Night Cycle




The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.

All photographs courtesy Matt Tinoco. All rights reserved.

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BY NOW, THE CHANGE is a ritual: removing whatever clothing I am wearing during the day, and sliding into my bike gear every Wednesday night. On this particular January evening it’s cool outside, somewhere in the mid 50s. But it’s likely to get colder later, so I’ll need to wear everything if I want to keep from freezing up later on.

Slip on the leg warmers, my first layer of warmth; stretchy, black sleeves I stretch on over each of my legs separately. Like their name suggests, they insulate my legs from cold and wind. Next are the arm warmers. The bib, a goofy-looking overalls-meet-leotard piece of Lycra with a bunch of special padding, comes after. I dance around my room putting it on, simultaneously looking for my jersey, which seems to elude me. I’m rushing, slightly stressed that it’s already 10:10 p.m. and I haven’t yet left.

I find the jersey in my hamper, put it on, and immediately grab my bike down off its rack. I’ve got to make sure the tires are pumped up, lest I end up getting a pinch-flat somewhere far from home and have to make everyone else wait for me while I do a poor, slow job of fixing it.

Looking through my closet, I grab the thickest, warmest socks I own. On go the shoes, helmet, and the gloves. All in all, I’m wearing 13 different pieces of clothing as I walk my bike out of my apartment at 10:19 p.m. 

I’m straight-up late. I text Jimmy to let him know I’m coming; I’ll have to haul ass up Vermont if I want to get to the ride on time. Tonight is a Kushtown Wednesday, the highlight of most of my weeks.

Around 9:30 p.m. on any given Wednesday night, about 50-60 of Los Angeles’ strongest, most thrill-seeking cyclists gather in a parking lot behind a Koreatown Denny’s. They’re all there for one reason: a savagely paced 30-50 mile ride around Los Angeles, freed from the constraints of law and traffic that the daytime simply can’t offer. 

I peel out of my apartment gate, sprinting down 36th Street. A steep left onto Vermont, and I’m quickly settling into a spicy pace headed towards Koreatown; I have to be 31 blocks north in 10 minutes. But that isn’t a problem this time of night. The streets are open, the lights are green, and traffic is virtually nonexistent.

Moving through Los Angeles becomes infinitely smoother at night. The city’s usually congested streets are eerily free of traffic. One could go so far as to say they’re peaceful, interrupted only by the occasional traffic light coming from some late-night workers headed home after their shifts. 

I cross under the 10 at speed, somewhere around 22 mph. The lights have been kind to me, but as I cruise through the intersection at Washington I’m slowed by a short but annoyingly steep hill that seems to exist just to spite cyclists. It’s not a problem, and is probably a good warm-up for later tonight anyway. Rumor has it we’re going to climb through La Cañada and descend into the Valley through La Tuna Canyon. The hill abruptly ends at Venice, and from here it’s mostly downhill to Koreatown.

Riding at night is, for me at least, a totally Zen experience. The chaotic and uncontrollable parts of Los Angeles that make it such a challenging city during the day fade away as the city falls asleep, leaving its raw, unpeopled infrastructure behind. The streets are wide and open, entertaining a sense that the halogen-lit night will go on as long and indefinitely as the streets themselves. 

The light at Olympic is red, forcing me to enter the intersection with a right turn so I can clear it and ensure there isn’t any oncoming traffic in either direction. Not a car in sight. Just Downtown’s hulking physique looming heavily behind some Korean signs advertising lord knows what.

Just up ahead I can see one of my friends hustling up Vermont. Andrew Garcia, age 19, lives in Florence-Graham. Three days a week Andrew rides from his home on 81st Street near Central Avenue all the way to the intersection of De Soto and Sherman Way in Canoga Park, where he works for his uncle’s collection firm. On days when he doesn’t cheat by hopping the Orange Line in North Hollywood, Andrew nets a total 84 miles (42 each way) on his brakeless, fixed-gear bicycle, crossing most of Los Angeles in the process. 

I catch up to him. We salute each other with a fist-bump, dodge a car as we cross over James M. Wood against the light, and start talking.

