The Laguna RADS might be the oldest and most notorious mountain biking club around. But somehow these mostly middle-aged men who have achieved legendary status in cycling circles for their intense love of dirt, risk-taking and steep terrain retain an aura of mystery.
Even the man who oversees the home turf of the Laguna RADS, which is not an acronym but was a hip term when the group was formed in the early 1980s, has had only fleeting glimpses of the elusive riders.
"My contact is usually seeing the backs of their bodies riding away from me," said Tom Maloney, senior park ranger for Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. "They're underground. They have no official way of communicating. They have no bylaws, no set meeting times and dates, and yet they get together and are a close-knit group that is legendary."
Maloney has been looking for the RADS since 1990, when it became his job to maintain the park.
"They are not light on the land," he said. "They like it on the rough side. The Laguna RADS are members of the public and are allowed to use any officially open trails. But they maintain a set of trails for their own use.
"I know they go in there and cut down vegetation and move soil. The numbers of these trails have increased over the years. Pretty soon all the ridgelines will have a trail slicing down it."
But the RADS contend that comments such as Maloney's keep them underground. They believe that hikers, equestrians, migrants and other mountain bikers do more damage to the land and the wildlife than they do.
"We're a small part of the problem," longtime member Dirk Maes said. "But we get blamed for everything. We also help maintain a lot of the natural habitat, and that's something we don't get credit for.
"Given the political atmosphere these days with mountain bikers being characterized as villains," he said, "we'd just as soon remain mysterious. And that's part of the fun too."
Mountain biking was a lot more fun for the RADS in the 1980s, before the land became part of the park.
"It was private land, but the owners didn't give a hoot as long as we didn't bother their cattle," said Buzz Shaw, 43, one of the earliest RAD members.
In those days, before shocks, clip-less pedals and rear suspension came to mountain bikes, the RADS had a lot more open space to choose from. But as toll roads and large housing tracts have come in, the trails and the thrills have been diminishing. The group rides only twice a week, down from three, and membership is decreasing.
"The RADS have fallen on hard times," said Carl Iverson, who helped found the group. "There's fewer places to ride, and a lot of the guys are getting older. It's almost like the mystique is keeping them together."
The average age of the group's 50 to 60 active members is about 40. The youngest rider is 25 and the oldest is in his late 50s. Iverson, 63, stopped pedaling four years ago.
"I can't hang with those guys anymore," he said. "The last time I rode with them, it took me two or three days to recover. There are those of us coming up and those going out."
Those who try to join the loosely organized club of daredevils must audition before they are accepted. One RAD tried out for two years before he was finally welcomed into the club.
"If a new guy shows up dressed to the hilt with shaved legs, we can tell he's way too obsessive about mountain biking," Maes said. "Those are the kind of guys we'll drag through the bushes and take up the steepest hills. Usually, they don't show up next week."
To the RADS, personality and character are as important as riding skills.
"Being a RAD is all about suppressing your ego and being a part of a fun-loving group," Mike Hall said.
After their weeknight ride, the RADS sit around a fire pit and drink a few beers, eat a few tacos, plan their next trip together and talk about their personal lives.
"One of the most important parts of the club is the fire pit," Shaw said. "It brings us all together."
And nearly everyone comes from a different direction. They are teachers, doctors, contractors, portfolio managers and stained-glass artists. The common thread is a passion for extreme mountain bike riding.
The most renowned rider of them all is Hans Rey, a pioneer of extreme riding and a multiple U.S. and world "trials" champion. Rey, a German-born Swiss citizen who lives in Laguna Beach, has made a career of excelling in trials, an arcane event that requires riders to carefully navigate over a jumbled set of obstacles -- fallen trees, ramps, boulders and even beer kegs.
Rey has helped give the RADS a worldwide identity. But the RADS have helped themselves too.
One of their annual races -- the Leaping Lizard Downhill -- has been shown on the Outdoor Life cable network. The event, held every spring on an unannounced date down 1,000-foot-high Telonics Trail, is in its 20th year. The RAD Challenge, down Laguna Canyon Road, up a steep trail and down Telonics, has been held in late summer for 16 years.
One of these days, Maloney says, he or the other full-time ranger will catch up with the RADS.
"They seem to know my schedule," he said. "Wherever I am, they're at the other end of the park. I'd love to meet them sometime.
"I understand they do some pretty daring things. There's a place for what they do, just not in a protected wilderness park."