Joy Rides

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whenever I'm driving the freeway to work and I see a motorist flying by with a bike or two lashed to the bumper, I smile with secret envy. They're off to see the world, or some sublime slice of it, while I'm stuck counting the days until I can do likewise.

Sunny weekends find me trundling along the highways and byways on my industrial-strength mountain bike, enjoying my favorite pastime of sightseeing on two wheels. Often during these rolling reveries I hear the whoosh of spandex-clad muscle machines rocketing by on skinny, gleaming 24-speed bikes. Now, somewhere in my helmeted brain, I dimly understand that they're having a grand time. But to me, the thought of putting nose to pavement to work on pedal cadence or aerodynamic technique is about as appealing as biking in a hurricane.

Ah well, different spokes, different folks. Most people who own bikes just want to enjoy the outdoors, get some exercise and go on family outings. So here are 10 of my favorite rides in Southern California that can be done by just about anyone on an ordinary bike. Most are flat and kid-friendly. All are full of serendipitous distractions and are best enjoyed at a pace below light speed. I call them rides for real people.

1) THE CALIFORNIA CLASSIC

South Bay bike trail

6-36 miles round trip

This is the quintessential beach bike ride, unbeatable for people-watching and first-rate for beginning cyclists. If you're feeling ambitious, bike the entire 18-mile path from Santa Monica to the Palos Verdes Peninsula (flat all the way!) through beach towns made famous by '60s surfing music. Park south of the Santa Monica Pier in the lot at Ocean Avenue and Bicknell Street ($5 to $7) and hop on the paved trail that skirts the sand. You'll soon be cruising beside the carnival-like Venice boardwalk. Slow pedaling here is a must so you can eyeball the parade of characters and costumery (and for safety on this busy stretch). Turn around at the recently renovated Venice Pier (restaurants nearby) or follow the landscape southward as far as your legs will take you. Head up Washington Boulevard about a mile to an off-road path just past the fenced pond. Then pass the Marina del Rey yacht harbor, Fisherman's Village (a good stop for eats), the Ballona Creek jetty and endless rows of laid-back condos at Manhattan and Hermosa beaches. At Redondo Beach, stroll the pier, then head back the way you came.

2) THE PALM TREE TOUR

Santa Barbara

9-mile loop

Sweeping ocean views, tranquil marshland, historic spots. This is bicycling paradise, and you can hit some of the town's best attractions--too far apart to do on foot--without the hassle of driving one-way streets and finding parking. This ride gets extra points for ample food and refreshment opportunities along the way. Park on Cabrillo Boulevard between State and Milpas streets (on Sundays, the beach art show may force you to park west of State or north of Cabrillo). Get on the signed "beachway" and swing east to the peaceful Andree Clark Bird Refuge. Head back west and take a detour to the end of bustling Stearns Wharf. Then pedal north on State Street and right on Canon Perdido to the historic Presidio, tops as a tourist stop in my book. Nearby are the famous Moorish-style courthouse (a block east of State at Figueroa) and the small but well-loved Santa Barbara Art Museum (State at Anapamu Street). Return to your car by turning left at Victoria Street, left at De La Vina, right at Haley and left at Castillo. At the corner of Castillo and Montecito streets are the Victorian-era Fernald Mansion, the Carriage House Museum and the Trussell-Winchester Adobe.

3) MOUNTAIN MEANDER

West fork of San Gabriel River

15.6 miles round trip

Amazing but true: a nearly flat, paved, off-road bike trail in a mountain wilderness. This sun-dappled ride hugs a verdant stream bank and ends atop 1930s-era Cogswell Dam, where you can spot Mt. Baldy looming eastward. Along the way, graceful oak trees and spruce shade the path through the chaparral-lined canyon. It's best to do this ride on a weekday or get there before 8 a.m., as parking quickly fills on weekends ($3 on weekends and holidays). To get to the trail, take the Foothill Freeway (210) to Azusa Avenue (California 39) and go north to the Angeles National Forest. Just past the 27.02-mile post marker (12.9 miles north of the freeway), you'll see the paved parking lot on the left. The trail starts south of the bridge at the "road closed" sign. At 6.7 miles is the Glenn Trail camp, a good lunch stop with picnic tables (and an outhouse). Where the asphalt path turns to concrete, lock your bike and walk the steep hill to the top of the dam--the 360-degree view is worth it.

