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Episode 6: Xmas Shred - Southern California


A long established Christmas tradition (circa 2016) of mine is to make a pilgrimage to the famed sunny weather and dramatic Pacific coastline of Southern California. To be more precise Orange County where, for a week I will attempt to ride as many trails as possible and feast on yummy-licious Venezualan dishes courtesy of Roberto plus friends and family. So OK, this trip wasn't 'adventurous' in the classical definition. No long epic rides or remote camping - in fact, almost the opposite. I was treated to every modern living creature comforts imaginable. So I'm doing something a little different for this entry, a review of some of the insane, crazy trails and fun to be had in OC on two wheels. Typically over Christmas I would fly back home to London, but last year due to visa renewal I was not allowed to leave the country. I was set to spend Christmas stuck in dreary and damp Houston so Roberto convinced me to visit him in OC. It's always sunny and never rains in OC, he says. When I turned up it poured for all except 2 days I was there. So this trip also served for some redemption the disappointment of last Christmas.

This is not by any means a professional review of the trails, but my own impression, which is heavily painted by my skill level and riding experience. So with that in mind, perhaps it is wise to inform the audience of my riding background. On a scale of 0 - 10 (0 for 'which one is the front brake?' and 10 for 'I leave a trail of broken rocks and dust clouds behind me' type of rider), I would firmly put myself at 6.8, perhaps 7 on a good day. Also I live in Houston, mostly flat with a distinct lack of advanced technical terrain. For example no where in Houston or even in nearby Austin would you find sustained long climbs or downhills. You can still develop to be a skilled rider here, but being good at descending for 5 minutes is very different from being good at sending it full speed for 20 minutes. Another disclaimer I should add is prior to this trip I had a fall and sustained an injury to my left hand, which had not fully healed. It wouldn't hold any significant weight and doing a push up was not possible. So that made for interesting rides considering how insane some of the trails are in OC. Anyway more of that later, and let's begin the review.

Aliso and Wood Canyons, Laguna Niguel

5 Oaks

This was the first trail we hit and what a great trail to enter the Aliso and Wood Canyons area. It starts off from the water tower and feeds you down into Wood Canyons. Rated as a single black diamond, it is pretty much downhill for all of its 0.7 miles. But don't let the short distance decieve you. It's still plenty hard, steep and technical. Kevin and Charles lead the way, and I dropped in last behind Roberto. Being apprehensive with my left hand and since it was the first trail, I wanted to be cautious. But soonest I dropped in the steepness of the trail took over and I was pretty much on a rocket ship. It was definitely a shock to the system (not use to these gradients) but the corners flowed really well plus a few optional jumps made it terrifyingly enjoyable. Two things I didn't care much for was the dust and violent braking bumps - both turned out to be a common feature throughout the trip. The braking bumps turned my front end into a jack hammer, and with the state of my left hand it was not at all pleasant. After a full on intense 2 minutes of downhill the trail mellows out into the wooded section for nice chilled end to the trail. I managed to stay on Roberto's tail all the way down which gave me a shot of confidence. Honestly I thought I'd struggle for entire trip. Game on.

My rating: 4.5/5

Rock It

I actually did this trail last Christmas and so I wasn't going in blind and remembered the lines fairly well. It's 1.3 miles long and rated at intermediate/advance trail. The first half of the trail is fairly mundane in my opinion, flat-ish with few lazy turns but then the bottom half makes up for that. There are 2 very violently bumpy rock bed sections that could easily knock out any loose fillings in your teeth. I went in much faster this year, due to combination of being a better rider and also having 29" wheels vs the 26" helps tremendously. That helped me to keep in touch with Kevin and Charles, both of whom are very fast local riders. After the rock beds there are a few more technical rocky sections and rollers, including a step up section which I never managed to clean - Roberto does this one well. By the time I got the bottom, my poor left hand barely had much life in it. The good (or bad thing depending on your view point) is that there is plenty of time between these downhill runs for my hand to recover courtesy of long 30+ minutes of climbing to get back to the top.

