I am lucky, I have a job, a home, a loving partner and I own bicycles. I’m even luckier in that my best friend sent me a bike to test for him here in the British winter. Andy is the owner of Penhale Bicycle Co. a new kid on the block getting ready to launch his products on the world, but not until everything has been tested and perfected. This man’s attention to detail sets him out from the rest, chat to him for a few minutes and you know just how passionate he is about bikes. If Andy is going to put his name to a product, you know it’s going to be something worth having.
Andy sent me a prototype of his first bike since going it alone. The “B’Stard” its one tough little cookie, I should know after all the abuse I’ve given it since it arrived in December. I rode it across Dartmoor, through peat bogs, over rocks, in rivers, through hail storms, at trail centres, I rode it up Holm Moss hill to watch Le Tour de France (and I hammered it back down!) I even rode it on the Dartmoor Classic (the long route), I rode it until I could ride no more; I rode it until I dropped.
This little steel hardtail put the joy of riding back into my life and put a big grin on my face. We talked about all the rides we always wanted to do but never got around to before Andy left the UK to go live in California, that was when I lost my best ever riding buddy, eventually a plan got hatched, we would take a little trip together.
After months of emails, banging ideas back and forth across the Atlantic (some of the ideas were frankly insane, and might well have killed us) the time to leave finally came. I dismantled my B’Stard and lovingly packed it into my bike bag along with all the bikepacking kit I would need. I was lucky as Andy had promised to supply a lot of the basic camping equipment required to help me keep to the checked bag limit for my flight. An overnight bus journey from Plymouth to London’s Heathrow Airport (via what seemed like a stop at every small village on the way) marked the start of my trip. Keeping below the 23kg checked luggage limit meant my bike travelled for free while I lugged a very heavy rucksack with barely enough room for my essentials as a carry on. I took very few clothes as I needed room for my camera gear, I had decided in advance to buy clothes when I arrived.
After a change of planes in Chicago, a beer and a burrito I was finally on my flight to Southern California.
The approach into John Wayne Airport gave me my first view of the landscape I would be riding over the coming weeks. The sun was setting, leaving long shadows on the canyons below, that first glimpse showed me just how different the riding would be. It was dry and it looked dry, there were no green hills. This was going to be nothing like the Dartmoor I’m used to riding. Jagged zigzag canyons unfurled below the plane as it banked and started its final decent.
Andy and his wife Jenn picked me up from the airport. We drove for a while; I sat in a daze, tired from forty hours of traveling before Andy announced “we need beer and food”. The Yardhouse at Rancho Santa Margarita provided both; this was to be my first taste of American ale. To say I was skeptical would be a massive understatement, my pompous English pride told me quite clearly that the only place in the world for good ale was England. After looking through the seemingly endless list of ales, one stood out. As I’ve been testing a Penhale Bicycle Co. “B’Stard” for the last ten months, I decided the only beer to try was “Arrogant Bastard” from the Stones Brewery. I was not disappointed. Ok so I’ll admit it, Americans can make ale.
The next morning we unpacked and built my bike, I was nervous about getting it damaged during the flight over. The bike bag, one of Chain Reaction Cycles own brand had performed well, the B’Stard emerged unscathed. Andy suggested we start off easy with a ride around one of his local trails; this was so I could acclimatize to the heat. It was 20°C when I left England; it was now 40°C here in Southern California, 10°c hotter than any riding I’d ever done. The first thing that hit me was the surface; the trails were just lose sand. My Ardent’s were just not up to it, I found myself sliding uncontrollably through every lose corner until the inevitable dumping in the dirt. I just could not keep up with him. I had to back off the pace a bit, not such a bad thing. The heat was intense, after only around 6 miles I was drenched in sweat and romping through my camelback. I was concerned now that I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The thought of 200+ miles off road with full camping kit in the mountains left me worried that I would need far more water than we would be able to carry. I needed more time in the saddle in the full heat of day. On the way back from our first ride my heart rate had started to rise and took much longer to recover than normal, even lying down in the shade it was not improving very quickly. This heat was killing me. I’d never ridden in anything close to these temperatures before. The next day we went shopping for camera equipment, I picked up a new interval timer so I could do some time lapse pictures and long exposures. I also picked up a couple of spare batteries for my Nikon and another 64Gb card. I needed to know I could record the whole trip without needing to recharge.
