The color of stupid

December 28, 2015 § 50 Comments

Every good rant ought to begin with a confession. This one does, and here it is:

I have broken most traffic laws on my bike. I’ve engaged in dangerous behavior, reckless riding, scofflawing, cursing at motorists, whacking the hoods of cars that almost killed me, shouting back at pedestrians who insult me, and, in my youth engaging in physical altercations. So if you’re looking for someone who claims his shit doesn’t stink, it’s not me.

Despite the above confession, these acts do not and have never characterized how I ride, for this simple reason: The ride is a fail unless you and your fellow riders make it home alive and unhurt.

Of course there’s a fine balance between riding safely and riding in a competitive group. Hormones flow. Delusions blossom. Risk-benefit analyses wither on the vine. And at the end, or somewhere on the route, there’s an imaginary victory in an imaginary race that has a real ending and real competitors and real bragging rights.

Over time the instinct for survival has won out. There’s only so much reckless abandon I want to be around, foremost because I don’t want to fall off my bicycle (I’m fairly accomplished at that without additional assistance), and secondarily because I don’t want my day ruined scraping up the remains of someone’s poor decisions.

“How was the ride?” when asked by my wife isn’t answered well with “Someone died.”

Which brings us to the Nichols Ride, one of LA’s oldest and most famous group clusterfucks. I’ve done it once, simply to say I’ve done it. If you haven’t done it, there are a bunch of better alternatives. For one, it’s a one-trick pony. There is a steep wall, very short, that dislocates all but a small handful. It happens early on, so if you’re doing the ride for the competition aspect, your chances of making the split and “winning” are almost nil.

For another, the hard part of the ride is very short, a few miles along Mulholland Drive that end in a sprint between the same handful every week.

Lastly, the fast part of the ride takes place along badly paved, twisting, rolling urban roadway that is often clogged with traffic. Especially, there is “the” intersection, where you can either stop at the red light and get caught by those behind you, or approach it on the wrong side of the road at 35+, blow the red light and trust your skills to shoot the gaps in the traffic.

In the past, riders have been clocked head-on by oncoming cars as they salmon; others have been hit by cross traffic as they run the red light, and thousands and thousands have risked life and limb as they squeeze through this harrowing strait. What’s most interesting, of course, is that the people who set the tone for this egregious behavior are the same people almost every ride.

Disengaged from reality, consequences, responsibility, or leadership, they weekly leave their mark on the Nichols Ride with feats of inanity that encourage those other few who are similarly unhinged to follow in their footsteps. No matter how many times they’ve been reproached, reasoned with, remonstrated with, or begged, they keep at it. They don’t fucking care about you, which makes sense, because they barely even care about themselves.

So today, when Facebag lit up with this video showing just how unbelievable these clowns are, it was amazing to see the outpouring of anger at this behavior–behavior that gives every motorist a poster child to aim at when you say “I’m a bicyclist.”

But the stupidity of the culpable riders isn’t what’s exceptional. What’s exceptional is how long this type of riding has been tolerated, and how feeble our community has been when it comes to reining it in. Cycling has always had terrible people who run silly risks, but in the past those people were first given a talking to, and then ostracized. The group wasn’t willing to have gorillas in its midst, brainless people who endanger all and who give an already suspect sport an even more terrible name.

As cycling has grown, with so many huge rides and so many strong riders, the enforcers of yore have either left “the scene” and taken to riding in small groups on their own, or they have completely disengaged from the crazy rides. I’ve done the latter, and it’s a cop-out. The dynamics of cycling today, at least in L.A., call for a new brand of leadership.

Instead of treating every big ride like Death Race 2000, the people who have been around need to start opening every single ride with a little speech. Rides differ, but the message needs to be the same and it needs to be enforced. Something like this:

Listen up, assholes. This isn’t a bike race. You know how I know? Because no one has paid a fee or pinned on a number. This means you will follow the traffic laws. If you have a driver license you’re presumed to know what those are. If you don’t, raise your hand and I will explain the basics. If you can’t do that, don’t want to do that, or are too cool to do that, leave now. We’ll give you a huge head start and crown you king–but we won’t let you ruin our ride and, more importantly, our lives.

Sounds good in theory, but the problem is that nowadays no one wants to be the heavy, for various reasons. First is the fear of liability. If you’re the one laying down the law, who are the lawyers going to come looking for when someone falls off her bicycle and breaks an arm, or worse? Who wants to get sued for trying to keep things safe?

The other problem is that there are so many rides and so many schedules that it’s rare for the same people to show up every week for the same ride. So even though you can get the ball rolling, if you’re the “heavy” all you have to do is miss a few rides and the problem resets.