My rating: 4.2/5

Kindergarten

Last run of the day involved a gruelling climb to the Top of the World - as the name implies it is highest point. The amount of vertical gain in such short distance is astounding and so it has become a hub for many riders to do their training. So I don't feel so bad having walked half of the time to reach the top.Then we went through some fancy neighborhood to reach the trail head entrance which is behind an elementary school hence the trail name. I can't find any trail info on this so I can't give any numbers but I would say it is at least a single black diamond. It is freaking fast, loose and the technical difficultly is turned up a notch due to deep ruts. The trail starts of in the open with nice views and the speed just snowballs, and it becomes increasingly narrow with deep ruts. The turns becomes more challengin with increased steepness, braking bumps and ruts. Oh and you'll get slapped constantly by the shrubs. Highly recommended to wear some eye protection - I didn't have any. I get very nervous with the ruts, in fact I went down when I side walled one of them. This mid section is so much fun, once you become familiar and know how to unlock it you could really flow the turns and go at light speed. The end of this mid section is marked by an open and steep bumpy rock bed which caught me by surprise. It was after a right turn, and all these turns are blind due to the shrubs. My front end dug in and I went over the bar, but gracefully landing on my feet. A Moab-like rock spine feature indicates that you're at the end. Charles got a bit off line on the spine and veered into the shrubs, providing a comedic end to the day.

My rating: 4.9/5

San Clemente Trails

These trails don't seem to be marked and don't have any documentation online (and unapologetically I don't use Strava), but it's next to the Bella Collina Town and Golf Club. The trails here are intermediate/advance level. This area unfortunately was ravaged by the recent wild fire, but it gave a very eerie barren beauty to the landscape.

Car Crash

First up was Car Crash, I would class it as mostly single black diamond. Without any vegetation to bind the soil the trail was extra loose and dusty, which made things extra spicy especially in the mid section where there are a couple of steep technical sections with drops followed by some sharp turns. If it's your first time I would recommend walking and scouting some of the sections. The last portion of the trail flows more with a couple of nice jumps to grab some air time.

My rating: 4.6/5

Wheelbarrow Canyon

This trail name is completely made up by Roberto. The most prominent and fun feature of the trail is a short canyon section, and there is a wheelbarrow at the mouth of the canyon. So with simple logic, that's how the trail was named - according to Roberto. The top section is flowy with some jumps you could hit, and because everything has been burned down you could see all the turns and features coming up and that allows you to attack accordingly. The canyon marks the second half and will catch you off guard. Roberto has told me about the canyon in the past but he never told that's what we're hitting when we dropped in at the start. The canyon starts off inauspiciously. When it first appeared I thought we were just passing through an opening, but progressively becomes deeper and narrower and it was only halfway through that I realized this was 'the canyon' and cursed Roberto for not giving me a heads up. The canyon is wide enough even for the widest handlebars but the floor is narrow and rough. You need to track your wheels with precission or else you'll be bouncing like a pinball through the canyon and have your pedals and feet ripped off in the process. I tried to follow Roberto's line, though actually there is only one line, but I was having a hard time even maintaining that. It was only later I realized my mistake. This is the first time I've followed Roberto on a 29" bike. I've always ridden 26" with Roberto in the past and I'm so used to follow his line. That doesn't work with my bigger 29" bike, which is almost a foot longer than his. So while Roberto can gracefully navigate obstacles in the narrow canyon, I just simply don't have room to move the bike around, and so I was left bouncing off the canyon walls much to Roberto's amusement. This canyon section is only 20 seconds long but it is so enjoyable we did it 3 times.

My rating: 4.75/5

Cougar Loop

Not really a fast trail nor technically challenging, but simply a more enjoyable scenic trail to loop you back to the top. There are several dry river bed sections that you can entertain yourself by constructing rock sculptors. Then the trail climbs gently through a wooded section where someone has place a life size stuffed mountain line toy on a tree - hence the name Cougar Loop.

