Features - Los Angeles magazine  
 
 

Spokes People

As longtime activists push to make the gridlocked city more bicycle friendly a new wave of riders is partying in the streets, challenging city hall, and even taking to the freeways. Is bike culture here to stay?

Photograph by Dustin Snipes
 

Perhaps the most hallowed crossroads in Los Angeles bike culture is the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Heliotrope Drive. That’s where you’ll find the Bicycle Kitchen, a tiny storefront with screwdrivers and wrenches adorning its smudged walls and salvaged bike frames hanging from the ceiling. For a suggested donation of $7 an hour, you can come in, throw your bike on a rack, borrow tools, and get guidance on how to make repairs, whether it’s fixing a flat or fashioning a rim. The enterprise offers an affordable alternative to regular bike shops, which can charge as much as $75 for a tune-up, but what galvanizes the volunteers who work here is the idea of building a self-sustaining community.

A messenger named Jimmy Lizama started the Kitchen in 2002, when he was living in the L.A. Eco-Village, a residential cooperative near Vermont and 1st. Tenants didn’t have a good spot to park their bikes, so Lizama installed racks in a vacant studio apartment. A repair area went into the kitchen, and the place filled with riders hanging out and working on their equipment. Among them was Marisa Bell—Ma Bell for short—a young physician who’d been a bike messenger while she attended medical school in Boston. For Bell the Kitchen marked an epiphany. She’d found her people. In January 2005, Lizama, Bell, and a handful of others moved the venture to the storefront on Heliotrope, and the Kitchen became a nonprofit organization. These days you can expect a waiting list to get rack time with any of the 50 or so “cooks” who rotate through to assist. The place has been such a success, it has spun off similar co-ops elsewhere in the city and given a boost to the neighborhood, which is informally known as the Bike District.

“It’s the revolution,” says Bell, a pediatrician who works with the emergency transport team at Childrens Hospital. Sitting atop a tool bench in a sleeveless RIVER RIDE T-shirt, a thick septum ring in her nose, Bell is earnest and a little reticent. “I’m not sure that I speak for everybody,” she says, “but I suspect one thing that unites us is that we’ve all given up on changing from the top down, but we all believe in change from the bottom up. And that’s what the Bike Kitchen is: change from the bottom up.”

During the early days of the Kitchen, Bell also became one of the Mamas and the Papas—the name bestowed on the founders of Midnight Ridazz, L.A.’s most famous indigenous bike event. The outings take place the second Friday of the month. Each ride has a tongue-in-cheek theme. When I arrive at nine thirty in front of the Kitchen for the VeganBananaPenis ride, the smell of cigarette smoke and beer fills the air. Clean-cut college kids, aging men whose helmets fit like yarmulkes, bearded hipsters, gays, straights, Latinos, blacks, whites, Asians, and none of the above mill about the street. Pretty much every type of bike imaginable is on display, but the fashionable choice is the fixie. Elegantly simple, the fixed-gear bicycle is single speed and brake free. The pedals move when the rear wheel moves and vice versa; stop the pedals, and the wheel stops, too. Like a tricycle, only cooler.

Once we set off toward downtown, onlookers come out of bars and restaurants, gobsmacked to see a herd of cyclists crowding the boulevard. They clap. They reach for their cameras. “You should have ridden your bike,” a guy yells to a person whose car has broken down. The procession is halfway into an intersection when the light turns red, so three riders start corking: They position themselves in front of idling cars as the pack flows through. Corking and running lights are two reasons why group rides like this can arouse dyspepsia in motorists and police. Every year comes a story about a mass ride someplace in the world during which a driver shoves his car into a cyclist, whose brethren usually swarm the vehicle, bludgeoning it with locks.

Those are the exceptions. Tonight, as on most occasions, motorists tap their horns and whoop out their windows. Wheeling unimpeded along roads I associate with jaw-clenching congestion requires getting used to. I don’t have to perform the usual jujitsu, gauging when the lane is too narrow to stay abreast of cars or which vehicle is going to turn onto me. The riders, about 230 strong, have become a protective bubble, with motorists keeping their distance as we glide through Echo Park.

