John Borthwick gets on his bike for a two-wheeled tour of Los Angeles.
The first person I see on Santa Monica Beach is a man parading a huge iguana on a rhinestone-studded leash. You might think someone with such an exhibitionist streak might revel in attention, yet the moment he sees my camera he does a sort of gonzo Greta Garbo act, yelling: "No photos, no photos. I wanna be left alone!"
This is my perfect start to a day that will be about seeing the Los Angeles shoreline in all its extrovert, extra-everything glory. I will ride the beachside bicycle trail that runs from Malibu South to Torrance Beach – some 35 kilometres of bodybuilders, skaters, waiters, bladers, surfers, joggers, beautiful people and bag people. In short, a core sample of pure coastal Californication.
I rent a good 10-speed mountain bike from Perry's, a beachfront cycle shop, then head a few kilometres north to the top end of the trail at Will Rogers State Beach, just below Malibu. I notice a beach signboard with a huge litany of don'ts: Thou shalt have no fires, fireworks, dogs, drumming, driving, dressing, undressing, tents, alcohol, glass, loitering and a multitude of other sins. I trundle on, being passed by pony-tailed dudes on racing bikes and slender dames who sashay effortlessly past on rollerblades. I manage to overtake a few others, such as a roller-skating septuagenarian gent who's pushing a woman in a wheelchair.
The path, a benignly flat, four-metre-wide concrete ribbon that curves sinuously across the sands, is known as both the LA Bikeway and the South Bay Cycle Path, although its underwhelming official title is the Marvin Braude Bikeway. As well as skates, the various transports of delight here include the ultimate LA laid-back contraption, a three-wheel recumbent bike. Next come the extremely easy-rider types – plump people more interested in conserving calories than burning them – who zip along, standing upright on bulky electric scooters known as Segways.
Finally, burning even fewer calories and going nowhere at all are those California constants, the homeless. They park their high-piled shopping trolleys back from the path and don't even bother to notice the fit and fabulous types who wing past in iPodded self-absorption.
The bike path is book-ended by the moneyed estates of Malibu in the north and Palos Verdes to the south. Having reached Malibu, I know I have 35 kilometres to ride the full length before I must then retrace my way back up to Santa Monica by 6pm, closing time for the bike-hire shop. In all, a 70-kilometre round trip.
I head south, cruising back down to Santa Monica State Beach and the first of LA's series of early-20th-century fun piers that jut into the Pacific. Santa Monica Pier teeters above the ocean, bristling with roller-coaster hills and an off-duty Ferris wheel. Somewhere amid its gaggle of ice-cream shops, fortune-tellers and games stalls is the 1922 Carousel pavilion that featured in the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie, The Sting.
It's then a short pedal down to Venice Beach and more movie memories, such as Dogtown and Z-Boys and The Big Lebowski. Venice Beach is full of magicians, dancers, jugglers and buskers, especially on weekends, when everyone comes out to look at everyone who's looking at them. The market stalls, crowds and food vendors make Venice Beach and its Strand the most heavily populated stretch of the cycleway. However, they are just a curtain-raiser for the famed narcissism-on-steroids show at nearby Muscle Beach.
Here, pumping public iron and primping their pecs, are men whose bodies truly fit Clive James's famous description of the younger Arnold Schwarzenegger: "like a condom full of walnuts". They glisten and ripple in an open-air gym while giggling tourist women ask for a quick feel of a massive bicep or a corrugated six-pack. Circus gluteus maximus.
The path then diverts inland for a kilometre or so, away from the La-La Land shore and into the side streets around Marina del Rey, said to be the world's largest man-made small-craft harbour. Skirting its vast basin of white hulls and nodding masts, plus a parking lot equally crammed with powerboats on trailers, I notice that here, the homeless have disappeared – legislated, I presume, out of existence by the local city council.
Passing Ballona Creek, I re-emerge on to the seafront at Dockweiler State Beach – 100 metres wide with a smooth and fast track. Riders, bladers and skaters rip along here, unimpeded by joggers, iguana walkers, musclemen or pirouetting stylists in lycra. Suddenly the earth shudders and the air is roaring. Straight above me, a jumbo jet lifts off from Los Angeles International Airport. I'm right under the flight path.
Nearby, at El Segundo, is another aeronautical site. A caution sign declares, "Hang-Glider X-ing" – this is the birthplace in the US, in 1966, of hang-gliding. I ride along for a while beside a large man who's pedalling awkwardly on an under-size bike. "I got the wrong seat," he groans. "My butt's gonna hurt for a week. I'm going home to sit in a tub."
The bike trail passes a large oil refinery and soon the scenery morphs yet again, this time into the snack bars and frappuccino joints of Manhattan Beach, whose old pier was the scene of the climax in the Michael Douglas-Robert Duvall film Falling Down.
An afternoon snack and a coffee and soon I'm rolling again, past South Bay beaches such as Hermosa and Redondo – place names, like so many in the City of Angels, that recall when California was claimed and named by Spain. The sands are alive with volleyball players and fat grey gulls and the bike path with eye-candy skaters. In the slow lane, Hispanic nannies wheel their little blond charges in strollers. Almost everything Angeleno seems to be here, rolled out in one epic reel, a yellow brick road made of concrete and celluloid, stretching to the ultimate margin of the American dream, the Pacific Ocean.
Suddenly, I am awakened from these musings. I'm in a Torrance Beach parking lot, with my progress and this marvellous trail both having hit a dead-end. As with wealthy Malibu to the north, the burghers of svelte Palos Verdes have little interest in entertaining the sweaty progress of skaters, rollers, riders, Segways, recumbents, shopping trolleys and other free-wheeling entities. I am soon hit by another, much ruder awakening: I have less than two hours to ride back to the hire shop in Santa Monica before closing time. On your bike, Jack!
The Sydney to Los Angeles air route is served by carriers including VAustralia, Air New Zealand, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, United, Air Pacific and Delta.
WHERE TO STAY
Santa Monica has a wide choice of accommodation, ranging from the luxurious Huntley Santa Monica Beach Hotel (preferredhotelgroup.com) to the original Hotel California (hotelca.com) to plentiful budget accommodation (see wotif.com).
To hire a bike (or skates) for the Los Angeles coastal cycle path, go to one of eight beachside Perry's cafes, which are easily spotted along the Ocean Front Walk area between Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
Bicycle hire: one hour, $US10 ($11.20); two hours, $US17; three hours, $US21. More than three hours qualifies as an all-day rental, $US25.
Cycle and skate hire: perryscafe.com.