Monday, March 07, 2011

Dan Wyman Photo

To Climb the Steepest Hill - A Journey of Self Discovery

It was a day of hard-gained victories, and a day broken dreams. Yes, it was another Fargo Street Hill Climb, which has become one of the more quirky traditions in my laid back city, Los Angeles.

The Fargo Street hill, which rises in the decidedly Bohemian district of Echo Park, took the measure of many cyclists. Many cyclists were victorious, others were found wanting in the balance, and one women rode into history, with record-breaking number of runs to the top of Fargo Street.

The day for me was like a dream, a fever-induced dream. The night before, after dinner out with my wife, I had gone to bed too late, slept not well, and arisen too early in the morning. My gut churned – was it something I ate? – my legs were achy. Clearly my body was unhappy with the prospect of what my mind was going to make it do in a few hours.

Perhaps that's why the rituals of the day are now just a near-hallucinogenic series of linked images in my mind. There was the deceptive first view of the street, a well-weathered strip of narrow concrete, angling heavenward with a 33% grade, laid down more than eight decades ago. There were the old houses, some hidden behind overgrown trees and bushes, that looked as if they tilted backwards, because the human mind has difficulty processing a street pitched so steeply. Most of the houses on the street are compact, the architecture eclectic. In the early morning, roosters somewhere on the hill will crow the arrival of daybreak, an odd sound in the middle of the metropolis.

There were the riders, many colorfully, even gaudily clad in multi-hued lycra shorts and jerseys, while others were dressed more casually, or in one case, in a dress shirts and tie; they were zig-zaging across the face of the hill or trying to power straight up it. There was the awed collection of neighbors and spectators. There was the traditional signing in (I was number 26); the ride is sponsored, in the loosest and best sense, by volunteers of the Los Angeles Wheelmen bike club. There were cyclists cresting the top of Fargo Street and cyclists stopping en route, falling en route, and walking their bikes to the top of the hill.

Maybe weighing heavily on my mind, enough to have kept me from a sound sleep, was the thought that this year I was going to ignore my high tech toys: my mountain bike, with it's super-low gearing that made child's play of the climb, and my road bike with it's triple crankset, that could also cut Fargo Street down to size, were banned from participation.

This year I was going to ride my road bike, a carbon fiber lightweight – 17.5 pounds – with higher gearing than I had used on Fargo Street in decades.

On my old legs, the higher gear was going to make for a serious struggle, pitting my muscle and my bone and my sinew, and most importantly my mind, against the force of gravity.

Before my attempt, I watched others struggle on the hill for a while. One rider broke a chain. A few riders, in honor of the 50th birthday of one of them, accomplished the difficult feat of 50 ascents each (my PR is 70, from four years ago; the record for most ascents in a day is 101 – 18,000 feet of climbing! Most people, though, are more than satisfied with one ride up the hill).

At least one woman set a new record for most runs up in one day for her gender. Some cyclists came close to victory, only to fail yards from the top. Other made it only a few yards. Some riders fell, nd tried again; some would succeed, some kept falling.

Part of the hallucinogenic aspect of the event became, for me, conflated with a crazy-looking tower built around a tall palm tree, the top of which had been loped off sometime during the previous year, when I had last been to Fargo Street. The tower and tree belonged to Leon, one of the street's long-time residents.

Many of the regular riders know Leon, whose hospitality on the day of the ride is legendary. Leon told us he had to cut the top of the palm off because its heavy leaves, if they fell, could damage a car or kill someone standing underneath.

My brother on Leon's tower

Leon allowed my brother and me to ascend the tower – separately – to take in a wondrous view (which included the Hollywood Sign and the Santa Monica Mountains, and a fair chunk of the city) and make some photographs of the riders far below us. The tower, sturdy though it was, pitched a little, this way and that, in the light wind that had sprung up. It was a unique perspective, and somewhat vertiginous when I stared straight down.

Leon's tower is, on the surface, is just a sturdy construction project. Given his colorful past, which includes working in a circus, his lively and creative mind, and his experience as a contractor, I'm not surprised that the tower also looks like a massive piece of abstract art. Leon, wielding his saw, not only cut down an overgrown palm tree, he made himself a performance artist.

Meanwhile, I'd had a good warm-up, with a nine-mile ride through streets without traffic on an early Sunday morning. I'd spent a little too much time talking with friends and watching other riders take on the hill. Now it was my turn to try the climb. I started my ascent slowly, tacking back and forth carefully on the narrow street. At first, the tacks were easier, my breathing under control. "I can do this!"

Each turn up through the 33% fall line, though, took a toll. It became ever-more difficult to find the strength to turn the pedals and to keep my balance on the steep slope. I had to muster all the experience I had from my many years riding Fargo Street.

How much did the ride mean to me? What would mean to topple off my bike, like the top of the palm Leon had cut loose? In my moment of free-fall, would I lose some of the meaning, the very purpose, of my life? Could a single, age-related failure do that? Maybe.

What would success bring? Affirmation that I still have what it takes to live life in a fully physical sense? Maybe.

The outcome wasn't assured until I was 20 yards from the top. That was, for me, the point of the ride: to dance my way on my pedals up a narrow ridge of concrete, balanced between victory and defeat.

With those last yards, I turned my wheel straight uphill and tried to show off, powering my way up. Instead, it was all I could do to keep the bike moving forward. Later, after I recovered my breath, my brother posed for me in a mirror, after his own ride to the top.

The hill is still mine. I am still alive. Yet there must come a day when I will fail to make the top of Fargo Street, no matter how light my bike or how low the gears. That's part of my journey, not just on Fargo Street, but through my life.

When most of the riders had enough, lots of us headed to downtown for one more tradition, lunch at Phillpe's, "home of the original French Dip sandwich!" We met some of the riders from the Veloce Santiago club, as well as many of the members of the L.A. Wheelmen.

While I was done once more with Fargo Street, I knew I wasn't done with my last ride up Fargo Street. Now, sitting with my brother, surrounded by friends, chowing down on a tender roast beef sandwich, with my fever cooled, I never felt better.

Notes: Cameras included an iPhone and Panasonic ZS7; click on photos to view larger-sized images. And more photos (scroll down the page) past the ones posted above, here.

My brother's gallery of images are here.


christopheru said...

Looks like a painful climb:) Great story, and thanks for sharing it. I wouldn't mind trying that sometime :)(fyi, I got here via your brother's pbase photos.)

Jakerock said...

That looks like alot of fun!
...Are those "toy camera" treatments from an iPhone app, or did you make the filters in Photoshop? Its a cool effect...

Dave said...

The toy camera look comes from the iPHone app, "Hipstamatic." A few other photos were jazzed up in Apple's Aperture program (where there's a "toy camera" setting).