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On Drag Racing, Cycling and Atavistically Reconnecting with the Ghost of America Past

September 11, 2008

(Originally published in BikepLAgue.)

We’d been reading articles by this guy Cole Coonce for a while in local papers, and we’ve been pretty stoked that there’s someone writing more than just one–offs about bikes as idle assignments. We decided to meet up for a ride along the LA river, over the stiff climb that is Mt. Hollywood at the back of Griffith Park, then down into Los Feliz to get coffee and talk a bit about bikes, drag racing, and road riding.

Morgan: So, tell us something about yourself, who you are?

Cole Coonce: Well, I’m kind of like Walter Mitty: I’m a bit of a wannabe cyclist in a way – never quite as into it as what I think about. The thing about cycling is that it’s incredibly humbling. Physically, mentally, intellectually, philosophically, etc – and I think that is my attraction to it. I think what is interesting is that despite my abilities as a cyclist and knowing just enough about bikes to get me into trouble; I’m a huge fan of thermodynamics. Cycling being a thermodynamic process. I’ve always been a fan of the internal combustion engine. Massively, nuttily into it. In contrast, most likely, to a big part of your demographic. My journalistic background is the most extreme forms of thermodynamics as applied to the automobile: drag racing. Zero to one hundred MPH in under a second, zero to two hundred and fifty MPH in 2.3 seconds, zero to three hundred and thirty MPH in 4.4 seconds, you know: the G-force is taking the skin off your cheeks. But that being said, that is an extreme example of what the automobile promised when it was be coming mass produced: freedom, exhilaration. But just take a look at this intersection here [gestures as cars stopped at the lights]: that’s not about freedom. That’s about drudgery. So I think that cycling conversely, or ironically, fulfils the promise of what the automobile was there to deliver.

Morgan: A classic case of people forgetting about what something was there for the first place, right? Becoming routine.

CC: Right. You guys commute to and from the Westside by bike. I was reading recently [referring to the recent LA Alternative cover article, “Vicious cycling”] about some guy leaving his job on the Westside to come back to Silverlake and there, coming off the off- ramp of the freeway is the guy who he works with! That’s just a classic example of commuting. I live in Eagle Rock and I punch into jobs in Culver City. And I know that it takes me one hour fifteen minutes to ride by bike and can take one hour twenty minutes by car. But every day it’s 1:15 by bicycle. Consistently.

Morgan: A bit more predictable on the bike.

CC: Yeah.

Morgan: So the reason I emailed you originally [for the interview] is because your name has cropped up a few times recently in articles about bikes in local papers [most recently, the City Beat article, “The world is your Velodrome”]. And we like that. You’re into bikes. Do the se articles reflect a growing interest from publications, or is it you pitching it to them?

CC: What is the cart and what is the horse? In the world of journalism, it’s harder and harder to stay ahead of the curve. Everything is co-opted immediately so when you pitch things to people, it’s got to be about stuff people haven’t heard about before. And in this day and age, we’ve heard it all before it’s even happened. So with the ‘straight’ publications – and by that I don’t mean ‘fetish ‘ oriented, as I’d describe your fanzine [fuck yeah!] – they know what a bicycle is, but they don’t understand what people are so nutty about. They don’t understand the enthusiasm. So yes, I pitch them on different things that are applicable to cycling and Los Angeles. In that sense, I’m the engine that’s driving it. On the other hand, trying to explain the euphoria of cycling to someone who doesn’t do it, including many people in the ‘straight’ magazine world, is like trying to explain what chocolate tastes like on LSD to people who’ve never taken LSD. There is an abstraction and there is a cognitive disconnect to it. We all get it, be cause we’ve all got the fever.

Morgan: Yeah, like that article you wrote in City Beat and another that I read on line where you rode up Mt. Baldy with a drag racer. He ‘s blasting by you and you’re quoting different great thinkers of the past to paint a perfect portrait of how it feels.

CC: Ha ha! That guy is a bit of a friend of mine. His name is Whit Bazemore and he’s known as the world’s fastest cyclist because he’s one of those guys who goes from zero to three hundred MPH in four seconds. But truth is, he ‘d rather be climbing Glendora Ridge road on a bicycle.

Morgan: Yes, you write a lot about drag racing and a lot about bikes. It seems like you’re almost writing about them as two aspects of the same thing. Can you say a little more about that?

