Monday, May 25, 2009

The Los Angeles Bike Marathon and Colonel Allensworth

For the past several years, I've repeatedly vowed to never purchase another bike
jersey. Like a nicotine addict, I know it's easy to quit buying jerseys - I do it all the time. Case in point - my last jersey, which I bought yesterday, a few hours after the conclusion of the Los Angeles bike marathon.

More about the new jersey later. First things first. Whatever the reason for it, the Los Angeles Marathon, which includes an event for runners and for cyclists, moved it's traditional mid-March date back to Memorial Day this year. And that meant the traditional dawn send-off of the bike riders would take place an hour earlier, at 5 a.m, because the Sun is dumb enough to rise an hour earlier at this time of year.

My alarm bludgeoned me into wakefulness at 3:55 a.m. Leaving my place just after 4 a.m., after a little over three hours of sleep, I pedaled about 7 miles to the start of the marathon, which was situated on a broad boulevard between the University of Southern California and Exposition Park, a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

Usually I'm in the company of a few friends on the ride to the marathon. It was pleasant riding alone, though. The typical cloud cover over Southern California in May meant the dark morning wasn't very cold - the temperature was 61 degrees when I began my ride. I dressed in shorts, jersey and arm warmers, and I followed, backwards, some of the first half of the marathon route. The roads were blocked off, with occasional police cars moving up and down the otherwise empty roads. Cars from the city's parking patrol were stationed at intersections, the drivers mostly appearing sleepy behind their steering wheels.

I saw only two other cyclists, young guys on fixies, until I reached the last few blocks before the start, where the masses were gathering. I thought that the economy and the holiday weekend, plus the early start time, would keep the number of riders down this year. When I arrived, about 4:35 a.m., it looked like there were more riders than ever. Is it possible to know how many riders, legal and pirate, were there? Guestimates in the past have ranged from eleven to fifteen thousands cyclists.

Certainly many thousands were packed ahead of me onto Exposition Blvd., and once I'd taken my own place in the throng, thousands more were continually arriving behind me. There were people on road bikes, there were lots of mountain bikes, there were lots of tandems, and sprinkling of fixies. Most people were dressed casually, shorts and t-shirts. Some, like me, were dressed in bike shorts and jerseys. There were women and men, kids, and old geezers like me.

I was far enough back that I didn't hear the announced start. A cheer went up from those before us, and suddenly heads were bobbing in front of me. We thousands were off, half-walking, half pedaling for a few hundred yards, shoulder to shoulder, until we all began to spread out, and found room to ride without too much fear of crashing into someone else.

This year the route first headed generally west, through quiet residential neighborhoods in the Leimert Park neighborhood, considered a center of the African-American arts scene in the city. A jog onto Crenshaw Blvd., with the very short - and only - true hill climb of the day, led past many beautiful Craftsman style homes, built in the early 20th Century, and took us to Venice Blvd., where the population is now largely Latino, and signage is apt to be in Spanish as well as English.

A downhill brought a view of a good chunk of Los Angeles, including the towers of Century City, and the rounded contours of the Santa Monica Mountains. After reaching the eastern fringes of West Los Angeles, we rode north, across Wilshire Blvd., past the golden Art Deco facade of the old May Company department store, before turning east near tony Hancock Park. We finally headed south, through residential and commercial districts of the city that are part of Koreatown, where the signs as often as not are in Korean, before ending back where we had started the ride. A mini-bike fair on the USC campus awaited us, and there were free Clif bars and coffee.

The bike marathon is not a race. Yet I rode hard, harder than I have in the past, and the farther I went, the more the ride thinned out. For a while, I stuck to the rear wheel of a tandem. The captain piloted his bike as if it were a single, weaving speedily through heavy traffic. But the captain and his stoker died on that short hill that led up Crenshaw Blvd. So I hooked onto the back of another rider, his bike outfitted with aerobars and aero wheels. I stayed with him for at least a few miles, and then, as we headed up a gentle grade along Pico Blvd., I pulled away.

The last quarter of the ride I'd worked my way up past all the slower riders who had been in front of me. Those in front of me now were for the most part stayed in front of me. They had no clue I was racing them.

There was one last, gentle, uphill grade, and then the route dropped down, passing under the 10 Freeway. As the USC campus loomed before me, I eased up. There was time, after I climbed off the bike, to grab a finisher's medal. It had been another terrific bike marathon, taking me through the wonderfully diverse and vibrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

There were only two people in front of me at the coffee booth. Then it hit me - I was in much earlier this year, with the vast majority of the riders still behind me. I asked a couple of young men about their single speed bikes - I was on my Specialized Roubaix Expert road bike - and then I met Thomas Ward, president of the Crankin' Time Cycling club as well as members of his club.

The club members sported jerseys that payed homage to an important figure in black American history, Colonel Allen Allensworth.

By chance, I'd written about Allensworth, and the colony named after him at the turn of the 20th Century, in my book, Backroads of Southern California. Like Thomas, I'm a fan of Allensworth, whose colony lies west of the Great Central Valley town of Delano, and was the first one in California built by and for black people. Allensworth was an escaped slave, who served on a gunboat in the Civil War, then became the highest ranking black officer in the U.S. Army. After retiring from the service, he moved to Pasadena, California, and then became a partner and driving force in the Allensworth venture.

Today, a state park, with several original and reconstructed buildings and a small campground, commemorates the spirit of Colonel Allensworth and the people who settled there.

The Allenworth jersey, of course, intrigued me. Ward, it turned out, had designed the jersey, and conducted an Allensworth century ride in 2008.

Despite my vow to never purchase another jersey - which I'd broken with impunity with my last Rapha jersey (see previous blog entry) only a week or so earlier - I asked Ward if I could purchase an Allensworth Jersey, and told him about my book. We decided to meet later at my place.

To return to where I'd begun the morning, I carefully crossed Vermont Avenue, through a what was now a river of riders returning to USC. I rode the first half the marathon route again, the streets free of all cyclists. The runners - and wheelchair competitors - had yet to begin their evnts. There were only the volunteers setting up food and drink stations for the runners. A pedestrians crossed the boulevards or walked down the center lines with impunity.

Thomas Ward showed up a few hours later. He has a copy of my book, I have an Allensworth jersey, which I swear is the last one I've purchased.

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