Cycling from LA to Tijuana on a $30 bike

The wrong bike for the right job

Cycling from LA to Tijuana

Earlier this winter, my partner and I flew to Los Angeles on a bike-related mission. We were attending Bike!Bike! Tijuana — an annual gathering of DIY bike workshops — and not only did we plan to cycle the 130 miles from LA, we were going to ride across the border from the USA to Mexico on recycled bikes.

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Why? I’m an avid supporter of grassroots bike recycling projects and have been involved with The Bristol Bike Project, which redistributes unwanted bikes to those who need them most, for the past few years.

The throwaway culture of the UK and US means most co-ops have a healthy supply of bike donations ready to be refurbished and redistributed. In other parts of the world, the story is quite different and workshops are more likely to struggle for the donations that can make a real difference in the community.

Bicis Disidentes, based in the Mexican city of Tijuana and the hosts of this year’s Bike!Bike!, are playing a vital role in receiving donated bikes – included those we rode from LA – and helping to make them available to other projects and individuals.

LA Bicycle Kitchen shadow board
Who doesn’t love a good shadow board?
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

The wrong bike for the right job

First off, when I say these bikes cost $30, that’s what we each paid as a donation, because the lovely folks at The Bicycle Kitchen in LA initially insisted on giving them to us for free. 

We had already spent the entire afternoon using their workshop and tools to get our bikes as tour-ready as we could in the time available, so we forced some money into their hands and bought a couple of caps for good measure.

Unlike my partner, who had his pick of many regular-sized bikes, I was limited in my hobbit-sized options.

He ended up with a GT Outpost Trail with girthy tyres that would hopefully take on most gnarly road surfaces.

The best I could find was a deceptively cute Univega road bike that was geared way too high and had incredibly uncomfortable, narrow handlebars wrapped in the world’s most slippery bar tape. It was also too long for me so I was grateful for the extension levers as they were the only way I could reach the brakes.

LA Bicycle Kitchen Workshop
The Bicycle Kitchen in LA was like a home away from home.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

The biggest challenge was fitting a rear rack to a bike that clearly was not made to carry heavy loads. In the absence of rack mounts I resorted to P-clips, and very nervously loaded on two full panniers and a tent.

Miraculously the bike held up, though we weren’t without our issues along the way. The brakes were erratic at best, while the shifting seemed to deteriorate by the day.

In the end I lost full use of my lowest gear despite our efforts to fine-tune on the go, which made the ride particularly difficult when we hit the not-so-flat terrain of San Diego. The stem-mounted friction shifters were the icing on the cake. 

I’ll just say it, friction shifting is horrible and I never want to use it again.

Univega vintage road bike touring setup
It may look cute but this thing was not built for touring.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

Cycling along the Pacific Coast

Despite being a very car-centric city, LA was surprisingly easy to cycle around — at least, the parts we were in. It’s a pretty big place after all. 

Most streets had clearly marked bike lanes, signs forbidding parking in them, and actual road markings that instructed cyclists to take the lane. With the exception of one angry driver, everyone was patient, respectful and gave us plenty of space. For two Brits abroad, it was the stuff of dreams.

However, our four-day tour got off to a shaky start, as we decided to get the bus to Long Beach, south of central Los Angeles, in order to cut out a chunk of inner city riding. Buses in LA have front-loaded bike racks with rather flimsy fittings, and let’s just say when you hit 60mph on the freeway, bums start to clench.

GT Outpost trail Univega vintage road bike touring
We didn’t set out to have matching his-and-hers bikes in go-faster-red; it just sort of happened.
Adam Dolling

Once we got going, the majority of the ride along the Pacific Coast was glorious. We pedalled along, enjoying the gorgeous views of Huntington and Laguna Beach, with the sparkling sea and waves lapping the shore.

A particular highlight was the thrilling descent into Carmel Valley, with an expanse of the Pacific Ocean opening up on our right, before climbing up and around Torrey Pines. At this point we were surrounded by trees and fallen pine cones the size of my head, with the sun beating down mercilessly on our shoulders and a dual-lane cycle path stretching out in front of us.