CC: Well, what makes drag racing so special, and again it’s hard to explain it to people who haven’t got the fever, and I have the fever although I’m a fan, not a racer per se. There is a quote from the curator of technology at the Smithsonian about drag racing. He called the obsession ‘technological enthusiasm.’ You’ve got people who are so completely enthusiastic about the technology to the exclusion of everything else in their life that makes sense. So we’ve got you guys [referring to Max] with the screwiest bicycle designs you can possibly think of, making whatever weird statement you are, but you’re just so into it that you just can’t fuck with it. This person wants to get up in the morning and wants to do some thing to a bike that makes it better, or more extreme, or more abstract, or whatever it is, and so that’s the correlation: drag racers have this weird DNA which says, ‘OK: I have this hunk of aluminum. How can I make it go three hundred and forty MPH instead of three hundred and thirty?’ And I think the same science is applied to cycling. But there ‘s also the buzz. If you’re sitting in the drag strip and you’re going from zero to a hundred in a second, that’s the same as if you’re sat waiting at the intersection and a tractor trailer rear-ends you at a hundred MPH. It’s the same G-force. It takes a certain type of person to think that that’s great. So if you’re riding your bike back down from Santa Barbara at 8pm on a Saturday night down PCH and you’re getting buzzed by cars at eighty MPH and there’s a part of you that says, ‘this is great!’, it’s the same thing. So I think both drag racers and cyclists do have issues. But that’s what’s important. If they didn’t have issues, there ‘d be nothing to write about, you know?

Morgan: Yeah, I’d definitely agree with that. Progressing from that point, your recent article talks about the end of a relationship being a good kick-off point for becoming really into bikes and I’d say that both of us can identify with that.

CC: Looking back, and saying, oh, so that’s when I got really into bikes…

Morgan: Exactly. Do you think that breaking up with some sort of a romance is the prerequisite for becoming an obsessional cyclist?

CC: Yeah. Bazemore – this drag racer – had a really bad motorcycle crash and a part of his rehabilitation was to get on a trainer- a bicycle trainer – for 45 minutes a day as a part of his work out. And he really though he was doing something. Conversely one of his friends was this Olympic cyclist, and he was like, ‘yeah, well done, 45 minutes….’. So he put Bazemore on a real bike. And he was overcoming real physical trauma. And this just got through to him. Although I can’t really speak about that, as I’ve never had real physical trauma, I do know the trauma of the id. Overcoming a break-up: you can either sit there and stare at the world and be mad at the world, or do something. So if you’re really mad at a member of the opposite sex, or the same, then cycling is a really good motherfuck, with your tongue hanging out as you’re climbing a hill. You know, in my instance, I would literally cuss her name as I was climbing. Not that I was right and this person was wrong. But probably. So I find that romantic break – ups are really good for getting into shape.

Morgan: You can go either way: a downward spiral into drinking and drugs, or say ‘fuck you! I can look after myself with out you!’ and make some positive efforts.

CC: It’s strange. It’s even beyond looking after yourself. You’re channeling your own rage. It’s the most benign way to channel that anger and ultimately it’s quite healthy. We were bullshitting about this on the way up the hill, but if it weren’t for cycling then there ‘d be a lot more postal shootings and office shootings.

Morgan: So you go on midnight ridazz, you got the first copy of the zine with out us even knowing it. The LA bike scene is really fascinating to us, which is why we started this zine. Where do you see this coming from?

CC: If you’ll let me mix my literary references, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher came over in the 1800’s and talked about how this weird thing called democracy was working in America, in spite of itself. That could be applied to cycling in Los Angeles. Talk about square peg/ round hole. It’s just the big hammer approach. Making people understand. Getting back to the point that a bicycle makes a lot more sense than a car a lot of the time. The only real issue is stuff like changes of clothes. I don’t bicycle every day but when I do I make sure I have a change of clothes, so I can be at work and not thought of as being another smelly cyclist. But I think ‘movement’ is the right term, there ‘s a definite groundswell. I applaud what you guys are doing, as you’re definitely a part of that. Just acceptance – if you cycle around other parts of the country. People here think that cyclists are from Mars, but else where in the country, they think they’re from Pluto. I think in a way, cyclists from LA don’t know how good they’ve got it. Not to say there can’t be a ton of improvement, there certainly can.

Morgan: It’s really fascinating because the LA scene seems to have just come from a series of random events. It’s a scene that is still very much in and of itself and not co-opted.

CC: Right, right.

Morgan: Except maybe the fixed gear scene which is becoming a little like that [mainly in reference to ‘Team Puma’, the Puma sponsored messenger race team].

CC: Ye ah, that’s be coming a little precious. I personally don’t ride one and don’t understand the joys associated with them but I understand that they’re there for other people. They’ve become the Mazda Miata of the cycling scene. They’ve become this weird symbol of the cycling scene. And they have to watch out, with all due respect, simply because they are some what precious about what they’re doing, which is somewhat alienating, which is something you’ve got to watch out for, because you’re kind of alienating the kind of people who you really want to win over.

Morgan: That’s a really, really valid point.

CC: Yeah, and I’m strictly here to co-exist with cars. I want respect from them, and I’ll give them the same. In the same way that they’re completely assholic, soccer moms on their cell phones blasting through a yellow light and not paying attention to what they’re doing – not understanding that force equals mass times acceleration, that this is basically a tank that they’re blasting through the intersection, conversely there are some, you know, let’s call them ‘extreme’ elements in the Midnight Ridazz crew and various subcultures who piss motorists off. And I’m just like, “look man, you’re not doing me any favors”. The next time that I encounter that guy that you pissed off, he’s going to remember you and not think twice about revving it up and scaring me.

