Ride Report: The Accidental Century
by Richard Risemberg (Los Angeles, July 2007)

Rode my first fixed-gear century yesterday, in the most completely casual way, which is how I like it. I'd been invited to join Matt Gorski's Bastille Day ride in Long Beach, which I realized would give me the opportunity to do a century if I felt like it, or not, if I didn't, as the routes there and back more or less parallel the Metro Blue Line tracks. I'd never be more than five miles from the tramway. So I threw a couple of tokens into my pocket and headed out on a beautiful summer morning--clear skies and thin swirls of cloud--and headed up Olympic to Western Avenue.

Western is a long, long, long street in LA, reaching from Griffith Park in the north all the way to the port of San Pedro in the south, nearly chalkline-straight, and it runs through a variety of ethnic neighborhoods--Korean near where I am, then the heart of the old ghetto of LA, with its tidy bungalows and dozens of storefront churches and barbecue joints, then through Gardena, which still has a vestigial Japanese community, and the whitebread inburbs of Torrance, with their stucco-box apartments and their endless malls. Changes every couple dozen blocks, and for the most part interesting older architecture, whether grand or humble. (But mostly humble along this street.) There's always a lot of people out walking in these 'hoods, or riding old clunker bicycles, waiting for the bus, chatting on streetcorners, and I really enjoy the ride. And the smells of morning cooking in all the little restaurants! Soul food, Japanese, central American, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, pancake houses and bakeries, just about everything represented.

At Sepulveda I turned south, which was a mistake, as Sepulveda here is a bleak five-lane speedway with nothing of interest beyond the sidewalks (unless you're a fan of whitewashed stucco axle shops), so on Figueroa--which appears to cut through a monument to nothingness here--I turned south to catch Pacific Coast Highway and resume my easting.

PCH runs through the refinery district here, rising several times in steeply-humped bridges to cross over the multiple railroad tracks that service the tank farms. I love industrial architecture and the hum of giant machines; the tangles, cables, valves, and railroad tracks that surround the giant pressure vessels and towering oil storage tank is poetic to me, and in the days of our lamented democracy, before such activities would call the black helicopters down on you, I used to photograph them frequently. Now I just enjoyed them as a live performance and rode on to the Mighty Los Angeles River.

This of course is a desert stream that has beens straitjacketed in concrete. Because the flow in winter rains (back when we had winter rains) is many thousands of times what it is in summer, what you see in most of the river is a tiny thread of greenish water in a shallow concrete trench in the midst of a vast concrete depression, hundreds of yards wide. I applaud, support, and help in efforts to green the river, but I admire and love it in its present state also, since it has become an accidental sculpture, a gigantic silent symphony of light and space, of shadow and still air, punctuated by the grace-note shrillings of waterbirds. A well-made bike path runs along its southernmost reaches, the low flood walls built along parts of it planted with grape vines to soften the bleakness. I got onto the path and followed it to downtown Long Beach, where it ends.

From there I rode east through several delightful little neighborhoods filled with California bungalows to Belmont Shore, a cluster of tiny busy restaurants and small, impossibly charming homes on quiet narrow streets--a new urbanist's dream zone--where Matt Gorski and eighty of his favorite bikes live. There I met the rest of the folks who were going on the ride, which included the perennial Chuck Schmidt, who had ridden down from Pasadena on his Peugeot, Charles andrews, who hosted the last most excellent Long Beach ride I went on, and a bunch of framebuilders who came along.

Matt's ride commenced after we'd devastated the croissants and Danish and waited a little extra for the last few folks. There was a goodly number of vintage gems along--Matt's Rene Herse, Greg Townsend's Mercier track bike (Greg had also ridden down, from Monrovia, which, with Chuck, makes three of us who logged a century that day), Chuck's immaculate Peugeot, a Jack Taylor tandem, a Singer tandem, and more, as well as modern classics such as a Richard Sachs, Bruce Gordon's Bruce Gordon, and Jeff Lyons' Jeff Lyons. My little Bottecchia, though of unspectacular pedigree, held her own among these fine machines, at least once we got rolling.

