The taste of things to come

June 16, 2015 § 15 Comments

It was pretty unpleasant, that last lap out on the Parkway. There I was, hanging onto Big Thom’s rear wheel for dear life. He was in a hurry and that translated into extreme physical discomfort. For me. He flicked me through to take a pull but I reflected on the last couple of times he’d shown up on the Flog Ride, crushed me, and left me for dead.

My turn could wait.

Then across No Man’s Land came Major Bob, which was great news because he has never shirked a pull in his 35 years of bike racing. He didn’t this morning, either, even as I shirked and faked and gasped and hung on for dear life, awaiting the turnaround.

The whole thing was surreal, and not just because we’d reached escape velocity and had left the gravitational pull of the pack. It was surreal because I was sitting on Big Thom’s wheel, and if there’s one iron law of bicycle physics on the NPR it is this: You can never sit on a La Grange rider’s wheel because they are always buried in the rear of the group, searching for oxygen and spare legs.

Then, there was the other surreal thing … the guy off the front we were chasing was NJ Pedalbeater, another La Grange rider. And the final corkscrewed, Dali-esque nail in the eyeball was that La Grange had been out front for four laps and we hadn’t been able to reel him in. The only thing that smacked of comforting familiarity was that one teammate was chasing down the other. But other than that …

Off the front? La Grange? For four laps? And a desperate chase effort led by … La Grange? And the desperate effort of Big Thom turning manly seal clubbers into soft, velvety pelts ready for harvesting? Whaaaaat?

Call it what you want, but don’t call it an anomaly. Call it Sausage Power.

Since he was elected president of arguably America’s best racing-cyclo club, Robert Efthimos has breathed amazing life and vitality into an organization whose time had come to hand over the reins to new blood. Under Robert’s watch race participation has soared. Rather than whipping out a birder-like checklist and ticking off the rare appearance of La Grange at a race, you can now expect them there because they show up in force, set up a tent, and race the entire day.

Nor is their presence limited to one type of race. La Grange can now be expected at any race you show up at and in any, sometimes every, category. Robert’s brand of leadership by example mixed with a big tent philosophy, his deprecating self modesty, and his ability to execute has given LA cycling an important model for growth. By assiduously courting new sponsors while continuing to work hand-in-glove with his existing ones, such as the incredibly generous and dependable Helen’s Cycles, La Grange is showing other clubs a model for how a club can strengthen its cycling identity while still attracting people who don’t race.

Nowhere is this easier to see than in La Grange’s monthly mixers, where club members and non-members, racers and non-racers, and gasp, and even cyclists from the poor, unwashed South Bay are welcome. Over the last three years we’ve gone from wondering “Who is that Sausage dude with twelve bike cameras and a fast finish?” to “Imma try to get on his wheel and afterwards borrow ten bucks.”

All of this and more went through my head as we hit the turnaround. After having sat on for half a lap I jumped hard, dislodging Big Thom who had so nobly sacrificed for the cause. “La Grange may be on a roll,” I said to myself, “but they still have some work to do.”

Several hundred yards from the imaginary finish I realized that it was I, not they, who was the work in progress: La Grange’s OTF rider coasted across the line with his hands in the air.



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The tired radicals

May 10, 2015 § 38 Comments

On Saturday morning I rolled up to the Manhattan Beach Pier and was pleasantly surprised to find a large group of riders who had made the 6:30 AM commitment to pedal north for a couple of hours, take the full lane on Pacific Coast Highway, and then lodge an informal protest at Malibu City Hall regarding the illegal ticketing of cyclists on PCH.

By the time we arrived we had added another ten riders or so, and a handful had only ridden part of the way. The pre-ride publicity was pushed by Greg Seyranian of Big Orange, and I got a lot of help from Mario Obejas at the Beach Cities Cycling Club, as he invited me to come speak to the group about our protest and included ride information in the club’s newsletter. I also greatly appreciated the efforts of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations, who sent their president from San Diego, Jim Baross, and his henchman from San Clemente, Pete van Nuys.

Don Ward of Wolfpack Hustle also put the word out on Facebook and Twitter, and a random and incomplete list of people who showed up includes Dan Kroboth, Steven Thorpe, Robert Cisneros, David Huntsman, Mikki Ozawa, Tamar Toister, Debbie Sullivan, Michael Barraclough, Pete van Nuys, Gary Cziko, Jim Baross, Eric Richardson, Bob Kellogg, Peter Richardson, Connie Perez, Alx Bns, Mark Jacobs, Don Young, and Les Borean.

The day before the ride I got a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The lieutenant and I spent close to an hour talking about cycling on PCH. Although the department understands the right of cyclists to control the lane when there are debris or other hazards that make riding as far to the right as practicable unsafe, the bone of contention continues to be what constitutes a substandard width lane, because it is this exception to the FTR law that cyclists use to get away from the fog line and out into the full lane on PCH.

Our position has always been that the statute, CVC 21202(a) is plain. It defines a substandard width lane as one in which a bike and a car cannot travel safely side by side. Some of the sheriff’s deputies believe that on PCH this is a matter of judgment and interpretation, whereas regular cyclists who simply want to follow the law insist that it’s no more subject to interpretation than the rules governing stopping at traffic lights.

Simple math shows beyond any reasonable dispute that the substandard width exception applies on PCH. Why? Because nowhere on the stretch from Santa Monica to the Ventura County Line do the lanes exceed 11 feet in width, 12 at the absolute most. The width of a cyclist, when you add in one foot for variation of the line of travel, is about 4 feet. California law now requires cars to pass bikes with a minimum 3-foot buffer. This puts the effective width of the cyclist at about 7 feet. The width of a car or truck, including its mirrors, is at least 6 feet.

6 + 7 = 13, and 13 > 12. In words, a 12-foot lane isn’t wide enough to accommodate 13 feet of bike and car. And of course along many sections of PCH, the lanes are only barely 10 feet wide.

We took the lane as soon as we exited onto PCH at Chautauqua, and the entire morning we saw only two squad cars, neither of which paid us any attention whatsoever. It’s my opinion that the upper management at the sheriff’s department agrees with our interpretation of the law, but I also think there are deputies on the line who simply don’t accept the right of cyclists to take the lane no matter what the law says. They see a group of riders who aren’t cowering in the gutter and think, “That can’t be legal.” But during our ride we got nothing but courtesy from the law, which was kind of the point: The ride was staged as a protest against a ticket issued to a Big Orange rider several months ago for failing to ride in the bike lane, and at the time there were no bike lanes on PCH.

At Temescal Canyon we took a break, waited for the West Side riders to show up, and tweeted/facebagged our protest ride info to the Lost Hills Substation, the City of Malibu, and the CHP.

The entire ride from Temescal to Cross Creek, about six miles, we got honked at exactly once and were chopped exactly once — by an asshole on a motorcycle, no less. I always find it hilarious and pathetic when the second-most vulnerable users on the road treat us with aggression and hatred.

Although getting our message across to law enforcement and to the City of Malibu was the main purpose of the ride, as it turns out the real impact of this type of cycling is the message it sends to cagers. Hundreds of motorists were educated this morning about the rights of cyclists to take the lane on PCH–it was a lesson worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in radio spots or TV ads. Forcing drivers to see cyclists in the lane and accept the reality that as with a slow moving bus or cement mixer you have to slow down, put on your blinker, change lanes, and pass on the left, are the most important results of this type of activity.

Which leads to a couple of other observations: First, of the couple of hundred cyclists we saw on PCH that morning, none was in the lane, all were huddled in the gutter. Several times we even had riders catch up to us, sit on for a few minutes, and then come racing around on the left, only to dive back into the gutter. Whereas law enforcement seems to be coming around to our point of view, judging from the cyclists on PCH, most riders prefer to be entirely out of the roadway. This is where the actions of large groups like La Grange, Big Orange, and semi-organized rides such as NOW and Kettle need to continue pounding home the message that the lane is legal and it’s safe. In fact, when I did the NOW ride a few weeks ago it was amazing to see the entire 70-person peloton crammed up onto the shoulder.

The most extreme example of the cower mentality was on the BWR a few weeks ago, when riders refused to take the lane even when protected by a police-escorted, full rolling enclosure. Old habits die hard.

On the other hand, you can’t force people to do what they don’t feel comfortable doing, and the main point is that riders who understand that they’re safer in the lane now have a pretty strong reason to take it without too much fear of harassment. Even as I’m writing this the California Highway Patrol from West Valley tweeted to say that they agreed cyclists can ride in the lane as long as they’re not impeding traffic.

A final point was recognizing that despite all of the advocacy and fundraising by the numerous bicycling organizations in Southern California, the most effective thing you can do is to get a group together and take the lane. All the emails and fundraising campaigns in the world don’t speak as loudly as 25 riders legally riding in the lane.

