The heart of rock and roll is still beating

July 29, 2017 § 6 Comments

It was either Huey Lewis and the News pounding out a gnarly backbeat or it was my heart; if the former, the heart of rock and roll was still in fact beating as I labored up the awful Piuma climb, hanging by a meat thread onto the wheel of someone much faster, better looking, and more nicely clad than I. If the latter, my ticker wasn’t going to keep beating much longer. A heart has a finite number of beats and a finite number of beats per minute. Both appeared close to being reached.

When I got gapped out, I mean when I was in the wrong gear, I mean when it was only a club race, I mean when I’d already achieved my Strava result on a segment back there, I mean when my power meter said to ease off, I slid out the back and plodded for a while. Tony Manzella, Chad Moston, Matt Wikstrom, and Drew Kogon vanished in the twinkling of my bloodshot eye.

Then Jaycee Carey came by and dropped me, followed by Roberto Hegeler. I finished faster than some people, slower than others. Atop the climb there were tents from Helen’s Cycles and Velo Club LaGrange, sponsors of the Piuma Hillclimb and the LaGrange Cup. Finishers staggered onto a stage and were strobe-blinded by a camera rig set up by Joe Pugliese.

Yes, that Joe Pugliese.

It’s not often that a bad beating on a long hill adds up to wonderfulness, but this third informal bike race was part of the LaGrange Cup, a three-race series that club members are eligible to race. You can do one, two, or all three events. You don’t need a USAC license or any race experience at all.

Marco Fantone, the eminence gris who takes care of the gris with copious doses of Grecian Forumula, is the mastermind behind this annual club event. It’s a phenomenal amount of work, not only because all 400 members send him multiple emails like “What was the start time again?” and “Do I have to pay?” and “What gearing do you suggest?” and most of all “Do I need a track bike to ride on the track?”

That last one seems obvious, but isn’t. The answer is “no.” The LG Cup’s first event is a 500-meter sprunt on the Encino Velodrome and you can do it on your road bike. The second event is a 20k time trail on PCH. The third is the epic, 3-mile Piuma hill climb, and making reality stranger than the ultimate bike racing stereotype, in 2017 the prize for each event is actually a pair of socks.

But this isn’t a paeon to the LaGrange Cup or to Marco’s email answering prowess.

It’s a model for amazing bike racing in an era when USAC-sanctioned events are dropping faster than a Baby Boomer at a rave. In 2002, LaGrange club member Bryan McMahon put on the event as a way to give everyone in the club a chance to race, whether or not they held a USAC license. The result has been a massive success. The LG Cup is the signal event of the year and is followed by an amazing picnic blowout after the Piuma hill climb.

Every club, whether purely recreational or genuinely fake profamateur, should put on an event like this. It gets everyone excited. It promotes racing. It allows cross pollination between wannabe-but-too-scared racers with completely fake profamateur dreamers. It brings out extraordinary competition. Who thought anyone would try to kill him/herself for a pair of socks? It sharpens the club’s mission and makes for a damned good time.

And whether it’s rock and roll or not, it keeps the heart beating.



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Going down the road feeling bad

June 12, 2014 § 132 Comments

I belong to a listserv called “CABO,” the California Association of Bicycling Organizations. It is an amazing place, where traffic engineers argue with one another about whether bikes should be in the road or shunted off to the side in bike lanes, cycle tracks, hamster wheels, etc.

It was from CABO that I first learned about riding in the middle of the lane. I tried it out on Del Amo eastbound between Prospect and Hawthorne one day and it scared the crap out of me. However, it scared the crap out of me less than being shoved up against the nonexistent shoulder and having close-passing pickups shave me by inches.

The thing I learned is that no matter how pissed off my presence made the cagers who had to slow down behind me, they always changed lanes and passed. I’ve never been hit from behind or even had brakes squeal from a rear-approaching vehicle.

Eventually I tried it on Hawthorne. Same thing. The occasional honk or middle finger, lots of (presumably) pissed off people slowing down, changing lanes and then passing, but that’s pretty much it. Riding my bike and hogging the lane was better than scrunching up against the edge and having people pass me within a few feet or a few inches.

Taking it to the next level

After getting comfortable with riding in the lane on local streets I took this method to PCH. I did it with a group of 8 or 10 riders, and I have done it several times since then. The results were unsurprising (to me). We got a few honks but people slowed, passed in the other lane, and left us alone.

I have used these experiences as the basis for encouraging people to get out in the lane on PCH.

Then yesterday I found myself in a new situation. I was on PCH with just one other person, Jay. I suggested we ride in the lane and he looked at me like I was crazy. “Okay,” he said. “But I’m fine in the gutter.”

And he is. As one of the most skilled off-road and on-road bike handlers I know, he’s not the least bit fazed by rocks, glass, chugholes, car doors, trash cans, the ends of surfboards, Cher, etc.