What’s the solution? First, these rides need to organize to this extent: The regulars need to agree that someone will always give “the speech.” This diffuses responsibility in case someone tries to pin the tail on you as the “promoter,” and it gives everyone a stake. Most importantly, it lets slower riders know that the asshat antics of the fast-and-furious-fools isn’t acceptable, and it encourages people to come up to these clowns post-ride and read them the riot act.

Best of all, it makes certain types of riding, i.e. the flagrant behavior seen in the video, uncool, and it gives each one of these rides the opportunity to ostracize those who would endanger everyone else for the cheap glory of a few seconds with your hands in the air.

There are already rides like this, where a chain-gang boss lays down the law and if you’re going to do the ride, you follow it. The Long Beach Freds come to mind, a group of hackers and Olympians who train daily on one of the hairiest and most congested roadways in SoCal, PCH. They stop at lights, don’t take crazy risks, and more or less look out for each other while also trying to rip each others’ legs off. They don’t give “the speech,” but if you get out of line you get sent to your room without any supper.

Gil Dodson, the ancient Fred around whom the Long Beach Freds are built, is proof that one strong voice and a group of like-minded riders can create an atmosphere of challenging competition and relative safety. Is that asking too much?

The time to change is now. Better to attend post-ride coffee than a post-ride funeral.



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When a big tree falls

December 21, 2013 § 30 Comments

When Raymond Fouquet died, those close to him were aware that his health had been failing, and that at age 92 his end was near. His death was not tragic or shocking; it came at the end of a long live that had been wonderfully lived. Raymond’s death punctuated a lifetime of kindness, but death could not erase or even diminish the ripples of goodness that continue to fan out from the warmth and humanity of his good deeds.

In a profound and complex way, Raymond lived the American Dream. Not the dream of textbooks or political ideology, but the dream that all people have of providing for those they love and giving their children a better hand of cards than the ones they were dealt. In his case, Raymond had been dealt a pair of twos.

Born outside Paris in 1920, France was still in ruins from World War I. The loss of an entire generation of young men, the wholesale destruction of the northern part of the country, and the political instability created by the Treaty of Versailles meant that by the time he turned nineteen the continuation of World War I, otherwise known as World War II, had erupted with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. France quickly fell and Ray was sent to work in a forced labor camp in Germany.

An athletic and competitive young man, once the war ended he followed his passion for bicycles and raced for Montmartre Sportif, a cycling club based in Paris. This passion for bikes he brought with him to the United States, where he emigrated, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1956. Ray worked as a waiter until he saved up enough money to open his own restaurant, La Grange in Westwood, in 1968. This was the same year that he formed the La Grange cycling team, one of America’s oldest and most highly regarded bike clubs.

The real American Dream

Raymond’s life was a kind of cardboard cutout of “Succeeding in America for Dummies.” Work hard. Make friends. Save money. Take risks. Reap rewards. Although Ray did all of these things, his American Dream was something different. It involved planting a seed in the relatively barren cultural soil of 1950’s Southern California, and nourishing that seed with the passion and reverence that only those who have left a homeland for another country can understand.

For Ray, the dream was to infect his new homeland, one person at a time, with his passion for the most revolutionary peacemaking machine ever invented, the bicycle. As a restaurateur, nothing could have been simpler than doing group rides with his waiters, rides that started from the restaurant, of course. The late 1960’s was a time of political and cultural revolution in American history, and in his solid, quiet, middle class immigrant way, Raymond fomented change of his own in the form of bikes and bike racing.

Velo Club La Grange became the anchor for cycling in Southern California, and it formed along with the Nichols Ride, a legendary Sunday beatdown started by Ray and featuring a nasty 3-mile climb up into the Santa Monica mountains followed by a punishing 10-mile smashfest along Mulholland Drive. Had Ray only created the club and this one ride and nothing more he would still rank as one of the pioneers who helped make Southern California a national icon for bikes and bike racing.

But his real contribution was much greater than that.

Spreading the gospel with a gentle hand

In a sport where social graces are often wholly absent, and where a kind of nasty, rude clubbiness is painfully common, Ray believed that cycling wasn’t nearly as important as people. He believed that, since each person had a name, it was incumbent on him to know it. His rides began with a personal greeting to each friend and to each new face. This was in tandem with what became legendary hospitality. One rider still remembers with reverence how he went to Fouquet’s home to pick up his first kit and the kindly Frenchman invited him to sit down for dinner.

People who joined Ray’s circle of cycling friends –and everyone was welcome regardless of ability, ethnicity, or equipment — found themselves in a community that looked after its members and that practiced the camaraderie and joy of cycling embodied in Ray’s daily life. I didn’t know Ray Fouquet, but his goodness and his humanity touch me through those who knew him and through the good works of his club, which continues to be one of the best in the nation. This beachhead of bike racing and cycling culture that Raymond Fouquet established in California, however, is not his legacy.

His legacy is the grace and kindness and gentleness that he brought to the task. We can honor him by learning the lesson, and passing it on.

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