The second after I volunteered to write this story, I felt a pang of regret, worried that I was perpetrating a crime equivalent to exposing a treasured surf break or a secret backcountry hiking trail. Such sins are doubly perfidious in a town that can seem like it’s overrun by students, tourists, and Silicon Valley executives who decided they’d like to die somewhere with a nicer view. I didn’t quite get that when I first arrived in Santa Barbara seven years ago. It felt like a place that was insular and wary of outsiders, but I have come to realize that sometimes residents just want to have a little slice of their city to themselves. Who am I to dishonor that sentiment?
The truth of this matter, however, is that the cat is out of the bag. Ever since the Fiesta Cruiser Run made its way onto Facebook five years ago, attendance has exploded. Last year, the police counted 1,200-1,400 riders at the starting line — the dolphin fountain — but Rex Stephens, who takes a tally with a clicker at Goleta Beach, puts the number closer to 3,000. Only about 400, he estimates (somehow), live in Santa Barbara County. What started out as a quaint tradition 34 years ago has now been annexed by visitors like everything else.
Even so, there’s something beatific about the unsanctioned event, where bicyclists flood State Street for blocks on end, reclaiming it from automobiles that get stuck waiting at cross-streets for upward of 10 minutes. As a bicycle commuter and recreational cyclist who is used to getting yelled at from behind SUV windows (as if their drivers are the vulnerable ones), I can’t help but enjoy the one day when bicycles dominate.
To some, I suppose, the Cruiser Run can look like chaos. A few days after Fiesta last year, Police Chief Cam Sanchez told the City Council that the riders “really have no reason but to cause a mess.” His conclusion struck me as particularly off, not only because I had been one of those riders. I could think of several reasons people were pedaling their single-speed steeds that day: catching up with friends, showing off pimped-out cruisers, enjoying another day of fine-ass Santa Barbara weather outdoors.
And yet, there was a kernel of truth in the police chief’s description of the event. Part of the thrill of the ride is a lawless, carnival atmosphere where riders can ignore the strictures of their everyday lives and blow off steam, where social divisions collapse and earthly pleasures trump the intellectual. In short, it’s a party on wheels.
Like many a brilliant idea, the Fiesta Cruiser Run was fueled by alcohol and THC. “I was 18 years old when the ride started,” said Richard Sandoval, one of the event’s originators. “I was with four buddies on the Westside in the basement of my buddy’s house doing bong loads and drinking beers, just chilling on a cloudy day.” The five of them cruised down to the beach where they saw four of their friends from Goleta and decided to head up that way.
That first casual ride would soon become a test of hangover endurance. Each year, the same slowly growing group of friends, after five days of Fiesta revelry, would see if they could make it to Isla Vista and back. Ironically, as the cruiser run has burgeoned, it has become more tame — stymied by the cops and the logistics of its size. No longer does anyone crash the swimming pool at the Francisco Torres towers. No more acrobatics on the BMX jumps at the Ellwood bluffs. And no more jumping off Stearns Wharf upon return. In fact, the ride now tends to deteriorate in Isla Vista, while once upon a time, the riders would take a collection and load up on booze at SOS Liquor.
Despite this history, most people will tell you that the ride is “good, clean fun,” as does 30-year veteran Sergio Alvarez, who works at Hazard’s Cycles. The atmosphere isn’t exactly the Magic Kingdom, and there is no dearth of beer-filled bellies, but there were no arrests or accidents last year. “We’re not looking for trouble,” said Alvarez, who is friendly with police because Hazard’s services the department’s bicycles.
Some of the ride’s stalwarts are even venting complaints similar to those of the police. City officials have asked in vain to speak with the event’s leaders, and while no such mythical figures exist — the ride is, after all, a tradition — Rex Stephens is trying to take on that role. The owner of Santa Barbara Cruisers who hosts the King of the Cruisers show at his Haley Street shop before the ride every year, Stephens is trying to go legit. Realizing that the Cruiser Run “is spiraling out of control,” he has made himself a liaison to the police and envisions turning the ride into a “zero-tolerance,” family-friendly, permitted nonprofit fundraiser.
“It’s not about dressing up in sombreros and getting drunk,” said Stephens. “It’s about community, involvement, and generations,” referring to the children of the original cruisers, like Sandoval’s three kids, who now go on the ride. In America, cycling itself is a symbol of childhood, something you are supposed to outgrow like comic books or Frosted Flakes. The Cruiser Run, despite a few ignored red lights, is really a mass return to innocence. “Every year,” said Sandoval, “I turn 18 again on Fiesta Sunday.”
The Fiesta Cruiser Ride takes place Sunday, August 4, at noon at Stearns Wharf.