By the time we approach the 2nd Street Tunnel downtown, though, a wailing squad car chirps to a halt behind us. The officer is greeted by a lanky man with dishpan eyes. This is Roadblock (his other noms de bike are Donny Digital and Too Tall Jahmal), one of the principal organizers behind Midnight Ridazz. Agitated, the policeman cranes his neck up at Roadblock, who stands six feet seven, and tells him that riders have to stop running lights and clogging both lanes. “I don’t want to take anyone to jail tonight,” he says. Roadblock maintains that an LAPD captain said they could travel en masse. “Bullshit,” the cop says. “You will be tying traffic forever.” Squad cars zoom by as the rest of the group fades into the tunnel. “We are traffic,” Roadblock says. “We’re like a big—a big bus.”

The others are long gone by the time we’re allowed to start rolling again through the maze of empty side streets, so it’s a surprise when we reach Main and see a wall of bikes coming toward us, their headlamps flickering. But as the first riders reach Roadblock, a squad car cuts into the crowd and two officers dash onto the sidewalk, yanking a thin fellow with dreadlocks off his bike. “Why me?” he asks as they handcuff him and pull him to their car. A knot of bystanders joins the chant: “Let him go! Let him go! Let him go!” Traffic mounts. A helicopter buzzes overhead as someone with a banana protruding from the crest of his helmet drifts by.

“What, they arrest the one black guy?” asks a middle-aged rider wearing a jacket and tie above his shorts. An officer, looking uncomfortable, explains that the cyclist was being detained for running a red light. Of course, dozens of others had run the same light. Roadblock argues calmly with the police, and they tell him to leave. “I have the right to be here,” he insists before a cop studies his bike and cites him for not having a license on it. Cyclists have dubbed these retaliatory tickets. After all, they point out, hardly anyone in L.A. has a license on their bicycle. The LAPD has begun citing such petty infractions when a gaggle of cyclists flocks downtown, and the tension between the two has made the Ridazz outings more political than the Mamas and the Papas intended when they conceived the ride.

Roadblock was on the inaugural expedition in 2004. A graphic designer named Kim Jensen, aka Skull, invited him, Ma Bell, and other friends to explore the city at night. “I didn’t know anybody else,” Roadblock says. “There were eight of us, and we went on a tour of the fountains downtown. It was so fun.” After that Jensen and Bell would arrange periodic outings, each with its own conceit. Once it was prom. Another time it was the Tour de France; the electrical towers of Griffith Park became the Eiffel Tower, and the L.A. River was the Seine. Bell calls those original rides a love letter to L.A. “Los Angeles is an incredibly beautiful city with incredibly rich architecture and history that you totally miss and have no chance to participate in when you’re in a car,” she says. “When you’re on a bike, you actually experience what’s going on around you. It’s fun to ride your bike over a bridge or under an overpass. If you’re on a bike, you can notice that little restaurant you never noticed before and actually stop in and have a taco.”

Midnight Ridazz expanded quickly. Huge crowds would meet at the Pioneer Chicken in Echo Park and stream into downtown, snarling traffic and pissing off the LAPD. “It grew to be kind of a monthly anxiety attack,” Bell says. “It got so big, it was like a thousand people—police, helicopters, arrests, knives being pulled, guns being pulled, fights—and we just couldn’t be responsible for all of that. I’m willing to get arrested for my principles, but I’m not willing to be arrested for some drunk asshole being an asshole.” The Mamas and the Papas decided to disband the ride, breaking it down into smaller gatherings held each week. Bell and Jensen handed the reins to Roadblock, who created the Ridazz Web site to allow people to post events. A full social calendar has evolved, including Taco Tuesdays, the Nakid Ride, Sins and Sprockets, Bicykillers, the People’s Ride, Friends of the Friendless, Mom Ridaz, Los Angelopes, and Roadblock’s own Wolfpack Hustle, a high-speed foray through 30 to 50 miles of dark cityscape. According to plan, the calendar has spread the crowd around, but as long as rides involve corking and alter the flow of car traffic, troubles with law enforcement aren’t likely to go away.

