Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? The large self-propelled device in the image above these words isn’t a bicycle, is it? And yet this is a site that is allegedly devoted to cycling, right? Well, there are times when I’d like to think that this is a site that just uses the bicycle to get at larger, more human issues like community, culture and happiness.
It’s impossible to hid the fact that I like cool machines. Writing about cycling is a pretty terrific excuse to play with fascinating machines. Being a cyclist predisposes one to digging big, fascinating machines. As it happens, Los Angeles is the site to a new construction project worthy of at least minor media attention. Construction crews are working on the new Wilshire Grand hotel in downtown. By the time it is complete, it will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
In a big city like Los Angeles, something is under construction at almost all times. One new building ain’t no biggie. Except, this one is. Because the ground here is prone to movement, the architect behind the new hotel wanted the foundation to be one single piece of concrete. To do that, the entire foundation had to be poured in one continuous movement. My wife and I figured that at least one of the boys would find it amazing, though I’m thinking she wasn’t referring to the four-year-old still lodged deep within me.
What sold us on going was the pitch that this was promised to be the largest continuous pouring of a foundation in history. Agents of that most hallowed institution of the extreme, the Guiness Book of World Records, were on-hand to verify that this was more concrete poured at once than anywhere else in the world. Beginning at 5:00 pm on Saturday crews began pumping concrete into the huge whole in a process that was to take 20 continuous hours of pouring.
The new Wilshire Grand promises to be some 73-stories, 1100-feet high, containing shopping and more than 900 hotel rooms. It sounded big, really big. And when is big not cool?
Those large crane-looking trucks are the concrete pumps. The construction crew used 19 of them in pouring the concrete for the foundation which is 330 by 440 feet, and lies 106 feet below street level. Mini-Shred was pretty fascinated so long as something either moved or made loud machine sounds. A good belch of diesel exhaust was enough to get his attention.
Given the number of very large vehicles moving around the restricted confines of dense urban landscape, the need for coordination was higher than any game of Twister you ever played.
I had a chance to speak with someone from the project and the details he rattled off were mind-boggling. It was like talking to an astrophysicist. The numbers were mind-stunningly huge. So each cement mixer carries 10 cubic yards of concrete. The foundation required 120 to 150 concrete trucks per hour. Each of those pumps had two trucks parked next to them at all times. As soon as one was empty, they’d switch to the one next to it, and the empty would pull out and another would be directed into position.
Here’s where the math starts to get interesting: One cubic yard of concrete weighs about 4000 lbs. So the payload for each truck was roughly 40,000 lbs. or 20 tons. Those pumps were directing between 2400 and 3000 tons of concrete into that hole, per hour. That’s a total of between 48,000 and 60,000 tons of concrete for the foundation, which when translated back into a measure of mass we have a visceral appreciation results in this figure: between 1,920,000,000 and 2,4000,000,000 lbs.
The Deuce, if he could talk, would tell you that Mini-Shred is by far the coolest person he’s ever met. Mini-Shred has yet to develop a taste for adulation, so scenes like the one above are about as good as it gets.
After the family outing on Saturday, I decided to get up early Sunday and head back to downtown by bike and see if I couldn’t gain a vantage of the hole. What I saw was staggering; it reminded me of something out of the War of the Worlds.
I’m amazed by just how small the shipping containers are. In the far right corner there’s a bucket loader that looks like a Tonka toy. I haven’t seen anything so fascinating since I stopped reading Richard Scarry books. For a brief moment, the world was new and I could be anything I wanted when I grew up.
I like routines. I’m a pretty strategic, logical, thinker. For everything that isn’t time spent with family, writing or riding, I want efficiency. I want to spend as little time as possible washing dishes, cooking dinner and doing laundry. So I like to work out routines so that I devote as little thought to these tasks as possible. And, yes, I’m a profoundly unambitious cook. The kitchen is not a place of magic for me.
As a cyclist, routines allow me to dress quickly in the morning; I am usually ready to ride, from waking to clipped-in, in less than a half hour. Routines are handy for those weekday morning training rides. If you’ve got two hours to ride, you can’t spend ten minutes deciding on a route, so established routes with known turnaround points are key to me making the most of my riding time.
However, there’s a point when routine becomes, well, routine. After the 16th consecutive week of doing exactly the same ride on Saturday, I tend to go batty. And even though I haven’t suffered that monotony of repetition lately, I have been trying to do lots of very easy miles (any Strava notches in my belt this time of year are purely accidental). And we all know from experience that group rides and going easy go together like multinational corporations and ethics.
So I decided to do something I don’t often do. I headed inland.
To non-Angelenos, that last statement will probably seem unremarkable. To cyclists of the Westside and Southbay, what I just wrote is considered tantamount to a suicide note. Like all big cities, Los Angeles has its areas of the ruling class (Brentwood and Bel Air), the haves (Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica), the doing okay (Culver City), the getting by (Inglewood and Pico Rivera), and then the hood (Rancho Dominguez—better known as Compton). Los Angeles also has exclusively industrial areas, such as the city of Vernon, which lies due south of downtown and has a whopping population of 113.
As I mentioned, I’ve been trying to do loads of very easy miles. While the coast of Southern California is punctuated by constant undulations of terrain, the area east and north of my home offers hundreds of miles of bowling-lane roads, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings they can be pretty lightly traveled.
So I took off into parts unknown. Mind you, these are sprawling swaths of suburbanity, spreading plains of asphalt and concrete, so they are known to millions of people but their residents are unfamiliar with Lycra-skinned cyclists and to cyclists, well Canterbury Knolls might as well be the Congo. After all, most of LA south of downtown that isn’t coastal is as hip as new Coke. These neighborhoods are not even stylish in an ironic sense, let alone the revived urbanity of a place like Echo Park or East Hollywood.
And it’s in these assumptions that educations occur. The preceding two images were shot near Leimert Park, and if anything can convey how a place is loved, how a place matters, how a place is home, it’s public art. The mural was an African creation myth that moved from the Big Bang through the pyramids and right into 20th century music and beyond. It was a remarkable and moving piece of art.
For the last two weekends, my rides have foregone the coast, both north and south, in favor of routes that take in the city’s rich ethnic smorgasbord. It’s worth remembering that for much of history all Western art was religious in nature. I couldn’t help but notice that as I moved away from the coast the occurrence of churches climbed sharply. And they came in more flavors than we have words for skin color.
The above was the nativity scene at Olvera Street, the Hispanic district in downtown. It’s a well of deep Catholic spirituality, a place where belief informs daily life, isn’t relegated to an hour on Sunday morning.
This has been a year unlike any other in my life. And while any year has plenty to qualify it as unique in a person’s life. This one has been so chock full of successes, disappointments, frustrations and downright tragedies, that I realized that right now the bike is, more than ever, my temple, a place where I can think, meditate, sometimes just brood. I don’t have anything to prove—not even to me, so my rides have become an opportunity to explore, to see, to wonder.
The exploration has inspired in me an odd curiosity. I find myself trying to imagine the daily arc of the lives of people who live in Little Tokyo, Silverlake, West Adams. The beauty of Los Angeles is rarely discussed, but the deeper I dig, the more I find. The wonder of what lives I might have led has never been more palpable than as I ride through these neighborhoods.
There is no there there.
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.