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?
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?”