Sixteen years ago cyclists in San Francisco got together one evening to pedal through the streets. The notion was that with enough riders they could, however fleetingly, commandeer the roadways and proclaim their rightful place in urban society. The gathering became a regular event, and it took on the name Critical Mass. Hundreds, then thousands, began joining in, and Critical Mass eventually rolled across the United States to Europe and beyond.

Los Angeles was slow to catch on. More than a decade after cyclists had begun filling Bay Area streets, Critical Mass in L.A. was drawing 10, maybe 15, people. These days hundreds congregate at Wilshire and Western for the monthly event, and offshoot Critical Mass rides have popped up around the region, filling out the calendar on the Midnight Ridazz Web site. Although the city has long had bicycling enthusiasts—one club, the Los Angeles Wheelmen, has been around since the late 19th century—what’s going on now represents a departure from the sport cycling scene. For the first time L.A. boasts a thriving bike culture. There are bike musicians, bike artists, bike outreach groups, bike party animals, even bike filmmakers. Some are pure punk, others are part eco-warrior, but they all embrace the bicycle as a means of defining themselves and of reshaping Los Angeles.

Last April a bunch of devotees had a wild idea. At the height of evening rush hour they entered the eastbound 10 freeway in Santa Monica at Cloverfield and slipped between the congealed lanes, exiting at Centinela. They got back on at Bundy to climb the towering interchange ramp onto the 405 and exited at Santa Monica Boulevard, filming their invasion from multiple angles. The fellow in the cape on the seven-foot-tall bike was Richie Thomassen (he prefers RichToTheIE, but everyone knows him as Richie), who spliced together the shots, added a soundtrack, and posted his handiwork on the Web. They called themselves the Crimanimalz.

Members say they formed in response to the police cracking down on Santa Monica Critical Mass, but the freeway ride also highlighted the inefficiencies of car culture. At least that was part of the motivation. “It’s ultimately bike activism,” says Alex Cantarero, who thought up the ride with Morgan Strauss, a graduate student at Antioch University. “Inside of that, it’s a stunt, it’s performance, it’s jackassness.” A 29-year-old graphic designer, he’s sitting with Richie and Strauss in front of the Santa Monica apartment he shares with his mother. The following day the Crimanimalz would go on the freeways for a third time.

“We’re not getting in people’s faces,” says Richie, his blond hair poking out from under a red ball cap with “Midnight Ridazz” scrawled on it. “We’re not trying to confront. We’re not blocking traffic, trying to impede anybody. If you look at everything we’re doing, we’re doing it during rush hour, when the cars aren’t moving anyway. We’re not making them go any slower, that’s for sure. All we’re doing is getting them to go, ‘Oh wait, why did that bicycle just go by?’ ” Richie chooses his words with the caution of a spokesperson. Cantarero doesn’t edit himself. “Maybe when I get older I’ll be like, I’m tired of the fighting with cars and their, like, I’m-better-than-you-I-feel-like-I’m-entitled attitude,” he says. “But I’m always gonna fight with the motorists almost running me over—I almost got run over by a bus today. The bus driver told me to fuck off. That’s fun in a way. The aggravation—I feed off of it.”

The next time I see the three is near a Japanese nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard. The Crimanimalz have reconvened to express their displeasure with the Santa Monica police. Under the leadership of a UCLA grad student named Alex Thompson, a few dozen cyclists set out to play what they call crosswalk craps. Wheeling over to 10th Street and Wilshire, they get off their bikes and march across the unlit crosswalk from both directions, then double back to maintain a constant flow. Horns blare. A car tries nudging past. A woman, unable to turn onto Wilshire, gets out of her car and screams, “Kiss this, bitch!” as she slaps her butt. Once the police arrive, the Crimanimalz exit the crosswalk and casually roll away in subgroups to the next target.

The message is muddled—hardly any drivers can see the crosswalk, let alone decipher what is taking place—but it’s not just aimed at motorists and police. Alex Thompson views himself as part of an emerging breed of bike activists who are willing to be confrontational. “There’s a new school who come from this community that does Critical Mass and Midnight Ridazz and all these mass rides,” he says. “It does things like Crimanimalz riding on the freeway. Those groups engage one way. And there’s an older school that’s been involved in advocacy for a long time, groups like the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. This older group is more about ‘Let’s talk to them privately during work hours,’ you know? So there’s a big conflict between those two communities.”

