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How to Finish the LA Tourist Race
Everything you need to know before attempting LA's most challenging bike race.
If you ride a bike in Southern California, and especially if you’ve ever taken that bike off the pavement, you’ve likely crossed paths with the LA Tourist Race. Hosted by Let’s Ride Cyclery in Burbank, CA, the LA Tourist is a massive checkpoint-style race specifically designed to crush SoCal’s strongest cycling legs into a fine dust. It treats those who dare sign up to epic climbs, sweeping vistas, and backcountry trails known only to a privileged few.
Their website brags, “The L.A. Tourist Race seems more akin to folklore and myth than an actual event.” Legends aside, the Tourist is in fact an actual event: a self-supported, self-navigated race through LA’s most wild places.
Race organizers plant four books at remote locations surrounding Los Angeles, and task riders with collecting the page from each book that corresponds with their race number. Missing a checkpoint, tearing out the wrong page, or losing a page all result in a DNF. The specific destinations change every race, but you can always count on visiting the Verdugos, climbing the Angeles Crest, and discovering some new corner of the steep mountains surrounding the LA basin.
I must confess, I missed registration this year, and therefore did not officially race. But I still dragged myself out of bed and tagged along with a group of brave registered souls who set out for the finish line at 8:30am on January 28th, 2023.
Here’s what I learned along the way.
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What bike should I ride?
One thing is guaranteed: whatever bike you decide to ride will be the wrong bike at some point during the ride. Your road bike will get you from Burbank to the foothills in a breeze, but the fire roads descending from Mt. Wilson will rattle your shoulders out of their sockets. Your mountain bike will shred the single-track out to Idlehour, but the road climb up Highway 2 will resemble Damien Chazelle’s Babylon — an hour and a half longer than it needed to be.
One person in our group rode a mountain bike, but the rest of us rode drop bar gravel bikes with tires ranging anywhere from 3” mtb tires to 32mm all-road tires. We only had to hike our bikes a few miles, which at the end of the day felt like a pretty good trade off. People are out there on pretty much every kind of bike you can imagine — though as far as I know nobody has finished on a beach cruiser. Yet.
Do I need to train?
Ride, ride, ride your bike, and then ride some more. Go up some hills. Big hills. Mountains, mountains is the word I’m looking for — go ride a bunch of miles in the mountains. Get comfortable going up them, down them, over them, around them, and up them again. Take it off road. Get familiar with steep gravel ascents and descents. Become intimate with them. Raise a family with them — you’re going to be seeing a lot of each other on the LA Tourist.
Really, do not try to off the couch this one like I did. It will hurt, and you will not finish. The Tourist often clocks in ~70 miles and ~10k+ elevation.
What is the route?
A week before the event, race organizers send out GPS coordinates to the four race checkpoints. In addition, they kindly provide a default route connecting them. This route is a trap designed to punish you for not reading the fine print.
It connects the four checkpoints, yes, but it does so in the most inefficient way, with the most climbing and miles. It is strongly advised that you ignore this “recommended route” and instead build one of your own. The ability to build a route from scratch through the mountains is one of the skills the LA Tourist demands.
For the most part you can build a route using Google Maps, but even with its big-data accolades, Google Maps does not hold all the secrets to the Angeles National Forest. If you’re wanting to dig deep into the spirit of adventure, head to www.caltopo.com and get your hands dirty. They host scanned topos and forest services maps of any place you could ever want to explore, and is quite honestly a destination in and of itself. You can export your maps with waypoints and routes to location-enabled PDF files and open them in most backcountry mapping apps. I use the free version of Avenza Maps.
Most people recommend loading the route onto a dedicated bike computer. I agree this is the best option, but I don’t have a bike computer and don’t know how they work. The second best option is to save offline maps to your phone.
The third best option is to let someone else build the route and stay on their wheel. This resulted in our group taking the scenic route through Cherry Canyon and JPL, adding 1000 feet of unnecessary climbing and a dozen or so extra miles on dirt. No checkpoint existed through this stretch of trail, and more hard-core racers might describe what we did as a “waste of time.”
But it was a real fun waste of time, and my day was better for having done it.
What do I eat and drink?
One of my buddies said he ate three full burritos during the ride and still ran out of fuel. You are going to need lots of food and water to finish the LA Tourist. A few nutrition solutions that stood out to me:
Spam Musubi (a friend pulled one of these from his jersey pocket in the parking lot before the Tourist, gave it to me, and perhaps changed my ride nutrition game forever)
Rice and bean burritos
Thermos full of soup
Full loaves of bread
The McDonald’s on Foothill and Gould Ave
My go-to riding snack is a large bag of Haribo gummy bears, which are the same thing as Clif Shot Bloks but cheaper. Prove me wrong.
Water is trickier. I ran out of it in the mountains with a dozen miles to go because I thought there would be a spigot at a place where there wasn’t. Make sure you fill up before you head out there, and don’t count on any of the seasonal campgrounds. They will let you down.
What gear do I need to bring?
The LA Tourist is a self-supported race that takes place far out of cell service, which means you need to be fully prepared to repair your bike if something breaks and to get yourself to safety if something goes wrong. Although the race starts and ends in a city of 9 million, the Angeles Crest is a wild environment, and bad things can and do happen. While on the route, I met two people who had tumbled thirty feet off the edge of the trail and had to be hauled out by hikers. One of them had a crack in his helmet where his bike had landed on top of him.
While descending the fire road from Idlehour toward Henninger, I pinched a tube and got an immediate, violent rear flat. When I took my repair kit out, I couldn’t find my CO2 canister. A low-grade panic began to set in. I was out of water, nearly out of food, and still had 3.5 miles and 1300 feet to descend back into civilization.
The reality was that the group was a few minutes behind me, and moments later I found my CO2 in a rogue pocket and laughed at my wave of anxiety. But still, it was easy to imagine myself on the road alone. I’d been in that situation many times before, and this time it would have been bad news.
Ride with a group, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. At the very least, bring a flat-repair kit. A chain breaker and master link aren’t a bad idea either. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is thoroughly pre-inspect your bike and keep it well-maintained. This is not the time to see whether your brake pads have one last descent left in them. Replace that stuff ahead of time and solve your problems before they’re problems.
Truth be told, I don’t actually know how to finish the LA Tourist Race. I only made it to one of the four checkpoints before heading home and eating an entire pizza. The race starts at 8:00am and we didn’t roll out until 8:30, if that says anything about how seriously we took it.
Jen Whalen was the first female to collect all four pages and make it back to the shop in nine hours flat. Kent Hammond won the men's category in just under six hours. If you’re looking for real advice, take a peek at either of their Strava pages and you’ll see what it really takes to crush the LA Tourist.
It took me eight hours to ride 38 miles and 5,100 feet of climbing, which included a leisurely stop at Unincorporated Coffee, a relaxing time by the creek at Idlehour, and a bunch of goofing off along the way.
The LA Tourist is a race for some people, an endurance test piece for others, and a cycling social club for others still. Whichever way you decide to approach it, one thing is certain: The Tourist is a SoCal cycling classic that will leave your ego stripped bare, your legs full of lactic acid, and a grin on your face so big there’s no question whether you’ll sign up for the next one.
See you out there on March 11th for Race #2