That evening we rode with the Awesomes on their regular Wednesday ride in Whiting’s Ranch. The cooler temperatures suited me better and I soon started to enjoy the climbs, the cornering was still proving difficult and it became clear my tyres were holding me back. Time to take stock of a few things; it was clear I needed different tyres. The Maxxis Ardents I’d brought with me (my favourite UK riding tyre) were just no good in these sandy conditions. I replaced them with some WTB Wolverines. And we set out again the next day to see if that improved things for me. The only way of getting over the heat issue quickly seemed to involve me riding hard during the hottest part of the day; I guess it was kill or cure time. We only had a few days before we would be heading into the mountains; I had to get it sorted.
We headed out to Aliso & Wood Canyons for another hot day of riding. I managed to ride further and for longer, I even coped with the very steep climbs. The tyres worked better and I slowly started to trust them, some adjustments to tyre pressure and finally I felt back in control.
Saturday we headed out to the store to buy supplies for the trip, chicken noodles, precooked sausage and a multitude of energy bars and electrolyte drink mix. On our return to the house we made the final preparations to our bikes. We fitted our bags and started packing them, after a couple of attempts I was finally happy that I had all I needed packed into logical places. Only time would tell if we had got it right. I wondered how much of what I was taking was surplus, and therefore unnecessary weight. We weighed the bikes fully loaded; both came out just over 49lbs. This seemed very excessive and I wondered how I would cope trying to climb on lose sand with that kind of weight. This didn’t include my backpack which contained all my camera equipment and another camelback.
Sunday morning came with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as we put the bikes on the car and headed off for our start point. We made the decision to move the start to Silverwood Lake, originally we had planned to be dropped in San Bernardino and then ride up Miller Canyon. This would have involved a long section on the road, the current high temperatures and the long climb would have made this the longest and toughest day. As we got out of the car at Silverwood Lake it was clear we made the right choice, the heat was intense and the road we had just driven up would have provided no shade at all.
We bid Andy’s wife Jenn farewell and started on our trip. The bike felt heavy and unresponsive as we rode around the lake looking for our entrance to the first off road section. We joined the Pilot Rock jeep trail and immediately started climbing; this would be the theme of the day. The start of the trail is on a steep south facing slope, so it gets the full heat of the sun. The surface was dry dust and in places deep sand, it sapped away at us all the way to the top, this was a tough climb to start the trip with. The hard work was worth it though, the views out over the lake and surrounding canyons were fabulous. Andy was clearly in his element, I was starting to relax and enjoy the ride. Despite the heat, I had still managed a respectable effort on this first climb of the day. We pressed on, more climbing (with the odd short decent thrown in) one ridge after another gradually increasing our altitude.
Eventually we dropped into Arrowhead Lake, stopping at a petrol station to refill our water bottles. We had hoped to pick up a few supplies here but the shop had been destroyed by a recent fire from a lightning strike, so the sink in the garage restroom was all we had. The water was drinkable and we were very grateful for it, didn’t know where our next water stop would be.
We headed out of Arrowhead and up the trail to Deep Pan Springs, another long sandy climb. Parts were so steep we were forced to get off and push, and in places carry the bikes over the boulders. The Devils Slide, a rocky section notorious for destroying jeeps was one such section. It was demoralising having to push our heavy bikes through the loose sand up such steep slopes in the baking sun. Eventually things eased off enough for us to be able to get back on and ride. We passed a coyote off to the right in the bush and pressed on to try to reach to top of the saddle ridge before nightfall.
We got there about thirty minutes before sunset, perfect timing. I wanted to set the camera up for some time lapse pictures of us setting up camp on our first night. I got everything out and ready to go just as the sun was setting. It wasn’t to be though, just as we were about to start we heard a vehicle coming down the track. It was a guy and his girlfriend in Toyota pickup, they were lost, they only had a little water and their vehicle was not capable of making it down the track we had just come up. He didn’t think his two wheel drive pickup could make it back up the trail he had just come down; it looked like he was trapped for the night. A phone call to the police and the rangers nearly started a full on rescue with talk of a helicopter being sent out to spot them and coordinate an off road tow truck to come and drag them out. I think the thought of the potential bill for all this scared him; another phone call to a friend of his living the other side of Big Bear resolved it. He would bring his jeep with a big winch and pull them out overnight. Helicopters were cancelled; the Toyota turned around and headed back the way it had come to meet up with the Cavalry that was the friendly jeep owner. By now the sun had set long ago, it was nearly dark as we set up camp and got some food cooking. Oh yes, dried chicken flavour noodles and pre-cooked vac-pack sausage. The saving grace was a bottle of Tabasco sauce Andy had brought and a bag of beef jerky I’d picked up. The time lapse never happened, the moment was gone. We settled down for the night watching the stars and listening to the coyotes in the canyon below. We were woken in the early ours to the sound of engines being gunned, Toyota man’s rescuer had obviously found him and they were headed out.