Thompson is right. Moderate bike advocates don’t see an upside to alienating motorists or law enforcement. Aaron Kirsch used to be on the board of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the decade-old advocacy organization that works closely with the city and county. He established “Share the Road,” an outreach program that operates under the aegis of the coalition. “If we are demanding that motorists need to respect us,” he says, “then we need to respect motorists. The traffic laws really should be for everybody—both motorists and cyclists. So I feel that sharing the road and obeying the law are something that’s vital and something we need to do to gain the respect of law enforcement, politicians, and motorists.”

A financial adviser, Kirsch lives and works in the Valley, and he rides to his office several days a week. As with a lot of experienced cyclists, he’ll occupy the middle of the right lane when necessary. It’s called taking the lane, a custom that is central to rider-motorist discord. Section 21202 of the California Vehicle Code states that bicyclists on the street must stay “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” To many who get around on a bike, CVC 21202 is a mantra, because it carries important stipulations, chief among them that a cyclist need not move right if doing so would be unsafe, which is often the case. The edge of the road tends to be riddled with hazards: potholes, wheel-grabbing rain grates, seams, parked cars with doors that open unexpectedly. It was a sandy gutter that sent me crashing to the ground with such force that I broke a hip two summers ago on a weekend spin. I avoid gutters now. But to stay clear of the right requires interacting even more with motorists, and while plenty of thoughtful drivers exist, others are downright hostile.

*****

The bicycle can be disorientingly ambiguous. Is it a plaything? Sports equipment? A vehicle? The State of California has settled on the word device. Riders can be equally ambivalent. For every cyclist who regards himself as a vehicle operator, you can spot ten who behave like rolling pedestrians or, worse, vehicle-pedestrian hybrids seemingly oblivious not just to vehicular statutes but natural law. They ride against traffic, which is illegal. They alternate between the road and the sidewalk, which is dangerous. They run lights, which is both.

“My number one complaint is that most cyclists aren’t predictable,” says Dan Gutierrez, a 46-year-old physicist and satellite engineer who lives in Long Beach. “That annoys me greatly, because I don’t want to hit somebody on a bike or another motorist, for that matter. But I find that with cyclists, half the time I can’t tell what they’re going to do. They don’t signal. They don’t ride in a way that conveys what they’re going to do.”

Gutierrez is a certified cycling instructor. He helped found the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and sits on the Caltrans District 7 Bicycle Advisory Committee. Sturdily built, Gutierrez wears a bristly salt-and-pepper beard. Along with a chemical engineer colleague, he has created Cyclist View, a Web site filled with diagrams and videos demonstrating techniques for negotiating traffic. Gutierrez cycles the way he talks, charging solidly along. “I really believe that if you act like a driver, you’re pretty much treated like one,” he says. “But most people have a lot of taboos and preconceived notions about traffic, or even wrongheaded notions that they believe are true and won’t test. For example, a lot of people will say, ‘Well, I ride in the gutter and a lot of cars pass me closely. I know if I ride farther left, they’d surely run me over.’ Whereas the opposite is true: If you ride far enough left, they actually change lanes, or they go around you.” To Gutierrez, mass rides don’t only risk alienating drivers and law enforcement, they undermine the independence of cyclists. “I guess the way I look at it, I’m a critical mass of one every time I ride. I don’t need a hundred friends to control a lane,” he says. The time he did participate in a Critical Mass, it was to explain to organizers how showing strength in numbers diminishes the power of the individual.