4) BREEZING BY THE BEACHES

Southward from San Clemente

26-39 miles round trip

This is a great ride for getting rid of those weekday cobwebs. And there are few cars to contend with, so it's perfect for beginners. Park at the San Clemente State Beach campground ($6) and start your ride at the Avenida del Presidente pedestrian gate near Interstate 5. Turn south, and when the road veers sharply left, get on the off-road bike trail. Behind the clump of shrubbery on the right is a bit of history: Richard Nixon's Western White House. Ahead of you on the frontage road are the "Trojan helmets" of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Thread your way along a frontage road to the abandoned coast highway, past 3.5 miles of happy campers and picnickers at San Onofre State Beach. The path dips under I-5 (bear right at the unsigned fork) and follows a deserted road for 1.2 miles to Las Pulgas Road. You can turn back there or turn inland on Las Pulgas for the full tour and pedal serenely through Camp Pendleton, which has some gentle hills and occasional military bric-a-brac. My turnaround point is at the hand-lettered sign marking the road to Cockleburr Beach.

5) ROLLING RAMBLE

Palos Verdes Peninsula

22-mile loop

The Palos Verdes area is a special treat for cyclists, with its elegant landscaping, unspoiled open space and stunning offshore views. Unfortunately, beyond the first 5.8 miles, this ride is not for kids or nervous beginners because of challenging hills and some narrow stretches of roadway. But mile for mile, it is one of the most aesthetically rewarding bike routes in Los Angeles County. Park on Palos Verdes Drive North, just west of Western Avenue, and amble through placid horse country in Rolling Hills. At 5.8 miles, turn left into Malaga Cove Plaza. Malaga Cove Ranch Market is a good sandwich and munchies stop--you'll need the calories while negotiating an upcoming series of moderate hills. Pedaling south on what has become Palos Verdes Drive West, the village of Lunada Bay is another potential food stop, with half a dozen restaurants. Point Vicente County Park (at 11.0 miles) has a terrific nature museum and picturesque lighthouse. Technically, you're now on Palos Verdes Drive South. At Abalone Cove County Beach, a short hiking trail offers beach access and shimmering tide pools. Resist the urge to take steep, dangerous Palos Verdes Drive East back to your car; Western Avenue is less interesting but easier to negotiate.

6) THE COOL CRUISE

Ventura County coastline

20 miles round trip

This is an excellent bike ride in midsummer because when it's oppressively hot in L.A., it's often mercifully cool, even foggy, here. Park in Ventura at Emma Wood State Beach. Ride north in the tangy salt air on California Highway 1, which has a wonderfully wide shoulder and little traffic. The route parallels the Southern Pacific tracks much of the way, and you'll find yourself waving cheerfully to the folks smiling down from Amtrak trains. You'll get an amusing personal look at RV life as you pass a campground on the seashore. Good picnic lunch stops abound on your route, but Solimar Beach and Faria are good bets. Here and there, especially at Seacliff, you'll see working remnants of the area's once-booming oil industry. At the micro-town of La Conchita, there's a store where you can take a snack break before your return journey.

7) THE LEISURE TOUR

Orange County beaches

8-40 miles round trip

Newport, where the wealthy park their yachts, is primo biking territory. Leave your car on Balboa Boulevard between 19th and 6th streets (metered parking on the median, four quarters per hour). Go half a block to the beach bikeway and pedal south on a perfect concrete ribbon. You'll come to Balboa Pier at Main Street, a food and drink oasis. Continue south and smile at the funky architecture, window displays and postage-stamp gardens of scores of beach cottages and condos. When the pavement ends, reverse direction and go three miles straight north to Newport Pier, a beehive of activity where you'll find another stretch of eateries. Perch on a bench under the palm trees and watch the world go by: sun-bleached surfers, taut-muscled skaters, people showing off their good looks and expensive clothes. For an easy 40-miler, keep going north, past acres of sand and sun worshipers at Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches. Turn around at the far end of Sunset Beach, where you'll see two unusual residences on Pacific Avenue: a whimsical turreted castle and a rustic wooden water tower. This route can be crowded on summer weekend afternoons, but it's smooth sailing the rest of the time.

