Sunday, June 21, 2009

La Grange - The Nichols Canyon Ride

Each Sunday, members of the Velo Club La Grange make the 27 mile Nichols Canyon ride. It's a ride I used to make, in 1976, when I was young and lean and strong and fast.

Well, I'm definitely not as young, I'm not as lean, and while I've still got some strength, I am slow. Very slow.

None-the-less, I decided to join the fleet of race-hardened riders on this beautiful morning, Fathers Day, in Los Angeles. I wasn't sure if I'd complete the entire ride. I thought I might turn around at the base of the major climb, up Nichols Canyon.

I could have pedaled to the start, but I wanted to strength for the official ride. So I threw my bike into my little Ford Ranger and drove down broad and empty Olympic Blvd., with the Century City towers looming above me, toward the meeting place at Westwood Blvd. and La Grange Ave.

Long ago, the La Grange restaurant (which featured an excellent French countryside cuisine) sponsored the club and the Sunday ride. Restaurant-owner Raymond Fouquet, now well into his 80s, was the club founder. He was in his mid-50s when I rode with La Grange. Like me today, he wasn't much of a climber then compared to younger riders, but he was fast on the flats, probably faster than me, age 28.

Years before I joined the club, my family occasionally dined at the restaurant; Raymond would recognize my parents, and for a while, long after I finished riding with the club, he would at least pretend to recognize me if we happened to see each other on the road. Now there's a California Fresh restaurant standing in place of the La Grange restaurant, itself long gone, now just a memory few can claim as their own.

Not having ridden with the club itself in many years, I decided to wear my 1976 La Grange cycling jersey, and to ride my 1962 road bike (see my earlier blog posts about my jersey and the bike).

Of course, I was hoping the 40 or so riders I expected to be on hand for the ride would express surprise, shock and amazement and joy at my appearance. I thought about faking a French accent, then thought better. Of the 50+ riders who did show, few noticed my jersey or my bike. Two of them who did somehow knew it was the 1976 jersey.

One of them had ridden with the club that year, too.

"You're the oldest guy to ride with the club today," he said. "But I've ridden with La Grange the longest. I was riding with the club in 1973."

I'm not sure if anyone on the ride today was as old as I am - I doubt it - but there were at were several riders who appeared to be on the downside of 40.

We pushed off a little after 8 a.m., riding north initially along Westwood Blvd. We picked up a few stragglers finishing their coffee at a Starbucks. Then we cut east through Century City, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, traffic at this time of morning on a Sunday almost nonexistent. And if it's fun to watch a group of cyclists, I realized anew it's more fun to be part of a 50-person peloton.

The pace was relaxed until it reached the base of Nichols Canyon, where about two miles of climbing up into the Santa Monica Mountains begins. The road for the most part isn't particularly steep, but it's almost relentlessly uphill for more than a couple of miles, serpentining back and forth

past expensive homes on the tree-lined blacktop, beneath chaparral-covered hillsides.

At the top of Nichols is the infamous "The Wall," a final and very steep 100 meters, probably close to 12% or so. After that, the ride turns west along the ridge that is host to Mulholland Drive, where there are another seven miles or so of rollers. There are some grand views out over the San Fernando Valley, to the north, with the San Gabriel Mountains beyond.

The ride eventually reaches Peet's Coffee in Brentwood (San Vicente and Gorham), after 27 or so miles.

This day, after we crossed Sunet Blvd. to reach the mouth of Nichols Canyon, I managed to hang onto the back of the pack for about the first two minutes of the climb, and then I dropped back, turning my pedals ever more slowly, shifting a bit until I found the right gear and rhythm to let me continue, gasping like fish out of water, drops of sweat, glinting in the sunlight, falling off my beard. I'm not sure what hurt more, my legs or my lungs; I know part of me wanted it to be over; my legs and lungs screamed "Stop!" even as part of my mind cried out, "Allez!" Thirty years ago I would have listened to the part of my mind that wanted me to go faster. Apparently not this day.

The few riders still at my heels surged past me. I finally managed to catch one rider on Nichols, and then I rode alone, ascending the The Wall to reach Mulholland. After a few miles, I caught my second rider, Ricardo, a nice guy; it was his first time on the Sunday ride, and I'd spoken with him briefly we'd begun pedaling and now we cycled together.

We would have come in far behind everyone else,

but this day, a few miles ahead, Mulholland was completely closed to any sort of traffic due to road repairs. When I reached Coldwater Canyon, in the company of Ricardo, we saw a rider after rider turning off of Mulholland. And several of them, seeing us at the intersection, motioned for us to join them in their descent of Coldwater Cayon.

So it was Ricardo and I found ourselves back with the group. True, we hadn't suffered to bridged the gap - the riders returned to us. But it made for a pleasant ride back through Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles and then into Brentwood and to Pete's, and the end

of the ride.

For many years, the Nichols Canyon ride ended back

at its beginning. Raymond would open his restaurant, to serve each rider a glass of water, as cold and as good as if it had come from a glacial stream in the Alps; it was payment enough for a rider's honest efforts. Now, instead of ice water, I sipped on an iced coffee. And thought about losing some weight and finding some more miles to ride each day.

After a while, I rode a few miles back to my truck, glad I could still enjoy a challenging Sunday ride on my bike.

As usual, click on a photo for a full-sized view.

No comments: