Surfers aren’t the only ones willing to ride dawn patrol on a quest for the endless summer.
It’s five in the morning, and the rising sun’s rays are just starting to creep into the kitchen window. Liam is quietly (and ironically) humming “California Gurls” by Katy Perry:Too early for that kind of enthusiasm. We’ve not yet even caffeinated.
You could travel the world
But nothing comes close
To the golden coast
Once you party with us
You'll be falling in love
Jetlagged and bit bleary eyed, Philippa operates more at my speed. Each of us moves in a familiar, ritualistic pre-ride dance: kitting up, cleaning the sunnies and grabbing icy bidons from the freezer. After a perfunctory nibble and a quick shot of espresso, it’s time to roll.
Forty minutes later, the sun is noticeably higher in the sky, bathing the desert in that iconic golden California sheen. It’s only 5:40 am and the temperature is already 29 degrees . . . and quickly rising.
We are in the Coachella Valley in summer, so we’ll need to follow this schedule for the next three mornings in order to get any decent rides in before the days become swelteringly unfit for either man or beast.
THE COACHELLA VALLEY
The Coachella Valley is long swath of desert—an ancient seabed, actually―about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. With dramatic mountain ranges on either side, the valley is fringed with acres of wind turbines as far as the eye can see. The area is best-known for the city of Palm Springs, a kitschy mid-mod architectural Mecca; as well as the yearly Coachella Music and Arts Festival, which draws over half a million fans to a vast polo field nestled amongst date palm farms. We’ve based ourselves in the city of Palm Desert, sprawled across an alluvial plain at the base of the San Jacinto mountains, for the first segment of our California tour.
Palm Desert is better known for its golf and tennis than it is for cycling. From October through April, the population swells with active retirees enjoying the area’s mild winter from their country club homes and golf resorts. The cycling community here follows the same migratory pattern, swelling in the seasonal months and dwindling to a small, dedicated few in the summer. Those who do ride are primarily roadbound; many of the flat, wide boulevards have a dedicated lane shared by cyclists and golf carts, making it a decent place for recreational and casual riders.
For those in search of adventure riding, however, the Coachella Valley requires a little patience and creativity. Off-road surfaces are generally composed of deep sand more suited to fatbikes than our borrowed Trek Checkpoints. Our desert riding will primarily be on tarmac punctuated by segments of dirt adventure; it’s the kind of serendipitous riding reminiscent of an urban childhood filled with surprising dirt detours.
Having already explored much of the Coachella Valley by road and gravel bike, I plan three rides for us. None of them could be objectively described as “epic” in that classic sense: June is too hot and dry for playing at being T.E. Lawrence. This time of year, shorter rides that showcase the best potential of the area are more ideal for our needs.
LA QUINTA COVE
Our first ride takes us to the resort city of La Quinta, which backs into a natural desert cove nestled between several rocky foothills. The city maintains this area as a large park for hiking and some mountain biking. There’s a warren of narrow trails, made of decomposed granite and soft sand, that wend their way through sharp rock gardens and sections of cactus. An XC mountain bike with 100- to 130-mm of travel could handle this just fine; on a gravel bike, however, it becomes a more consequential test of both the rider’s skill and the rig’s capabilities. Given the sharp-edged rocks and prickly cacti, missteps can have piercing results
The terrain has us tackling loose, punchy climbs, clearing obstacles (with some occasional hike-a-bike) and navigating tight switchbacks. Hitting sandtraps here can be particularly frustrating. One moment we’re rolling along quickly and the next at a near-dead stop, the deep sand forcing us to pedal hard and fast whilst the rear wheels fishtail about with questionable control. It’s safest to let the bike do what it wants. Philippa, a strong rider with some serious chops, comments that she’s never experienced anything quite like it before.
After several hours, the sun’s intensity, along with surprisingly technical riding, is taking its toll. We roll home, park our bikes, kick off our shoes, and then jump into the refreshingly cool swimming pool—kits and all!
ROAD TO NOWHERE
The next morning we head north, away from developments sheltering near the mountains. Across the eight-lane motorway that runs through here (a straight line connecting America’s east and west coasts), the terrain becomes more stark, what you’d expect in the desert. This side takes the brunt of the wind blowing continuously across the sand, the same wind that powers all those turbines. Relentlessly hot, the wind hits us in the face regardless of our direction: Liam and I play wind donkeys, and Philippa tucks in to preserve energy.
Among the giant sand dunes, we pass commercial nurseries where professional landscapers buy cheap plants to decorate the pricey desert homes they tend. Although we’re drawn to the dirt roads further along, we’re forced to turn back by massive construction on Thousand Palms Canyon, the main paved road into the area. Time to implement Plan B.
I take us instead on a service road parallel to the main interstate. More wind. Our pace slows to a crawl as nature’s invisible hand forces us to earn every centimeter of progress. Demoralizing as it is, I have something in mind that’ll make it worth all the effort. A month earlier, during a casual Sunday ride, a buddy and I discovered a crumbling road out here that seemingly climbed to nowhere. It’s the kind of isolated decaying road made for photography: long, twisting, dusty and apparently abandoned. On that visit, the quiet climb was blocked with gates and vaguely mysterious government signs promising trespassing fines and vehicle impoundment.
On today’s ride, however, the way is clear and a road crew is paving over the long-crackled tarmac with fresh layer of new black asphalt. They wave the three of us on to finish the final two kilometres of climbing. We are rewarded with wide open vista and, thanks to the new asphalt, a confident, flow-state descent.
PALMS TO PINES HIGHWAY
Highway 74, the “Palms to Pines Highway,” is a state route that begins in the flatlands and climbs into the San Jacinto mountains. It’s a narrow pass, with virtually zero shoulder, used by locals to drive between Palm Springs and the nearby mountain communities. Several years ago, the Tour of California peloton descended this serpentine road en route to a particularly brutal and tyre-melting finish at the Palm Springs Tramway. Over the years, as drivers become more distracted, I’ve become less eager to ride it. For the money-shot view over the valley, however, this remains a must-do ride.
On Day Three, we roll out a little earlier than usual to beat the heat and the auto traffic. Highway 74 starts with a six-kilometre straightaway that averages 3.8% grade before the real climb begins. The next six km is a series of turns that twist, curve and zigzag back on themselves like a snake slithering across the sand. As we climb higher, views of the valley below gradually unfold, slowly revealing fresh details. After the first 20 kilometres, we’re 609 metres above the desert floor, and stop at a scenic turnout to appreciate the picturesque shape of the road we just climbed. It looks like a fancy ribbon discarded from a lavishly wrapped gift box.
So far, the climb has been all asphalt, but I know where to find dirt ahead. After nine more km, we stop at the fire station in Pinyon Pines, a sparse little community of homes and campsites. The morning heated up quickly, and the staff kindly allows us access to cold water, their ice machine and a Google map of the area.
The area is filled with countless trails to be explored and long fire roads to be climbed. Our time, however, is limited so they point us to a nearby complex hiking and horse trails. As the surface transitions from tarmac to dirt, the Trek Checkpoints show their mettle. The tyres dig into the hard-pack sand just enough, grabbing for traction but sliding through turns just enough. These single-track trails are just technical enough to let the prowess of these bikes come to life.
By the time we return to the main road, our sweat- and sunscreen-drenched bodies are caked with desert dirt. We are pure smiles. The ride back, with its long descent back down those dramatic snake-like turns, further locks those smiles in—and we’re still smiling when we once again leap into the cool, blue swimming pool.
Words & Images: Bryan Yates & Liam Friary/Bryan Yates
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