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Winter brings an end to racing season, along with warm moist air across Southern California, driving fog formation over the ocean and an influx of athletes looking to enjoy the beaches and trail networks of the coastline. A small community nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara has a surfing reputation that has long overshadowed its mountain biking potential, leaving its 100-plus miles of trail to a small number of locals and a few world cup DH teams that drop in for testing. At the core of this trail scene lies the local nonprofit stewardship—Sage Trail Alliance—which I have the good fortune to run. Over the past few years, we’ve made the most of short rain seasons to expand the trail network through the restoration of historic trail, the maintenance of existing tracks, and the construction of dozens of miles of new singletrack. But much like meals made from the vegetables from one’s garden, trail work is best appreciated when shared with friends. A long weekend preceded by some light rain brought the opportunity to host pros Dani Johnson and Kathy Pruitt, to expose them to the lesser-known destination that is the California Riviera.
Over an early-morning coffee on the tiled porch of their rental home, we peered across red adobe roofs that characterize the Spanish architectural style of Santa Barbara. Some 4,000 feet above us the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains rose above town. Running east to west, these mountains are the result of tectonic plates subducted 18 million years ago that thrust layers of ancient seafloor sediments skyward, providing a canvas for steep, rocky trails to the south and sinuous, flowing trails to the north. A 20-minute drive up Gibraltar Road put us atop Cold Springs trail, looking down over avocado groves and mansions fading into fog. The Channel Islands breaking the marine layer dominates the horizon. As we roll past flowering agaves and chaparral, our tires transition from cornering around shale berms to navigating chunky rock gardens of sandstone. Five miles and 3,000 feet of descending later, we exit the trail a few blocks away from Oprah Winfrey’s mansion with our sights set on El Sitio, one of the many burrito haunts found throughout town.
If the southern-facing trails are defined by a dichotomy of rugged nature overlying the manicured palm trees and movie stars of town, then the northern-oriented slope is the opposite. Resting on shale and clay, these trails face the Mojave Desert and the San Rafael Mountains, places known for drought and sharp flora. We haul down contouring bench-cut trail under oak trees and maples, then I follow Dani and Kathy down Arroyo Burro and Matias, their thoughts on my trailbuilding only elicited through whoops and grunts. Instead of finishing this ride by mansions, we find ourselves by the Santa Ynez River with only redtail hawks and rattlesnakes to keep us company. A detour on the way back to town brought us by Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop built in 1865 for miners, turned backwoods barbecue joint and bar, epitomizing Santa Barbara’s intersection of recreation and history.
A weekend here wouldn’t be complete without time at the beach, so we hit the mesa neighborhood where machine-built lunch lap trails at Elings Park run down to Hendry’s beach. We end the trip with beers in the sand while we sit in a cove hidden away from the hustle of life. It feels like a fitting conclusion in a destination that rarely appears on the map for mountain bike destinations; one that always feels a little too remote and unknown. Sometimes it is just that combination that leads to the best of times.
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Photos: Katie Lozancich
Video: Heather Young