Dawn came and lit up the mountains with beautiful colours. We made coffee and cooked more noodles and sausage for breakfast whilst packing up camp.
We wanted to make an early start before the heat built up to much. I was down to one camelback and one water bottle, not enough for a whole days riding. We needed to find a water supply before midday.
We headed off in the Toyota’s tyre tracks, a brief bit of downhill as we rode over the saddle followed by the theme for the day; climbing. We had barely got going when we came across a campsite, it had a toilet and most impressively it had drinking water! We filled bottles and camelbacks then headed out again; we now had enough water to last the day. After a relatively short climb we were rewarded with a shady fast downhill, it had everything in it, boulders; lose sand, hardpack sand, deep sand, shallow sand. . . it did manage to induce a massive grin factor despite me nearly losing control several times as my front wheel washed out. I was starting to get better at this terrain though, keeping my weight off the front, allowing the tyre to float as much as possible over the lose stuff. Andy made it look effortless. He was packing much wider tyres than me, but he was fluid and smooth. I could see now how a fat bike could have made all the difference here. At least I wasn’t on my Ardents, I would have been off and pushing on most of this stuff.
We crossed a steam bed that actually contained water. Then we started climbing again, the gradient was not too bad but the surface was lose in places. The trail snaked up the side of the canyon, and as we climbed higher the views started to open up. The scenery was just like every western movie I’d ever watched. We rode alone from one canyon to the next, each time we came to what looked like a summit, we would pass over the top only to find the trail continued up. We could still make out the tyre tracks of last night’s Toyota, looks like they had a long night driving out of here. It surprised me that we had not passed or met any other mountain bikers on our trip; we had seen plenty of jeeps and off road buggies and even a few dirtbikes but not one cyclist. Were we the only ones mad enough to want to ride these trails in the summer heat?
I kept getting the feeling the camelback in my backpack was leaking. I could feel water running down my back and legs, my shorts were soaking wet. I stopped and checked for leaks but couldn’t see where it could be coming from. I couldn’t afford a leak, out here water was precious. That was when it hit me; this was sweat running off me. I found it hard to believe this much sweat could be produced by one person; I could see now why I was needing to drink so much. The only time I’d stopped to pee this day my urine was the darkest I’d ever seen it, a sure sign I was dehydrated. Eventually the climbing stopped and we rolled into Pine Flats camp ground. This camp ground also had running water; we refilled and took the opportunity to get a couple of bottles worth of fluids into us. The heat was relentless. it was in the very high 90’s with no breeze and no shade. We carried on, the trail was a little easier to ride now and we picked our pace up a little. After checking our position on the map it was clear we had made good progress during the morning. Pretty soon we rolled into Holcomb Valley, a huge fenced off prairie to our right home to a large herd of horses.
This really was the wild west of my imagination, green grasslands spread off into the distance, a stark difference to the browns of the dusty dry scrubland we had been riding through since our journey started. Another mile or so and we pulled into a campground. We sat in the shade of the trees, I was tired, a lot more tired than I expected to be after only a mornings riding. The camp caretaker came over for a chat to see what we were up to, I think she thought we were a little mad when we told her where we had cycled from and what our final destination would be. That’s when she pointed out the altitude effects; we were at around 8,500ft above sea level. The lack of oxygen (roughly 25% less than sea level) was what was causing me to be so tired. I found this quite comforting; it showed I wasn’t as unfit as I thought I was. The caretaker pointed out this camp had no water; the tank ran dry a couple of years ago. The only water here was a plastic drum for the caretaker that had to be driven over 20 miles to get it here. She offered to fill a water bottle each but no more. We passed up on this offer, we knew we would be hitting Big Bear Lake later in the day and her need was greater than ours, she would be there until the first snow came.
We took a slight detour so I could see the old log cabin that’s preserved on the other side of the campground; it was only a mile or so out of our way. This little cabin has been here since the late 1800’s and had survived numerous wildfires and earthquakes. We were the only people there, something I was pleased about. I was enjoying the isolation of riding out here in the middle of nowhere. We made our way back to the trail and then picked up the top of Van Dusen, a fabulous downhill track that we ripped down grinning and sucking up dust.
The trail dropped us on the highway just outside Big Bear. We rode into town and opted to eat at Maggio’s, a good but basic pizza restaurant, we made good use of the free soft drink refills before stocking up at the general store and heading over to Starbucks for a coffee and a chance to recharge phones.
