Bicycle Subculture in Los Angeles

An in-depth look at bicycle subculture in Los Angeles.

By Richard Risemberg

Los Angeles… AKA 70 suburbs in search of a city, aka La La Land, aka the Ground Zero of Carmageddon; it’s where sprawl was born and road rage made its name. The city itself covers nearly 500 square miles and is intertwined with dozens of smaller municipalities, from haughty Beverly Hills to pathetic corners of lost county land that rot away in the sun, forgotten and unmourned. Summer temperatures can run in the 100s for weeks at a time, the brief winter rains can rival monsoons and the banal vastnesses of its coastal plain are regularly cut by 2,000 foot tall mountain ranges. Earthquakes knock down bridges; fires scorch the land and the air, and angry traffic rages along ten-lane streets that would be freeways in any other place.

This is not where you’d expect to find a thriving and remarkably civil urban cycling movement. But here, in fact, it is.

I’ve been riding the streets of Los Angeles off and on for over forty years, and I remember mighty lonely times on the road after the 1970s faded away; when it seemed as though the only other riders willing to face the asphalt jungle were hardcore roadies. Even though the one-two punch of the counterculture and the OPEC oil embargo got a lot of folks on bikes, most of them were sold racing bikes which were not particularly suited for commuting in the city, or heavy, knobby-clad mountain bikes which were even less so. Touring bikes disappeared, road bikes became more oriented towards racing, and practical cycling became an undefined and unsupported category.

Now a perfect synchronicity of factors is working to revive urban cycling in the very city that once scorned it most. Add to that a retail culture that is offering not only touring bikes again, but Eurostyle city bikes, ready-made fixies, and even cargo bikes and bakfietsen, and you can see that Los Angeles is poised to leap into the Bicycle Millennium with a joyous “Wheeee!”

Persistence Pays

Los Angeles has enthusiastically supported bicycle culture several times in its past. The Los Angeles Wheelmen was founded in 1880, and is still around. The Velo Club La Grange has been sponsoring races as well as training and social rides since 1969, before the Seventies Bike Boom and Major Motion (named for Major Taylor) brought the same orientation to the black community in 1975.

There are dozens of group rides to choose from nearly every week – starting, of course, with Critical Mass (CM). There are at least five CM rides in the Los Angeles area: Mid-Wilshire, Northeast Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, and Pasadena. Small and sporadic “Critical Manners” rides make an occasional appearance.

The Midnight Ridazz make no bones about being out for fun, and they schedule their rides late at night in part to minimize the probabilities of confrontations. The Ridazz’ website stresses their cooperation with the LAPD and the rides are often hilarious meanders across the varied landscapes of Los Angeles. It all started a few years ago with five friends, but with current rides drawing 1,500 to 2,000 riders, they’ve had to split into several groups to make room for all.

More specialized are rides such as the Wolfpack Hustle, fast cross-town alley cats that may cover thirty miles or more or thematic rides, such as Vélo Rétro’s Rose Bowl Vintage Ride. The Rose Bowl ride has been drawing a coterie of collectors, ex-racers and just plain folks for at least ten years (any bike is allowed, despite its name); riders gather on the first Sunday of each month to gawk at Masis, Colnagos, sparkling Peugeots, and the occasional Singer or Herse, as well as modern-day classics, before following the legendary Chuck Schmidt along tranquil, tree-shaded lanes to finish with an uphill sprint to be first in line at the Beantown coffee house in Sierra Madre. In spite of the impressive abilities of many of the regulars, “No rider left behind” is this ride’s motto.

Even politicians are getting into the act, with councilmember Tom LaBonge often leading constituents on easy-paced rides of discovery in the varied neighborhoods of Los Angeles – continuing a practice his friend Richard Riordan established when he was mayor several terms back. These rides are a boon to new riders trying to find their way for the first time through this vast and daunting city on a bicycle.

Reaching Out

The last ten years have been rich ones for bicycling outreach and advocacy in this city. And one quiet little intentional community, the Los Angeles Eco-Village, has been a significant influence on the movement – one of the side effects of its urban-sustainability program.

In the middle 1990s a fellow named Joe Linton, now 46, came to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College, where he befriended – among others – Janette Sadik-Kahn, who is now doing so much for cycling in New York City. Linton soon found himself immersed in environmental activism. The first Gulf War cinched it, and he gave up his car and became a transportation cyclist. In 1996, he moved into the Eco-Village neighborhood, where he met Ron Milam of the Surface Transportation Policy Project the following year.

Linton knew a lot of the “lone wolf” bicycle activists of the day and felt there should be a better way to promote cycling infrastructure and bike-friendly policies. When Chris Morfas of the California Bicycle Coalition suggested that the city was ripe for a local advocacy group, Linton and Milam jumped on it, publishing their first newsletter before even naming the nascent organization – which became today’s Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

Although Linton frets that car culture still rules at the Los Angeles Department of Traffic, there have been successes, mostly in the establishment of numerous bike lanes and paths – although they have been built in “dribs and drabs,” and there is no true network yet.