Greeted with the disbelief of their car-driving peers—“You rode your what here?”—cyclists find themselves alternating between defending their mode of transportation and proselytizing. Speak with enough bike advocates and you begin to hear a pattern. They’ll tell you that commuting by bike isn’t difficult, that the distances between neighborhoods aren’t so great, that bikes don’t pollute and are immune to gridlock. They’ll say that it’s not that dangerous riding among cars, but what they mean is that it’s not dangerous enough to diminish their sense of mission. Still, even the most committed cyclists I’ve met experience fear and frustration on the road. “There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not almost killed,” one riding instructor says. I’ve spoken to people who have been struck from behind or right-hooked by vehicles turning onto them or squeezed into parked cars by buses. Motorists honk. They hurl cigarettes and Big Gulps, epithets and loogies. Because to some, the bicycle represents a gallingly vulnerable impediment.

On July 4 of last year, Christopher Thompson, a former emergency room doctor, encountered two men riding downhill in his Mandeville Canyon neighborhood. He maneuvered around them in his Infiniti and allegedly slammed on the brakes. One cyclist glanced off the car and landed on the street, separating his shoulder. The second man smashed through the rear window, severing his nose and shattering teeth. The doctor had been accused of harassing other cyclists earlier in the year, but the city attorney’s office declined to press charges. This time, after being charged with reckless driving causing injury and battery with serious bodily injury, he waived his right to be present at his own trial, which was scheduled to begin on December 11.

Due to the bicycle’s ambiguous status, reliable figures on cyclist injuries and deaths in the city are hard to come by. The county’s emergency management system recorded 2,597 traumatic injuries resulting from collisions between cyclists and automobiles in 2006. The California Department of Public Health reported that 34 died in the county that year. The California Highway Patrol reported 29. Since no one really knows the number of people in L.A. who ride their bikes with any frequency, it’s impossible to discern whether the accident rate is disproportionate.

Faced with inhospitable roads, bike commuters often decide to utilize the sidewalks, which present their own perils. Sidewalk riders have the habit of running into pedestrians, and counterintuitive as it sounds, they are struck more often than cyclists on the street because motorists don’t see them as easily when they cross driveways or emerge from behind parked cars to cross intersecting streets. Moreover, though West Hollywood and Los Angeles permit sidewalk cycling—Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Culver City forbid it in their business districts—a rider might nevertheless wind up receiving a citation. “I’ve gotten six tickets for riding on the sidewalk,” a middle-aged man told me at Critical Mass. “I tell them it’s legal, but they don’t believe me. Then I have to go to court, and the judge throws it out.” Cyclists complain of being stopped for not using crosswalks, for turning left from the left-turn lane, for being too far into the lane. In car country, the police don’t always know what to make of people on bicycles, either.

*****

Stephen Box is a big guy, six feet two and broad shouldered. Bike frames crack under the strain of hauling him along the pitted streets. He’s 50, but with his Brillo pad goatee and Dickies shirts, he seems younger—at least until you spot the reading glasses atop his crew cut. Like other bike activists, he’s taken it upon himself to edify just about anyone he can about the virtues of cycling, and he’s demonstrated a particular interest in educating the police. After Roadblock received his citation on the VeganBananaPenis ride, Box visited the LAPD’s central station with others to inquire about the department’s enforcement of the dusty license law. He has stepped in as an “observer” for cyclists who’ve been detained by police for traffic violations. Not long ago he received a call from Alex Thompson, the part-time Crimanimal, who was riding with friends near Box’s apartment in Hollywood when they came across two officers arresting a cyclist. Soon enough, one of them was in cuffs, too. After arguing with a watch commander over the phone, Box pedaled to the station to continue the debate. Then he blogged about it for LAist. “We’re giving them a full-court press,” he says. “That’s the basis of any civil rights movement, and ‘movement’ is right now what we’re talking about. This isn’t about a bike. This really is a civil rights issue—my ability to move.”

When I first meet Box, at Sunset Junction, he’s with his wife, Enci, a Hungarian who came to L.A. to pursue acting. Box, the son of Nazarene ministers, moved here from Australia at seven. “Neither one of us is a citizen,” he says, “but I assure you we’re quite sensitive to the unique, wonderful mess that makes up this city that we live in. We don’t take it for granted. We really do believe that it’s up to us to initiate change. And I’m not so foolish to think that if we wait for our leadership to lead us to the promised land, it’s going to happen anytime soon.”

I point to the bike lane that traces the sloping curve of Sunset as progress. “Actually, we don’t like this bike lane,” he says, blinking from underneath owlish eyebrows. It runs too close to the parked cars, Box says, “so every door is going to significantly take the bike lane, which means you’re constantly being threatened with either hitting a door or having to dart into traffic on the uphill.”

Box speaks swiftly, packing his words together. As his sentences pile up, you can feel yourself flag. Spelunkering through a conversation on traffic engineering, he can get vehement and wonky, but he has a romantic’s optimism. Ask Box what he wants from the city, and he’ll explain that increasing the number of cyclists and pedestrians would improve the environment. He doesn’t only mean less pollution. “I’d like for this to be a great city,” he tells me. “I can’t say it any clearer. I know great cities. You know great cities. How we interact on the street is a metaphor for how we interact as a people.”

Box had spent five years working with Habitat for Humanity in Kentucky before he returned to L.A. and began producing music videos for bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Sugar Ray. That was about the time he started riding a bike. The activism came later, after he and Enci began riding to the theater to avoid the hassle of parking. They launched a city-centric blog, IlluminateLA, and cycling—the notion of transforming the metropolis—came to consume him. Now he’s a paid consultant for the city. He has lobbied dozens of neighborhood councils to adopt the Bicyclist’s Bill of Rights, which he cowrote. He sits on bike-related committees—for California State Parks, the Metro, Caltrans.

In September Box attended a Transportation Committee hearing at city hall. He provided public comments on a proposal to reorganize the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee, a panel of citizens appointed by the city council. Box considers the panel to be ineffectual. He had managed to get appointed a couple of years ago. A week later his aggressiveness got him unappointed. The transportation meeting marks a small victory since Box has been pushing to rethink the panel. As we leave the meeting he introduces me to planners and council staff and talks to other activists. Then, admiring the lobby’s marble floor, Box pauses. “Want to see something?” he asks. He tests the lock on a door to the city council chamber, and we go in to ogle the ornate woodwork before a guard arrives and invites us to leave.

Both insider and outsider, Box is not the city’s only committed bicycle advocate, but he crosses more lines than others. He is friends with people who helped create the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the closest thing L.A. has to mainstream bike advocacy; at the same time, he also endorses the by-any-means-necessary approach of the Crimanimalz. He will hector politicians, irritate bureaucrats, and even ride the freeway to make a point. He’s recruited bloggers to join his Bike Writers Collective and is a frequent presence on other blogs, where he’ll alternate between rallying support and wagging his finger.

In one of his more colorful entries, Box recounts how a bus driver honked at him as she drove by. At the next signal, when he confronted the driver, she told him to get on the sidewalk. Instead Box parked his bicycle in front of the bus and tried to enlighten her on everything from the law to traffic safety to civil rights. Incensed, the driver edged forward, into the bike, but Box stayed put. A passenger got off the bus and spit on him. Box wouldn’t move. After Enci arrived, having called the LAPD for help, they found themselves arguing the point in handcuffs.

“Stephen is very passionate, and I think he wants all take and no give in some respects,” city councilman Tom LaBonge says. The first time the two butted heads was when they disagreed over whether bicycle racks should be installed at the Griffith Observatory. Box won that battle. Lately they’ve been at odds over the annual Holiday Light Festival in Griffith Park, during which cyclists are prohibited from riding through except on one car-free “bike night.” LaBonge fears the consequences of families pedaling among cars in the dark; Box says the ban is discriminatory, and he has devoted enormous energy to fighting the decision in City Hall, at the Caltrans headquarters, and in LaBonge’s office.

The person with whom he’s probably clashed most is Michelle Mowery, a member of the Caltrans committee that Box belongs to and the senior bikeways coordinator at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. To Box she has come to typify the department’s disregard for cyclists. “I think that some of their recommendations are bad and conflicted, and Michelle Mowery’s not a planner,” he says. “She’s a spokesperson. She’s not an engineer.”