My rating: 3.5/5

Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park

Cactus

Prepare yourself for a long climb on fire road from the car park to get to the top where you'll find a water tank, where the trail head is. It's a fairly short but fun trail about 0.7 miles and intermediate level. It starts off with an optional hip jump followed by an optional drop on the right. I did both and picked up way too much speed for the left hander berm. Braking bumps are plentiful all the way through and my already tender left hand I just didn't have enough strength to brake and completely blew the turn. That was the only drama I had on this trail. There aren't any steep sections but the gradient is consistent all the way so it is easy to keep a good speed and maintain flow through the berms. The only thing I noticed was that the braking bumps are far more pronounced here than any other trails. Perhaps these trails are not maintained as well as the others.

My rating: 3.8/5

Sage Scrub

We climbed back up for another short downhill run. On the climb we noticed a group of hikers making their way up the trail. We couldn't be bothered to wait for them at the top so we dropped in fully aware that we would be bumping into them. After a few turns at the top the trail turns into a narrow single track, fairly straight and steep so you'll be picking up speed pretty quickly. This also happen to be where we encountered the hikers which we were expecting, but not so much for the hikers so they grudgingly voiced their concern. After that short burst of fast downhill the trail will dump you into the woods where the trail opens up and flatens considerably, taking you back to the car park. Difficultly wise I would rate it as medium level intermediate, nothing heart stopping. Plenty of speed with minimal danger.

My rating: 3.3/5

Laguna Beach

Bridges

This mostly a traversing trail used to cross between one ridge to another without doing any crazy steep climbs. It is named so because of the many wooden bridges you'll have to cross. Apart from that nothing else much to say about it other than it is nice scenic gentle (relatively) way to get to the top without losing your legs and lungs.

My rating: 3/5

Fence Line

Having arrived at the ridge we rode on the Boomer Ridge which is a fire road that follows the spine of the ridge. All the fun downhill trails branches off Boomer Ridge and shoot both sides down steep flanks. Fence line is one of them, though it doesn't go all the way down. It more of an alternative to the Boomer Ridge, a single track tracking parallel to it and offering more elevation changes. It's an easy/intermediate trail in case you get bored riding on Boomer Ridge.

My rating: 3.5/5

Lizard

This is pretty much an intermediate/advance single trail of 2 halves. The upper half is typical of many trails here, barren, loose with technical rocky chuncky features. The second half you fill find yourself in the woods where the trail is baby back smooth and super tacky dirt. There is so much flow to be had here - fast turns and rolling hills. You'll be darting in and out of turns at full speed grinning like an idiot. Just loving it.

My rating: 4.8/5

TNA

The smiles at the bottom of Lizard quickly disappeared as we went back to the pain cave to climb all the way back to the ridge (still worth it though!). After a short ride on Boomer Ridge, we dropped into TNA. This is definitely an advance single black diamond trail, which progressively become more challenging towards the end. Lots of chunk and rut on the ground to bounce you off course and steep rocky sections. The top starts of with a couple of switch backs and then it starts to flatten a bit as you follow lower ridge. At the end of it make sure to take left at the fork. Going right takes you down Art School which is even more rowdy. The technical steep rocky sections comes up shortly after the turn. By this time my left hand already had too much abuse and I found it much easier to let go of the brakes and use brute force of my Yeti to buldoze my way through but this was not possible for Roberto with his 26" so I had to urge him to let go of the brakes a few times. I also ate it bad on one rocky section. There was a drop which ordinarily I wouldn't even think twice, but in this instance I was worried that my left hand won't be able to absorb the impact. So I ended up going to slow into the drop, and immediately knew I was going over the bar. I preemted my ejection from the bike only for my feet to get caught up on the frame and went down with the bike landing on top. No harm done though, just covered in fine dust and readjustment of the levers on the handle bar. The steep rocky chunks continue all the way to the end.

