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Above it all and into the hills

From issue 72 • Words by Ben Edwards w/images from Betina La Plante

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Part of the magic of Ojai, the California town of 8,000 residents southeast of Santa Barbara, is its location. Just 15 miles from the Pacific Coast Highway and its crowds, traffic and strip malls, Ojai is nestled in a small valley at the foot of the Topatopa Mountains, the gateway to Los Padres National Forest and the sprawling Sespe Wilderness.

It was the Ojai Valley that Frank Capra chose as his panorama of Shangri-La in his film “Lost Horizon.” Here’s a little Ojai secret most won’t tell you when they relate that bit of lore: The scenic Ojai shot was actually cut from the film when it ran too long. Here’s another little secret: The best way to explore Ojai and its surroundings is by bike.

It’s exploration by bike that has attracted Finn and Tess to Ojai for a long weekend of riding and, ask any local in Lycra, the signature Ojai ride is up Highway 33 to Rose Valley and the heart of the Topatopa Mountains. It’s a 10-mile climb, a perfect ribbon of asphalt at a pleasing 5-percent grade and, on a weekday, you’re unlikely to see more than a handful of cars.

For a rider like Finn, 6-foot-3 with broad-set shoulders, it’s a climb he relishes. “I can’t always match the accelerations of smaller riders on steep climbs, but Rose Valley, I love it. I can turn a big gear and really climb quickly.”

His Trek Émonda ALR helps. “I used to be a carbon snob, but this alloy bike’s power delivery is so crisp and direct I can keep the gear rolling so easily,” he says.

At the summit of Rose Valley, riders have a choice: continue on Highway 33 and ride deeper into the Sespe Wilderness along its eastern border or turn right onto Rose Valley Road. With three more big rides ahead of them, Tess and Finn turn right and head through the valley with its view of the stunning Piedra Blanca rock formation.

While the major climb may be over, Rose Valley Road’s rollers are relentless, and wind can be an issue. Typically, a tailwind whisks you the 6 miles to Piedra Blanca, but it’s out and back, so it’s hard to enjoy the easy ride too much knowing you’ll face a headwind after the turnaround.

Today though, as Tess and Finn turn for home, they’re greeted with still air and a quick roll down Highway 33—its gentle slope requires a fair bit of pedaling, but the wide-open bends leave the brakes untouched. Within 45 minutes they find themselves back on Ojai Avenue with time for a quick espresso. No coffee shop in Ojai will bat an eyelid at Lycra-clad riders walking in. At Noso Vita, you’re just as likely to find a horse tied up out front next to a Tesla and, inside, someone with a cowboy hat chatting with a group in yoga pants.

Ojai’s residents are a heady brew of different lifestyles and philosophies with a live-and-let-live attitude that gives some credence to the easily maligned “airy-fairy” reputation of the town. Where else can you sit down for coffee and a muffin after a ride and, instead of an order number, you’re handed a little card inscribed with a single word. As the server walks out looking for the right table, she says, “I’m looking for ‘enlightenment’ and ‘love’…. Are ‘enlightenment’ and ‘love’ out there?” They just might be. Tess and Finn plan to hop on their bikes and keep looking tomorrow.

From issue 72. Buy it here.