“Valley drivers are bitches,” Andrew said right away, obviously related to his experiences on the road today. “I took Ventura today. Fools kept tailgating me all the way there.” 

I told him that the few times I had ridden on Ventura Boulevard I had had similar experiences.

“But you know what?” he said to me. “De Soto got new bike lanes. It sucks way less than it did before!” 

One of the most pleasant surprises that can occur while peddling across Los Angeles’s landscape is learning that in some small way, city managers have acknowledged your existence by laying some new paint down on the road to mark that yes, in fact, you do belong on the street. 

We’re approaching Wilshire. For some reason, this particular traffic light is almost always red when I arrive at it. This time, we see it turn green just before we arrive at the intersection and quickly dart across to the opposite side of the street. A quick right on New Hampshire, followed by another into a parking lot, and we’re suddenly in the throes of dozens of spandex-clad, GPS-toting, weed-toking cyclists. Kushtown Wednesdays are upon us.

Jimmy Hernandez, a well-built young man of 22 — red-blooded in the way of first generation Americans raised by Catholic Salvadoran parents — with a Gucci cycling cap, and the ride’s de-facto leader of recent, pipes up: “Five more minutes. Five more minutes till we roll out.”

“You said that 10 minutes ago,” someone else shouts.

“Yeah, well I wanted to wait for everyone to get here. No rider left behind, you remember?” Jimmy yells back. 

Andrew and I say our hellos and circulate among the group that’s turned out tonight, catching up on what’s happened since we all saw each other Monday night at Chief Lunes, another fast-paced ride. Among others, Edgar “Willo” Juarez, Steven “Neu York” Mergenthaler, Jason Rivera, and Dante Young have all turned out. These guys are competitive fixed-gear cyclists, sponsored by some of the biggest names in the fixed-gear world. Last week all four of them were racing in Brooklyn, at the world class Red-Hook Criterium[1] race. There’s no other way to say it: they’re all grotesquely fast.

“All right. Saddle up!” Jimmy says. “Tonight we’re gonna be going to the Valley. But we’re gonna go through La Tuna Canyon first.”

The Facebook rumors were true.

“It’s a sick climb with a sick descent that just keeps going. And we’re gonna post up somewhere in Arleta.” 

Somewhere in Arleta is a park just adjacent to the point where the 5 and 170 freeways merge.

The group slowly moves out from the parking lot onto New Hampshire. Jimmy bellows the initial route, north along New Hampshire with a right at Beverly, urging everyone to “keep it together.” 

The ride is off. It’s 10:47 p.m. and the next stop is Ralph’s Market in Silver Lake, seven miles and 500 feet of elevation away.

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Kushtown, Chief Lunes, and the other group-rides in Los Angeles every night haven’t always existed. Ten years ago Los Angeles’s bicycle riding subcultures were virtually nonexistent, limited mostly to some local BMX scenes and a few brave commuters riding on streets virtually desolate of any bicycle infrastructure. All that changed late 2004, when Don Ward (AKA Roadblock) founded the website MidnightRidazz.com, a cohesive ride-calendar website intended to be a central node for all things bike in Los Angeles. The site includes a slew of information, but the real highlight is how anyone can register and post an event to the public message boards. Though in 2015 the site has been mostly rendered obsolete by Facebook events, rides are still posted weekly. Nearly 10,000 separate group rides have been posted to the site’s calendar over the past decade. 

Ward started Midnight Ridazz because he wanted to create safe, fun environments for people to ride socially. “It was all about having fun at first. We’d get maybe 100 people to meet. And it was just a time to roll around the streets having a fucking good time on bikes,” Ward explained to me one evening, just before a meeting of the Griffith Park Advisory Board intended to discuss pedestrian and bicycle safety in the park. “But then we started getting more serious. In like every aspect.”

In 2005 Ward started the “Wolfpack Hustle,” a fast-paced ride meant for Los Angeles’s strongest road and fixed-gear cyclists. The only goal was to go fast and not get killed. The ride was a success, and eventually paved the way for Wolfpack Hustle to transform from a weekly ride meeting in front of a 24-hour donut shop on Sunset into one of the country’s premier urban bike racing series.