Max: The funny thing is that most of them you see showing up and taking their bikes off the back of a car! It really isn’t the people that ride the most who are the most aggro.

CC: Right. You know what’s hard, that when you’re all pumped up on adrenaline from cycling and you’re totally hyper-aware and a car or bus cuts you off or does something that’s not very cool, you just want to get up on the tire and yell at them. Myself, I take a deep breath and calm down.

Morgan: It’s really easy to get into a herd mentality when you’re in a herd.

CC: Yeah. I’ve seen instances with the ridazz and they come to an intersection and someone in a BMW does some thing they don’t like and they start kicking the quarter panels. You know, this is not doing anybody any favors.

Max: I think it’s a bad combination of the psychological disconnection you have with driving a car and the ultra- sensitization of being on a bike, being all ‘grrrrr!!!’

CC: Yeah, it’s tough. At least every urban cycling trip, I really want to motherfuck at least one person in a car. And just in general, and not to play into a stereotype, SUV drivers are the worst drivers. They’re the least aware [cue muttering from all parties about Hummers]. I think that what should happen is that everyone registering an SUV should be tricked into going to another session of Driver’s Ed via some sort of sting operation, offering free tune-ups or some thing. Not to be reactionary or anything. But I can dream.

Morgan: It’s been a real pet peeve of mine recently: riders being over-aggressive. I’ve ended up yelling at people on rides recently.

Max: Kind of a general problem is that whole mentality of simply ‘being in the way’. You know, ‘let’s ride, and get in the way…’

CC: You know, I’m sort of a Zen libertarian. I want to peace fully co- exist with people and now have them cut me off or do screwy things to me. And the lunatic fringe of cycling undermines that. Not that there aren’t lunatic fringes everywhere. I was on one midnight ridazz once and we were on Adams, maybe, near USC, and there was this one guy playing chicken with cars, riding on the wrong side of the road. Luckily the Darwinian stuff will take care of this guy soon enough, before he can do too much damage. But you know, that’s a bit counterproductive.

Max: I think it was pretty funny on the last midnight ridazz where the police we re saying, ‘stay in the right lane, stay in the one lane ‘. We need a little more reasonable goal. Like, ‘stay out of on-coming traffic’. I think we can handle that.

CC: Yeah. But I don’t mean to bag on the ridazz. I have really come to appreciate recently the ridazz and the ‘organizers’, as they’ve really done the impossible and worked out how to herd cats.

Morgan: One of my favorite phrases, ‘herding cats’. Thanks. Anyway, one last thing. You ride up to Mt. Wilson and I’ve seen a post from you talking about doing ridazz on a Friday follow ed by the Planet Ultra event from Lone Pine to Panamint Springs near Death Valley by moonlight. You’re into both the urban scene and the roadie /ultra-distance scene, that we ‘re very much into. We were just stoked to read about that. So maybe just finish off by saying something about your favorite roadie rides.

CC: Yeah, that was all fortuitous. It was the midnight ridazz theatre ride, I think, and the next day it was the Planet Ultra Lone Pine by moonlight century ride, and I’d just broken up with someone just three days before, so I was all ready for that. The Lone Pine to Death Valley century was simultaneously the best and the worst of road/distance riding, especially when you’re dealing with forty to sixty MPH headwinds, and thirty degrees temperatures! On one level it was excruciating and on another level it wasn’t excruciating enough, particularly with where my mind was at the time. I sort of thought, ‘O K, is this the best you can give me? Is this the worst you can through at me? ‘Cos if it is, I can stare it down, and not be cause I’m a badass, but it’s just a case of “I win, you lose” [Top D.R.I. quote there! – morgan]. Of course, in my mind I win. In reality I don’t. But that’s just a part of cycling psychology. Denial. But back on track – I’ve ridden in a lot of places in America, and I ship a bike with me to every city I visit. One of the finest places, strangely enough, is on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. It is a highway which is two-lane, they don’t allow any commercial vehicle s, the maximum speed is fifty MPH and it goes from Natchez, Mississippi on the banks of the Mississippi river all the way to Nashville. It’s not necessarily some thing that your readership is going to hop on their bikes and do tomorrow. But it’s such a great way to commune with the medieval boondocks and swamps, you know, Dixie, and you see things on a bicycle that you don’t see in any way. That could be Death Valley, Vermont, or the Natchez Trail. That ride is all kudzu and cypress trees and swamps and it is very transcendental and on some atavistic level you’re getting in touch with the ghost of the American past. And I think you can only do that on a bicycle.

Morgan: Profound. Thanks!

(Originally published in BikepLAgue.)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Sunny permalink
    April 8, 2010 3:00 pm

    I did cross country as a teen, and your interview has brought back wonderful memories for me.
    Now, if I can learn to deal with the idea of the view of my fat arse spraddling a real bicycle again, I think I will toss my recumbent out in the trash!
    Thanks Cole.

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