8) THE MILK RUN

Ojai Valley

16 miles round trip

An off-road--and flat--trail makes this jaunt through the countryside supremely stress-free and fabulous for kids. Start in Foster Park (parking $3, exact change needed), six miles north of U.S. 101 on California 33 in Ventura County. The wide, well-marked bicycle and equestrian trail winds languidly through cow country and leads north to charming Ojai. There are miles of rail fences, ranches, pastures and ponies. The off-road trail bypasses Ojai's commercial center. So as you come in south of town, turn left off the bike path at San Antonio Street and take it to the main thoroughfare, Ojai Avenue. Here restaurants of every description beckon (O-Hi Frostie is a retro favorite; Go Fish and Garden Terrace offer outdoor seating). Or head over to shady Libby Park with your picnic lunch. Take a break from the saddle by strolling the three-block downtown.

9) PEDALING THE PENINSULA

Point Loma, San Diego

10 miles

Most sightseers, in a hurry to get to Cabrillo National Monument and the quaint 1850s lighthouse there, barrel along this skinny peninsula by car. But its inspiring views and curative corners are best enjoyed at a slower pace. Park at Point Loma Park (three blocks south of Chatsworth Boulevard on Catalina Boulevard). Bike south on Catalina through the Ft. Rosecrans military gate. Note that you need to stay on the main road and leave by 5 p.m. Besides glorious views of Coronado Bay and the ocean far below your wheels, you'll see bulky, bizarre-looking military hardware arching skyward, and thousands of gleaming gravestones at the fort's national cemetery. Cabrillo National Monument ($3 entrance fee) commemorates the spot where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first known European to set foot on the West Coast in 1542.

10) MAGNIFICENT MILES

Malibu coast

14 miles round trip

Forget the convertible. This is the way to see Malibu and environs. Because you'll be on Pacific Coast Highway some of the time, this isn't a ride for kids or anyone nervous about riding in traffic. But it's an otherwise outstanding bike ride, with marvelous houses to gaze at, drop-dead gorgeous panoramas and fine places to eat. Park at or near Pacific Coast Highway and Las Flores Canyon Road and head west on PCH. After a few miles of splendid coastal knolls, you'll drift into the lazy Malibu commercial strip. Go with the flow until just past Cross Creek Road. Turn left onto Malibu Colony Road, then make a quick right onto Malibu Road. On this flat, deserted lane you'll avoid a killer hill on PCH and glide through a hidden enclave of dozens of lovely, expensive beach-side homes. When you reach PCH again, go another mile or so to the turn-around point, flower-bedecked Beau Rivage Mediterranean Restaurant. Nearby (and less expensive) is Malibu Seafood Cafe. On your return trip, check out Malibu Lagoon Museum, just east of Cross Creek Road.

Thermos is a news editor on the Times' Washington, D.C., edition.

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Tips for Easy Riding

* Take plenty of water. A 28-ounce bottle for every 10 miles of flat terrain is a good rule of thumb. Drink fluid before you get thirsty.

* High-carbohydrate snacks will help keep your energy level up.

* A bright shirt or orange safety vest ($7-$10 at bike shops) makes you more visible to motorists.

* Shorts or spandex pants are better for riding than jeans or slacks, which tend to cramp your knees and make them sore.

* Set your saddle height so there is a slight crook at the knee when your foot is at the bottom of your pedal stroke. If unsure about this, ask for help at a bike shop.

* A well-maintained bike makes riding easier. Squirt some oil on the chain. Bike shops will adjust your derailleur for about $15 and do a top-to-bottom overhaul for $45-$50.

* Remember that you are subject to the same traffic laws as motorists. Signal your turns and heed stop signs. Never ride facing traffic.

* Always wear a helmet. Experienced cyclists don't even go a block without one.

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