Monday, March 08, 2010

When 45 Miles = A Century

Tech note: Camera - Panasonic Lumix TZ5
Full-size images: click on the photos

In less than a week, I'm going to try to cycle 100 miles in a day, on the annual Solvang Century bike ride. I'm not sure why I'm going to torture myself that way; it's probably because I enjoy the pageantry, with the sight of so many physically fit people all wearing their colorful cycling clothing; it's partly viewing the ever-changing collection of fine bikes; there is the desire to prove that I can commit myself to a serious challenge, and allow me to connect with something larger than myself, which I find can add meaning to my life.

Yesterday, at the invitation of cyclist Jose Mendez, we rode together through a chunk of Los Angeles. I knew the 40 miles or so we would ride would put me in better condition for the century, particularly since I haven't done much riding of late.

However, it looked for a while as if this was the ride that was not supposed to be. Originally, I was going to drive my truck down to Marina del Rey, and meet Jose (who'd accompanied me on my recent Route 66 photography trip) on the bridge over Ballona Creek, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, I'd left my inverter on in my little truck overnight, and the battery in my truck was dead.

No problem, I called Jose and we agreed to meet at the corner of Venice and La Cienega Blvds. Putting some air in my slightly soft tires, I headed out from my house, only to find my way bared a few blocks later by a tired little car, whose owner was letting it idle in the middle of the lane. In slight annoyance, I went around the car; just as I did, the car backfired, the sound making me jump out of my saddle.

Great, I thought, this jerk parks in the middle of the street and he's in a polluting junker.

A few yards of pedaling brought a different reality. The tube in my rear tire had exploded. And then the tire I replaced it with had a slow leak. I managed to explode the next tube, a new one Jose handed me, using nothing but my hands and a mini-pump. Then I mis-identified the slow leak from the first replacement tube, putting put a patch in the wrong place.

One more failure and I was going to use the ultimate resource: my wife, who I was reasonably sure would bring me home if I gave her a call.

Above: Jose with the city of Burbank and the San Gabriel Mountains behind him

The fifth try proved the charm. Jose and I proceeded to ride up to the top of the Hollywood Sign, which offered, after the storm the previous day, some spectacular views out over Southern California. Along the way, we met a rider who looked to be about my age. He was on a hybrid bike - half mt. bike, half road bike - and he was pedaling in extremely low gears.

We made brief conversation. His name was Andre, he was from Paris, he lived somewhere near me, he wasn't sure where he was, or where he was going. As neither Jose nor I spoke French, and Andre spoke very little English, additional communication was seemingly futile.

Above: the top of the 45-foot tall letters of the Hollywood Sign; below the sign is the Hollywood Reservoir

We passed Andre as he spun his pedals on the first seriously steep portion of the climb up to the sign. At the base of the final steep section of road that led to the top, Jose cycled easily away from me. Not that I tried to keep up with him – I kept up my own steady pace – but he had me by about 17 years and he races, both on the road and the track and all of saw of him on the final climb to the top was his receding back.

In a few minutes, Andre pedaled up to the top of Mt. Lee, to join us. We made some photographs and tried to understand each other. Slowly we began to understand some tidbits about Andre. He won 700 races as an amateur bike racer (did we understand him correctly?), he won ten professional races, and he's 75 years old. He drew the number in the dirt atop the mountain. He pulled out his passport to show us the date of his birth: 1934.

There is hope for me yet!

Of course we each became friends and rode together back down the mountain, this time around the Hollywood Reservoir and down a twisting series of narrow streets, a just reward for our hard effort to reach the top of Mt. Lee.

Hollywood Blvd. was closed for a stretch to cars, because the Kodak Theater was playing host to the Academy awards. But the legendary boulevard was not closed to cyclists. I pantomimed to Andre that we would ride through the barriers.

"The police?" he managed to say.

"I'm a very important person, come on!" I answered.

Andre said something that sounded like, "Une VIP!" We rode right up Hollywood Blvd., until the police did halt our progress, just before reaching the the Kodak Theatre.

Almost back to my house, Andre had to head for his own home; I wanted to offer him lunch and I wanted my wife, who speaks some French, to serve as our translator. Then Jose and I found another car with a problem, but it wasn't due to a dead battery. A little BMW had apparently rolled out of a driveway and come to stop against the front wheel of a Range Rover, doing no damage. The car was in neutral, the hand break released. Who could have made such errors? We were about to try to push the BMW up onto the driveway across the street to unclog the blocked traffic, when a very embarrassed - and very underaged - driver appeared; he looked to be about 14.

We stopped at my home for lunch, and then headed out along the Ballona Creek bikeway. I don't think I've ever battled harder against the headwind that, like the little car and the flat tires, the police, and the BMW, seemed to want to bar my way. I imagined I could even hear Jose panting with the effort; in reality, he was nice enough to match his speed to mind. Several times I wanted to stop pedaling, our gains measured in the slow passing of yards. What a relief it was to reach the bridge. Jose and I said our goodbyes, and I turned back the way I'd come, the main channel of Marina del Rey on my left, the creek on my right.

In moments, with the huge tailwind, I hit 25+ mph. Soon, though, my way was bared yet again, this time by the arresting sight of a group of California brown pelicans who'd taken refuge from the wind along the edge of Ballona Creek.

In all, there were three such groups of pelicans, and I took some time photographing them, and didn't neglect to take in the scene in the opposite direction, with the Marina in the foreground; the towers of Century City rose out of the old 20th Century Fox Studios backlot in the mid-view, as did the Santa Monica Mountains; beyond the Santa Monicas, the San Grabriel Mountains were faintly visible.

The last few miles from home, I began to tire. And I became hungry. Very, very hungry. If I'd had to ride much farther, I'd have completely bonked, and found myself, I suppose, sitting on the curb, waiting to recover. It was just another obstacle thrust in my way.

After 45 miles and 2,300 feet of climbing, I finally coasted onto the driveway of my home. My little truck sat there, patiently waiting for me to resuscitate it. First, I needed to resurrect myself, as I headed for the kitchen, digesting some food and a lesson, a sort of new math: sometimes, 45 can seem the equal of 100.

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