We camped along the way, taking advantage of the many State Beach campsites dotted along the coast – but it wasn’t all plain sailing. This wasn’t the kind of camping I’m used to, given that we were surrounded by RVs running generators, right alongside the Pacific Coast Highway and Amtrak lines. Plus… the ground in rain-starved southern California is so very hard.

Camping tent bikes California and broken tent pegs
Our brand new MSR Hubba Hubba tent pegs were not prepared for the solid ground of California campsites.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

And the heat! Temperatures were hitting 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), which is practically Saharan for residents of our cold and rainy island in the UK, and often there was very little shelter. Add to that the sheer amount of weight loaded onto my precariously mounted rear rack, and parts of the ride were pretty sketchy. Let me tell you, those skinny tyres were not made for riding on sandy beach trails, as beautiful as they were.

The most type-2 fun we had was a not-so-brief stint on the freeway. Unlike UK motorways which aren’t open to cyclists and normally have three lanes for motor traffic, we were riding next to five lanes on Interstate 5 – and they were all driving at full speed. 

Riding on the hard shoulder (cycling is legal on I5), at one point we came across a line of four trucks parked in our way for maintenance, and the only way around them was to enter the lane to our left. We resorted to running around the trucks with our bikes when there seemed to be a big enough gap. It was terrifying.

Camp Pendleton Highway Airstrip
In the UK we could only dream of having this to ourselves.
Adam Dolling

Crossing the border

I might have been a bit nervous while waiting in line, but crossing the border in San Ysidro turned out to be a lot easier than expected, and it amazed me at how relaxed the security seemed to be. No one checked the contents of my panniers, though I suspected it was because they were less worried about smuggling things into Mexico, rather than out of it.

The hardest part of the border crossing was getting the fully-laden bikes through the turnstiles, though we figured if our friends managed it with a tandem, we couldn’t really complain.

We rocked up at Bicis Disidentes in our Bristol Bike Project t-shirts and were immediately greeted by someone asking us if we knew another volunteer there. We did. It was a good start.

Enclave Caracol Bicis Disidentes BikeBike Tijuana 2019
Bike!Bike! Tijuana was held at the joint premises of Bicis Disidentes and Enclave Caracol.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

The workshop is in the building of Enclave Caracol, a social centre with a library, vegetarian kitchen and a bar that hosts a range of events. It’s also the place where Comida no Bombas serves free meals to migrants and deportees during the week. It was a pretty cool place with a diverse crowd and we were really glad to be there.

Nothing could have prepared us for cycling in Tijuana, though. It seemed like all traffic laws were there to be broken. Red lights meant nothing, and four-way intersections were impossible to navigate due to the four streams of cars weaving their way precariously around each other, regardless of what the traffic lights were doing.

Bike!Bike! involved lots of talks and workshops spread across Tijuana, so this required a lot of navigating the city by bike, but thankfully there were large numbers of us doing so.

Cycling in Tijuana
Safety in numbers, folks.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

Touring for everyone

What did I take away from the trip?  While there are plenty of purpose-built touring bikes available, you really can go adventuring on whatever you already have. 

Of course, if you’re planning to trek across Mongolia then you might want to invest in something that’s built for the job, but really if you’re just heading out on the road for a few days and all you have is an old road bike or hybrid, you can still make it work.

While the bikes we rode were far from perfect, and with more time and resources beforehand we could have replaced dubious parts, they still got us from A to B.

Bicis Disidentes Tijuana donated bikes
Our haphazard touring rigs nestled into their new home at Bicis Disidentes.
Mildred Locke / Immediate Media

In fact, we didn’t need our bikes to be perfect because they were due to be refurbished at the other end and redistributed. They just needed to be rideable.

Bikes really are amazing. When I think of how sketchy my rack setup appeared, and just how much it managed to carry for 130 miles, sometimes on terribly potholed roads, I’m proud of that bike. It may not have been practical, but it was resilient.

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Above all else, the ride was an eye-opener in so many ways and the first of a kind for us. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it to be able to say goodbye to those bikes and give them a new life after taking them on an adventure they were never meant to go on.