With no real plan other than to simply explore and enjoy all that southern California has to offer, Sean Wiesner and friends gather together a clutch of Triumph Classics and set about mopping up canyons, ogling the rich and pursuing the famous while riding in LA.
As an avid motorcyclist living in southern Ontario, the month of February is absolutely dismal. Cooped up indoors for a couple of months already, and at least a couple more months to go before enjoyable riding is back, it’s enough to drive an otherwise sane man over the brink. Motivated by an intense desire to get the heck out of town, I decided to take an impromptu motorcycle trip to a warm location. The glitz and glamour but, more importantly, the weather of Los Angeles, won out as the destination. Even with little notice, I easily sold the idea to a small group of friends who were all Triumph enthusiasts. In little time, my 2003 Bonneville was on a pallet at a freight forwarding company destined for Pamona, California when I was given the opportunity to try a 2007 Triumph Scrambler for the trip. I just had to pick it up from a dealer in the LA area. The deal was too good to pass up as I had my eye on the Scrambler since its release last year and even considered trading in my Bonnie for Triumph’s latest variant on the classic theme. So my Bonneville that was already enroute was offered to one of my friends to use while another was mounted on a Thruxton and the other on a Scrambler as well. It ended up turning into a real British invasion.
Riding in Los Angeles – The Motivation
From the moment the idea of heading to California to go for a ride arose, I decided there was to be, in effect, no plan. In my experience in setting out for an adventure in riding, the more structured things are the greater chance of being disappointed. I was given some insight from friends who have frequented the area as to some places I just couldn’t miss. A list of destinations was made but I half intentionally left it at home. Sure, when you don’t have a set schedule and itinerary you can miss some important places, but as most anyone who actually likes to ride motorcycles, the destination is rarely the high point of the journey. It’s all part of that philosophy of when motorcycling; you always are where you want to be. Sounds corny, but we all know it’s true.
Once astride the Scrambler, my initial impression was that this should prove to be an excellent tool for the task. Here was a bike that is billed as an all-round, general purpose bike. As I see it, one that is not intended to do anything particularly well other than look cool. Still, looking stylish is always a bonus.
My first sensation of California riding was tension. With no realistic alternate routes to get me from inland Pamona to my ocean front home base for the week of Huntington Beach, the freeway was the only option. In a post rush hour with eight lanes in either direction, jammed with autos, semis and gravel trucks all traveling more than 80 miles per hour, it was not the euphoric west coast ride I visualized.
Traveling at the flow of traffic in this environment proved difficult on the Triumph as the roar of traffic easily overpowered the near silent stock mufflers. Also, the Scrambler’s 270 degree crankshaft configuration did not give the feedback of motor speed I expected, and without a tachometer I was left repeatedly checking for the non-existent sixth gear. In addition, with the upright “dirt bike style” riding position, wind buffeting from the speed and passing trucks added to the disorientation. It did not take long to realize this is not the intended use of this bike.
Finally off the highway I cruised briefly through the beach neighbourhoods and had my first pleasurable sensation of real riding in LA. Once checked into my flea bag motel—what had to be the only dive in a neighbourhood of million dollar homes and overpriced shops—I relaxed for the evening looking forward to more real riding and sight seeing the following day.
Riding in LA – Start With a Cut and Shave
Oddly enough, the first stop was at a famous Long Beach barber shop called “Hawleywood’s,” owned by one Donnie Hawley. I had been introduced to Justin, one of the barbers, the evening before while socializing in a Sunset Beach watering hole. I was given a card and directions and told I could get my pompadour perfected and a hot shave in the traditional style. Situated in a district of antique stores and vintage clothing shops, the Scrambler looked great parked at the curb as its retro styling fit in with the aura of this authentic establishment. I was welcomed by Justin himself, who quickly set to work. The interior was decorated with antique barbering supplies and equipment, pin-up girls and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. Ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon was on tap and offered up to all customers as Elvis Presley played over the Hi-Fi. I was in complete sensory overload. As my eyes roamed the walls, they settled on a series of old black and white pictures of some men at a dirt track raceway on Triumphs. These were photos taken at the Ascot Park Raceway in Gardena, California. The rider in the photos was the shop owner’s grandfather, Don Hawley, noted factory Triumph rider of the early sixties. More than an hour later, after the best haircut of my life and a hot towel shave, I really felt the part straddling my Scrambler and roaring off to whatever lay ahead.