This year, Wolfpack Hustle is hosting four events as a part of its Unified Title Series 2015. While a few years ago Wolfpack Hustle made headlines for “crashing” the L.A. Marathon course for an illegal, 26-mile-long sprint-to-the-end race on the course before it opened to runners, all their races now are officially sanctioned by the city they take place in. Though Wolfpack Hustle events have historically been hosted by Southern California cities likes Los Angeles, Huntington Park, and Long Beach, this year’s competition will have athletes flying as far away as Austin, Texas, for the series finale.

“It was a challenge at first, and the city was mostly worried about getting sued at the beginning. They didn’t want to sanction an event that people were going to get hurt at,” Ward explained. “But now, a few years into the running, city leaders are usually much more open to issuing the permits we need.”

One of the highlights of the Wolfpack Series races the past two years has been the Civic Center Crit, a brutally fast 24-lap race around a .69-mile course encircling LA’s city hall. The race is back this year for its third iteration on August 15th. “It’s always wild. Like 80 guys catapulting themselves around City Hall as fast as they can go all at once,” said Ward. “I like to think of it as a symbol for what this city can become: bikes everywhere.” 

Ward plays a pivotal role in Los Angeles’s cycling world. Along with being the founder and director of Wolfpack Hustle, the race series that harnesses the raw power of the city’s young and supercharged riders, he’s also one of the single most knowledgeable people around when it comes to cycling policy in L.A. County. He’s capable of calling hundreds of people to political action on behalf of the larger cycling community.

The venue for my chat with Ward was a shaded park table, just outside the Griffith Park Ranger Headquarters. Tonight, March 26th, I’m surrounded by more than 100 cyclists, all here to protest the opening of a segment of car-free road in the park to traffic. The dazzling rainbow of Lycra, tattoos, and custom bicycles sets this crowd apart from the usual attendees of the board meeting.

Ward spurred all of the cyclists to political action when he publicized a Facebook event titled “NO CARS. NO TRAMS. NO SHUTTLES ON MT. HOLLYWOOD DRIVE.” In a quest to keep the city from “deleting” car-free space, Ward convinced dozens of people to turn out for a public comment session where more than 60 people voiced their dissent to the city’s “pilot” project, opening Mt. Hollywood Drive to automobile traffic. Shop owners, frame manufacturers, city bicycle advisory committee leaders, and a staunch contingent from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition all made their impassioned cases to the advisory board, arguing against “Griffith Parking.”

Though the park advisory board failed to make a decision that evening, they announced at the next meeting in late April that the road would be closed to cars indefinitely while city planners and consultants review the pilot project. The ultimate fate of the road is unclear, but the advisory board eventually issued a statement advising against the opening of the road to traffic — a small victory for Los Angeles’s cyclists.

Small victories like this one are very much the tale of how cycling advocacy works in Los Angeles, where most everything is dependent on a grassroots network of cyclists and organizers. But as the city speeds into the future, support for regional cycling is growing dramatically. Los Angeles is in the midst of a cycling revolution, as more and more people discover that the city’s landscape lends itself extraordinarily well to life on two wheels. Flat streets, year-round sun, and an institutional commitment to building new infrastructure are all boosting the city’s cyclist population. 

While it’s hard to say how many more people are riding across Southern California as whole, counts from Santa Monica by the League of American Bicyclists show a radical 356 percent increase between 2000 and 2013. Santa Monica has invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure, pouring millions into a 2010 plan outlining more than 50 miles of lanes for the small beach city, largely in preparation for the opening of the Expo Light Rail line sometime in 2016.

In 2011, Los Angeles City Council passed the city’s “Master Bicycle Plan.” The document lays out an extensive proposal to transform the city’s paltry then-200 miles of bicycle infrastructure into a comprehensive 1,684-mile network of bike routes, lanes, and paths by 2030. L.A. County followed suit in 2012, promising an extra 800 miles of infrastructure in unincorporated areas around the county. Santa Monica, Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale, Torrance, and a slew of other L.A. satellite cities have also adopted similar plans. 

