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BRAKES OPTIONAL: A speedy two-wheeled journey into an L.A. summer night with the ‘Wolfpack’

July 18, 2011

(excerpted from Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments)

It’s Monday night outside of Tang’s Donuts, on the isosceles point of an East Hollywood minimall. At pigeon shit-spackled hard plastic tables, a coterie of immigrants of varying and indiscriminate green card status drink coffee al fresco and play games of chess and backgammon. In the bushes beyond the wrought iron that defines Tang’s boundaries, a handful of homeless guys have pissed themselves – or so it smells. Meanwhile, in a parking space adjacent to the bums and their shopping carts, a 40-something Japanese guy removes a deconstructed carbon fiber bicycle from his mini-pickup bed and begins re-assembling. As he works, he becomes randomly flanked by a slow gathering of lean, night-owl urban bicyclists who pedal up pell-mell from all five points of the city.

10 p.m. Monday at Tang’s is the staging point-slash-launch pad for a gonzo, nocturnal 40-mile bike ride known as the “Wolfpack Hustle.” What exactly is the “Wolfpack Hustle?” In cycling terms, a “hustle” is described as any ride other than a race where one is pedaling as fast and as furiously as one’s cogs and wheels allow. The “Wolfpack,” as defined by one of its members, is “an insurgent militia of bicycle creeps in perpetual training, pushing ourselves to ride stronger and to assert our rights to these gritty streets.”

Thus spake “Roadblock,” one of the ride’s pseudonymous organizers. When interviewed, Roadblock insists on “no real names, please” and his nom de guerre is apt: The young man towers over his road bike and is an absolute concrete Armco barrier of a human being (albeit vertical), and a reasonable ringer for L.A. Laker Luke Walton.

When I ask Roadblock what is the itinerary for the evening’s Hustle, he gets laconic and covert; the ride’s co-organizer “Wolfrider1” – slighter build, dark complexion, with a mug maybe reminiscent of Subcomandante Marcos – is within earshot and interrupts Roadblock’s silence with this stolid proffering: “Tonight’s coordinates are on a strictly need-to-know basis.”

Meaning, the Hustle is free-from, impromptu, and improvisational – and neither journalists nor anybody else needs to know the destination. They just need to see if they can keep up.

Anyway, soon enough a decision of sorts is reached: After heading east on Sunset to reconnoiter at an old transvestite bar, the ride will 180 and head west to Beverly Hills. First stop: Sunset and Doheny.

And just like that, the ride is on. Rocket launches are more sluggish. The peloton powers up Sunset at almost 30mph, and riders jockey for position and leapfrog each other like leptons in a particle accelerator. The pack’s percolations use all of the bike lane and more, spilling onto the boulevard.

Later, Roadblock summed up the plight of the cyclist in L.A., in a riff that was part Nathanael West, part Alvin Toffler: “It is especially harsh conditions here in the car capital of the world,” he said. “Every one that moves here has a dream and that dream for the most part involves ‘striking it big.’ So this whole city’s culture is based on bigger – better – more – money … and riding a bicycle doesn’t exactly fit that image. So people tend to feel embarrassed or shy about riding a bicycle. That’s just silly. What’s not silly is how ignorant most motorists are about giving cyclists a hard time.”

Roadblock’s words are spot on: Before we get out of Silver Lake, the first sign of vehicular tension transpires near the stoplight at Maltman, as a neatly coiffed couple of dinks (dual income, no kids) in a gleaming bucks-up, late-model SUV crowd and menace a handful of Wolfpackers who have taken over the slow lane. “What the fuck is your hurry?” blurts out one threatened cyclist because there is nothing ahead but a red light. “Get in the goddamn bike lane,” the driver admonishes, which sends the biker’s ire and sense of civil discourse up a notch. “I am entitled to take the whole lane,” is the reply, and rather than cite California Vehicle Code section 21202 chapter and verse, the rider bangs a fist on the hood of the vehicle, making his point with brevity and action rather than words.

As an observer – and a cyclist who is merely trying to stay with the pack, out of harm’s way, take some notes, and file a story – yer humble CityBeat scrivener takes a keen interest in any further intercourse between the dink and the sprockethead. And as the light glows green, the motorist punches the throttle and makes a hasty right on Maltman without bothering to signal, splitting the pack like cockroaches and forcing this rider to grab a big handful of brake and choke down a lungful of bilious exhaust.

Later, I ask Roadblock what is the Wolfpack’s policy on traffic lights. He answers, “Respect the reds.” Yeah, maybe. More like, traffic signals are, at best, advisory.

The seemingly blithe attitude towards stopping is borne out of necessity; specifically, because half of the group sports “fixed gear” bicycles. “Fixies” (or track bikes, because of their origin in “track” racing) are uber-minimalist machines that not only lack any gearing – the propulsion apparatus is a single-speed drivetrain – they have also foregone the seemingly superfluous bourgeois constructs known as brakes! These things are designed to G-O, Man!, not stop … and because of their Bauhausian simplicity, they are the favored steed of many urban cyclists hell-bent on not only speed, but also purity.

