There must be something in the water. In the Southern California beach town of San Clemente’s water, that is, which today finds itself the undisputed global epicenter of professional competitive “high-performance” surfing. What, not Saquarema, Coolangatta, Margaret River, or any of the other international beach towns currently producing big name surf stars? Nope, none even come close to the sunny, tract-home community of 64,000 wedged between Orange County’s urban sprawl to the north and Camp Pendleton’s vast, undeveloped coastal foothills to the south.
Just check the statistics: a total of seven San Clemente residents have qualified for the World Surf League’s 2024 Championship Tour. With the exception of John John Florence and Barron Mamiya, hailing from Haleiwa and Sunset Beach respectively (we’ll give it to them, although those two spots might as well be on different planets) none, that’s right, none of the remaining 36 competitors, men or women, come from the same beach. And yet San Clemente, boasting of only two-and-half miles of sand and surf within its city limits, has provided seven qualifiers: Griffin Colapinto, Caroline Marks (current world champion) Cole Houshmand, Filipe Toledo (current world champion), Crosby Colapinto, Sawyer Lindblad and Kade Matson. Considering the total number of competitors jousting for World Championship glory, this percentage points to an amazing demographic domination. Equally amazing, however, is that this isn’t the first time this town has been a full-on surfing Hot Zone. It’s just that this time around, San Clemente surfers have definitely been given a serious boost.
By the mid-1980s you could point out a number of factors contributing to the eminence of San Clemente’s emerging progressive surf class. Consistent, multi-seasonal waves, numerous, supportive local surfboard manufacturers, close proximity to both major surf magazines, a burgeoning domestic professional competitive circuit, booming surf wear industry and strident motivational efforts from OG wave warriors like Herbie Fletcher, the ageless “King of Get Rad,” created a peer group-driven scenario that might see San Clemente locals like Matt Archbold, Dino Andino, Shane Beschen, Sean and Brian McNulty, Christian and Nathan Fletcher, Jimmy Hogan, Jorja and Jolene Smith, Chris Ward and visiting dignitary (and future world champ) Martin Potter, all trying to out surf each other at T-Street.
Which goes far to explain why this cadre of San Clemente surfers, both freestyle and competitive, seemed to not only dominate the period’s media coverage, but consistently populated the winner’s stand on the domestic PSAA and Bud Pro Tours; surfers like Beschen, Andino and Fletcher becoming serious surf stars. Why, then, with all these apparent advantages, and significant peer group push, was Shane Beschen the only one from this impressive talent pool to make the jump to the upper ranks of the professional world tour during San Clemente’s earlier peak? What did today’s seven WSL championship tour qualifiers have that their hometown predecessors did not? Because this new crop surely have the waves, the close proximity to the industry, and surf media, too? In my mind it’s simple.
E-bikes. That’s right, E-bikes. Those now ubiquitous, bulky, battery-powered, board-racked chariots of fire (or at least 250 watts) that have turned the San Mateo Watershed access trail into a veritable parking lot, providing young San Clemente locals easy access to one of the best surf training grounds in any ocean: the super-consistent peak at Lower Trestle. Access that for some reason was not collectively taken advantage of by the hot generation that came before.
Exactly why not is a bit of a mystery. But for some reason, back in the mid-to-late 1980s and into the ‘90s only a handful of older San Clemente locals (think Herbie, Ron, Ben, Charlie, Furdog and the McGonagles) rode their acoustic bikes to Trestles, with boards either tucked under one arm or nestled into homemade side racks. Everybody else walked. Or trudged, rather, the 1.2 miles in, and the 1.2 miles back. Which many non-local surfers, though not exactly happy with the prospect, were apparently willing to do in order to surf Orange County’s premier break. Yet during those same years one would rarely encounter any of San Clemente’s best young surfers, including those fully-sponsored, down at Lowers unless they were shuttled down for a photo shoot by one of the many surf mag photogs operating in the area. In fact, during a good south swell back then you’d be much more likely to find a contingent of top international pros out at Lowers than many of the above-mentioned local talent. Lazy? No interest in scrapping with 40 or so out-of-town surfers desperate to justify the calories expended during the death march? Scared of “Grumpy Ron?” Who knows? All that’s clear is that in years past, hot San Clemente surfers did not rule Trestles.
E-bikes changed all that. In low gears, at first. A niche item 20 years ago – and an expensive one at that – E-bikes, whether equipped with a throttle or simply electric–assist, slowly came down in price as the decades passed, until by, let’s say, 2017, cheaper models hit the mass market in a big way: e-bikes sales volumes have reportedly tripled since then. And on a good day in the summer, most of those seemed to have made their way down to Lowers. Along with San Clemente’s many surf shops, there are today several e-bike dealers, including one particularly popular outfit called the Trestles Electric Bike Company.
All of this means that six out of the seven San Clemente resident surfers who’ve qualified for the 2024 Championship tour came of age during the e-bike era; all of them, at one time or another, have taken advantage of the e-advantage to lift their game beyond T-Street, Riviera, and the San Clemente Pier and essentially make Lower Trestles their personal playground. The results of exploiting this extraordinary resource can be read right there in the WSL’s 2024 roster: San Clemente is on fire, and not in the bad way. And the local groms coming up under the ascending stars? Back in the day you had more chance of seeing a great white shark at Trestles than a surfer under 16. Now the place is lousy with both.
All thanks to the E-bike. Oh, and also to Matt Biolos. But that’s a subject for another story.