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Words and Photos By Chris Case

Chris Case is a journalist, adventurer, and founder of Alter Exploration, which guides cyclists on transformative journeys in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, including the Dolomites, Iceland, Piedmont Alps, and Colorado. Previously, he was the managing editor of VeloNews magazine and the COO of Fast Talk Labs. He is proud to be a Shimano ambassador.

Riding a road bike around Santa Monica CA

Professional cyclist Tom Pidcock nonchalantly blurts, "Let's go," as he bumps fists with a videographer filming his descent on one of the most famous canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains. Then he’s off. The sound of derailleur shifts amplifies through deep carbon wheels as the whir of speed builds and the bombing of Tuna Canyon commences.

The narrow road gets narrower. The speed gets daringly racy. It’s thrilling—and, yes, totally nerve-wracking—to watch the pair carve such a frighteningly fast descent, and who can blame us for whimpering at the screen for Pidders to slow down.

It’s not long before the thing we fear most flashes on screen: Tom strikes a pedal in a bend and his rear wheel suddenly skips across the road at 30mph. Luckily, he saves himself from certain catastrophe, then looks back to the videographer behind. (Maybe stick to Tour de France stage wins, Tom?)

Riding road bikes in Santa Monica California

While we may be in shock at this daring descent, Tom is more nonchalant. “Oi oh,” he yells as he looks back toward the camera, then immediately jumps out of the saddle to sprint toward the next blind corner. Whoosh.

Welcome to California Screamin’—descents so fast they make you want to climb.

What Goes Down Must Come Up

The greater Los Angeles metro area is home to an astounding 18.5 million people. Lucky for us cyclists, most of those folks never venture an hour outside of city limits to visit the Santa Monica Mountains. Which means there’s an empty cycling playground on the California coast above Malibu. It’s filled with the essential ingredients of cycling bliss: sweeping views of the sunbaked shoreline, clear ocean views, and serpentine roads winding their way in and around the surrounding canyons. And staggeringly few people.

Riding road bikes in the Santa Monica Mountains

California is like that—a land of contrasts, and this 40-mile stretch of protected mountains is no different. The Pacific Ocean butts up against the folds of the Transverse Mountain Ranges. The serpentine canyons are lined by dense chaparral and fragrant sages; the bustle of the Pacific Coast Highway abruptly reminds you how very near you are to Baywatch beaches, iconic piers, and the megalopolis of one of the world’s most dynamic cities.

Here, the effort of climbing pairs well with the searing bliss of descent. A little yin and yang for balance. Once you make it to this cycling theme park, there are just two things you have to worry about: going up and coming down.

Riding road bikes on Santa Monica CA

For the ups, there’s no better character-defining aspect of cycling than climbing. Regardless of whether you’re svelte or burly, predisposed to floating or built to sink, you can learn more about what you’re capable of—and what you’re incapable of—through the slope of a climb.

Whether riding up Latigo Canyon or Yerba Buena, breathe in the ocean vapors and let in the ocean views and salty vapors as you methodically turn the pedals over. Or ride among the old hippy hovels of Topanga Canyon for a little pedal-powered nirvana.

Riding road bikes in  Santa Monica mountains CA

With every calm and constant canyon climb comes a thrilling descent to follow. And these descents are serious; just ask Tom. Filled with big curves, beautifully smooth surfaces, and the occasional squelch of brakes—everything else just fades away, like evaporating beads of sweat.

The Details

Best town to call home base

Stay along the coast near Malibu if you’re going full-swank and want to sleep at the bottom of the climbs. Stay in the Agoura Hills, Thousand Oaks, or Calabasas area if you want a slightly more affordable option at the top of the climbs. In California, you’re never far from restaurants, cafes, markets, or bike shops, regardless of where you stay.

Getting there

Take your pick of airports: LAX, Burbank, and Santa Barbara are all relatively nearby. We prefer to fly into Burbank to stay away from the hubbub of the city. And the drive west from this smaller airport to the Santa Monica Mountains is relatively short (traffic dependent, of course).

A rental car is a must here—welcome to southern California.


There are good hotel and AirBnB options in places like Thousand Oaks and Agoura Hills. If you’d rather stay near the beach in Malibu, expect to pay a hefty premium.

Time of year

It's possible to ride in this area year-round. However, there are seasons to take into consideration. The winter months can see temperatures in the 60s and 70s, but it can also be rainy. That said, it’s hard to predict the amount of precipitation from year to year. The summers are hotter and drier.

Key equipment

Dust off your lightest road bike—you’re going up. Most of the climbs are a consistent gradient, and not overly steep. However, there are some steep pitches here and there, so low gearing won’t hurt. If you’re sticking solely to the pavement, make sure your brakes and tires are in great condition for the rapid descents.

Once you’re off the Pacific Coast Highway along the ocean, refueling points are relatively scarce. Consider bringing a bar bag filled with snacks if you plan to be out all day.

Recommended side trip

Mount Baldy is about 70 miles from Malibu. Ripping down Glendora Ridge Road and Glendora Mountain Road could quickly make it onto your list of top descents of all time. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth the trip. Just remember that snow hits the higher elevations in this area during the winter months. Check for road closures and inclement weather before making the trip out from the coast.

Must-ride route

This route takes in the best-of-the-best paved roads in the Santa Monica Mountains. Prepare for an amazing rollercoaster of a day, with stunning views of the ocean, scraggly peaks, and hillside mansions all day long.

Must-do climbs (in no particular order)

  •  Latigo Canyon
  •  Yerba Buena
  •  Las Flores/Stunt Road
  •  Piuma Road
  •  Deer Creek Road
  •  Fernwood Road/Saddle Peak

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