Related to that there’s this issue: Getting riders to commit to a Saturday or Sunday of cycling advocacy is tough because the weather’s nice, the early morning roads are relatively empty, and would you rather get in your workout with your pals … or try to change the world with a little two-wheeled advocacy? Most people will choose the former, but for those who took the time to make themselves seen and heard on PCH, thank YOU!



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The details matter

October 6, 2014 § 9 Comments

I rode out to the memorial ride this morning for Stuart Press. He was 39, and left behind a one-year-old son, wife, grieving mother, and devastated cycling community after fighting a brief battle with brain cancer.

I never met Stu.

Well over three hundred riders massed at the start of this Sunday’s legendary west L.A. Nichols Ride, which had been dedicated to him. Like me, many of the riders had never met him.

One block up from the start there is a Starbucks, and riders crowded into the small store to get a snack and a cup of coffee. They had come from all over, with the Surf City team fielding six riders from as far away as Orange County and Long Beach. Starbucks is a natural place to start a ride from, simply because so many cyclists enjoy a quick jolt before they start pedaling in earnest.

But you don’t start the Nichols Ride at Starbucks. Founded by Raymond Fouquet, the oldest and most venerable ride in L.A., the La Grange ride, always began at Raymond’s restaurant. That restaurant, long gone, is now the site of an anonymous west L.A. office building. A few years ago the tradition of starting at the former site of Raymond’s restaurant began to erode, just because it was easier to roll out from the Starbucks.

The old guard saw what was happening, and quietly put the word out: Get your coffee wherever you want, but the La Grange ride starts where Raymond’s restaurant used to be. The new folks got the message.

Why should anyone care? It’s only one block. And why start from an antiseptic office block when you could start from a food-and-coffee-infused eatery?

The answer of course is that details matter, because history is in the details, and our present is constructed on the building blocks of the past, and our future will be built based on how we conduct ourselves now. This is another way of saying that sentiments matter. Because Raymond Fouquet was beloved, and because the things he began changed people’s lives, and because those he affected felt love for him, the sentiments surrounding something as simple as the starting point of a bike ride have meaning. By honoring the past we are honoring the sentiments of the past, and we are allowing those sentiments of love to stay alive and empower us, even though the people themselves are dead.

It’s through the details that we cheat time, and cheat death.

If you ride bikes, and if you write about bikes, you will become familiar with death. People fall, get hit, get sick, get old, and then they’re not around anymore, forever. But in our cycling community, those losses are keenly felt. Riders we used to laugh with, race against, talk trash about, and count on are people who have made us what we are, for better or worse, and almost always for better. When they die, it hits us so much harder than the passing of a distant relative in a distant place, or a celebrity on the screen.

When Stuart died, we all gasped and said, “That could have been me.”

We hit the lower slopes of Nichols Canyon. The only other time I had done this ride, three years ago, KP and Surfer Dan had exploded the massive field and gone on to “win” the ride. It was a searing exercise in endless pain and abject terror as we shot through red lights, bounced over chugholes, and flailed our way to the breathless finish.

Not today. We climbed slowly and densely bunched. We descended quickly but carefully. We ended in Brentwood still filled with adrenaline and excess energy, a huge group of hundreds that had done anything but “leave it all on the road.” Along the way we talked about Stu, we talked about our own mortality, and we gave thanks, each in our own way, for simply being allowed the gift of life.

The details of where we started, where we finished, and what we did in between to honor the life of a good man, those details, like the details of Stuart’s life, mattered.



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Week in review

September 23, 2013 § 12 Comments

Lots has happened.

Julie Cutts, who rides for La Grange, won two world masters championships this weekend, one in the time trial and the other in the road race. More about this at a later date, but suffice it to say that this is staggeringly, incredibly, amazingly fantastic news. Julie was joined in Trento, Italy by Rudy Napolitano, Mike Easter, and Tony Restuccia, who all raced in the men’s 35-39 world championship. Although everyone can appreciate Julie’s two victories, not everyone can appreciate the men’s results — 15th, 19th, and 60th. Let me be the first to say that these results are extraordinary. Out of 101 finishers, these three racers performed exceptionally on a global stage, on a brutal course that ended with a 20km climb, in the epicenter of world cycling. Simply being invited to the biggest stage for masters racers is a tremendous accomplishment. Finishing as strongly as these guys did is testament to their toughness, ability, and racing skill.