Further up the Pacific Coast Highway was the headquarters of West Coast Choppers. My traveling companions and I were determined this would be something worth seeing. It was, in fact, a little disappointing as anything of real interest was off limits to casual passers-by. When we asked a mechanic in the shop what he was working on, he responded without enthusiasm: “Just some ass-candy for some rich guy.” He was more interested in talking about how cool our little fleet of new Triumphs was, sitting outside the shop door. This reaction is quite common as Triumph motorcycles always seem to be a conversation piece, especially the Classic models.
Further along the PCH in Long Beach is the RMS Queen Mary. Once an express ship that sailed the North Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City in the mid-part of the last century, it is now permanently berthed and operates as a museum and hotel. Unfortunately in the off season, the museum is rarely open so it was a disappointment not to walk on board. But next to it, also permanently moored and functioning as a museum is an authentic Russian Foxtrot-class submarine. That was open, and being able to tour the internals of a Cold War Russian sub seemed like a great opportunity. This particular model, code name: Scorpion, patrolled the Pacific monitoring US forces. Seventy-eight crew members shared this confined space with 22 nuclear tipped torpedoes capable of destroying a port or entire naval battle group. These crews typically spent three month at a time at sea but at six-foot-six, I soson felt claustrophobic and after 30 minutes, had to see some daylight.
I SOON DISCOVERED THAT AN EARLY MORNING RUN ALONG THE edge of the surf in this part of the world is a great way to snoop around and look in people’s beach-side garages. You can pass the time as you run by counting Ferraris or maybe Porsche Speedsters. It’s a different routine than back home where the same morning run is highlighted by offerings from Massey-Ferguson and John Deere. A little investigative work revealed one of those Ferrari occupied garages is owned by one Jesse James of West Coast Choppers fame and Sandra Bullock. To think, just down the street from my flea bag motel.
Of course the customary trip to downtown Hollywood to see all the typical tourist traps had to be done. I had hopes of spotting a movie star or two. Coincidentally, a friend of mine from back home was in Los Angeles on business for the week and asked if I could stop by and take her for a ride around town to see those same tourist traps. So I picked up Laura in Santa Monica and after checking out all the freaks on Venice Beach, got on Sunset Boulevard eastbound to see the Hollywood sights. I was initially a bit concerned about riding two-up on the Scrambler as it is obviously not a real touring piece, especially considering my overly lanky body. Fortunately, the large flat seat that looks uncomfortable is actually the complete opposite and provided plenty of space. It was interesting to see Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive and the Sunset Strip but the novelty wore off mighty quickly. Stores that sell $500 belts are only interesting to drive by, not to enter. So a jaunt up to the Hollywood Hills to view architecture and millionaire homes was in order.
Riding In LA – The Iconic Places
ONCE ON MULHOLLAND DRIVE, WE WERE AWAY FROM TRAFFIC and could carve corners and get my first sporting impression of the bike. Even with two-up, the motor pulled strong out of the corners and for a brief while, I thought the bike actually handled better with the extra weight. This initial thought may have been because the bike’s high centre of gravity and somewhat wallowy suspension appeared more settled. After a while I realized that was in fact not the case and I had to back off the pace a touch as I felt that I was overtaxing the front brake on some downhill corners. The views from atop the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountain range were spectacular, though. And if you used your imagination to remove the thick brown smog from the picture, you could see the panoramic vista that made all these rich folk build on these hills in the first place. As I descended Laurel Canyon Boulevard and back to Sunset Boulevard, I came off impressed with the fact that the Scrambler could hold its own at a brisk pace with a passenger.
Bad timing though I suppose, ending up in Hollywood at four in the afternoon heading westbound. This was gridlock traffic beyond imagination. As far as you could see, each intersection was full of cars locked in, lights changing but no movement. Lane splitting was the only option but I really didn’t need a problem with the local authorities on this vacation. Once I saw the few other motorcyclists weaving between cars, I figured it must be an acceptable practice. After all, I am a big believer in the “When in Rome …” concept. Locals appeared quite talented at this rush hour activity showing creativity by folding in mirrors of those cars that were just a little too close together and they made ample use of the sidewalk. I found my years of Enduro competition of use as weaving between the stationary autos was much like blasting through a tight woods trail on my Husqvarna. I kept to a conservative approach and found the handlebar width of the Triumph acceptable for the task at hand. After dropping off my friend, it was another cool trip south from Santa Monica to Huntington Beach opting for the casual PCH instead of the insanity of the 405. Even though not much distance was traveled, it was an outstanding day of experience.
