Monday, January 11, 2010

The Half Century
Plus 48 Years

Sunday arrived bright and early. I willed myself out of bed. After oatmeal and fruit and coffee, I passed on reading the Sunday paper, and I said goodbye to my wife. Then I rode a few blocks to what I thought would be the start of the usual informal Los Angeles Wheelmen ride.

I'm in the middle of wearing 20 jerseys in 20 days, and this was my seventh jersey on my seventh ride. I'd pulled on my 2003 Wildflower Century, a ride sponsored by the San Luis Obispo bike club.

The Wildflower Century takes place on the central coast of California. The club motto is, "We ride to eat, we eat to ride." As events would later play out, I should have paid more attention to that motto. Because this wasn't the start of the usual 30+ mile ride, with a few hills thrown in. This was the start of the club's official ride, a 50 mile ramble, a half-century, with 3,600 feet of climbing, on a day when temperatures were going to approach 80 degrees.

Along the way, I would experience again how pleasant and empty the roads can be on a Sunday morning in Los Angeles, with most of its citizens still asleep after a week at work (except, unfortunately, for the 10 percent of of people currently out of work due to the terrible recession) and/or a Saturday night of partying. It was a beautiful day for a half century and a great day to be alive.

Some of the group socializing before the ride.

Wheelmen President Pam Leven with the route sheets.

Ted Soqui on the left, Brian Phillips on the right

Had I known the difficulty of the ride, I would have brought my lightweight carbon fiber bike, two water bottles and some food, maybe a protein bar, or an apple and banana. Instead, I was on my heavier, 48 year-old French road bike (I'm the original owner), with just one water bottle and one packet of energy gel. And it was too late to ride home and make the changes that might have made the ride more comfortable. There were short or medium ride options, too. None-the-less, I pedaled off with everyone else, to make the half century.

We rolled out a minute or so past 9 a.m. from pretty little La Cienega Park on a street devoid of moving traffic. We were a mixed group of riders - ages, fitness, gender, types of bikes. Everyone would set their own pace, some riding in groups, some alone. If you wish, come join us for a while. Bring some food and water with you, though.

First we traveled north, into the Santa Monica Mountains, passing along the way by the Beverly Hills City Hall. The beautiful edifice, was built in 1932, is said to in the architectural style of the Spanish Renaissance; inside the building shows off marble walls, complicated ceiling designs, and terrazzo floors.

We rode into the Santa Monica Mountains, taking the most possibly convoluted route that traveled west through the residential areas of Beverly Hills to the eastern edge of the community of Brentwood. We probably climbed - and descended - close to a thousand feet in the process. Unfortunately, neither I nor the two cyclists I initially rode with had route sheets - we hadn't downloaded them from the Web, and there weren't that many printed versions at the meeting place. Because, in our exuberance, we had ridden ahead of most of the group, we three quickly added a few miles to the total we each would ride over the course of the day.

Note the man courteously holding onto his dog. This was at least the second time we'd ridden past the pair, the result of not knowing where we were supposed to be. I imagine both the dog and the man were not amused to see us invading their neighborhood more than once.

Backtracking after the third wrong turn, I decided to stick with some cyclists who had route sheets, while my companions early on continued their own ride.

Although we cycled by perhaps a hundred massive homes in Beverly Hills and then even tonier Bel-Air, many of these residences were well-screened from the street and each other, or they were at least separated by a fair amount of greenery. We traveled over a score or more of narrow, quiet, serpentining streets that were largely empty of traffic. It's not so different on weekdays.

I don't have photographs of the next part of the day, which took us north along historic Sepulveda Blvd., up to Mulholland Drive, the scenic and also historic road that runs along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. There are no photographs because, by now, I was starting to suffer a little bit – OK, I suffered a lot – on this long climb. I couldn't concentrate on photography because I was too concerned with sucking in enough air.

At some point another cyclist, not from our group, pulled up next to me and in a French accent, commented on my vintage bike. He enjoyed learning it was made in Lyon, France and that I'd had it since 1962. We rode together for while, and then, when the route steepened some, I said goodbye and fell back.