The goal is twofold: build a regional network of safe bicycle infrastructure and promote the idea that the streets are just as much for bikes as they are for cars and trucks. 

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We’re riding along Glendale Avenue through downtown Glendale. In the past, Glendale PD has made it clear Kushtown Society isn’t terribly welcome in the city by ticketing riders for reckless behavior, like doing wheelies, and pulling their cars in front of the ride and slamming on the brakes. But they don’t seem to mind tonight, and we have no trouble filling up the right two lanes of the street, rapidly pushing north to Verdugo. It’s not a hustle — yet. But as soon as we hit Verdugo, it becomes an every man for himself dash to the top of Montrose. 

I’m talking with my friend JayPee about a race coming up Friday night. It’s the “Beast of the East” crit in Chinatown, and we’re both going to go. “I think I’m gonna get there around 10:30. I’ll let you catch my draft all the way,” he said, jokingly. 

Drafting is an act of pure trust — riding as close as feasibly possible to the rider in front of you without touching wheels, to minimize air resistance and save energy. It’s an efficient tactic that works well in races and other high-speed rides. But usually JayPee is the one drafting me, so I just tell him, “We’ll see.”

We get to Verdugo, make a slight right, and begin the grueling climb up to Montrose. Riley, who recently started coming to the rides, hasn’t been here before and is apprehensive about getting lost. Officially Kushtown is a no-rider-left-behind ride. But sometimes that policy is a little harder to enforce than it should be, especially during its hustle portions. So I tell him just to keep going straight all the way to the top, lest he loses sight of me as I accelerate into the climb. 

I think of myself more as a climber than anything. So while I can keep pace on a flat, I come into my own cranking up mountains. It’s a stupendous feeling, knowing that you’re able to push yourself up a grade at a consistent speed, seeing very obviously the fruits of your labor as you climb higher and higher. Though the visuals of climbing up Verdugo, a mostly residential street, aren’t quite as grand as Mt. Wilson, the 1600-foot climb is exhilarating. Verdugo is unique for its length. There are certainly steeper grades around, but Verdugo is nearly six miles long, meaning the climb becomes a test of endurance instead of just raw power, unlike shorter, steeper grades.

I catch up to the front and keep pushing. I look back and three guys, Andrew, Willo, and Ricardo, are staying with me up the hill. It becomes a team exercise, all of us taking turns “pulling” the line of riders up the hill, switching off about every minute so none of us get too tired “smashing” up the wide, empty boulevard.

Verdugo isn’t a particularly bad street to ride during the daytime. It’s wide, smooth, and doesn’t have too many cars parked along its edges. But it still belongs to motorists. Right now, however, the four of us are the only moving things in sight. Mashing up the hill at 19 mph is grueling, but everyone seems to be feeling particularly strong tonight, all managing to keep a rapid pace up the hill through Glendale, then La Cañada, and into Montrose, leaving the rest of the ride far behind.

As we approach the top, Willo, the strongest rider here, peels off to the side, letting the three of us start a final sprint up to Honolulu Avenue. Rumor has it he’s looking for a new member for his team, and Andrew and I both want to show off. I settle in to a rapid climb, standing down on the pedals and pushing my body to its absolute maximum, forgetting completely about the rest of the ride and focusing only on matching my legs to the rhythm established by the music pumping through my earbuds. Verdugo’s grade increases significantly at the very end, challenging riders to maintain composure into a 10 percent grade. My heart is screaming, my lungs are burning, and my legs are about to fall off. But two minutes later I’m at the top, coasting to a stop. I unclip my shoes from my pedals, toss my bike on the ground, and fall down beside it.

“Good climbing, man,” Willo says to me. Neu York and Dante, both sponsored by team Leader, come up pretty quickly behind us, followed less closely by the long train of riders trickling up the hill. It takes about half an hour from the first arrivals for the last stragglers to make their way up the hill. Someone got a flat tire somewhere back, which means we’re going to be waiting at this intersection for a while. It’s started to rain, and we all scramble underneath a bus stop by the intersection to keep dry. Once everyone arrives we take an extra five minutes to catch our collective breath.

