Cycling in Southern California is awesome. Here are our top tips for making it unforgettable for all the right reasons!

For route suggestions, downloads and everything else you might need to plan a trip, read our comprehensive guides to cycling Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Barbara County.

Preparation for southern California cycling

If you’re heading to the Santa Monica Mountains or planning to ride any of the other tough climbs in Southern California:

1. Think about gearing. While the ascents are generally shorter than those of the Alps or Pyrenees, some are very steep, and a compact 50-34 chainsets on an 11-28t cassette will help you out, especially if you’re not a natural climber.

2. Consider aluminium rims or disc brakes to avoid a blowout. The inner radius of some turns can be just 4-5 metres. It’s pretty much unheard of to get to the bottom of one of the big Malibu canyon/Santa Monica Mountain descents without warm rims. Not braking is generally not an option.

3. Get some training in before your trip. Those steep ascents will be much more fun if you’re fit.

4. Remember there’s little backup.  Many areas of Southern California are sparsely populated. Even if you are close to a town, it may not have a shop or restaurant, and it’s unlikely to have a bike shop.

  • Bring enough spares: spare tubes, tyre levers, and a pump or CO2 canisters, as well as puncture repair kit and versatile multi-tool. You may even want to bring a toolkit for larger repairs where you’re staying.
  • Leave home with enough water and nutrition.
  • Check your bike works! If you’re bringing your own bike, service it before you leave home. If you’re hiring one, check it thoroughly before you leave the shop.

5. Pick the right wheels; leave your deep section rims at home. If the Santa Ana winds are blowing, you’ll want shallow wheels.

6. By law, cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet.


7. Plan your routes before you visit. Our ultimate guides to cycling the Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley contain loads of information on routes we’ve tried and tested. For example route profiles, descriptions, GPX downloads, photos and videos, so you know what to expect. Make sure you’ve checked the route over before you set out so you’re happy with it and you know what to expect.

8. Avoid riding the Pacific Coast Highway wherever possible, as it’s busy and dangerous. If you do ride it, take utmost care and watch out for parked cars on the hard shoulder.

Weather and best times to cycle

9. Try and avoid rush hour in any town you need to ride through. It’s particularly important if you’re planning to cycle on the PCH. It can get very clogged up, especially near Santa Monica and LA.

10. Beware the heat. If it’s going to be hot, our tips are

  • Get out early and get back before midday.
  • Take a camelback if you’re going on a long ride and think you’ll need more water than your bike can carry (yes, yes, we know it’s not cool but see point 2 above…);
  • Freeze your bottles the night before. That will keep them cold for a bit longer once you’re on the road.
  • Put a mini bottle of suntan lotion in your back pocket.
  • Use electrolyte tabs in your water bottle. These should help avoid cramp.
  • Beware heatstroke. It can come on quickly and is very scary. Make sure you know the symptoms.

Other stuff

11. Cyclists on public roads must follow the same rules of the road as vehicles (refer to the California Driver Handbook to become familiar with these rules).

12. We found drivers to be courteous – but don’t expect that. Drivers may not always respect your right of way.

13. Watch out for rock debris on the road, particularly when riding in the mountains.

14. Wherever possible, ride with a friend. If that’s not possible, make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

15. Be considerate. While the roads may seem quiet, always consider that another road user (possibly testing out their new Ferrari!) may be about to appear.

16. Don’t stop on the road. If you need a break, make sure you stop somewhere that’s safe (not on the road or in someone’s private driveway (and certainly don’t drink from their hose – yes, we had a local resident ask that we mention this!)). Do the right thing and let’s all ride safely and happily.

Your thoughts!

Cycled in California and got some additional tips? Please comment below!


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Clare Dewey

Clare Dewey is a cyclist with a passion for travel. She set up in 2018 to help make it easy for cyclists to explore the world by bike. Today her mission is still inspiring cyclists to discover new places on two wheels – and doing what she can to make sure they have the best possible time while they’re there. Clare has visited 50+ destinations around the world, many of them by bike.

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2 Responses to “14 top tips for Southern California cycling: Santa Monica Mountains and Santa Barbara County”

  1. I am new to long distance road biking. I have been training for several months to do an MS century ride in October. My current routine is to do 7 miles Mon, Wed and Fri and then 33 miles on Sat at just under 15 mph. The century will be on a Sat. Should I still do 7 miles the day before the century or change my training routine that last week? Thanks for any advice!

    • Sorry for the late reply, this only just popped up for some reason. Hope you had a good first century!

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