What I found during this little experiment was amazing, and a lot of it was bad. Whereas a medium-to-large sized group attracts little motorist hostility, two riders taking up the lane evokes the Wrath of the Cagers. We rode from Temescal Canyon to Decker Lane, averaging 15 or 16 mph, and we were met with an endless stream of honks, shouts, middle fingers, and plain old-fashioned road rage.

I was tenser after the first five minutes than I’ve ever been in any bike race. This was as to nothing when we hit Pepperdine Hill after Cross Creek. Still taking the lane, we climbed at a very slow speed, perhaps 10 mph or less. With 30 or 40 drivers backed up behind us, I fully expected to be run over.

Cars came raging by us in the next lane after having had to slow to a crawl on the hill, and they revved their engines, honked, flipped us off, screamed, and were livid. Of course the point is that they all slowed and passed, but the other point is this: how much fun is a bike ride when you feel like everyone wants to kill you?

Answer: no fun at all.

When the weird turn pro

On the return ride it was pretty much the same until we reached Cross Creek. I told Jay that I was done, I couldn’t take any more of the honking and screaming, so we rode for about two miles in the gutter up against the long line of cars parked at Malibu. What’s weird is that as awful as the lane had been, the gutter was now worse by orders of magnitude.

Despite the cager rage, I have become so accustomed to the smooth, wonderful riding surface of the lane, where you have better visibility, no obstacles, and lots of room to maneuver, that getting back in the gutter is intensely stressful. The other amazing thing about riding in the lane is that you ride side by side and get to talk. So we got back in the lane and started to take advantage of a good tailwind and flat road. Averaging 22 or 23, with sustained segments of 25-27 mph seemed to result in much less cager rage and not a single honk.

And here is where the CABO advocates have their work cut out for them: if it’s this hairball for a pair of riders who can carry a steady speed over the course of a 100-mile ride, what would the experience be like for an elderly traffic engineer pedaling up Pepperdine Hill at 4 or 5 mph? I’m not easily cowed or intimidated, but the unending torrent of honks and curses was unnerving, to put it mildly, and it didn’t seem like the rage abated until we were cruising in the mid-20’s and up.

In other words, it’s really easy to advocate lane control and vehicular cycling on PCH, but after my experience there’s no way I’d recommend that the average cyclist take the lane on PCH solo. Unless of course you want to!

How educational was it?

For the drivers, I’m convinced it was very educational, although also rage-inducing. One woman roared by us honking and flipping us off, then pulled over about 1/4 mile ahead to talk on the phone. We passed her, and after she finished talking she came by again.

This second time she didn’t honk or rev her engine. She expected us to be there and acted accordingly. I think she was educated by our behavior.

Another educational encounter was less prosaic. At the light past Latigo a sow in an SUV put down her window. “Why don’t you get out of the road?” she asked.

“Because we have the legal right to be here,” I answered.

“Yeah, but it’s really dangerous.”

“Only if you don’t know how to use your brakes and change lanes,” I said.

“It’s DANGEROUS!!!” she screamed, roaring off at the green light. There were several cars backed up behind us and behind her. Several of them honked and gave the middle finger salute.

Still, the implication is that only by getting more and more people in the lane will PCH drivers come to expect us to be there and make accommodations, maybe even to the sluggard dragging ass up Pepperdine Hill at 4 mph. There’s no way to know for sure, but I think a lot of the anger was because people simply didn’t expect us to be there.

What this means in practical terms is that if vehicular cycling advocates really want to make a difference, at least on PCH, they need to get off their keyboards and out in the traffic, preferably in ones or twos. It is hairy and will scare the crapcakes out of you but there’s no other way to acclimate cagers to the presence of single riders in the lane on PCH.

We’ll be out there again this morning, although with a larger group. My sphincter’s already clenched.



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The real problem with PCH

October 24, 2012 § 49 Comments

Another person was killed riding her bicycle on Pacific Coast Highway last week, not too far from Cher’s compound. Reports say she clipped a mirror on a parked car, veered out into the lane, and got hit and dragged to death by a bus.

“It was a tragedy and a very sad event,” said Malibu City Councilmember Skylar Peak. Yes. It was. As opposed to being a tragedy and, say, a happy event.

“It was a very, very sad and tragic loss of what seemingly was a wonderful young woman,” said Councilmember Laura Zahn Rosenthal. Yes. And how nice of you to say “seemingly.”

It was sad and tragic, just like the other sad and tragically dead cyclists who have met their end on PCH, and just like the ones who will die there in the future. What’s really tragic, though, is that there’s no end in sight.

What’s killing cyclists on PCH?

The root causes of most bike-car accidents are twofold: Most cyclists are not particularly good bike handlers, and PCH is essentially a narrow, obstacle-filled road with speeding cars, trucks, and buses. It doesn’t take much, especially when PCH cyclists are often enthusiasts who are going hard, for a biker to lose control.