L.A. covers an area larger than San Francisco, Portland, and Manhattan combined. Its network of roadways extends some 6,500 miles. Its network of bike lanes and bike paths extends a wan 174 miles, and because the latter are usually in parks or along waterways, they don’t benefit the average bike commuter. Activists want more. For instance, they suggest transforming thoroughfares that have two narrow lanes in each direction into roads with a single wide lane in each direction, which would provide additional room for cyclists. “There have been examples in other cities where if there is one lane, people move at a moderate speed,” says Box. “With two lanes people race each other and slow each other down. They’ve reduced the size of streets and actually moved cars and people and buses and bicycles more efficiently.”

Given the heap of rejection that advocates have to circumnavigate each time they engage the city, it’s tempting to view their proposals—no matter how modest—as unrealistic. In such a built-out city, with armies of competing bureaucracies and a government that is hog-tied by the disparate interests of its council members, progress happens an inch at a time. Asking for bike lanes is radical enough, and they cost relatively little. “It’s not about money,” says Mowery. “It’s about ten feet, and that’s the bottom line.” We’re in a conference room that borders a sweeping plain of gray cubicles at the LADOT headquarters downtown. Mowery moves to the white board and sketches a streetscape to illustrate how lanes must be a minimum of ten feet wide. There’s often not enough room to accommodate the existing lanes, street parking, and a bike lane. To remove street parking, let alone a traffic lane, would be beyond Mowery’s reach. “At that point it’s a political decision,” she says, “because the business community is going to lose their mind and congestion is just going to pile up if we take a travel lane unless we can show it’s a street that has a very low volume of traffic.”

But everyone knows L.A. can do a better job. The improvements it does provide bicyclists can seem half-baked—bike lanes that come too close to parked cars or end abruptly or appear on only one side of the street—because they’re the products of too many compromises. Box combines his utopian streak with the absolutist bent of an NRA lobbyist, and that can leave people in Mowery’s position feeling abused. “You know, we’re trying to implement this stuff,” says Mowery, “and he’ll go to council and tell them why he thinks it’s not a good idea to do instead of supporting our efforts to move these things forward.” To someone working in that gray sprawl of cubicles, griping about whatever progress can be made seems nonsensical. “I am now convinced that it’s not really about the bike,” she tells me. “It’s about visibility, showing up in media pieces, getting somebody to put a camera on him. I really don’t think it’s about moving the bike agenda forward. I think it’s about Stephen’s personal issues.”

*****

An RV sheathed in graffiti lumbers to the curb in front of a brick office building on Sawtelle Boulevard. A pile of bikes sits on the roof, and speakers strapped to the side rumble the pavement with electronic music. Richie, who’s behind the wheel in a Day-Glo-striped faux-hawk, calls it “The Box”; he calls it home, too. A cluster of cyclists—maybe 600 altogether—chants “C.R.A.N.K. MOB! C.R.A.N.K. MOB!” Someone sets up a projector to present a video honoring the occasion. It is the one-year anniversary of C.R.A.N.K. MOB, a Westside ride cofounded by Stephen Box’s friend Alex Thompson. “C.R.A.N.K. MOB is like Midnight Ridazz’s child that became a porn star” is how Roadblock describes it. “It became the ultra party ride. Drinking. Hanging out in parking lots. Younger than Midnight Ridazz, with hot girls.”

Richie is on the P.A., speechifying, when a squad car makes its third pass and parks across the street. Roadblock sips from a tall can of Asahi and watches as the two officers stand a moment with their arms crossed. A cop tries clearing the road to let cars get by, but the tiny street is a mess. The officers smirk at each other when The Box begins to rattle up Sawtelle, the flash mob in tow. At the first liquor stop, a Vons on Barrington, I come across Alex Cantarero in the parking lot with Morgan Strauss and his father, Donald, who teaches creative writing at Antioch. The three talk about a freeway ride they went on the previous night. “It was awesome,” Donald tells me. “It was great because it was spontaneous. There was no opportunity to build up adrenaline around it.”

