Getting into Gear: How Cycling in LA Has Changed My Life
Posted by Cristy Stiles in # Blog, #Getting Around LA on August 14, 2016
At the beginning of 2015, new to LA and newly out of school, I wanted to be more active and make some friends. On a whim, I googled “women’s all-levels bike ride” and found something called Bike Brunch. A week later, I rolled into Union Station at 8 am, armed with a beautiful, heavy, and impractical steel bike with four gears and a maximum speed best described as “leisurely,” a skateboarding helmet my mom bought me in 1999, a leaking off-brand Camelbak backpack, and no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought that I might have a nice day, meet some people, and maybe get some good exercise. I wasn’t expecting it to change my life.
From Union Station, we rode to Long Beach, which at the time seemed impossibly far, and at some points it seemed only the promise of Fruity Pebble French toast could keep me going (shoutout to Potholder Cafe — you’re my rock). I lost the group at mile 20. At one point I followed Ocean Boulevard too far and accidentally found myself, absolutely terrified, on the shoulder of the 710 freeway. But as I huffed and puffed down the LA River bike path, struggling to keep up with the Amazons gliding forward ahead of me, I was ecstatic — and hooked. Every woman there was the perfect mix of supportive and competitive, and in their presence I felt empowered to do anything. When the ride was over, I was in awe of how much power and potential my own two legs had, and I wanted to get faster and stronger so that I could one day keep up with the inspiring ladies I met there.
Siobhan, the organizer of the Bike Brunch ride, was part of a group called She Wolf Attack Team (SWAT), and she encouraged me to join them for their weekly all-level rides on Thursday nights. I can’t tell you how the journey progressed from going on fun bike rides to get tacos once a week to leading rides, climbing mountains, and getting certified on the velodrome, except to say that biking is more than just a way to get from point A to point B — it’s the core of a strong, connected, and supportive community, and it’s easy to get in deep.
Any Angeleno on two wheels can tell you that biking has exploded in LA in the past few years, and groups for like-minded cyclists have exploded at the same rate. Now there’s a place for you if you just want to be the fastest, most aggressive guy on the street — but there are also groups like SWAT that make a space for women in a typically male-dominated, machismo-infused scene, and the Ovarian Psycos, who engage in direct community action and do amazing work empowering women of color through biking.
It’s not hard to get involved in biking — there’s a level of participation that works for everyone. (I can’t promise that you’ll stay there for long, though.) A bike doesn’t have to be snazzy or flashy to do the trick — it just has to work. Bike Kitchen is an amazing low-cost resource to help repair your machine, and they’ll even guide you through the process of building up a frame from scratch. At CicLAvia, you can enjoy the potential of bikes without cars and other distractions, and truly immerse yourself in the joy and togetherness that biking can bring. Organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition and BikeSGV host repair and safety classes and informative rides and are great at giving beginner cyclists the tools they need to feel safe and confident in the saddle; they are also active in helping Southern California adapt to be safer for cyclists.
When you inevitably find yourself wanting to do more, there are plenty of groups to join. A lot of groups (like SWAT, City Night Shift, or Midnight Ridazz) have rides for all levels, where beginners are welcomed and even encouraged. It’s also always good to have a goal — whether it’s biking to work every day, a 50- or 100-mile ride (half-century or century), or even the AIDS LifeCycle, which goes from San Francisco to LA over seven days.
No matter what, though, you can’t bike with blinders on. Biking can be tough for people who can’t afford to repair their bikes or buy helmets, lights, or reflective clothing, or who have no choice but to bike on busy, wide, or dangerous streets. Being supportive doesn’t just mean cheering on your friends at races or encouraging people to try biking — it means putting forth the time and energy needed to make biking safe and rewarding for everyone, regardless of their skill level, socioeconomic status, race, or neighborhood.
Biking is more than just getting around, showing off, or being the fastest person out there. People might be shocked to hear that what they think of as an aggressive or beleaguered bike community in Los Angeles is actually a rich tapestry of people who bike for all sorts of reasons. And let me tell you: once you’ve experienced the feeling of flying through Downtown surrounded by a pack of cyclists at night, there’s no going back.