It might be a mirror, an opened door, debris, a pothole, uneven surfaces, longitudinal cracking in the pavement, wide “tire traps” around manhole covers, a howling onshore wind, the air vortex from a fast passing large truck, another cyclist, a moment of inattentive wobbling, a parked car, a parked trash can, a mechanical failure, a flat tire, something getting caught in the spokes…it’s an endless list. To make sure these predictably unpredictable hazards don’t crash you out takes skill; it takes the skills of constant alertness, of being able to react quickly without losing control, and of being able to forecast problems and avoid them before they occur.

These are precisely the skills that most cyclists lack, and they often lack them to a shocking degree. The average cycling enthusiast is a terrible bike handler for many reasons. They tend to start later in life, when the learning curve is steeper. They tend not to have a background in moto or BMX, two-wheeled activities conducive to great bike handling skills.

They’ve never raced, and so don’t have a lot of experience crashing and avoiding crashes. They don’t train with large groups, so they’re not on a state of constant high alert, or accustomed to being surrounded by reckless, unpredictable idiots who can crash them out at a moment’s notice. They cycle for exercise, not for errands or commuting, so they don’t have a lot of experience using a bike for transportation and learning the survival skills that go with fighting traffic in a morning and evening commute.

They don’t have a skilled mentor from whom to learn.

PCH is a high-skills corridor. The deaths there prove it. And although thousands and thousands of people ride PCH every year and never get hurt, I’d hazard a guess that everyone who rides it much at all has a long string of stories about near-misses and the mishaps of others.

So that’s part of the problem: High-skills corridor, low-skills users. Bam.

The other 90% of the problem

However, it’s not the kooky wankers whose wheel you wouldn’t want to follow on a dare who are killing themselves. They’re being run over and killed by cars, trucks, and buses. And as the NRA would say, cars don’t kill people. People kill people.

They’re right.

Because however inept the average cycling enthusiast is, the average driver is far worse. More damning, terrible driving skills in America can’t be excused from lack of practice. It seems that no matter how many years people drive, the roadways are still cluttered with terrible drivers.

The comments from idiots like “Hellwood,” a Malibu type whose philosophy is that PCH is too dangerous for bikes, prove the point. Most drivers, Cher included, simply don’t know what to do when they come upon a bicycle, whether it’s in the lane, on the shoulder, or straddling the two. A skilled driver wouldn’t even shrug: He’d see the bike far in advance, move over, pass the bike, and get back into his lane.

He might be slowed down a few seconds, if at all.

This, of course, hardly ever happens. Tottsy Dundershoot is barreling along in his restored Chevelle SS with the top down and “WHOA! What the fuck! A bike!!!”

Yikes! Hit the brakes! Or better yet, veer! Or better yet, accelerate, buzz, honk, and wave the middle finger! Get flustered!

None of these reactions is the reaction of a skilled driver. They’re the reactions of an unskilled, easily unnerved, easily frightened driver. And it’s no different on the freeway, where no one understands what a “passing lane” is, and where 999 drivers out of 1,000 believe that the far left lane is the “fast lane,” meaning “the lane I stay in because I’m going faster than the guy I just passed.”

Drive the autobahn and you’ll get a quick education in real driving skills. You hit the left lane to pass, then get the hell out. Autobahn driving, if you’re going fast, is a series of passes followed by returning to the slower lane until you have to pass the next person. It requires constant attentiveness, the ability to see what’s going on well ahead of your own car, and the patience and skill to seamlessly pass, return, pass, return, pass, and return over and over and over again.

In Germany, that’s one of many skills that make up the ability to “drive” a car.

In America, we don’t drive cars. We point them.

Skilled drivers relish using their skills

Like road cyclists who enjoy a tricky descent, or mountain bikers who get a kick out of negotiating difficult terrain, skillful drivers enjoy using their skills. Driving situations that require forecasting, reaction, avoidance, coordination, and thought make driving fun.

This is the antithesis of how people drive on PCH. They point, mash the pedal, and scare the fuck out of themselves when anything unexpected happens. You know, unexpected things like bicycles, of which there are thousands every single weekend.

Frightened, inept, barely-in-control car pointers are not dangerous because their cars are big, moving fast, and weigh thousands of pounds. They’re dangerous for the same reason that a clumsy, unskilled idiot is dangerous with a loaded gun: He doesn’t really know how to use it.

The toxicity of “My Space”

Partnered up with a laughable set of driving skills, the PCH car pointer becomes even more deadly due to his xenophobic sense of space. The roadway is his turf. Anything that is smaller and slower than him is a foreigner without an entry visa. When his space is invaded, his cloddish driving skills combine with his outrage at something being where he thinks it doesn’t belong, and cause him to freak out.

In order to make PCH safe for cyclists, it doesn’t require any new studies or infrastructure or laws. It requires something even costlier and more impossible to attain: The admission that bikes in the middle of the road, even erratic and badly handled ones, are a piece of cake for anyone who pretends to be a skilled driver, and the realization that as a cyclist the biggest hazard to your health on PCH may well be the way you ride your bike.

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