Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Sunday Route - click for full-size.

Expecting the Unexpected

Sunday, I joined with a group of riders from the Los Angeles Wheelmen. There were three optional "official" club routes (from short to long) from which to choose, and an alternate route someone else suggested.

About half the group headed off on the "long" ride. The rest of us chose the slightly shorter alternate route; both rides would us through West Los Angeles, over the Sepulveda Pass into the San Fernando Valley (known simply as "the Valley" to Angelenos), up and over the Santa Monica Mountains via Topanga Canyon, along the coast, up through tony Brentwood, and back to the beginning of the ride.

As we headed off, I felt a bit of surprise and disappointment, as I'd hoped to find a few people who wanted to ride the medium option. Then someone mentioned that the Brentwood Criterium was taking place that morning. Instantly I felt an additional stab of disappointment, because I would have enjoyed spending some time at the bicycle races. Considering I'd thought about entering a race this year, and that the event was being staged in part by the bike club I'd raced for long, long ago, I figuratively kicked myself in my proverbial rear for my oversight.

Then I got on with my own ride and I completely forgot about the bike races. We rolled out from "the corner," a traditional meeting place for the Los Angeles Wheelmen, at the intersection of Olympic Blvd. and LeDoux Ave, just over the southern border in Beverly Hills. I especially like this meeting spot, because I live about two thirds of a mile away.

Our ride began under cool skies which soon enough turned blue, as we rode west to Sepulveda Blvd. The old highway parallels the San Diego Freeway which carries its load of cars between the L.A. Basin and the Valley. We turned off to climb up to Mulholland Drive, passing the spot where comedian Bill Cosby's son was robbed and murdered some years ago while he stopped to change a tire on his car.

Then we rolled past a fire station which, coincidentally and to my surprise, I blogged about a few days ago, and then continued toward the massive Bel-Air Presbyterian Church, where I once washed dishes after weddings. That was a bit of stretch for me, as I was the son of a lapsed Catholic mother and a father mildly Jewish in culture and not at all in faith.

We rode by the church as the first morning service had ended. As uniformed, private guards regulated traffic, parishioners streamed across the street to their cars in the parking lots.

It's been a long time since I pedaled past that church, which became a Los Angeles landmark because it's where President Ronald Reagan was a member. This was not the Bel-Air Church I remembered from my youth. Seeing it after many years surprised me, for sitting perched on the edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, the church was now a massive, concrete edifice; the land on which it sits is a "campus." The church states on its webpage that its calling is to "help make Los Angeles the greatest City for Christ in America." There is a faint whiff of irony in that calling, a sense of tilting at windmills, because the church looks out over the Valley, home to most of America's pornographic film industry.

At some point, another cyclist – Ted Soqui – and I pulled away from the rest of the group, and spent some pleasant time in conversation about religion and politics and bike racing. We made our way along several miles of hilly, residential streets that paralleled nearby Ventura Blvd. Part of the time we rode through the community of Tarzana, named after the Tarzan, the fictional character created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs; before most of the the houses were built, the Burroughs ranch sat at the base of the mountains

Once we reached Topanga Blvd., we turned south and climbed up the serpentining road, under the warming sun, to the top of the chaparral-covered slopes of Santa Monicas. The views out over the Valley were spectacular, the effect spoiled a little by the continuous parade of noisy cars. We dropped into the canyon to reach the little Topanga village, where we stopped for lunch, which in my case consisted of a banana, a huge dill pickle, and a bottle of Diet Coke.

"Topanga" is a word from the lexicon of the Tongva, the Native Americans who once populated the Santa Monica Mountains. The word may mean "the place above." The Indians are gone; in time, the canyon would become a magnet for actors and musicians, and it still boasts a bohemian charm, and plenty of open space. In fact, adjacent Topanga State Park is one the largest nature preserve surrounded by a city in America (North, South or Central) or indeed, the world.

Eventually we reached the coast and rode past the cars clogging Pacific Coast Highway on the Sunday afternoon. After walking our bikes in the tunnel under the highway, we headed up San Vicente Blvd., which took us into Brentwood. There, to my surprise and unexpected pleasure, we came upon the Brentwood Criterium, still going strong.

Good things come to those who wait, I suppose. Had I gone in the morning to the races, I'd never have made my ride with the Wheelmen, enjoying the company of friends and riding nostalgically past the places of my youth.

We watched the men's over-35 race, and then the women's race, the competitors circled the Brentwood village. Ernest Hemingway, after his "Los Generation" days in France, wrote of bike racing, "French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what it makes it so hard to write." Of course, this followed as long and as vivid a description of bike racing – "I saw that great rider Ganay fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack an hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic" – as has ever appeared in the English language.

To me, the chain of riders in the criterium, or crit, looked like a giant centipede made of spinning legs and shiny wheels, with a topside exoskeleton of shiny helmets; the snaking insect whirred, clanked and buzzed its mad dash over the hot pavement.

In between races, and after purchasing our iced coffees from "Pete's" (de rigueur for Sunday cyclists passing through Brentwood), Ted and I wandered through the bike faire, past booths with rejuvenating sports drinks powerful enough to raise the dead, colorful jerseys, and massage tables. And then it was time to return to "the corner," and the end of a 50 mile ride full of unexpected surprises.

Note: click on images for larger sizes.

Warning: Above video contains nudity

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