Thirty-four-year-old Jimmy Lizama is a paradigmatic Angeleno of the future: fully bilingual, literate, and joyously nuts in the good sense of the word. He was born in Los Angeles and went to school around the corner from the Eco-Village, where he too now lives. He has never owned a car and earns his living as a bike messenger, devoting his free time to getting Angelenos onto bike seats, mostly through the famed Bicycle Kitchen organization.

The Bicycle Kitchen began in the Eco-Village when Jimmy asked if he could repair his bikes in an unused kitchen in one of the buildings. Friends began to hang out with him and Ron Milam suggested he open up to other riders. Within two years, the “cooks,” as they call themselves, began looking for a storefront. They found one, at Heliotrope and Melrose Avenues in East Hollywood – and suddenly Los Angeles had a physical nexus for its burgeoning bike scene.

Now the corner boasts a full-service retail bike shop, Orange 20 Bikes, operated by two former Kitchen volunteers and selling everything from ready-made fixies and BMX bikes to touring, city and Dutch cargo cycles. You can get anything from top-tube pads to Brooks saddles there, and all are welcome and made to feel welcome – anybody, any bike.

Next door to Orange 20 is Pure Luck, a former Korean hostess bar transformed in a vegan pub owned and run by cyclists and garnering excellent reviews from Los Angeles’ puzzled food journalists. For the über hip, there’s also a tattoo parlor and a hookah bar – and for the young and ambitious, Los Angeles City College is on the same block. The corner has earned its own moniker, when another Eco-Village resident once blurted “Hel-Mel,” and the name stuck.

The Kitchen is now a registered non-profit with an educational mission in which Jimmy Z participates with energetic pleasure. He’s currently working on a manual for people wanting to start their own Kitchen, and hopes in the future to begin building bike frames for daily community riders.

The Kitchen has served as an inspiration to other neighborhoods: there are at least two local spinoffs, each also associated with a community-oriented bike shop: Bikerowave on the Westside, across the street from LA Brakeless, and the Bike Oven, two doors down from Josef Bray-Ali’s shop, Flying Pigeon LA.

Bray-Ali sells only transportation and cargo bikes at his shop. And, like Jim Cadenhead and TJ Flexer at Orange 20, who were “cooks” at the Bicycle Kitchen, he began as a volunteer at the Bike Oven, which he founded in emulation of the Kitchen.

Also associated with the Bike Oven is Harv Woien who has been pedaling bicycles and peddling bicycling for nearly 55 years. Woien was born in New York City, obtained his first full-sized bike when he was eleven and said, “I taught myself to ride in the street in traffic, and I have ridden only in the street, in traffic, since.” He keeps a pickup truck in the garage, but drives it so seldom he fills the tank up only twice a year.

Woien’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was twelve, and “As soon as the bike was off the moving van, I was all over this city.” He rode everywhere, night and day, buying his first ten-speed just in time for the 1970s Bike Boom. His experience made him the local “expert” for his colleagues who became interested in bikes and he founded the DWP Bicycle Club, leading rides all over the city.

Now retired, he is busier than ever with volunteer advocacy work for North East Los Angeles Bikes (NELA Bikes!) and Cyclists Inciting Change thru Live Exchange ( in Pasadena. But the Bike Oven, just down the hill from his Montecito Heights home, is where he spends much of his time, helping with outreach and educational programs that go beyond just bikes. One of their more recent efforts provided a delivery bike for a South-Central Los Angeles food co-op.

At the other end of the age spectrum is 24-year-old Dorothy Kieu Le, who works as Planning and Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, (LACBC) founded by Linton and Milam when Le was barely past kindergarten.

She grew up in Manhattan Beach, a charming beachside town with plenty of cycling. Although a former boyfriend nagged her into getting a car, claiming she “couldn’t appear mature” without one, she rarely drives it, preferring her bike, or Los Angeles’ rapidly-improving Metro system. Her second year at UCLA brought her back into the cycling fold when she chanced upon the Santa Monica Critical Mass ride. She realized that “if I could do it in a group, I could do it alone.” That led her into on-campus bicycle advocacy and the position at LACBC.

Her first project at the Coalition was in support of better cyclist and pedestrian access to Metro stations. Her big push now is to get funds from Measure R, a tiny boost in the local sales tax dedicated to “traffic relief and transportation upgrades,” allocated to bicycle projects. LACBC feels that a sliver of the $40 billion to be allocated would go a long way towards providing attractive and effective bicycle infrastructure to the cities of Los Angeles County.

Another important LACBC function in which Le is involved is “City of Lights,” an outreach program in English and Spanish trying to help the area’s vast number of Latino cyclists upgrade their bikes to street safety standards, primarily through providing lights for night and early-morning riding, as well as brochures and workshops in safe riding. Thanks in part to LACBC’s attentions, traffic deaths of cycling immigrant workers are no longer routinely ignored by the LAPD and these riders are being drawn in to the cycling community, and hence into the city as a whole.

