavement outside the door.

R1s. GSX-R600s. Ducati 1098s. They're the tools of the trade for a ride on Angeles Crest Highway. Running from La Canada to the Antelope Valley, the full 66-mile stretch of switchbacks and straightaways is a hub for area bikers. Since March 2005, however, a 9-mile swath of this adrenalinized alpine retreat through the San Gabriel Mountains has been closed, forcing riders to hit the brakes and do a U-turn when they get to the pine-topped overlook at a place called Islip Saddle.

But this Wednesday at noon, the word "closed" will be removed from the green sign that marks the Crest's beginning in La Canada. Up the road, at the intersection of Islip and Highway 39, the metal gate will be unlocked. And the lawyers, musicians, students and other members of the diverse riding public will again be allowed to wheel their rubber over a portion of rural highway that's been off-limits since a winter storm washed much of it away.

Angeles Crest is a place where the outcasts of roads better traveled can be with like-minded souls. Where the wave of a gloved hand conveys a common compulsion. Where the pleasures of the pavement are elemental.

It's the sound of competing exhausts, the smells of the chaparral, the physical sensations of simple physics -- of pulling one's body and bike through the turns. It's the smooth texture of the road's concrete asphalt, the gentle grade and graceful arcs of its curves and the community that has formed around a shared appreciation for these attributes.

Of course, the highway cuts through Angeles National Forest, which is loved by many types of outdoor enthusiasts, some of whom view the bikes as noisy and their riders as inconsiderate. They are among the chorus who say the Crest is a dangerous strip cutting through a nature getaway.

Leading up to the road's reopening, workers for the California Department of Transportation have been driving the remote and rock-strewn stretch of unopened highway to mitigate some of the dangers they can control.

They've been honking the horns on their orange plow trucks to scare away the big-horn sheep, bears and other wild animals that have been calling this part of the Crest home since it was closed four years ago, and they've been making daily "rock runs" to clear the slag, snow and rubble that regularly tumble from the steep climes on either side of the pavement.

Motorcyclists, meanwhile, are checking their tire pressure and polishing their windscreens, getting ready to extend their rides into an area where the city -- and their real lives -- seem farther away the higher they climb. The views from this 7,000-foot, pine-dappled perch are as alluring as the drops are precipitous.

Mike Noxon, a longtime motorcyclist and an assistant manager at Newcomb's Ranch, a biker hangout on the Crest, tries to explain the attraction.

"It's a great loop," he said, referring to a ride that will take him and his Suzuki DR650 up the about-to-open portion of the Crest through Wrightwood and across Pearblossom Highway. "I've ridden many, many different roads and there's no road that compares to this one. The corners are just perfect. The scenery is tops. It's close to L.A., yet you can come up here and get away from everything and ride this incredible road."

A sprawling log cabin with an oversized parking lot to accommodate the weekend masses, Newcomb's is located 27 miles (and 198 turns) up the Crest, past corners with names such as Moron's Point -- so-called for the switchback where a California Highway Patrol officer is known to lurk -- but before Squid's Leap, a surprisingly sharp turn that has jettisoned many an inexperienced rider over the edge. Many of the Crest's secrets are revealed in such names as well as in its many skid marks.

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