Redlands Strada Rossa: A Decade of Conservation

The Redlands Strada Rossa celebrated its tenth anniversary in the spring of 2024. While the ride has changed over the years, the spirit of the event has remained much the same. Below, Brandon Pfaff dives into the history of the ride, this year’s route, and what makes the Strada Rossa a distinctive cycling event.

Dozens of cyclists made their final preparations for the day as the sun rose over the mountains behind the Asistencia in Redlands, California. I arrived early to catch some photos of the ninety-mile group taking off, and to meet up with a few friends ahead of our start time later that morning. Given that I would be covering about sixty miles and a few sustained climbs throughout the course of the day, I opted to bring along the compact but capable Fujifilm X100V and took advantage of the opportunity to sort out a few settings before my group departed later in the morning.

The 90-milers assembled near the start. Spirits were high as familiar faces found each other and ride instructions were announced. There were more people than I expected to see at the 7:00 a.m. roll-out. Judging by a few nearby conversations, many who were riding the 62-mile or 40-mile routes had decided to get an early start. This is one of the things that is great about the Strada Rossa. It’s a ride, not a race. You are free to ride more or less than you signed up for, start when you want to, and keep whatever pace makes the most sense to you. It’s like having all the benefits of a large, organized race (aid stations, support, food) without the pressure that can sometimes come with those kinds of events. This “choose your own adventure” style would become even more apparent throughout the day, as my ride buddy Adam and I found ourselves mixed in with several groups of riders at along the route. As the day wore on, we would end up covering a large number of miles by ourselves, occasionally catching up with people we’d seen earlier in the day, as small clusters of cyclists stretched out in front of and behind us.

The Place

Redlands is located about sixty miles directly east of Los Angeles at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. It’s perfectly situated for access to a variety of riding on the way up to Big Bear Lake and the surrounding mountain communities. It’s easy to understand how a thriving cycling community might come to exist in a place like this. The nearby mountain access and proximity to any number of state and federal recreation areas are only part of the appeal. The cycling routes in Redlands and its neighboring communities offer a diverse mix of riding that appeals to cyclists of any discipline. Redlands is a legendary locale in competitive road cycling, having hosted the Redlands Bicycle Classic every year since 1985. Cycling is part of the rhythm of life in Redlands.

The Ride

A couple of weeks before the ride, I caught up via Zoom with Michael Heal, one of the ride’s organizers. It was clear from my conversation with Michael that he and all of those involved in organizing the event do so with an intentional posture of thoughtfulness and care. The Redland Strada Rossa is powered completely by passionate volunteers and local sponsors.

What started as a loosely organized ride among friends to raise money for local causes and share their slice of cycling with the broader Southern California cycling community has grown into a signature gravel cycling event in the area. It’s low-key, limited to three hundred cyclists, and centered around drawing attention to the beauty and importance of the place it intends to promote and protect.

The defining feature and purpose behind the Strada Rossa is its focus on preserving and enjoying the trails and cycling infrastructure on which it takes place. RSR is a non-profit event. All proceeds from race registration go to local conservancy groups that preserve the trails that make up the route: the Redlands Conservancy, the Crafton Hills Open Space Conservancy, and the Inland Empire Biking Alliance.

To learn more about the history and vision of Redlands Strada Rossa, it’s worth tuning into the recent Gravel Bike California livestream with the ride’s organizers. In the conversation, Zack from GBC explores all things Strada Rossa and shares his experience as a repeat participant.

The Route(s)

The routes for the Strada Rossa change slightly from year to year. Though it’s always a little different, in the three years I’ve attended the ride, there are a few sections that feel like required inclusions if you’re going to host a big ride in the area.

The first dirt section winds through Hulda Crooks, a meandering series of steep fire roads with singletrack offshoots that sets an immediate tone for how the day is going to go. There will be views and there will be climbs.

From there you’ll find yourself winding through the Carriage Trail and Trash Canyon, both popular among locals and serial RSR riders who travel to the event every year. These are well-traveled trails used by cyclists, hikers, and horses. Despite heavy regular use, on the weekend of this year’s Strada Rossa, every section was in peak condition.

The route’s signature climb takes place in Crafton Hills. Anyone would count themselves lucky to have a place like Crafton in their backyard. The end of the Crafton Hills ridge climb marks the halfway point for the sixty-mile route and opens up to stunning views of the San Bernardino mountains to the north and east and the foothills that stretch out westward.

After a flowing singletrack descent toward Highway 38, there are mileage decisions to be made. 90-milers can head east toward Oak Glen for some extra-credit elevation. 40-milers head back toward Redlands to call it a day. 62-milers (my group) continue on through a few more sections that crawl along the base of the mountains through washes that parallel the highway, eventually zig-zagging through neighborhoods in Highland before returning south toward Redlands.

The Party

Arriving back at the Asistencia, tired and soaked from an unexpected downpour, the home-cooked meal provided as part of the after-party was a welcome comfort. The ride’s founder, Mark Friis, who has moved away since starting the ride ten years ago, still makes the trip back each year to oversee the meal and help with the event. The ride is capped at three hundred people to minimize the impact to the trails it takes place on, and one of the benefits of having a mandatory rider cap is the ability to do special things like hosting a family dinner.

The courtyard was still drying out from the afternoon rain, and this pushed everyone a bit closer. Gathering around tables crammed under adobe archways, we shared a meal and relived the events of the day. In many ways, this ride is a lot like other cycling events that take place all over the world. Bikes, people, nature, food – these are the givens you might expect to encounter. While these things aren’t unique to this ride, this common thread makes for a meaningful and approachable gathering. Redlands Strada Rossa taps into a wavelength that so many of us are drawn to and keep searching for. Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, you’ll find it.

Rides like the Redlands Strada Rossa rely on the generosity of volunteers and donors. If you’re interested in preserving the natural spaces around you and making cycling better in your community, consider donating your time and/or resources to an advocacy organization in your area.