The Joys of a Hard-Tail 29er Mountain Bike Ride With 8000 Foot Elevation Gain on Catalina Island

I’ve been a road cyclist all of my adult life. In fact, it was the love of those same road bikes that caused my career change from the world of music to bike shop owner. During my 20 some (but who’s counting) years of riding, I’ve done centuries, double-centuries, multi-day rides, long flat rides, long hilly rides, just about anything you an think of that doesn’t involve structured racing. I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve done a mountain bike ride of more than a short distance. My total time off road was about to double, and then some.

I reestablished contact with an old friend recently, someone I’d shared many long, arduous road rides with. He is just as passionate about mountain biking, and told many tales about his experiences on Catalina Island, where he vacations three or four times a year, riding a mountain bike deep into the interior of the island. For those of you unfamiliar with Catalina Island, it’s 24 miles off the coast of Southern California, one of the largest of a chain of barrier islands known as the Channel Islands. Catalina is the only one of the Channel Islands with a permanent population. The entire island was owned at one time by William Wrigley, of chewing gum fame and fortune. He established the town of Avalon and made it a prime resort destination for Southern California. A famous casino, still the major architectural highlight of Catalina, hosted the popular big bands of the 30’s and 40’s. Today, most of the island, with the exception of Avalon, the small village of Twin Harbors and the airport, is a nature conservancy.

You can ride a bike across the island, but you must have a mountain bike as the roads are mostly poorly maintained dirt, and you must also buy an annual pass. My friend invited me to take the ferry over to Catalina on a Sunday, and said he’d give me a bike tour of the island. He said it would be really hilly but thought I could manage it. This presented me with a dilemma: I had been road riding a lot and was in pretty good shape, but I was concerned about my mountain bike skills and the endurance that would be required. Shawn Charlton, the service manager of my shop, is a serious and highly skilled mountain biker. He suggested I take a hard-tail 29er for the trip. This is a bike that has front suspension but none in the rear. Since we would mainly be on fire roads I wouldn’t need the extra control a rear shock would give, and I would gain some efficiency and lose some bike weight without the rear suspension mechanism. Mountain bikes with 29″ wheels are a relatively new breed. The larger wheel allows you to climb faster and roll more easily over small obstacles. Maneuverability is better with a standard 26″ wheel mountain bike, but since we’d be mostly on fire roads and not technical single track I wouldn’t miss the smaller wheels.

For my adventure, I selected a Specialized Stumpjumper Hardtail Comp 29er. The Stumpjumper is the high end of Specialized’s three models of hardtail mountain bikes, which also includes the Rockhopper and the Hardrock. The Comp is the entry-level 29er in the Stumpjumper series. It has a RockShox Reba front fork with 90 mm of travel (29ers have less travel than the equivalent 26″ models since the front end of the 29er sits up pretty high.) A SRAM 10 x 3 speed drivetrain and Avid Elixer SL hydraulic disc brakes round out the package. Fortunately for me, this bike climbs really well due to the ultra-light alloy frame and large wheels. I say fortunately, because nothing on Catalina Island is flat! It’s either steep uphill or steep downhill.

This was one of the most breathtaking rides I’ve ever done, both because of the great amount of difficult climbing and the unbelievably beautiful scenery. Of course, I was familiar with beautiful scenery since my business is located in the very scenic community of Palos Verdes and I’ve done more than my share of riding there. We started out by climbing out of the town of Avalon, where the ferries dock and the tourists lay out on the smallest beach in the world. That first climb was about 1500′ of elevation gain in two miles! I was able to lock out the front shock on the fly with the flip of a dial, which gave me a little more efficiency on the steep climbs. After heading down a couple of miles of paved road, we turned off onto a rutted dirt road and hit our first big downhill. I unlocked the front shock and let it rip. The bike handled all the unevenness and loose dirt easily and I was able to just fly down the hill. We passed an old abandoned hunting lodge, saw a rare Catalina Island Fox and stopped to check out a bald eagle sanctuary where that species was saved from extinction after DDT pollution had almost wiped it out.

We next encountered another steep climb, and at the top we caught our first glimpse of the open Pacific Ocean on the windward side of the island. Another steep downhill took us towards the water, and we passed through Little Harbor, a mostly uninhabited cove where boats can tie up. Next came another extended steep climb, and at the crest we looked down on the Isthmus, a flat area that connects the two mountainous halves of the island and also bridges the windward and leeward sides of Catalina with a strip of land less than mile wide. We had seen a few of the island’s herd of Buffaloes (Bison) from a distance, but there was a huge one on the isthmus munching on the grass. I was able to get within about 15 feet and snap some pictures.

We went through the little village of Twin Harbors located at the isthmus and rode on for about another half-hour looking down at some of the secluded coves on the rarely visited northern half of the island. By now we were pretty hungry, so we turned around and got some lunch in Twin Harbors. A hamburger never tasted so good! After lunch we started back the way we came, which unfortunately meant another huge climb to get back over the mountain, then a steep downhill back into Little Harbor. So far we had climbed almost 6,000 feet and my legs were beginning to feel every one. Luckily the Stumpjumper performed beautifully with the big wheels churning over anything in its path and the hydraulic brakes giving me great control and confidence on the lightning fast downhills. If I though the hardest part was over, I was in for a rude shock.

At Little Harbor we turned left on another dirt road that would take us all the way up to the Catalina Airport, which is located at one of the highest points on the island. After a couple of excruciating miles, my riding companion stopped and directed me to a mountain peak high in the distance. He pointed out what looked like a flat saddle just down from the peak and said it was the airport runway. I watched that spot for what seemed like hours as I pointed the Stumpjumper skyward and crept slowly towards that spot. When it seemed like we were almost at the top, the road suddenly veered right and downward, taking us away from the airport. We rode through El Rancho Escondido, a working horse ranch founded by the Wrigleys, where champion Arabian horses are bred. We passed the ranch started climbing yet again, and ended up winding around to the far side of the mountain next to the airport before finally coming down into the airport. That was one of the toughest climbs I have ever done.

From Little Harbor to the airport it was seven miles and about 2,000 feet of elevation gain over rutted, loose dirt. I had to stop a couple of times on the way up to catch my breath, but I was able to make it all the way without walking, as the big 29″ wheels giving me every mechanical advantage. We stopped in at the airport snack shop and got a cold drink and a big cookie to fortify ourselves for the last part of the ride. We left the airport at 4:00, which gave us just an hour to get back to Avalon before the sun set. The road from the airport back was, mercifully, paved so we made pretty good time getting back. I had thought the return trip would be all down hill, but unfortunately for my tired legs, we stayed up on a high plateau with undulating ups and downs until the final half mile screaming descent into Avalon. We hit town just 3 minutes before 5:00 and by 5:15 it was dark. In all, I had hauled my body and the Stumpjumper 51 miles and over 8,000 feet of elevation gain. As promised, a fantastic day and one of the hardest rides of my life. I never could have done it without the Stumpjumper 29er, and what a way to test a bike!