When the past calls

April 26, 2014 § 22 Comments

The bigness of the SPY 2014 Belgian Waffle Ride has almost gotten out of hand, such that it’s having a hard time fitting inside the vast vacuum of even my own head.  Most of us are going over the details, endlessly. Will my iPhone battery last? Will my food supplies last? Will my tires last?

And of course, “Will I last?”

But that’s not all. Some have taken to the airwaves to bash the event, a sign that you not only can’t please everyone, but if you do it right, you’ll displease exactly the right people. Others have sneered and point out that THEIR ride is longer, harder, dirtier, more grueling, etc.

And of course there are the daily BWR emails from the organizers that whip you into a frenzy just as soon as you’ve settled down. Don’t forget to set up a Strava account! Don’t forget your Garmin! Don’t change waves! Don’t speed on the dirt descents! Don’t be a wanker!

For some, the pressure gets to be too much, and that’s when the doctor’s notes, the lingering boo-boos, the kiddy soccer matches, the honey-do’s, and the stark reality of “I haven’t been training hard enough” begin to knock riders out of contention before the ride even starts. Yet it does beg the question, “Why in the world are you doing this?”

Why, indeed?

Matt McSuccess

I wish you’d known Matt McSuccess in his heyday. He was blonde, handsome, quick on the bike, and more filled with smack talk than a heroin wholesaler. But like so many, he walked away from cycling to raise a family, build a career, and live a normal life. We had stayed in touch sporadically over the last thirty years, usually thanks to his willingness to reach out.

As I was riding down San Vicente this morning, the phone rang. I pulled over and answered it. It was Matt. “Hey, man! How are you?” I asked.

“Great!” Then he got straight to the point. “I’m training and racing again. What’s up with you?”

I told him, and we made plans to get together in June, when I’ll be in Houston for a week. He’s going to drive down from Austin and we’ll spend a day enjoying the hell out of some riding and perhaps some beer as well.

His phone call put me in the best of moods. It brought back so many memories, memories of funny things, like the morning he rear-ended a Honda in his giant Suburban in front of the whole gang. He was late for the ride and driving there instead of riding. The Honda driver wasn’t hurt, and we laughed ourselves silly at his mistake.

Sad memories, too, like the passing of Matt’s best friend — and a friend to all of us –Richard Turner. Richard was a great bike racer and talented triathlete whose heart stopped while doing a swim workout.

And of course happy memories, like his marriage to Cheryl in the big Catholic church there on Guadalupe in Austin, right across from campus. These things that we experienced in our youth, all connected somehow to cycling, became memories which, in turn, became part of the fabric of my life. Hearing Matt’s voice brought it all back.

Kids do the darndest things

As I finished my ride, pedaling through Hermosa Beach, I saw Michelle. “Seth!” she yelled. She was standing with a group of about eight kids, none of whom were older than about eleven or twelve.

“Hi, Michelle. What’s up?”

“Do you have a wrench for this?” She pointed to the front fork of one of the bikes. It was a fixie with no brakes, and the wheel was secured with a bolt rather than a quick release.

“You’ll need a crescent wrench,” I said. “I don’t have one.” The kids didn’t know what to do, and they looked lost. One of them had a big backpack that must have weighed thirty pounds. “What’s all the stuff in the pack?” I asked.

The oldest kid swung off his pack and unzipped it. He was carrying a floor pump. “We figured we might need something if we got a flat,” he said.

“Where are you kids coming from?” I asked.

“Compton,” they said.

“That’s a long, long way.”

“Well,” said Michelle. “If you keep going to the pier and go up the hill there’s a bike shop next to the ice cream shop. It’s about a mile from here.”

The kid with the flat looked anxious. “How much are they gonna charge me to fix it?”

“I don’t know,” said Michelle. “Don’t you have any money?”

The kids looked at each other. “We got about three dollars if we put all our money together,” said the one with the flat.

Michelle dug into her jersey pocket and fished out ten dollars. “Here,” she said. “This should get your tire changed.”

The boys all grinned as if something amazing had just happened which, in a way, it had. What had happened is that they had started out on an adventure, and unpredictable things had happened, and by the time they got back home that night they would have stories to tell.

They would have memories, and my guess is that they would be memories of a lifetime, simply because they got up one morning and decided to go ride their bikes.

Since you asked …

Whether it’s Matt and the rear-ender, the nice lady who gave ten bucks to a bunch of kids, or the 136-mile odyssey through North County San Diego on the Belgian Waffle Ride, the thing that makes experience more than an existential pinpoint is the memory of it. Delete the emails if there are too many of them; forget about your gearing and tires; to hell with the fact that you’ll finish in the bottom third if you finish at all.

