Thursday, September 24, 2009

"This Seems So Wrong"

Last night, I joined my neighbor, Mike, and his band of merry cyclists on a ride along the Ballona Creek bike path. Mike had invited me to join the ride the previous evening.

"Mondays and Wednesdays we've got a shop ride going," Mike said. "It's a little faster on Wednesdays." Mike owns a bike shop, which specialized in retro-bikes and wool cycling jerseys and skate boards.

Since it was too hot to ride Wednesday during the day - the temperature was about 100 degrees in Los Angeles - I thought, when I remembered Mike's invitation yesterday, "why not?"

Mike, who is also a commercial photographer, has a strong personality; he comes across as confident, perhaps even brash. And he may own more bikes than Imelda Marcos owned shoes, not counting those in his shop. Those bikes he pedals around the neighborhood are gems. I often seem him after dark, making laps in the neighborhood, astride a vintage road bike, dressed in bike shorts and a classy wool jersey.

What would the ride be like tonight, what kind of riders had he attracted?

After the abatement of the heat of the day, the summer evening was pleasant. Dressed in my full regalia - bike jersey and shorts, carbon-framed road bike, helmet - I had also tucked arm warmers into the back of my jersey, but would never need them.

I arrived a little early at Mike's shop. The second to arrive was Martin, age 14, on a yellow, brakeless single speed bike ("I burned out the coaster brake two weeks ago so riding without brakes is kind of new to me; actually, this is my first bike"); he sported a couple of gold rings punched through his lower lip and wore a sort of blond Mohawk haircut on his otherwise close-shaved skull.

Jesse showed up, a young, impressively large man, on a road bike tricked out with bull-horn bars; he was dressed in cargo shorts and a t-shirt; he placed a mini-boom box in his day pack. "I like to hear the cars and the music," he explained.

Next: Dylan, probably in his mid-20s. He was in shorts and t-shirt, on a mountain bike with fat tire, the rear of the frame fringed with rear panniers. Abstractly designed tattoos ran the length of Dylan's arms and legs. To suggest he was enthusiastic - about the ride and about life in general - is to describe "War and Peace" as a book about Russia. If we'd have been inside a room instead of outside, behind Mike's shop, Dylan might have tried to bounce off the walls.

Dave was next, slowing to a stop atop a classic-looking road bike with down tube shifters. "My neighbor gave it to me," he explained, when I complimented him it. And then the conversation drifted to Las Vegas and the upcoming Interbike show. "I'd like to ride to Vegas for the show!" said Dave, who seemed so sane moments before.

Surreptitiously, I sent a text to my wife. "This ride seems so wrong!"

The guys , though were fine; each was friendly, unassuming, helpful. A bit later a couple of other riders in lycra rolled up, and I didn't feel completely the odd-man out. I was, though, the old man of the group.

Eventually we were all assembled. At least half the group had earphone dangling around their necks, plugged into mp3 players. As darkness spread over the city, we pushed off, headed toward the bike path about six miles away.

It wasn't a race-fast ride, but it wasn't slow, either. When some of us got caught at lights, the others waited. At one stoplight, Mike pulled an earbud out of one ear and began extolling the virtues of his extremely compact bike light. It was a USB-powered LED, fairly bright, with no dangling cords.

"Ride it to work in the morning while it's still dark," Mike enthused, "charge it on your computer during the day, and it's ready for the ride home. Check it out, I can bounce a reflection off a license plate two blocks away!" He was beginning to sound a little like Dylan.

I have a small collection of my own powerful lights, but they include heavy batteries, and long power cords. The light I carried this night, pallid in comparison to Mike's, made it seem as if I suffered from a pernicious form of macular degeneration.

Riding down Venice Blvd., however, made bike lights unnecessary. We were on a broad, concrete river, flowing toward the sea, with a bike lane to ensure we were separated from motor traffic. There were bright streets lights overhead and the beams from cars lit the street in front of us. We lost the light, though, when we cut through a quiet, and darker neighborhood in Culver City, to reach the southern edge of the Baldwin Hills, and the start of the bike path.

As many times as I've ridden the Ballona Creek bike path, during daylight and dusk, I've never ridden it after nightfall. Much that would be visible during the day was now invisible. Yet the concrete-lined creek itself seemed to glow in the dark, reflecting the last light of the sky off the top of it's shallow waters.

Everyone had bike lights, front and aft. They blinked red in the rear, and in front white light showed us the way forward. We passed other cyclists, in both directions, most with their own lights. But there were some people, on bike and on foot, who foolishly traveled in darkness, endangering themselves and us.

Riding in the dark with my new friends, even with the help of our lights, I felt my way along the path more than saw it. Without a doubt it was the most exhilarating ride I've had along the creek, and I experienced it as I've never experienced it before. The sense of forward propulsion, the occasional drop and rise beneath an overpass, the warm air flowing over and around me, all of it moved me in a way to make me, this night, feel lucky to be alive.

Eventually we reached Marina del Rey, with the creek on our left, and the channel leading from the marina to the sea on our right. A few more minutes and we reached our goal, a bridge over the creek. We high-fived, turned off our mp3 players, and Dylan broke out a variety of beer in bottles that had been concealed within his panniers.

Before us, the moon reflected off the channel and lit the sea beyond. Behind us glittered the myriad lights of the city. In a little while, done with beer and high fives, with mp3 players switched on once again, we headed back to Mike's shop. I resolved two things: to buy a new bike light, and to return next Wednesday for another night ride with the same group of guys.

This ride seemed so right.

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