After stopping for refills on National, the riders flood into the parking lot of an Albertsons and a Costco in Venice, where The Box has dropped anchor. A band sets up and plays. Young women dance. Combatants joust on bikes, using long segments of plastic pipe cushioned with plush toys. Others do tricks on their fixies, pedaling backward or staying in place. A bald man straight out of Mad Max pours vodka down the throat of a sad clown. Small clouds of pot smoke drift below the sodium lamps. Garden hedges double as toilets. A security guard warns me not to come near him. Another wonders why the police haven’t cleared the parking lot. “They came, but they left,” he says. “They haven’t done nothing. There’s drinking. They’re smoking. People came and complained to us and said, ‘You call the police.’ They get so many calls. We can get fired for this.”

When I catch up with Thompson, he is searching for the children’s bike that he has been goofing around on. Thompson is working toward a Ph.D. in mathematical logic, and like his friend Box, he can become wonky and intense, talking about lane width, traffic law, and Department of Transportation policy. “He goes to public hearings each week,” Thompson says after I mention Box to him. “I go once a month. I’m much more oriented toward organizing this ride. And that’s an understood division of labor between me and him.”

Thompson helped launch Bikerowave, a Westside version of the Bike Kitchen, and he’s part of the Bike Writers Collective. Considering his activism, I’m curious why C.R.A.N.K. MOB (which stands for Crazy Naptime Killers, naturally) seems to avoid  politics. “This is just party,” he says. “What happens is—for people here, this is motivation to keep riding. Pretty soon they’re riding their bikes all the time. As indirect as it seems, this is a breeding ground for political activists. For one thing, they get involved with organizing a ride, and that teaches them the rudimentary skills of organizing.”

Just then three officers exit their squad cars. A lieutenant with the Culver City Police Department records the scene with a video camera. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls from people,” he tells me, “and this is private property, so we want to make sure there’s nothing out of line going on. We’re a little limited about what we can do. We want to make sure there’s no drinking…” He trails off. I ask him if he’s seeing more signs of an emerging bike culture in the city. Yes, he says, adding, “It’s inconvenient. I don’t really see a whole lot of gang members or people that are being real difficult. A little disruptive. But we get called out, and it’s a lot of resources we have to use.” He and the other officers begin handing out tickets for open containers of alcohol, and someone on The Box P.A. announces, “We have to go. Now.”

Until recently the cool kids east of La Brea wouldn’t have dreamed of traveling west for a meal, let alone some big bike excursion; the Westside wasn’t happening. But because of C.R.A.N.K. MOB and the Crimanimalz, they’re making the schlep. Collective rides have a seductive quality; it’s easy to consider yourself part of a secret society after you’ve been on one. Suddenly you notice little laminated rectangles on bike wheels around town; they’re spoke cards with the themes of different rides. In the light of day, faces seem familiar. Corners of the city look different, and you understand that there’s this other universe you didn’t know about.

Traveling together down a street isn’t adversarial the way it is in a car; it’s fun. Truth be told, running lights can be, too—the spike of adrenaline, the gravity-defying sensation of traveling unencumbered. You’re with your group. You belong. But for how long? Will the police suck the joy out of these gatherings? Is this just a blip on our cultural time line, not unlike raves? Perhaps. Or maybe Stephen Box and Alex Thompson are right; maybe one thing leads to another. People become seduced and let the bicycle into their lives. Next come the errands, then the commuting. It’s not likely, but then, neither is L.A.’s bike culture. C.R.A.N.K. MOB, Midnight Ridazz, Critical Mass—they could well be the sip of Kool-Aid necessary to sell people on the whole bike thing. No pressure to ride your guts out with a bunch of type A roadies or mud-crusted mountain men. No need for anything but the most basic of bikes, and voilà—less pollution, less congestion, then one day, the mythical infrastructure. Stephen Box’s vision realized.

I think about all of this as I pedal from Venice five miles back to my car. By 1:20 in the morning, the specter of waking up at seven to get my kids ready for soccer looms large. I wheel past the dark bungalows above Washington Place toward Venice Boulevard, where I see a fleet of cyclists ride by. I hurry to join them. I’m with my people once more, plowing through intersections as corkers block traffic. But within minutes the mob pulls up to another grocery store. I have to keep going. I’m riding solo again, mindful of every passing motorist. 

ALSO: Read Postscript: Spokes People

 

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