Cyclocross is here

The 2013-2014 cyclocross season kicks off in Southern California next Sunday, September 29, at the historical downtown LA state park. Dorothy Wong brings cyclocross back for another year, only it’s bigger, better, and promises even more participation and excitement. Even as road and track racing stagnate in the state and nationwide, ‘cross continues to grow. Why? Because it’s audience-friendly. Road and track focus on the athletes, and with the exception of blowout races like Tulsa Tough, it’s unheard of in SoCal to see a road race, circuit race, or crit that’s packed with spectators.

Cyclocross brings people in to watch. The courses are exciting and spectators can put their tents right next to the most thrilling parts of the course. The racers go slower and they come by much more often, and spectators are encouraged to cheer, heckle, and give questionable hand-ups. ‘Cross courses are “parky,” so kids can run around. After racing, the athletes are often found under the tents drinking beer, hanging out, and enjoying the rest of the day. What’s also interesting is that, as far as I know, there’s little or no prize money — and the racers could care less. They’re energized by screaming fans and a fun time, not the illusory professionalism that comes from getting a “paycheck” of $25 and a box of Clif bars.

More PCH tomfoolery

I did another couple of Sunday rides on PCH, taking the lane all the way out to Cross Creek and back. The criticism of this approach was initially massive by the local cycling community, or at least among the people with whom I ride.  Then, thanks to a video captured by a biker on Sunday, I saw an entire crew of “gutter bunnies,” 50 riders strong, taking the lane. So that’s awesome. One disappointment has been the almost complete absence of “take the lane” advocates, folks who are quite vocal about taking the lane and who spout lots of facts and figures regarding the  merits of this method, but who can’t be bothered to actually do it on PCH. Maybe you don’t believe in your method quite as much as you say?

My kingdom for a stem

On the way to the ride this morning I ran into Mike Barraclough, who was sidelined just past Malaga Cove with a flat tire, a short stem, and no stem extender. My wheels are box rim aluminum Open Pros and so they take any length stem, no matter how short, but when I went to the bike shop to get a new tube the only ones they had in stock were the 60mm. It turned out that this was just the right length, so we swapped his spare 52mm for my 60mm, and we got underway. Dave Kramer, also en route to the ride, had also stopped to help. Pressed for time, we took the most direct route from Redondo to Manhattan Beach, which is PCH, and we took it at full speed. Mike and Dave had breathing problems along the way, and we had to back it off a notch to stay together. Then, once we turned on Gould and dropped down to Valley, Dave and Mike blew a stop sign that had a police cruiser parked off to the side, waiting for speeders. This was our lucky morning, though — I put a foot down for the first time in recent memory, and the cop just watched us pedal away. When we got to the start of the ride, Mike and Dave looked like they were on the finishing leg of RAAM. Ron Peterson looked up and laughed. “You were supposed to exercise the horses, son, but instead you done broke ’em!”

Can’t say enough about these shoes

I’ve been riding Bont shoes for about six months now. My first shoes were Detto Pietro. My second shoes were Marresi. My third shoes were the Sidi Revolution, the first shoe with a velcro strap. My fourth shoes were Duegi white patent leather track shoes with wooden soles … I used them on the road and almost died in them atop a high mountain pass in Japan, but that’s another story. My next shoes were Sidi, and I wore their various iterations for twenty years until two years ago I bought the Specialized S-Works under pressure from a local dealer. My feet eventually adapted to them, but the dials constantly wore out and it was frustrating and expensive to replace them. It also felt like a bit of planned obsolescence, so that I could keep spending money on the shoe. It rubbed me the wrong way.

I was given the Bont shoes as part of my team’s sponsorship package. Basically, they give me a bunch of world-class gear so that I can go place 57th in the local crits and DNF the occasional road race. I was skeptical about the Bont shoes because you have to put them in the oven. They are also flexible like well-cured concrete. And the road shoe looks a little boxcar-ish. Once I had cooked them and used them for a week, my feet molded perfectly to the interior of the shoe. Everyone loves to talk about their “stiff frame” and “stiff BB” and “stiff soles” and “stiff” whatever, but it’s a word I’ll use with care for the rest of my life after wearing the Bont.

So, how stiff are the Bont shoes? They are “sailor on shore leave” stiff. They are stiffer than a fused spine. Stiff like glass. When you push down on the pedals, the shoes are so stiff that, if your bottom bracket is sufficiently robust, the earth will flex on its axis before you’ll flex the soles on these beasts. The ‘cross version of the Bont Vaypor is just as good, with several modifications for the rigors of cyclocross. If you’re unhappy with the flexiness of your current shoes, consider the Bont.

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