Once on Mulholland Drive, some of us regrouped and followed the famed road, all the way to its eastern end. In so doing, we bisected much of Los Angeles as we meandered up and down and along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, with the Los Angeles Basin on one side, the San Fernando Valley on the other.

Nbil Abu-Ghazaleh looks over the northwest portion of the San Fernando Valley.

Although many streets climb out of the flatlands to reach Mulholland Drive, the old and scenic road doesn't see a lot of traffic. This is especially so on a Sunday morning. Up here, the grass was green from recent rains. It's our spring in California, no matter what the calendar reads, while much of the rest of the country, where it isn't under a blanket of snow, is brown.

At the far end of Mulholland, the route descended into Cahuenga Pass (a word coming from the Tongva, the people who inhabited the area before the coming of Europeans. The last person who could speak Tongva died in 1970, although there are attempts by Tongva today to revive their language).

The pass separates the San Fernando Valley from the Los Angeles Basin, and the massively traveled Hollywood Freeway runs through it. We reached the floor of the valley and turned east again, this time at the base of the Santa Monicas. We followed along Forest Lawn Drive, where Michael Jackson was buried not long ago. Then we turned onto Zoo Drive, riding along a small portion of the the perimeter of the city's premier open space, Griffith Park.

Several of us regrouped at Peco Bill's, a hole-in-the wall barbecue joint on Victory Blvd., 30 miles into the ride. After a while, the two cyclists I'd been riding with early on put in an appearance; they gotten lost again at least once. They pedaled on, skipping lunch. I wonder if they are still out there.

I'm not sure Sheila Szymanski was happy to pose for me, when she could have been enjoying some quality time with her lunch.

My water bottle had long been empty, I had sucked down my lone gel packet, I had borrowed a couple of electrolyte tablets, and I was assuredly ready for lunch. We sat outside at tables on the sidewalk. I had delicious pork sandwich and a side of terrifically seasoned baked beans. Never did the phrase, "We ride to eat, we eat to ride," seem more pertinent.

For the final 20 miles, five of us stuck together after lunch. For about five miles, as we headed west into the San Fernando Valley, the route was flat, and the roads were still mostly free of traffic.

Colors of autumn refuse to give up the ghost on Riverside Drive.

As I write this, temperatures in the mid-west and southern part of the U.S., are frigid. As I mentioned above, the thermometer in Los Angeles on Sunday was close to 80 degrees although, after lunch, a light cloud cover blew over to cool us off. The Southern California landscape is therefore confused. For example, even though it's pushing mid-January, and green grass is sprouting on the hillsides, some parts of city are still cloaked with the colors of autumn.

It was time for one last climb. From the floor of the San Fernando we had 600 feet or so and about four miles to reach Mulholland Drive again, this time riding along winding, two-lane Beverly Glen Blvd., a usually crowded route over the mountains, especially on weekdays in the mornings and early evenings. For once, as I stuck to the wheel of the rider before me, I felt a little crowded by the traffic. At the crest of the ridge, the traffic on the south side of Mulholland seemed to thin out, and we were again in semi-rural surroundings, high above the city.

Yes, it only looks like a sign is growing out of the cyclist's head; no, we saw no deer, although they, along with bobcats, mountain lions, rabbits, rattlers, coyotes, fox, and skunks all inhabit these mountains.

After a wild Mr. Toad's ride down the south side of Beverly Glen, into a canyon that seems in places stuck in the early 20th Century, we re-entered the modern era, first Sunset Blvd. and then broad Wilshire Blvd. Despite the recession, building continues apace in Los Angeles, as the building below on Wilshire demonstrates.

A little farther south, we came to Santa Monica Blvd. and the northern edge of the Century City office towers. Again, traffic was light. And a few miles later, we were back at the little park off of Olympic and La Cienega Blvds. I was three minutes from home.

Oh, below is my jersey-of-the-day. Although I'd "only" ridden 50 miles, all that crazy climbing on my 48 year-old, heavy bike, the warm temperatures, and lack of food and water, combined with gorgeous scenery, empty roads, and fine companions, offered a palpable sense of accomplishment.

Click on photos to view larger versions.

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