We still needed water before we could make camp; the local liquor store was very obliging allowing us to use their hose after we bought a couple of beers to have at camp. It was funny being in a town after two days of riding in the wilderness. I didn’t particularly like it, I wanted to get out and make camp away from all these people. I got my wish, but not before we tackled another gruelling climb out of town. We were headed for the summit; it started with a meandering tarmac road that soon gave way to dirt as the gradient ramped up. It wasn’t long before we came out at the junction of the Skyline trail. Directly in front of us was the view we wanted, we left the track and headed through the trees. A large rocky outcrop with a small flat area, our perfect campsite.
This time I got the camera out early, I really wanted that time lapse shot and some video of us rolling into camp. After shooting the footage of us pulling into the campsite I set the time lapse going to record us setting up. The view from the rocky outcrop was spectacular; we could see all the way down the canyon, just making out where Radford trail hugged the contours and maybe even the start of the Santa Ana River Trail. Once again we heard the coyotes in the canyon below us as we cooked, you guessed it, chicken noodles and vac pack sausage. Though after Calzone’s at Maggio’s earlier we were not that hungry, but carbs is carbs so we ate and watched the sun set over the mountains. We opened our beers and drank to bikes, to travelling and most of all to best friends. These were good times.
This was the first time I had camped at altitude, we were at 9,500ft and while it was hot as we pitched camp as soon as the sun set the temperature started to drop. I was glad of my On-One merino wool cardigan and clean dry T-shirt. We left our cycle kit to dry on the rocks where they quickly developed prominent salt stains as the sweat evaporated. As the temperature dropped further we got into our sleeping bags. Kindles and iPods came out, time to relax and reflect on the journey so far. I took a couple of long exposures shots of the stars then drew my sleeping bag draw string tight. The temperature dropped very low in the early hours of the morning, as I lay awake listening to my heartbeat, I noticed then it was hitting 63bpm. My normal resting rate is 47bpm; I guess that’s how much extra work it was having to do just to get a normal amount of oxygen into my system. It was only now that I truly understood why the climbing into the mountains had taken such a toll on me. I’d put it all down to the heat, but that combined with the lack of oxygen had really fatigued me. Well tomorrow was going to be all about going downhill, that was something I was really looking forward to. With that thought in my head I drifted off to sleep, big mistake, I’d left my camera out taking long exposures.
Sunrise on the mountain was spectacular. I set the camera up to take a time lapse sequence. After a couple of minutes I noticed the lens making a lot of noise. The damp and cold had got to it, and it no longer autofocused. It also made a nasty grinding sound when I manually focused it. I had killed my lens; it was over ten years old so bound to fail one day. My negligence had ended its days early, manual crunchy focus was all that was left.
We cooked our noodles and sausage, drank coffee and watched the sun rising, the trails ahead of us today were Radford, then the SART. We didn’t know how far we would get during the day so we had no plan for our next campsite. Our original plan should have seen us camping at Holcomb Valley, but our revised start point meant we’d passed there and camped at Big Bear. Well, we would find somewhere. We packed and started the decent off the mountain. It was fabulous to be going downhill for a change. The surface kept trying to catch us out, it would change suddenly from hardpack dirt to talcum powder soft dust with the odd sharp edged rock thrown in for good measure.
It didn’t slow us down until near the bottom of Radford, Andy picked up a puncture at speed. He safely managed to wrestle his heavy bike to a stop, after finding the hole and letting the Stan’s fluid pool there for a bit he pumped it up and we headed off again. We picked up the highway at the end of the Radford trail; Andy’s tire was flat again. The sealant hadn’t held, after removing the tyre he found the split was bigger than he first thought. A quick patch, some fresh sealant and we were on our way again.
After miles of wide dirt roads it was heaven to be on narrow twisting single track, the Santa Ana River Trail was fabulous as it twisted and turned. I loved it, I loved it so much I forgot to stop and take pictures. We were way to busy having a great time; this is a real gem of a trail as it hugs the contours along the side of the canyon and gently drops leaving no real need to pedal for probably our first 30 minutes of riding. After a few miles my grin disappeared briefly, I’m not good with heights, in fact I’m crap with them, they scare me senseless. So as I come around the corner and the track narrows to a few inches wide, I notice the drop to my right, the uninterrupted drop to my right, the one that just goes on and on. Andy is oblivious and just carries on flying down the trail disappearing out of site.