Like I say, nearly half of the pack is on fixies, including Wolfrider1, who waxes that “I prefer a fixie, because it’s a little more intense of a ride without brakes, which equals more fun for me.” He then gushes fetishistic: “Track bikes are the supermodels of cycling: tall, skinny, and absolutely beautiful.”

(It is worth noting that nearly all these quotes were gathered after the ride, as there was no way I could physically posit a question during the course of the ride, much less open my mouth for anything more than heavy, arrhythmic breathing, as my tongue hung out of my piehole like a one-lunged dog.)

En route to Doheny, the ride was a blur, with these un-uniformed athletes standing on it, gathering more and more momentum, the track bikes pushing the pace as those riders cannot coast (a fixed gear means the rider must pedal at all times) until the pace began to feed upon itself, with the entire peloton becoming a sort of perpetual motion machine.

It was at Western when I first came to realize how insane this all was. None of the fixie guys wanted to stop for traffic. Without brakes, the only way they could halt was to throw their bikes sideways in a maximum velocity skid, so they would commandeer intersections and just kind of hope for the best. It became apparent that this ride was utterly Darwinian.

“[The Hustle] can be very dangerous,” Wolfrider1 confirmed. “The pack moves fast – you have to be alert and focused. There is no room for error [when] riding in a tight pack at high speeds.” He then summed up its natural selection: “This is a balls-out Hustle through the streets of Los Angeles, where riders bring their A-game. It’s long, hard, and challenging. If you cannot keep up with the pack, you will be dropped from the ride.”

Verily. A couple of the roadies did not have that life-is-cheap relationship to crossing traffic, and allowed themselves to get momentarily caught by red lights. If you were among those left behind, all you could see was a micro-galaxy of red blinking lights bounce off of the ass-end of a small sea of seat bags, the lights’ random pinging growing smaller and smaller as if they were distant planets being swallowed up by the gnarsome gravity of a collapsing dark star.

The disappearing lights made those in the back pedal even harder, which led to a ridiculous amount of huffing and puffing and trying to fight off fatigue while staying focused on the hazards of the road. This ride requires copious amounts of concentration and a 360-degree omniscience, as the rider is looking for potholes, cars ahead, cars behind, and cars crossing, as well as the actions of the other riders … another cyclist’s rear tire is six inches to a foot in front of your rear tire … and what if the guy in front of you is on a fixie and has to throw the bike into a skid to stop all-of-a-sudden like? This lickety-split hellzapoppin’ excitement is like being in the middle of some special effects-laden action film, and unfortunately detracts from being able to focus on the other movie that is going on during this rolling panorama through Los Angeles.

Yes … the Wolfpack Hustle is like being in a movie, shot under-cranked and played back at hyper-speed, a travelogue that toggles on the axes of four dimensions. Sunset and Bronson, hey-there’s-KTLA-where-they-shot-Let’s Make A Deal … Wow-the-Ski-Room-do-you-think-they-still-have-Hank-Snow-on the-jukebox? … Remember-the-Hollywood-Christmas-Parade? … Sunset and Gower, shit-I’m-hungry, I-wouldn’t-mind-stopping-at-Roscoe’s-Chicken’-n-Waffles … There’s-the-other-rock-and-roll-Denny’s … Sunset and Vine, wasn’t-this-the-corner-with-the-Fatburger-where-Tex-gave-an-amputee-vet-twenty-dollars-and-he-looked-at-it-like-it-was-kryptonite? …What-buildings-don’t-the- Scientologists-own? … Crescent Heights, the-suckers-are-queueing-up-outside-the-comedy-club-hmmm-I-wonder-if-Michael-Richards-is-performing-tonight … Didn’t-Mimi-Munson-live-off-of-that-street? … Whatever-happened-to-the-Coconut-Teaser-anyway? … Wow-that’s-where-Belushi-OD’d … Larrabee, I-can’t-believe-there-are-still-all-these-hair-farmers-on-the-Sunset-Strip … Oy!-The-Roxy … Remember-leaving-the-Bad-Brains-show-there-and-come-to-find-out-some-drunk-Beverly-Hills-housewife-plowed-into-my-Pinto-and-set-it-on-fire?

And so it went. If you suit up for the Hustle, your thoughts may vary, but those were my elliptical remembrances, all sparked before the ride even reached Doheny. Once in Beverly Hills, Roadblock and Wolfrider1 decided to ride past the rich people’s house on Alpine guided only by the light of the moon, then down to Little Santa Monica to Fairfax to Sixth, heading east across to Figueroa downtown and then back up Second to Sunset and back to Tang’s.

As the riders reeled in pavement at a near-constant 28mph, I noticed that the moon was nearly full, but that didn’t quite suit Roadblock. “You should see the velodrome in the pale moon light when it’s full,” he said. “That’s when we ride to the center and rip our shirts off and howl. It’s soothing to the soul.”

Film noir taught us that the city never sleeps, but the truth is that sometimes this town can be rather dormant. But it awakens by the shush-shush-shush of the Wolfpack Hustle, whereupon the mise en scène goes by your peripheral vision at 30mph, under your own power, a frame of film for every pedal stroke. Brakes optional. -Cole Coonce-

(from  LA CityBeat, 5/07)

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