Uh-oh. Beer Man looks up. He’s six-foot-five and garbed in his blue Superman tunic with a red cape, yellow briefs, a full mane of red hair and a beard. His expression says it all: Is it time?
Because someone’s honking a vuvuzela. People are yelling, “Yeah! Go baby!” at three guys performing wheelies, front wheels way up, ’round and ’round the fountain pond. It’s like waiting for Mount St. Helens to blow. You can feel the expectation. The shine in people’s eyes, the nervous glances, everything tells you we’re about to go.
This is the last Friday in October, around 8:00 p.m. Here at the big fountain in Balboa Park, maybe 1000 people and their bicycles — including me on my beach cruiser — have gathered for a ride, a night ride to, well, wherever the Halloween spirit leads. It’s called Critical Mass. No, not a fault-finding church service, but a political statement on wheels. Two wheels. This mass of bike riders wants to tell Car World: “Hey, we live here too!” And not just here. This leaderless, Internet-driven phenomenon happens once a month, from Seattle to Singapore, from London to Boston. Globally and locally, Critical Mass seems to be reaching critical mass.
“Whoo-hoo!” someone cries.
“This is it!”
It’s like Canadian geese girding their loins for migration with a chorus of squawks. Bugles, cowboy Yee-haws, rebel yells, even cop-car sirens join in with a quick series of whoop-whoops.
“Turn on your light, Abe,” says this gal to her partner. She looks up. “Yes! Yes! Yeah! We’re going!”
Gradually, everybody starts moving around to the west side of the fountain, jumping on their bikes and heading out. Now we’re getting our balance, gathering force, slowly at first, guys and gals, kids, old gents, everyone on bicycles, or tricycles, recumbents, mountain bikes, road-racers, fat-tire beach bikes, even BMXs, pouring down the slope of The Prado past the California Tower and on across the viaduct toward Sixth Avenue. It’s hard not to join the hooting at one poor, frustrated driver sitting in his Mazda, surrounded like a mouse attacked by hornets. The guy is our first scapegoat, standing in for all cars. He can’t move. But, sorry. It’s just so refreshing to be on the attack and not the defensive, timorous, vulnerable also-rans that bicyclists usually are on our roads. The fight-back has begun!
And maybe, just maybe, if recent stats can be believed, the time of the urban biker is nigh. According to Kiplinger’s magazine, Gen Y-ers, the biggest generation in U.S. history — 80 million strong — aren’t buying cars as they used to. Drivers aged 21–30 now account for only 14 percent of miles driven, compared with 21 percent back in 1995. They’re more willing to catch the bus or train. But are they riding bikes to work? Back in 2006, SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments) estimated that only .03 percent (point three of one percent) of San Diego county commuters were bike commuters. Compare that to Copenhagen, where nearly 40 percent bike to work. Then again, in ’06, Critical Mass attracted only about 35 riders…
So something’s happening, folks. We fly along University in full swarm. At places like the Alibi, and Ichiban in Uptown, drinkers and eaters come out to the sidewalk to cheer us on and wave their drinks. You feel like Lance Armstrong at the end of the Tour de France. Or like new-age Woody Guthries. This land is our land, these roads are our roads, from the giant fountain, to the Cuyamaca Forest…Whoo-hoo!
I’ve been on this biking toot for a few weeks now, and when I heard about Critical Mass I wanted to try it. I love these crowd things. But, honestly, I’ve never thought of San Diego as a bikey place, even though you couldn’t ask for a more pro-bike climate, and a new bike shop does seem to be opening everywhere you go. In the couple of weeks before this ride, I began to check out the scene, and wow. Either it’s been hiding in plain sight all along, or I haven’t been looking. Bike World San Diego is popping. Here are several biking scenes out of a zillion that I happened across.
The Trail Ride
“It’s 40 psi for beach cruiser tires,” said Tyler Rowden, when I asked. I had popped in to Holland’s Bicycles in Coronado to pump up the fat tires of my decade-old Electra Bike Company beach cruiser labeled the “Hawaii.”
