Tara’s big birthday adventure

June 25, 2013 § 24 Comments

Yesterday a group of about twenty-five riders rode from Malaga Cove to the downtown L.A. Ciclavia. Along the way we picked up riders along Crenshaw as we made our way to Wilshire Blvd., the epicenter of the big event. One of our number was Tara, who had mistakenly hopped in thinking we were the Wheatgrass Ride.

It was Tara’s birthday and she had opted out of the Ontario crit and decided to do an easy pedal around the hill. “Where’s this ride going?” she asked.

“Downtown,” I answered.

“Well,” she said “I hope it’s an adventure. Today’s my birthday and I want an adventure.”

Your wish is my command

We got to the Ciclavia and learned an important fact about bicycle riding. The slower you go, the hungrier you get and the worse you have to pee. Stephan was ready to gnaw the covering off his saddle after our two-hour stop-and-start meander to downtown. Alan was chewing on an old inner tube, and as I stared at my compadres everyone was starting to look like a different kind of food item. It didn’t help that as soon as we got to Wilshire, Raja started talking about Tommy’s Chili Burgers and Chili Fries.

“You don’t have to order chili on your burger,” he said. “Just order a burger. It’ll have more chili than hair on a nun’s butt.”

“Yeah,” added Charles. “If you order chili, they’ll just put chili on the chili. It’s alright if you’re not too concerned about stuff like cardiac arrest.”

The Ciclavia wasn’t yet in full swing, but there were already tens of thousands of people walking and riding along the street. We stopped at the food trucks at the end of Wilshire and ate, then coffeed up around the corner. Several of the group were going to return to the coast, but I had planned to attend Kevin Phillips’s hour record attempt at the Carson velodrome, so my route would take me down Central Avenue.

“Heading home via Watts and Compton,” I said. “Who’s with me?”

“Uh, I, uh, am taking the beach route,” said Raj as the entire crew pretended not to hear me.

“Beach route? You’re FROM South Central, dude.”

“My ghetto card expired,” he confessed. “But you’ll be fine. Skinny white dude on a $5,000 bike. No one will notice. Maybe tape a few Ben Franklins to your arms to be more incognito. Before they stab you to death just tell ‘em you’re looking for women and crack. You should be fine.”

Tara piped up. “I’ll go with you. I want to see Kevin tackle the record.”

Raj nodded with approval. “Yeah, man. Skinny white dude on $5k of bike and cute white chick on $6k of bike and tight pants. You cats will blend right in. You know how to dial 911, right?”

Most of what you’re afraid of is wrong

Raj let us go because he knew the ‘hood, and he knew that people in South Central L.A. are a hell of a lot friendlier than the average Angry PV Housewife Behind a Benz. We pedaled along for a ways, passing Moreno’s Bike Shop and Mother’s Bike shop on Central as we cruised through Watts.

After a while we saw two riders ahead of us, one wearing a stars and stripes jersey. We picked up the pace a bit, passed them, and then mistakenly veered off onto Clovis. As we rode in the bike lane, a giant mound of broken glass appeared in front of us. I wasn’t worried, having made the clever choice to ride my ‘cross bike and its mondo, bulletproof 700 x 34 knobby tires.

Tara, on the other hand, was in trouble. “Are those tubulars?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Where’s your spare?”

“I don’t have one.”

“No spare?”

“No.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know how to change a tubular, so it wouldn’t do me any good even if I had one.”

“I know how to change a tubular.”

“Too late for that. But I have this.” She reached into her jersey pocket and whipped out a giant tube of Fillitup, a goo injector that looked bigger than the cartridge from a grease gun.

“Man, I hope you don’t flat. That thing is useless. When you’re riding urban routes you have to run beefier tires. Otherwise you’re asking for trouble.” I pointed expertly at my awesomely honking-Foxworthy-approved-mondo-treaded tires.

On cue, there was a loud hiss — pfffft — flapflapflap. From my rear tire.

“You’re rear tire is flat,” said Tara.

I cursed a tiny little bit.

“We can pull over here and change it if you want.”

“Uh, that won’t be happening, unfortunately.”

“You think it’s dangerous here?” Several local denizens were curiously eyeing us from the edge of their shopping carts.

“Dangerous? Shit, no. You see, I, uh, don’t have a spare tube.”

“No spare?”

“Uh, no.”

“How come? These urban routes can be pretty rough on tires, I’m told.”

“Yeah, I, uh, well, you see, I’ve never flatted on these tires and I figured they wouldn’t, you know, like, flat today.”

“Ohhhh,” Tara said. “The old ‘these tires don’t flat’ deal, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, keep pedaling then. Goodness knows I don’t have a spare.”