Though Kushtown has a reputation for being one of the more reckless rides around, everyone recognizes that taking a bunch of brakeless bikes up to unlit La Tuna Canyon in the rain is a bad idea. We make the call to post-up underneath the nearby 210 freeway, and wait for the rain to pass before racing back down Verdugo — all the way to Koreatown. 

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Los Angeles’s nighttime hustle riders are a rare breed. Most of these guys spend at least 10 hours a week on the saddle, commuting, training, and having fun. While they all definitely appreciate the city’s efforts to build new bike infrastructure (everyone starts shouting when they notice a new lane or path on a ride), they’re also not intimidated by riding on the 101 Freeway during rush hour. They’re not exactly the target audience of Los Angeles’s efforts to promote the idea livable streets. Most Angelenos are likely to be intimidated by car-dominated landscapes — they see the streets as hostile zones that don’t welcome cyclists. Or at least they did until the wildly successful street-festival known as CicLAvia started changing minds. 

During CicLAvia, major thoroughfares in Los Angeles are closed to automobile traffic on a weekend day and opened exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians. CicLAvia usually draws more than 100,000 people who happily embrace the street as usable public space.

The Valley hosted CicLAvia’s second 2015 event, closing off portions of Lankershim Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood and Studio City. I arrived in North Hollywood at 8 a.m., hoping to catch some of the organizers and city council members before the press conference that would declare the Valley’s first livable street event in living memory open for fun. 

Aaron Paley, a bouncy, skinny man in his early 50s, is the event’s founder. I chatted with him for a few minutes about what the day’s event might mean in a transforming Los Angeles. We talked underneath a red canopy, posted in the intersection of Lankershim and Chandler. Paley, a Valley native, was excited to speak about how holding CicLAvia in the middle of America’s suburb explodes conceptions about the streets, but also more generally those about the “boundless and terrible” Valley.

“Well, firstly, I think it bridges the gap between the Valley and the rest of L.A.,” he said. “We’ve held these events all over L.A. and now people say, ‘Oh, it’s coming to the Valley,’ as if the Valley is this sort of otherworldly place.”

“I’m waiting for someone to tell me of another city-wide, civic event that’s taken place in the Valley, and so far no one has,” Paley added. “I’m pretty sure this is the first time anyone has ever even considered the Valley a place of livable streets.”

As the press conference started, Mayor Garcetti joked with Paley and others about their Valley heritage. Nury Martinez, councilmember for much of the Northeast Valley, exclaimed that she had learned to ride a bike the day before especially for this event — for her and for everyone it was transformative, revealing the streets as a place for play.

CicLAvia Valley was popular. Afterward Paley told me that there were approximately 125,000 people in attendance. Unlike the 40 or so dedicated cyclists at Kushtown, the participants of CicLAvia are regular Angelenos, out to explore what the city looks like without a windshield. Even my mother took a visit, after I coaxed her to ride her seldom-used bicycle the three-quarter mile distance between where she lives and the event’s start, at the North Hollywood Red Line station.

“I’ve lived here for 45 years,” she said once she started getting more comfortable on the bike. As if on cue for a video shoot, she continued, “I’ve never seen the city like this. It’s so much more alive than when I’m in the car. This is fun!” My mother, a 54-year-old schoolteacher, is absolutely petrified of riding on the streets. But the social nature of CicLAvia convinced her that the streets are for more than cars.

Adonia Lugo, an anthropology PhD at UC Irvine, argues that events like CicLAvia transform perceptions in ways that simply building infrastructure cannot. She explains in her 2013 article “CicLAvia and Human Infrastructure in Los Angeles” how CicLAvia encourages the development of new “social infrastructure,” by making people reevaluate the roles the cityscape plays. “Our perceptions of our environment are informed by the goals, skills and technologies available to us,” she writes, continuing:

To a cyclist, a street affords cycling, while to a driver, that same street might seem appropriate only for driving […] Americans and others who habitually drive may not see roads as a shared social space […] Open street events like CicLAvia re-emphasize the role that individual movements play in placemaking. 

