A tale of two Francises

February 24, 2016 § 34 Comments

The first time I did the Old Pier Ride on a December day in 2006, I got yelled at by Stern-O. My crime? Daring to be a new face contesting the sprunt on a steel Masi while wearing a wool jersey.

On my first few Donut Rides I was yelled at and pushed around, and was only able to create breathing room by riding some of the worst-behaved people off my wheel. The only way you could get people to lay off was by beating them down.

Those few short years ago road riding in LA was like it still is in many places. Cliquish, hostile, and full-to-overflowing with self-important preeners.

Nowadays LA is not that way, even though other parts of SoCal and NorCal are still rife with faux elitism. Guys like Rahsaan Bahati, Robert Efthimos, Greg Leibert, and especially Greg Seyranian have created an environment where inclusiveness is the norm. New faces like David Wells, and old ones like Gerald Iacono and Michael Norris have kept up a steady drumbeat that welcomes new faces.

Eventually the most offensive snobs relocated to faraway climes, or took to riding by themselves in tiny groups at odd hours where they come into contact with hardly anyone, or they’ve simply quit riding.

This environment has attracted a lot of people to the old group rides. The NPR now easily starts with 70 or 80 riders. There’s often shouting and sometimes a bit of jostling, but it tends to be based on actual riding behavior rather than to establish a pecking order.

One of the guys who started showing up one day was named Francis, but one look at him and you pretty much knew that:

  1. You weren’t the first person who’d thought about saying, “Lighten up, Francis.”
  2. He’d beaten up lots tougher guys than you for lots smaller infractions than that.

In a universe where bikers are the underdog and the police are the enemy, Francis was like that overgrown guy in the movie with beard stubble and a knife who shows up in the 7th Grade classroom after riding his motorcycle to school and befriends the twiggly dork getting bullied by the bad guys. Turns out that Francis was a homicide detective and beneath his tough, flinty-eyed exterior there lay a hardened, unflinching, barefisted interior.

This was amazing because suddenly when the group got pulled over by a cop responding to a call from an irate PV housewife who’d been slowed down four seconds on her way to Starbucks, instead of getting a lecture, four back-up squad cars, and tickets all ’round, Francis and the cop would have a conversation and that would be it.

It was also amazing because we now had a cop who backed us up when bad things happened. It’s a funny feeling to think that when some cager in a pickup buzzes you and flips you off and then gets it into his head to escalate the situation that he’s going to find out he’s grabbed the red-hot poker with both hands by the wrong end.

Of course, what are the chances that a hard-bitten homicide cop would even be named Francis, let alone also be a cyclist, and a good one, at that? One in several billion. So in an effort to let him know how much he was appreciated, I made an especial effort to give him as much shit as possible, which, to his credit, he always returned in rather unequal quantities.

But back to the NPR …

In tandem with the large size of the ride, the police whose jurisdiction is LAX International Airport have their own Wellness Department, which focuses on health initiatives for employees and for the broader community. After a particularly bad car-bike collision on Westchester Parkway, which abuts the airport’s runways, the officer in charge of Wellness decided to get involved.

This guy’s name is Officer Sur, and with the department’s backing he now escorts the group on Tuesdays. He drives an SUV patrol car with large magnetic signs that say “3 Feet Please!” indicating the minimum legal passing space a motorist must give a cyclist.

He assists with intersection control when we make the u-turns on the Parkway, and also helps control traffic at lights when the lights are changing and only half the peloton has made it through. Officer Sur even came to our 6:40 AM liftoff at the Manhattan Beach Pier and gave a talk about rider safety and police involvement with things like the NPR.

From the time that he has been escorting the ride, we have gotten noticeably less (as in zero) buzzing or harassment by cagers. So in addition to the lottery-like odds of having one guardian angel in the form of a homicide detective named Francis, we wound up with an even more improbable scenario: Having two policemen who ride and who look out for others on bikes.

 

So I was talking to Officer Sur after the NPR, and telling him about Francis.

“Francis?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty weird, huh? I mean, what are the chances of having a cop named Francis who’s not only involved in cycling but who’s also kind of a guardian angel?”

Officer Sur looked at me to see if I was pulling his leg. “Pretty long odds,” he said. “Because that’s my first name, too.”

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Officer Sur giving a talk before the NPR.

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Not the cutest escort I’ve ever had, but it’ll do

February 13, 2016 § 25 Comments

There are a lot of people who refuse to ride the Tuesday/Thursday NPR here in LA because it’s dangerous. I can’t say whether they’re right or not, but there have been some pretty gnarly falls, most recently when a cager rear-ended a rider who was changing lanes.

Even when it was the Old Pier Ride, or OPR, it had a fair number of falls. I remember one in which some UCLA wanker took out about thirty-eleven riders.

The worst trait of the NPR, though, has been the habit of a handful or riders to run the red lights on Westchester Parkway. Although that had nothing to do with the recent car-bike collision, the tendency of one or two riders to bust through the lights meant that sooner or later someone was going to get hit by car-on-green-pegging-bike-on-red.

Although I was never the worst offender, for years I treated the signals as suggestions rather than imperatives. If there were no cars I kept smashing, especially in a breakaway where there were only two or three other riders anyway.

To her credit, Suzanne Sonye never tired of calling out the red-light runners, even when it got her a lot of unpleasant blowback. Eventually I had to concede that she was right, and began stopping at all the red lights. The most notorious red-light runner no longer rides, and so these days the NPR follows two basic rules.

  1. Stop at the red lights.
  2. Wait for traffic to clear before making the u-turn to do the next half-lap.

It’s a much better ride as a result. We have Suze to thank for it and now the really good riders who show up stop at all the lights, so the rest of us hackers have no excuse not to do so as well. It’s an example of how a group with major scofflaw elements can be tamed.

Then one Monday a couple of weeks ago an LAX cop showed up at Helen’s Cycles in Manhattan Beach. The cop spoke with the manager, long-time NPR rider Daniel Bonfim, and asked a bunch of questions about the group.

The next day, when the group left the alley and got on Vista del Mar, they were surprised to see this.

npr_police_escort

npr_police_escort2

npr_police_escort3

 

Incredibly, the cop had shown up to escort the group, and along with his flashers he had tacked a giant 3-Feet-Please sign on the rear and right side of the patrol car. The effect on the morning traffic was amazing. Rather than having angry and impatient commuters buzzing the group within inches, people gave a wide berth and passed slowly. And (surprise) no one even thought about running a red light.

The cop has shown up each Tuesday and Thursday, and may be well on his way to becoming a permanent assignment. Of course, his presence hasn’t been without issue. This past Tuesday he stopped while approaching an intersection to give us safe passage, but there was a parked truck on the right that created a narrow bottleneck. Much yelling and brake-grabbing ensued, as you’d expect from a gang of wankers, but no one went down or even got bumped.

There are a couple of other things, such as having the cop car go ahead of us and clear the turnaround rather than hanging at the back when we turn. It’s only a matter of communication, though. The cop is friendly, rumor has it that he’s a tri-dork, and he is following the attacks and accelerations with the interest of a spectator as well as an official, i.e. he appears to know what’s going on.

Of course some people don’t like the po-po no matter what they’re up to. I’m not one of them. Hats off to the LAX police, to Helen’s Cycles for coordinating with them, and thanks for giving us protection rather than giving us tickets.

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