The Long beach ride follows, quite naturally, the coast for most of the way, with some excursions onto bike lanes bordering six-lane speedways. For the most part, though, we rode through paradigmatic Southern California beach towns, tiny expensive houses, often designed by bold modern architects, restaurants with big windows and indifferent food, and the beach, littered with beautiful bodies and bright towels and brollies. The waves were breaking white on a blue sea in the background, while fat-bodied helicopters from the nearby naval installations prowled a bit ominously overhead. (Indeed, we passed by the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station--an ammo dump--on the way.) Lagoons, estuaries, and wetlands interrupted the sprawl of roads and houses regularly, giving room to the sky, and twenty or so miles later we stopped for rest and refreshment at the Newport Beach Pier, brilliant with bright clothes and laughing faces.

The ride back was like the ride out, though we stayed more on the big roads and hammered a bit, breaking up into clusters according to speed. Having no high gears to shift to, I stayed in the middle group and spun only a little, since I was thinking I might ride all the way home and log my century.

But first a stop at Matt's house for beer, food, and chatter. Bikes by themselves are great, but bikes with good company are wonderful, and I've rarely met nicer folks than I ride with on Matt's or Charles's or Chuck Schmidt's rides. But the sun started to tilt westward, so around three o' clock I took my leave of all those good folks and head back to downtown Long Beach where, eventually, I found the well-hidden entrance to the LA River Bike Path.

The lower reaches of the river are wide and shimmering concrete wadis with the aforementioned greenish trickle, but there's enough water to attract plenty of birds that stitch swiftly through the sky as you pass. As you ride through the Compton area, you enter an equstrian zone, where many of the older citizens keep their own horses and ride them on dirt path below the levee--and, when the paths are blocked, along the bike route, which is a shared path at that point. Makes you glad for fenders! Along the way, I saw an old ccowboy training a horse under one of the freeway bridges, and met the occasional fellow cyclist, or a runner or a kid on a Razor scooter, but overall it was just me, the Bottecchia, the concrete riverbed, the powerlines, and the sky. I kept up a steady pace, dipping down then up again as the path crossed under streets and freeways, peeking into the parks and backyards and truck lots below the levee, and watching the distant skyline of LA grow slowly bigger under its backdrop of dark mountains.

At the confluence with the Rio Hondo, the bike path crosses to the other side of the river and simultaneously changes jurisdictions, as we are now in the industrial cities of Vernon, Commerce, Cudahy, Bell, and so forth. The nature of the bike path also changes precipitously; the dips under the bridges are steeper and more angular, and graffiti covers every inch of the pavement and the flood walls, while leaves from half-dessicated trees form drifts against wire fences. The houses are sad, old, and small, the alleys narrow and broken, the few people you see sad-eyed, so that it's refreshing to come across the occasional massive factory shed, since at least it is busy and somewhat clean. The bike path presently ends a couple of blocks north of Slauson, at an unsigned street; from there I rode through the industrial district, zigzagging among the mills and foundries and warehouses till I came to Washington and Alameda streets, a broad gray intersection with a gas station on one corner, where I grabbed a sports drink for the last leg home.

I shot straight down Washington, as I was a bit tired by now and knew it had few hills. Also, it skirts the Garment District downtown, so it made me feel at home as I passed familiar streets. Most of Washington at this longitude is lined with tiny lowpriced shops and even tinier ethnic food joints, mostly central American, and is quite lively with foot traffic during the day. It was a nice ride westward, and I didn't hurry. Once the shops gave way to middle-class apartments and houses, I cut through a quiet neighborhood to Pico, then west again to La Brea, and then home. Guess it was around six o' clock, but I don't know. I wasn't out to set any records, just to see life from the seat of my bike, and I was glad to have done my first fixed-gear century without the least bit of planning whatsoever.

To have gone into it saying, "I must ride a century today," would have made it feel like work. Instead, it felt like life.

Very sweaty life, to be sure. Boy, did that shower feel good!

I wore my second-oldest pair of Bicycle Fixation knickers the whole way too; they seem to have survived. I did wash them, though. A summer century in LA is asking a lot, even of wool!

Richard Risemberg