Do it for the moment, do it for the memory.

END

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Downtown donut

May 21, 2013 § 25 Comments

I had a wonderful bike ride Sunday morning.

It started at 4:55 AM. I rolled down the hill, met Half-Wheel Chris at Malaga Cove, and then pedaled with her along PCH to Crenshaw. From there we rode north to Wilshire, then over to downtown LA, then east to Central Avenue, and back through south central LA to Compton, then Carson, and from there to Manhattan Beach.

No one honked at us. No one yelled at us. We didn’t even get killed.

Instead, we had a good ride, and punctuated it with fresh donuts and hot coffee on the corner of Normandie and PCH. If you want good donuts in LA, ask Raja Black, then listen when he answers.

From bubble to bubble

The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s a city with a tiny bubbles of wealth separated by huge minefields of not-much-wealth and, yes, grinding poverty. The goal of many people is to get from bubble to bubble without having to venture out into the minefields, which are mostly black and brown.

Cars are the bubble shuttles for LA residents, zipping us from one “safe” area to the next. Multi-multi-multi-billion dollar freeways create safe bubble corridors so that we can take our safe bubble shuttle to the office or the beach or the museum or the bike race without the discomfort or the danger of having go out into the minefields. LA’s freeways are safe, right?

Right?

The benefit to this system is obvious. You don’t have to encounter or deal with actual humans. But the downside becomes clear until you get outside the bubble on a bike and start figuring out how to navigate without hitting a mine.

Suddenly, moving around LA goes from being a drive to being alive. Your choices have consequences. Getting from A to B requires more than a tank of gas and your favorite radio station.

What Los Angeles really is

…is a city. It’s not a series of disconnected bubbles as seen through the windshield. On a bicycle you see the transitions and you feel how abrupt they are. As you descend — literally — from the heights of Palos Verdes into Gardena and Lynwood, you notice that no one is starting their day with a Starbucks latte. They’re starting it at the bus stop. At 5:30 AM. On a Sunday.

I always feel nervous pedaling through someone else’s neighborhood like that. Then the bus stop folks give me a smile and I smile back, for just a second, before I return to my chat with Chris, which goes like this: “Quit half-wheeling me.”

Isn’t it daaaaaangerous?

Most of my friends don’t ride their bikes through Gardena, Lynwood, Hawthorne, Lennox, and Inglewood. They don’t even drive it. “Is it safe?” they ask.

What they mean is, “Are the black and brown people going to attack me because I’m a skinny, shrimpish white dude, and take my expensive bike?”

The answer to the first question is easy. Of course it’s not safe. Riding a bicycle in LA puts you in close proximity to cars, who are driven by people actively trying to kill you.

The answer to the second question is not as easy. Depending on the time of day and the location, there are places on this tour route where people would attack you and take your bike no matter what color you are. LA has some rough neighborhoods, and if you hang out on corner of Long Beach Boulevard and Greenleaf on a Friday night with a 12k TT rig, I suppose someone might relieve you of it.

But the simple act of putting on your fancy bike uniform and hopping on your fancy bike and pedaling — briskly — through south central LA early on Sunday morning seems a lot less risky than riding on PCH north to Malibu.

One thing that’s hard to miss if your regular beat includes the pretty coastal cities is the people who serve food out of the trunks of their cars. People living out of shopping carts. Understanding that the best insulating material for the poor isn’t a Patagonia jacket, it’s cardboard.

The downtown LA loop also puts you on what is often cracked, pothole-filled asphalt, the kind of paving that would tear up the undercarriage of a nice car…if there were any nice cars. So don’t forget your spare tire and a couple of extra cartridges.

Flat ‘n chat is the new drill ‘n grill

If you ever do this ride, or even suggest doing this ride, someone’s going to ask, usually with a wrinkled nose and skeptical brow, “Why?”

“Because it is there” worked for Hillary. It won’t work for Crenshaw.

The “because” is simple: Because it’s flat, and because you can chat. I’m not saying you have to give up the drill it and grill it approach that involves hammering your brains out. I’m just saying that every once in a while it’s nice not to have to do 100 feet of vertical for every mile you ride. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bikeversation that contains more than “How are ya?” “Fine. You?” and is followed by hammering ’til you crack.

Most of all, though, by a factor of at least eleven, is the supreme reason to Do The Downtown: It turns into a Donut Ride with real, honest to goodness donuts at the end and cheap, hot coffee enjoyed from a plastic bench.

There’s something special about sharing a quiet, sugar-drenched, lard-filled moment with a friend, when you can look over at her with a smile after having ridden sixty miles together from dawn to sunrise, and say from the bottom of your heart, “Would you please quit half-wheeling me?”

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