Manuel y Pablo’s Hardware y Pupuseria

We got back over onto South Central, and after a mile or so, just at the end of Watts, there was a dude smoking a cigarette on the porch and grinning at us. “Hey, man, is there a bike shop around here?” I asked.

“A what?”

“Bike shop.”

“Whatchu want one of them for?”

“I got a flat tire.”

“Aw man, you fucked. Ain’t no bike shop in the ‘hood less you go back uptown and hit Mother’s. She gon’ fix you up.”

“No, that’s too far the wrong way.”

“You can try Manuel and Pablo’s. They got tacos and hardware, man. Maybe can’t fix yo bike but you can eat up like a dog and get some hardware if you need any.”

“I don’t need any hardware.”

“I know that. But yo skinny ass could use a taco, know what I’m sayin?”

“I really need a spare tube.”

“Manuel might have that too. Might as well have a look ’cause they’s on your right a half mile up.”

“Thanks, man.”

We pulled into Manuel y Pablo’s Hardware y Pupuseria just as a lady was putting away the dogs. The small one was about as big as Tara and lunged so hard against the leash that if it hadn’t been wearing a spiked choke collar it would have ripped free and mauled us both. Tara held my bike while I went in.

The lights were almost completely out and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. The tacos smelled great. “How can I help you, senor?” a very nice girl asked.

“Do you have any inner tubes for a bike tire?”

“Oh yes, senor, we have so many ones. On the last aisle over there.” She pointed off into a distant area where it was darker than a black hole. I made my way over. Two dudes in cowboy hats were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and looking at me.

“Hi,” I said. They nodded. The bigger of the two had out a monstrous Bowie knife that he was using to pare his nails. A scar ran down across his forehead, and his front teeth had so much gold they glittered like Smaug’s treasure hoard despite the gloom.

I found the inner tubes and squinched my eyes hard to read the labels. Bowie Knife sauntered over. He was so big he blotted out what little gloom there was. All I could see was the glint on his teeth and the shine on his knife. I was so fucking scared I thought I would crap in my pants.

“Man, whatchu lookin’ for?”

“A…inner…tube…sir…” I stammered.

“Ya, man, what kinda tube?”

“It’s for a kind of bigger style bike, ‘cross, I mean, uh, bigger wheels.”

“Ya, man, you want a 700 x 34. They got one right here. He reached over and pulled the box off the shelf.”

“Oh, gee. Thanks. Yeah, exactly. 700 x 34, that’s exactly it.”

He squinted then reached over and pulled it back out of my hands. The knife glittered. “Ya, man, but you don’t want this one.”

“I don’t? I mean, of course I don’t.”

“Ya, man. I saw your bike when you rode up, man, you’re runnin’ Presta. These are all Schraeder. In the ‘hood it’s all Schraeder. You want Presta you gotta go back up to Moreno’s or Mother’s.”

“Oh, yeah, right.”

“That’s some nice SRAM Red shit you runnin’, bro. Want a beer?” He thumbed over to the half-drunken case of Tecate.

“No, man, but thanks.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

I went back outside. “Let’s go.”

“No luck?”

“Zip.”

“Even if they had a spare, you don’t have air do you?”

“No.”

“Or levers?”

“Those, either.”

“Well, with sixty years of experience between us, we’re pretty unprepared, aren’t we?”

“You said you wanted an adventure…”

A little help from my friend

As I thunk-thunk-thunked along the rutted asphalt, a great idea occurred to me. If there was one person alive who could help me out in a pinch it would be Mr. Freewheeling, a/k/a “Phil.”

Phil was the best mechanic alive and I just happened to have his phone number. So what if he lived in Austin? I dialed.

“Hello?”

“Phil, this is Seth.”

“Seth?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s up, man?”

“I’ve got a flat rear wheel, no air, no spare, and no levers. How do I fix it?”

“First just pull off the tire, then stuff it with grass. You’ll be fine.”

“I don’t have any levers.”

“Can’t you pull it off with your bare hands?”

“No, I mean I don’t think so.”

I could hear him rolling his eyes. “Really?”

“Really.”

“You’re dead to me,” he said, and hung up.

For the next hour my rear wheel went bump — bump — flapppp, bump — bump — flapppp, all the way to the velodrome in Carson. Tara had slowed down to my lumbering 7 mph and accompanied me every inch of the way. “Adventure?” I asked.

She grinned. “Unforgettable.”

Paradigm shift

April 26, 2013 § 21 Comments

When I rolled up with my daughter and son in-law to the Ruby’s Diner in Redondo Beach, I was out of my comfort zone. I’d taken up Jim Hannon of Beach Cities Cycling Club on his invitation to join his ride up to LA’s Ciclavia. We would intersect Ciclavia in Venice and then take part in the daylong cycling festivities.

