SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Here’s a curious bit of advice for a bike ride that’s packed with prime moments of people-watching: Start early, when the sands are still slightly chilly and the folks still snoozing.
Wheeling south past the famed Santa Monica Pier, you can watch the beach day unfold over your handlebars. Massive mechanized sand-movers manicure the shoreline; workers broom away sand from the bike path, which locals dub “The Strand.’’
And, with this path largely your own, you can blast through the series of whip-winding curves bisecting the sand from Santa Monica south to Venice Beach.
Here as well as most of the places along this 15-mile pedal south to Hermosa Beach, The Strand is a part of, not apart from, the beach. And with a few exceptions, it’s a wide, inviting beach.
Venice Beach, of course, is where the people-watching entertainment reaches its zenith. At this time of day, however, the beach is largely empty except for a handful of city workers and transients.
The next mile from Venice Beach is a compilation of contrasts. The course takes its most significant shift from the sands into the streets as you zig, zag, zig, around Marina del Rey. And the people you pass could not be more different, from the homeless woman sleeping at an entrance to a Venice bathhouse to the well-dressed man walking out of a marina-front condo at del Ray, a black Pomeranian leashed to his wrist, a white one perched in a baby chariot.
Once you’ve skirted Marina del Ray, a succession of beaches awaits, each with their quirks.
The northern part of Dockweiler State Beach rumbles with the roar of jets taking off from Los Angeles International Airport less than a mile east. A line of freighters breaks the horizon to the west. It’s a touch of Castle Island, without the weekday crowds and with a large beach.
At times, a touch of bracing wildness can surprise you. At the southern part of this beach, small bluffs have formed, allowing hang-gliders a chance to feel the sky beneath their feet. It’s here that The Strand most becomes an antidote to Los Artifices. In this place shaped by the elemental forces of wind and sea, the columns after columns after columns of concrete and stuttering miles of brake lights of the nation’s second-most populous city seem a continent away.
Yet “civilized’’ forces are always a few pedals down the path. At El Segundo, The Strand is bracketed by three massive red-white stacks of a water and power facility on your left and 18 blue volleyball nets to your right, Stop for a moment and listen to the insistent, caressing sounds of the surf against a few contrapuntal hisses from the release of steam out of the plant.
The next beach, Manhattan, can be its own destination, its focal point a long pier bisecting the beach. Walk to the end of the pier, grab a cup of French press coffee at the cafe kiosk there, and look to the open west. In front of you, dolphins pass about 100 yards out, queued in a long line as if they were on a looping commute north. Behind you, toward the beach and on both sides of the pier, surfers and paddleboarders bob and buoy, awaiting deliverance. Underfoot, scores of large medallions are embedded into the concrete — the Beach Volleyball Walk of Fame. Manhattan considers itself the birthplace of beach volleyball, and you’ll be stepping around some giants of the sport, including Karch Kiraly and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
On the ride from Manhattan to Hermosa Beach, you can tap your inner voyeur. Glass walls become billboards into the interiors of multimillion-dollar homes, a mere yard from the path. At one point, the path diverges, the lower artery for bikers, the upper for pedestrians, with strips of gardens between. The scent from the rosemary plants and flowers offer a savory sweet contrast to the briny sea.
At Hermosa, bag a patio table at Good Stuff at The Strand (13th Street). Here, the world of bikers, walkers, runners, rollerbladers, skateboarders parades past. Beyond this promenade, beach volleyball games are in full tilt. And beyond that, nothing but the blue of the Pacific.
Good Stuff offers a rotation of local brews (the red ale is recommended). Try the chicken lime soup with tortilla strips, the tang of the lime zips across the salt of this American staple.
The return ride will be markedly slower, for you will need to jockey among the many walkers, skateboarders, and other bicyclists. One surprising, and a little disarming, phenomenon: the vast number of folks of all kinds talking aloud and animatedly to no one, at least no one visible, their arms in full flail. Sometimes they have earbuds and a phone; sometimes not. In either case, a wide loop around them is wise.
Back at Venice Beach, the transformation is complete. It’s best to dismount and walk your bike through the crowds. But take a few minutes to take in the sights, where the circus becomes the town.
Storefronts pitch everything from T-shirts to “The Truth.’’ One sign seeks to lure visitors inside for a freak show for a small admission. Really? With such glorious variety of life for free, outside?
Folks young or wrinkly are walking posters plastered in tattoos and studded by piercings. Some hawk such delights as “Black Magic Saliva’’ and “Traditional Skulls.’’ Been pining to get your name on a grain of rice?
Exhibitionists and amateurs alike whip around the valleys and ridges of the nearby skate park, sheathed in a crowd of spectators.
As you approach Santa Monica, watch the fully fit and the fitful take their turns at the balance beams, slack lines, climbing poles, and other devices. This is the original Muscle Beach.
If you still have a few twitches left in your quad muscles, pedal past the pier to Malibu. The shifting late afternoon night transcends Will Rogers State Park here.Michael Bailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org