That’s the recent past. What Le hopes to see in the near future includes the “road diets” Linton also spoke of: the reallocation of space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as an expansion of Los Angeles’ city council and county board of supervisors to ensure that neighborhoods have more say in what happens to them.

Getting it done – without waiting for the powers-that-be to help – is what James Spooner, 33, and Pedro Balugo, 41, are all about. Both are biracial punk-rockers who drift among more different worlds than most people know exist in Los Angeles.

Spooner is the producer of Afro-Punk concerts and documentary film and one of his many goals is to open the local black community’s eyes to the possibilities available to them in this city, which was once considered the most segregated metropolis in the US. “I know from experience,” Spooner, said, that “Black folk don’t feel included in ‘open’ invitations,” so he began producing black-specific events that he says help people of color believe that worlds often thought of as “white,” such as punk rock – or bicycling – are for them as well.

Black folk need a “place to relax, a ‘safe space’ where they can be themselves,” and Spooner, remembering the intense feeling of freedom of his own first bike ride, wanted cycling to be one of those safe spaces. After a chance meeting with the black owners of Bikestyler Customs in Hollywood, Spooner started “Black Kids on Bikes” (which is not limited to kids or black folk) and began organizing the “Freedom Rides” under its aegis.

As Balugo says, “Kids” refers to their feeling “kind of like unsupervised grown-up teenagers,” but the rides tend to be mannerly and oriented to community-building among participants. Balugo heard of the Freedom Ride through Afro-Punk but was wary of joining in as he had a white girlfriend at the time. He asked Spooner if he could bring her, and the answer was, “Why would it matter?” Balugo adds, “There’s no hidden agenda; we’re just out to ride and have fun. It’s a bike ride. Simple as that.” Anyone who shows up can ride.

Many of those who do show up haven’t been on a bike for fifteen years or more. Spooner keeps a couple of “invitation bikes” that curious but wheel-less riders can borrow. So far, every rider who has borrowed one has ended up buying their own bike, and two of them are now riding to work every day!

But there’s always the pull of athleticism, so the pair has started another ride, their answer to the Wolfpack Hustle – a fast-paced midnight ride called Zulu Dawn. Fast-paced – but still no spandex! They’ll always be punk-rockers at heart.

In mid September, I rolled into the vast underground garage of the CalTrans building downtown: a huge building that also houses the Los Angeles City Department of Transportation (LADOT), which is home to the Bureau of Capital Programming where Michelle Mowery – a vigorous, willowy fifty-year-old – is the Senior Project Coordinator of Bicycle Outreach and Planning.

Mowery, who has held the position since 1994, has managed to get a good bit of bicycle infrastructure on the ground in the last fifteen years. She has come to realize that “a huge part of my job is talking to people who always say ‘No,’ till they finally say ‘Yes’ to bicycle projects. But it isn’t easy.”

Still, there have been successes: when Mowery began at LADOT, there were no public bike racks in Los Angeles; now there are 3,500 of them, with more going in weekly. Mowery also began working on parking meter retrofits ten years ago – a hard pull back then. But now that parking meters are being phased out in favor of pay-stations, Mowery has persuaded LADOT not to uproot all the old meters, but to slip a lock-on adapter over them and convert them to bike racks, complete with LADOT logo and a little silhouette of a bike.

Mowery lives thirty miles away in Long Beach but makes the round trip by bike at least once a week, coming in by Metro most of the other days and driving only about once a week. She’s been a street rider since her teen years but she understands that not everyone is comfortable facing Los Angeles’ notorious traffic and so has worked hard to establish bike routes, lanes and paths throughout the city.

The new Bicycle Master Plan for Los Angeles strives for a comprehensive network of “bike friendly streets,” some of which may eventually become full-fledged bicycle boulevards. This she sees as her most important job for the next ten years – a job complicated by the fact that Los Angeles City comprises only 39 per cent of Los Angeles County and that the mishmash of 88 cities that forms the Greater Los Angeles Area means lanes will often disappear at an invisible line in the street, as you roll from one city to another, or into unincorporated territory.

Mowery in particular is trying to get more bike lanes on arterial streets – the ones that get you to work the fastest. And with the help of individual citizen activists and local NGOs, especially the LACBC, it looks like we’re finally getting someplace after a long dry season.

Los Angeles Today

It used to be that when I met people who saw me riding a bike on the street, the only question they would ever ask was, “Oh, do you race?” They couldn’t imagine that anyone riding a bicycle in the city could possibly have any reason other than training for competition.

I haven’t heard that question since, I think, around the year 2000. More often now I get a thumbs-up and shouts of approval. More people are riding and more shops are offering practical bikes. Drivers are more polite, and sometimes even deferential. And government is slowly catching up to the realities on the street and the impact of sprawl, global warming, the public health burdens of sedentary lifestyles, and the myriad of other social and physical ills that active transportation, including bicycling, can forestall.

It’s not a cycling paradise yet, by any means, but it’s becoming a place where it’s not only possible to ride (because it’s always possible) but it’s pleasurable as well.

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