What is Ciclavia? It is proof that Los Angeles is one of the great cities in the world. More importantly, it’s the most subversive and revolutionary activity I’ve ever been part of.

The city shuts down a major road or series of roads to car traffic and makes the streets the province of people and bicycles rather than automobiles. When we merged with the event, which had already been going on for a couple of hours, I thought I would be prepared to see one of LA’s most iconic roadways, Venice Boulevard, clogged with 200,000 people riding bicycles.

I wasn’t.

State-sponsored subversion is the best subversion

And until you do the Ciclavia, you won’t be ready for it either, because it completely upends our notions of what this city is, what the streets are for, and who the people are who really make up our larger community. For example, did you know there’s a guy who rides a fourteen-foot high bicycle with no brakes that is so tall he has to mount it from the second floor of an office building? I suppose he’s doing his part to convince skeptics that bicycle riders aren’t batshit crazy.

Did you know there’s a group called Compton South Side Riders for World Peace who have the most beautiful hand-crafted chrome easy-riders that you’ve ever seen?

Did you know that the fat lady lying flat on her back with the paramedics trying to get her heart going again shouldn’t have eaten so many gutbusting lardburgers before throwing a leg over and riding 35 miles from downtown to the sea and back?

Did you know that LA is a brown city?

Did you know that tens of thousands of children have bicycles and love to ride them in the street?

Did you know that most people don’t ride bicycles with stretchy lycra panty thingies?

Did you know that cars are the enemy, and that they are not vital to our existence?

Did you know that with planning and cooperation, huge swaths of a city like LA, famed for traffic snarls and the supposed “automobile love affair,” can be turned into one giant playground for kids, families, and people who just want to enjoy being outdoors?

Did you know that if you open the streets to people on bicycles, small businesses have an actual competitive advantage over the giant chain stores?

Did you know that tens of thousands of people ride fixed-gear bicycles and virtually none of them are hipsters?

Did you know that the police are smiling and in a good mood when they’re policing bike traffic instead of chasing cars on the freeways, in fear for their lives and ready to shoot on sight?

Did you know that bicycles bring people together because bicycles are a metaphor for freedom, and a tool to make people free?

That’s “Mr. Fred” to you, pal

I would discover these and a thousand more things, but at the start of the ride I had my hands full grappling with my stereotypes. The Beach Cities Cycling Club people were the kind of people I never ride with, and their behavior was so bizarre that after we’d gone a half-mile I wondered whether I could make the ride. Of all the weird things they did, the weirdest was talking. Yep, they talked to each other, and I don’t mean the conversation you and I have on the bike, you know, this one:

“Hey. How’s it going?”

“Good. You?”

“Good.”

Followed, of course, by a flurry of attacks and panting and gasping and a relentless 2-hour hammerfest.

No, the BCCC folks had these weird conversations that were slow paced, that exchanged information, that were filled with laughter, and in which the people actually got to know each other. And no one screamed at anyone else or shouted, “Pull through, wanker!”

Like I said, I was freaking out.

The weirdness of this crowd intensified as we rode. They stopped at every single red light. The first time I almost crashed out. “Don’t they know that those lights are suggestions?” I wondered.

They stopped at stop signs, too. “Wow,” I thought. “So that’s what those are for.”

They pointed out obstacles in the road instead of swerving at the last minute and dragging the rest of the group over the open manhole cover.

Then, the thing that blew my mind was the sweeper. That’s right. They had a dude who was one of the stronger riders sit at the back and make sure no one came unhitched or got lost. “WTF?” I wondered. “As long as they’ve got a sweeper, how are they going to bury and abandon somebody 50 miles from home? How are they going to shred their friends in a paceline and leave them for dead? How are they going to attack, out-sprint, drop, and humiliate the people they like? Don’t they know that cycling is supposed to be an extended index of misery and pain?”

Clearly they didn’t, and then an even weirder thing happened. I started talking to the person next to me. Like, it was a real conversation, the kind I’m told people have with their spouses. By the time we reached Venice I was relaxed and had gotten to make friends with several different people, learning more about them in a few short miles than I’d learned about the countless cyclists I regularly meet up with on the Donut Ride or NPR. For the first time since I was a kid I was on my bike and the purpose of the activity wasn’t riding the bike.

“It’s not about the bike,” I told myself. “Hey, that’s a good name for a book.”

The ride was fun, but the fun didn’t involve a beatdown. I can’t really describe it. It was fun without being painful and awful and ending with a crushing defeat. I know, you can’t understand it, either. But it was. Why? Because this pain-free fun stuff, well, it’s pretty cool.

And on June 23, the date of the next Ciclavia, I’m doing it again.

Where Am I?

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