Literary wanderings: A 240-mile cycling trip

A faceless woman rides her bike in front of four trees.
(Sarah Flemming • The Student Life)

Malibu Hills is a dry, rugged, windswept stretch of the California coast punctuated by sweeping ocean views and bewilderingly large homes. This winding section of the Pacific Coast Highway is a beautiful place to ride your bike. 

Cycling there is a constant back-and-forth: slowly creaking up punishingly steep hills before plunging down the other side on straightaways that look like they’re going to spill you right into the Pacific Ocean. It is an incredible stretch of the coastline, but one almost completely devoid of actual bike lanes. 

Over the winter break, in the quiet slump week following the New Year, I decided on a whim to ride my bike the 240 miles from Torrance to Morro Bay. The idea was born on a particularly empty afternoon, and by 8:00 a.m. the next morning I was off. The plan was simple: ride for three days, following the coast as closely as possible from the cliffs of Torrance Beach to Morro Rock. 

While filled with stunning coastal views, the ride was also a crash course in Southern California cycling infrastructure — and more often the lack thereof. After years of cycling and commuting in cities, riding alongside busy traffic is familiar, but Malibu’s 50-mph-no-shoulder-blind-corners or the pitch-black tunnels above Gaviota were enough to inspire more than a little fear. 

When I rolled into Morro Bay three days later, the general emotion of the ride was euphoric — a minute-by-minute reminder of the staggering beauty of Southern California and the value of hours free to simply look and think. But the many gaps in cycling-accessible corridors through some sections of the ride were impossible to ignore. 

A few weeks later, I opened “Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road,” and the pieces started to fall into place. Written by James Longhurst, a professor of urban environmental history and public policy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the book provides an impressive overview of cycling’s long and, at times, harrowing history within the U.S. 

The book was immensely informative, providing me with a much clearer understanding of how we got where we are now. In laying out all that has been accomplished and highlighting where there remains plenty of work to be done, Longhurst weaves a tale that successfully accomplishes two things: a thorough historical account of cycling in this country and a roadmap for today’s cyclists to carry the cause forward. 

As a cyclist, it gave me a sense of place.

Reading about early bike riders braving crowded city streets and locally-organized campaigns for the construction of new bikeways was oddly enlivening. It was unexpectedly empowering to read about the generations of cycling advocates that have gone before. 

Despite cycling’s complicated and often contentious history on American roads, the book’s aura is generally positive. Biking, and the necessary infrastructure to make it safe and equitably accessible, is dramatically on the rise. 

The pandemic got people back on their bikes in what is fast becoming the biggest cycling boom in recent history. Trail data from 2020 showed threefold increases in usage compared to 2019, and now, two years later, it is still hard to source bicycles and parts due to the sustained surge in demand. 

The future is surely bright for cycling in the US; the question is where we go from here. 

Many cities these days tout dedication to sustainable transportation as a core value. However, roads remain a space explicitly designed for and dominated by cars. While Claremont, for example, does have the promising beginnings of cycling infrastructure, there are still many steps to be made towards being a truly cycling-friendly town; bike lanes often don’t link up or disappear at key thoroughfares. 

As evidenced throughout Longhurst’s book, change begins at the local level, where cyclists from the community can engage with the unique challenges and opportunities presented by their local environment and begin to address the gaps. 

As thousands have discovered during the pandemic, cycling is special — it is freedom on two wheels. In the years to come, it will be the task of this generation of cyclists to pick up where the last left off and work towards policymaking that creates safer and more accessible roads for bicycles moving forward. 

In this endeavor, “Bike Battles” is invaluable; it is the succinct yet powerful historical orientation every cyclist needs before venturing out onto the road.  

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. This semester he is enrolled in “Bicycle Revolutions,” a 5C class focusing on cycling advocacy and increasing bike transportation infrastructure in Claremont. 

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