Secrets of the Peloton

The Simi Ride warms up on Los Angeles Avenue.

There is no there there.

—Gertrude Stein

Of all the cycling blogs I read, the one that most consistently surprises me is Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New.” Written by the man who set the tone for CC’s product descriptions, Brendan Quirk, “What’s New” is a perpetually shifting grab bag of racing reveries, firm opinions, exposed biases and product insights. It’s the only cycling blog I can say is guaranteed to teach me something with each new post.

In a recent post, Quirk commented that the best single piece written about Amgen’s Tour of California wasn’t even written about the race. The piece ran in the New York Times’ opinion section and I can unfairly summarize it as being yet another examination of one writer’s inability to grasp the true identity of Los Angeles.

It’s not in my nature to write response pieces, but the points of intersection involved here caught in me like the hook to Ina Gadda Da Vida.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles County for 14 years. In that time, I’ve lived in a few different area codes and I’ve worked in most of them. I’ve written a guidebook about riding in Los Angeles County. From Simi to Montrose, I’ve ridden each of the region’s best-known group rides.

In writing for the Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg takes an unusual tack. Rather than suggest the tired observation that due to the city’s diverse offerings, it has no true identity (which is the literary equivalent to the Gary Larson’s “Bummer of a birthmark Hal”), Klinkenborg suggests that perhaps an entire lifetime spent in a single strip mall’s Chinese restaurant might reveal the city’s true nature.

Los Angeles is a city that specializes in many of Western Civilization’s ills. From memorable Hollywood blockbusters, to cinematic masterpieces and porn, it produces the best and worst of what happens on film. It is ground zero for each new cosmetic procedure and fad diet. Fashion trends come and go here faster than the traffic.

But Los Angeles can be as normal as Topeka, Kansas. Every career you’ve ever had or considered is being done here, and every middle-America success story and family woe can be found around the corner from any of the city’s thousands of churches.

To learn the secrets of this vast city, I’ve had to study, and I certainly don’t know many of them yet. I know the roads of the South Bay and Westside intimately, but if I head out to the Montrose Ride, I make sure to stick with the group. My knowledge of restaurants falls on the same lines.

While one can grasp the essential nature of New York by picking up a copy of the Times, the New Yorker or the Village Voice, not a single publication can speak to the enormity of Los Angeles. Its perpetual sprawl may be a blight on the landscape, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting things happening all over.

And that’s when it occurred to me. The group rides one finds here are diverse in terrain, speed and ability. They produce different sorts of riders. You can do the Rose Bowl Ride your whole live and never learn a thing about climbing. Do the Donut Ride more than a few times and the Palos Verdes Peninsula climbs will force you to think about your weight, your diet. The Simi Rides draws more than just the locals, it draws those with ambition, just as Hollywood draws those who seek the limelight.

Drawing a parallel between the diversity in the rides and the diversity of the city is easy, but it doesn’t get at the real truth. Truth always happens at a personal level. Faith, epiphanies and crimes all take place within individuals.

You can do a group ride for years and really only scratch the surface of its identity. Get to know the riders and you begin to learn things about the neighborhood (such as the preponderance of engineers in the South Bay or lawyers and doctors in Santa Monica). Dig a little deeper and you meet riders like the guy I spoke to once on the Montrose ride who really prefers mountain biking but has limited time on Saturday mornings and the only way he can get out of the house is by telling his wife he must be on time or he misses the ride.

I’ve met guys who think their ride is the natural center of the universe. For a sprinter on the Rose Bowl, a climber on Simi or a rouleur on the Donut, the pairing of discipline and terrain is a faint whiff of heaven on earth. There are many more riders for whom their ride is a Sisyphean enterprise, offering them a challenge greater than they’ll ever achieve and yet futility never enters their mind.

The greater mystery is composed of hundreds of riders, riders I meet everywhere I go. And by everywhere I mean not just LA, but Chicago, Memphis, Boston and beyond. There are those riders who will happily sacrifice any sort of peak, any shot of ever seeing the front—except in the event of a complete mistake by them or others—in exchange for being able to ride comfortably in the pack year-round.

For every rider I know who is riding 20 hours per week and wants to peak for the state road race or crit, I know 10 guys who scrape for every mile, squeezing rides in before staff meetings two days a week, and worrying that beer and travel might increase their suffering. I know retirees who are faster now than they were at 40. I ride with race car drivers, actors, powerful lawyers and ground-breaking doctors. I also ride with project managers, engineers, small business owners, stay-at-home moms and bike shop employees.

To all the world the peloton looks utterly uniform in its lycra, colander hats, bare legs, wraparound sunglasses and African-flag-colored outfits. That glancing dismissal is the same one LA gets hundreds of times each day. Los Angeles is a city with no one truth, just as there is no one way to do a group ride; each rider will have his or her own plan for the day.

The more I talk to other cyclists when I ride, the more I hear fascinating and surprising stories. I’ve become a student as much of the riders as the rides, for there is no typical rider. The reasons for which we ride are as varied as this city.

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10 comments

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  2. Jim

    I think you should have written this bit Raymond Chandler style.

    This is Los Angeles. It’s a no-personality hard-boiled paper cup of a city. A paper cup of a city that holds 10 million different stories and three well known group rides. This is a story about one of them…

    But seriously, what’s up with the number three? Does every major city have to have three predominant road rides? Seems that way.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jim: Maybe I should do a series of remixes: The Chandler version, then the Bukowski version (where everyone would spit out, not down) and then the Pynchon version (where everyone would collect stamps afterward).

      Where were we?

      Oh yeah, I mentioned four rides, I believe (Simi, Donut, Rose Bowl and Montrose), but there are plenty more, such as the Pier Ride, the Kettle Ride and the Nicholls Canyon Ride. There are six or seven in my book.

  3. Andrew

    After just buying a house on the East Coast, this put a little bit of panic into my soul that I will never live my early 20′s dream of an urban life paired with 70F average temps through most of the year.

  4. Jim

    Padraig, in keeping with my philosophy of life, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the hill ride that you mentioned, just as I refuse to acknowledge the existence of my local well known hill ride. So that would make four predominant rides if I acknowledged the existence of hill rides…

    But anyhow I get your point and am trying not to envy you. FWIW, the Bukowski version of that article would probably have the look and feel of the start of a CX race, right before the inevitable bottleneck. “Why’d he just punch me?”

  5. Souleur

    Well, I am torn on this one.

    I had just read Quirks latest update and had gone through each one, incidentally. I agree, each time I read his critiques and complements, I learn something. I did read the comments he made on the Tour of California, and maybe its me but I didn’t see him unfairly putting down the Tour of California. I seemed to think he was saying some of our own in cycling don’t even give a good summary of our races, because they are so consumed on ‘marketshare’ and other tangential issues.

    I agree, nobody knows the roads, the culture, the people like yourself. LA does have alot to offer.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Souleur: Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think BQ was putting down the AToC. But in endorsing the NY Times piece, I think he made two points: Much of the writing about the race was flat and it’s hard to get to know LA, no matter what.

      As to my knowledge of LA … I’m still a grasshopper and hope always to be.

  6. wvcycling

    What blows me away and makes me take a deeper look into my local rides is when an unknown or new face comes to your turf and attacks on a spot that you have been over a hundred times. You never thought it would work, and it wasn’t a matter of having the legs or not, but being able to read the road like you would read a chess opponent. Learning your locations possibly can teach you things about yourself that you didn’t even know.

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