Lugo argues that when people use their bodies to lay claim over a space, their social effect has much more clout than any infrastructural signage can ever hope to deliver. Rides like Kushtown, and events like CicLAvia, enforce an attitude that can collectively rewrite the accepted normative values of a particular space. My own attitude towards the Los Angeles streetscape is informed by my experience on a bicycle. While undoubtedly I pay attention to the signs and signals the same as I did when I simply drove on the streets, I see the streets now not just as simple modes of transportation, but as lively and vibrant spaces — capable of supporting an incredibly diverse array of alternate experiences. 

In Bike Riding In Los Angeles, Marc Norman describes the bicyclists of Los Angeles as “Bandits. Caught like blinking mice between the steel laws of traffic and the iron laws of the universe, neither of [their] own making.” In many respects Norman is right — Los Angeles is so unwelcoming to cyclists that they’re forced to ride into the wee hours of the morning. But the Kushtown riders see themselves not caught between the laws, but more or less exempt from them — something that’s about to become apparent as we descend the hill we climbed up earlier.

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It’s about 1:30 a.m.; riders trickle back down to a gas station on Honolulu close to Verdugo, someone shouts “saddle up,” and we’re off.

The race back is the highlight of the ride, especially tonight, where it starts with almost seven miles of straight downhill. I start the descent down Verdugo, quickly pulling up into the front pack. Spinning your legs as fast as you possibly can for seven miles straight — what cyclists call spinning out — is incredibly taxing. But those of us on fixed-gear bikes have no choice as we continue down Verdugo at almost 40 mph. 

Red lights mean nothing. They become the responsibility of the front-pack to “clear” before riding through, enabling riders behind to cruise through the intersection as if it’s solid green. Speeding towards a red, the pack leader calls out to “slow up,” letting the pack fan out for more space. The trick is to enter the intersection prepared to make a hard right turn in case there’s a car coming that you couldn’t see before you’re there. A resounding “CLEAR” is the shout that everyone is waiting to hear, meaning there are no cars coming on either side.

Andrew is up at the front as we’re approaching a blind intersection somewhere in the middle of Glendale. We fan out, giving each other space to maneuver around anything that may appear. Andrew is at the front when he shouts in a panicked voice, “CAR LEFT! CAR LEFT!” His alert sends the riders dodging and skidding to avoid a collision with a gray Scion that entered the intersection just as we did. We regroup on the other side of the intersection, taking a few seconds to catch our breath from a closer call than usual, before continuing the decent.

Fifteen minutes later we’re at the bottom of the hill, traveling the entire length of the 2 freeway on a parallel surface street. There’s a Chevron gas station where Verdugo meets Glendale, the designated regrouping point after the descent. As riders trickle in, others catch their breath by doing tricks in the station and around the adjacent streets. There are virtually no cars around, letting riders play around in the intersection as they would on a school’s car-free blacktop. Sometimes a car will approach, slowing upon seeing a mass of cyclists milling around the middle of an intersection. Someone shouts, “Let the car through,” and the riders part to do just that. 

From here, it’s the same game back to Koreatown. Glendale Boulevard turns into Hyperion, which runs into Fountain, which crosses over Vermont. There, we’ll make a left turn and enter the homestretch sprint to the taco truck at 5th.

Vermont is wide and empty, a stream of green lights as we race down from East Hollywood. The strip malls blur into an irrelevant stream of fluorescence as we speed by, the solitary goal of us in the lead pack being the first one to finish. No skidding and dodging tonight; just a straight shot down the avenue at more than 30 mph. Cars become hand-holds, buses become draft-zones, and the final right turn into the parking lot where the taco truck sits becomes a runway for riders to show off their most skilled skid. The streets are our racetracks.

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Matt Tinoco is a journalist (and cyclist) who lives in Los Angeles. He likes writing about how (really) nuts the world is, and has been published on Jezebel, Quartz, Vice, LA Weekly, and The Intercept. Follow him on twitter @onthatbombshell.

[1] A bike race held on a short course with multiple laps.

 

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