My rating: 4.8/5

Telonics

The grand finale. All the riding up to now was in preparation for Telonics. This is a legendary downhill trail, lots of famous riders have ridden it and I'm sure that there are many stories of shattered bones and body parts associated with this trail. It's incredibly steep, your ass needs to be hanging off the back of the bike pretty much the entire way down. Some sections are just hugging the cliff drops. I've never worn a full face helmet but this trail definitely warrants one. In preparation for this trail I had to review my performance over the past week. I had a number of crashes without injury. But on Telonics I don't have the luxury of crashing, the consequences are a lot more dire. Looking back all my crashes have been over the bar caused by me excessively worrying about my injured left hand. I realized that I fallen into the common mistake of beginner riders. Fear makes you focus solely on the problem - the obstacle, rather than planning and executing the solution. In my case I wasn't intimidated by the obstacles or crashing, but the fear was focused on how much my hand is and would be hurting. So my focus was entirely on the wrong thing. If you focus on the problem and not the solution then you'll never overcome it. This is very much true in real life. So with that self reflection done and a shift in mindset I was ready for Telonics.

The trail is actually quite short - 0.6 miles and it is best done as a shuttle ride doing it multiple times to build confidence. We didn't have the luxury of a shuttle so we were limited to 2 runs. We parked at the bottom and the route going up is just as steep as Telonics itself and we pretty much hiked all the way to the top. Roberto lost one of his cleats on the arduos hike. The trail starts off at the Top of The World (which we had climbed earlier in the week). The first run was a scouting run for me to get comfortable and Roberto to explain the line choices to me. And also with only one foot clipped in Roberto had to walk the steeper gnarlier sections. There is a gate keeper at the start of the trail which is a small rock wall that you need to jump over. If you can't clear this you have no business being on the trail. We made our way down casually with Roberto pointing out things that could kill me. I had walked the upper section last year so I more or less remembered it. But the lower section was completely new and even at slow speed I struggled to keep the bike under control, it is just insanely steep and loose. I was on the brakes all the way down.

Alright so 1st run done and I'm not exactly growing in confidence. With the missing cleat there is no way Roberto could do second faster run, plus we couldn't be bothered to do the crazy hike back up again. So we devised a plan to get some cleats, drive to the Top of the The World, send it for the second run and one of us Uber back to the top to retrieve the car. So with the cleats replaced we dropped in for the second run. The upper section is more open with multiple line choices, there is even a pro-line that will lauch you off a boulder. I stuck with the normal line. There is one short section which is heavily rutted out which I was very nervous about, but the first real techincal feature is the first rock fall. There are 2 possible lines, right down the middle or if you're coming in hot stay to the right. I got confused, did neither and went down the non-existent line choice between the 2. Somehow I survived without crashing. Next up are the rock rollers which are quite steep so make sure you keep momentum all the way through. Then you get a little relief before you hit the second half where the trail transitions from the open rock beds to single track loose dirt, but equally steep. I find this more tricky as you have almost no traction to slow yourself down. On this run though I was more relaxed and use constant subtle shifts in body position to remain in control instead constantly braking and losing traction. I actually giggled most of the way down with the rear end loose. The single track opens up to another rock fall section, which is steeper and more technical than the first one. The chunk makes it really hard to stick your line and Roberto drifted off too far the right, tried to cutback, lost the rear and when down hard. Luckily he escaped with just a scrapped knee. That knocked his confidence and he opted to walk the section. I had no excuse so I jumped back on and picked my way down miraculously without crashing. After the rock fall the trail goes back to steep loose single track, so we continued dirt drifting down to the bottom without anymore incidences. Super stoked to have kept a clean record on Telonics!

My rating: 4.9/5

Well that's all the trails I sampled on this trip. There are many more trails and dirt to eat out there, and hopefully the tradition continues next year for that. HUGE thanks to Roberto, his amazing family and friends out there for another epic Christmas trip!!

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