I try and put it out of my mind and catch up with him. The trail continues like this for some distance, and then suddenly Andy does a quick bunny hop onto a rock and around a sharp bend. A move that had to be millimetre perfect as the drop to the right was around 80ft onto rocks with nothing in between. I get off and carry my bike over, aware that I have no phone signal and no rope. If Andy falls along here the chances of survival are slim at best. I suddenly feel very vulnerable out here and I’m reminded once more that we have not seen another sole since we started riding this morning, we were on our own. The trail didn’t get any better but I knew I couldn’t walk the bike the whole way; I had to just man up and get on with it. I was too cautious and hit my inside pedal a couple of times on the inside edge which unbalanced me and nearly sent me over the edge. It seemed wrong in my head but it was actually safer to ride closer to the edge than away from it, at least if I lost a wheel I could probably just get off and let the bike go. If I caught the pedal again on the inside, chances were I would be high sided into going over the edge. Eventually we came across a large tree blocking the trail, we could probably have climbed over it but it looked like the trail was damaged beyond it. An improvised detour sign showed us the way out, a steep climb in the wrong direction. The detour went on and on, and it was all uphill away from where we wanted to be going. Eventually we came out onto a paved road which we climbed on for a bit longer, Andy at least had an idea of where it was taking us, and it would end in a cold drink. We pulled up at the general store in Angelus Oaks; we left our bikes outside while we browsed the cold drinks in the fridge. The store owner was friendly and we spent some time talking about where we’d been and where we were going. He recommended the old 38 highway, now derelict and not much more than single track. He enthusiastically told us about the mountain lions we might bump into in the canyon, pointing out there had been a lot of activity from them in recent days. I didn’t particularly want to meet them but this trail turned out to be one of the best so far. Sweeping bends on lose single track, numerous small jumps and we were flying down it drifting and sliding, I had a grin a mile wide. The views were breath taking and nearly life ending. I held back and let Andy get ahead as I was eating too much of his dust as it flew up off his back tyre and I couldn’t see where I was going. I let my speed pick up as I could now see the whole of the trail and that breathe taking scenery. I should have been watching the trail though, there was a sudden sharp left hugging the canyon wall. I didn’t see it until it was too late; I broke hard, my front wheel locked and just slid on the soft sand. I was headed straight for the edge, I managed to say “Oh F*%k!” as my front wheel dipped over the edge. I came to a halt on my chain ring as it dug into the dirt, I stepped back off the bike, pulled it back up onto the track then looked over the edge. A 100ft of potentially life ending oblivion and I was alive. Freakin’ awesome!
When I caught up with Andy I still had a smile on my face but I was a little bit more cautious about watching the trail while I rode. This amazing single track finally gave way to tarmac and we were back on the main highway heading into Redlands, it was getting hotter but at least the road was still going downhill. We adopted aero tuck positions and coasted after running out of gears, the traffic slowly built up as we rolled into town. We stopped at a park and used the water fountain to fill our bottles and camelbacks up. This was probably the worst tasting water I have ever drank, if you think swimming pool then you get an idea how just how much chlorine was in this, oh well needs must. We rode through Redlands and on into Loma Linda before picking up the Santa Ana River Trail again. Concrete dullness with a 20mph furnace like headwind, this was going to be a long day. The heat here was almost intolerable; I was back to really struggling. I could feel the sweat running down my back and legs, I felt like I was melting. We stopped under bridges so I could cool off, this was really bugging me. My legs felt good, I was eating energy bars every hour and keeping on top of the fluids but still the heat was just sapping my energy. Apart from a face full of sweat, Andy looked fresh; having lived here for over 10 years he was clearly used to it. We took a longer break in the shade at Mount Rubidoux Park, watching the world go by while my temperature tried to stabilise itself. The next few miles were some of the hardest I had ever done. The trail went through Hidden Valley before finally coming to an end near Norco. We headed into town looking for the nearest Starbucks to charge phones and find cool drinks. We had travelled much further than we had expected, the plan was now changing. Originally we saw the trip as being 4-5 days, here we were on day three with a chance of being home if we pushed hard. It was late afternoon and the temperature was dropping, Andy’s wife Jenn was willing to drive out after work but only if we could meet her somewhere sensible where she would not be stuck in traffic for hours on the freeway. After checking the map we agreed to ride to Green River and meet in the service station off the freeway at 9pm. With the end in sight and the temperature dropping to comfortable levels we set off at a good pace, passing through Corona home of the Fender guitar factory. We fitted lights as the sun set and really started to gather speed, the last few miles were rode like a two up time trial, my legs felt good and I felt good. We rolled into the service station to find Jenn waiting for us with the dogs, a very welcome sight. We had been on the bikes for nearly twelve hours and had covered around 110 miles. We smelt real bad in the confines of the car. We picked up burritos on the way home and finished the day with a cold beer or two. A great end to an amazing trip.