One of those nearby “Just can’t miss” destinations that was on the list I forgot back home was to the south and inland on the Ortega Highway to Lake Elsinore. It was billed as an “epic ride” so it was easily decided that this would be next day’s project.
To get to the start of the Ortega Highway required a pleasurable cruise down the PCH to Dana Point. Along the way were the oceanside towns of Cost Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. The wealth and opulence emanating from these communities was overwhelming. Gigantic rows of car dealerships flogging everything from Bentley to Lamborghini lay on the inland side of the highway. On the opposite side were homes featuring the most brilliant architecture perched upon the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Being able to see this extreme affluence was one of the reasons I wanted to ride around the Los Angeles area in the first place. But I have to say, it was a bit unsettling. It was just a little too much for me.
Once we turned left and began traveling inland, we were quickly assured we were on the correct road as there were swarms of motorcycles coming from the opposite direction. This is always reassurance of a great riding ahead. Sure enough, the road began to fold in on itself again and again as it carved through the Santa Ana Mountains and past the Sitton Peak at 3,273 feet. The temperature seemed to fluctuate 10 degrees between the shaded canyons and the open valleys. I passed a sign that announced I was entering the Cleveland National Forest. I laughed out loud as I read this as there was not a tree to be seen anywhere. Just dead stick-like plants and vast quantities of dirt and rocks.
The Scrambler proved fun and capable at the quick pace we traveled. But just as the road was providing repeated 180-degree turns we came across a quaint establishment called Hell’s Kitchen. It was a nice enough little restaurant bar decorated in flames where you can grab your ice cold beverage from a coffin converted into a refrigerator. It’s a popular hangout for the custom cruiser crowd and there was no shortage of bikes that had forks so long, I had to wonder how they ever negotiated the hairpin turns leading there. The outlook from the highway over Lake Elsinore looks down on a 1,000-ft. sheer drop. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I peered over was amplified by a paraglider floating right past my head on his way down to the lakeside town.
WE WOUND OUR WAY TO A PLACE CALLED THE ROCK STORE, WHICH IS a small motorcycle hangout situated in the Santa Monica Mountains off Mulholland Highway north of Malibu. Frequented by Jay Leno and other movie stars, I had high hopes this would be my chance to meet someone famous—so far the closest I had come to meeting a local celebrity was hanging out one night with a girl who claimed to be best friends with Cameron Diaz’s sister. Alas, we missed seeing Leno by a few hours.
The Celebrity Factor
However, our brush with celebrity while riding in LA was to come the following day in Riverside, the home of Malcolm Smith Motorsports. Though the dealership owned and named for the legendary off-roader was brimming with motorized toys of all kinds, my main interest was seeing Smith’s personal vintage Husqvarna display that featured some of the bikes actually used in the movie On Any Sunday, which starred Malcolm Smith’s friend and riding companion, the great Steve McQueen. As I inspected the bikes in detail, through the glass walls of the offices next to the display, I saw Malcolm himself having a meeting with some executive type people. He noticed our interest in his collection and came out to talk with us. After introductions were made all around and he learned we were Canadians, he really opened up and began to tell story after story. He said he was always happy to talk to fellow Canadians—Smith, as few know, was born and raised on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. After about half an hour he apologized to the executives and said they would have to continue the meeting at another time. When I told him I was touring the area for the week on a Triumph Scrambler, it reminded him of hanging out with Steve McQueen and he went on telling stories of their exploits. After all us grown men finished swooning like a group of pre-teen girls, we collected our autographs and thanked him for his time. He of course thanked us for the visit and invited us all to come back and ride off-road in Baja with him someday.
Having met my token celebrity, I felt that my trip was then truly complete, and reaffirmed my belief that when setting out for adventure, the best plan is no plan at all when riding in LA.