Tyler owns Holland’s, which has been open for bike business since 1924. His two assistants, Mike Shepherd and Conrad Tapia, look straight out of classic Tour de France racing books. Conrad’s wearing one of those old-school racers’ caps, a red one with “Clif Bar” printed on the brim. He also has one-inch metal stretchers in his ear lobes. It seems to be a younger road-racer’s thing, though he says it’s just a personal choice. We get to talking about riding, and Conrad mentions “the donut run” that happens every Saturday morning in Coronado. It’s a ride down the Silver Strand to Imperial Beach and back. Maybe 13 miles. Starts at 7:00 a.m. sharp. Usually takes 40 minutes, he says.
“Then you have donuts and coffee at the Callaghans’ house on Margarita. Pat Callaghan and Tim Sullivan initiated the ride in 1980,” says Tyler. “You might have 30, 40 riders. Some of them are pretty competitive.”
“But it’s not that far,” says Conrad. “I live in I.B. I ride up here to work every day.”
Of course, Conrad is 21, five-six, and maybe 150 pounds max, all of it lean, rider’s muscle. Plus, he owns a mean racing bike.
“Do beach-cruiser, couch-potato types do it?” I ask.
“You wouldn’t want to on that beach bike of yours,” says Tyler. “With fat tires, an upright bike, that’s a lot of road resistance, and wind resistance. They like to stay in a pack. You wouldn’t keep up.”
Huh. Guess I more or less have to do this ride now. I end up renting a road bike and helmet from Tyler for around $30. And wow. The bike’s a $2300 black-and-red Specialized “Roubaix” with Cane Creek “Volos” wheels and Schwinn “Lugano” tires and FACT (“Functional Advanced Composite Technology”) E240 carbon triple monocoque frame “handmade in Taiwan.”
No excuses now.
The problem is, come that next Saturday morning, I wake up late, and so get there ten minutes after everybody has gone. Still, I wobble my way to the Silver Strand bike path, and set off south, the virgin road-racer rider. Truth is, I’ve never ridden a low-slung handlebar, 18-whatever multigear racing road bike in my life. With all the levers, it’s like someone tossing you the keys and saying, “Go fly my Cessna.”
Here’s what I discover. It’s incredibly tiring on the muscles just above the knees. And your butt gets real sore on the little butter dish they call a seat. Most of all, your hands, between thumbs and forefingers, where you’re leaning all the weight of your upper body, get weary. Of course, technically, you have plenty of time to admire the scenery. It’s great to have the water’s edge on your left, with the white herons staring down and fish leaping up. To the right, you have the Navy Seals’ training towers and the helicopter shells where they practice warfare. But the fact is, you’re head down, trying to keep a pace up, experimenting with those damned derailleur gears, and trying not to collide with oncoming hotshots, probably the team you’re supposed to be part of. After a while you ask, I’m riding all this way, busting a gut, because…?
But, eventually, I do get into a zone, where the rhythm of the pedaling becomes hypnotic, and in a twisted, enjoy-the-burn way, fun. The nods from passing racers, who take me to be a pro like them — yellow Specialized brand helmet and all — has to be worth some of the pain.
It seems an age, but finally I’m down heading east across the southern tip of San Diego Bay. The bike path along the Silver Strand has been extended around the shallow lagoons where the bay meets I.B. The path runs beside an ancient railroad track. At around 13th Street in I.B., I realize two things. I have come too far (I should have turned where 7th Street meets the bay), and if I want, I can continue east past the salt evaporation ponds to National City, and then all the way up into San Diego itself. But, nuh-uh. A man knows his limits. I turn around, take five, and head home.
By the time I get back to the donuts and coffee on leafy Margarita Avenue, there are still a couple of dozen riders standing ’round chatting, plus two donuts and a few slurps at the bottom of a coffee urn. I stagger in like an old man who’s just come from the pub. I count 95 minutes for the purported 40-minute ride. But I definitely feel like Ironman because, hey, I did it.
Then I meet Frank Ingram, bending the coffee urn to get its last drops. He’s a regular on these rides, a retired professor of Russian Literature from Michigan State. Has to be in his 70s. The guy has ridden his bike clear across the United States and around Australia. “I biked to work every day of my life,” he says.
Suddenly, my 15-odd miles don’t seem so spectacular.
“Alright!” Sean Burke’s voice echoes around the empty stadium. The acoustics are such that he doesn’t need a loudspeaker. “We’re going to do 20 laps. First ten on the blue line, moderate speed, all right?” Sean is the professional down here, at the open-air velodrome in Balboa Park. It’s around 7:00 on a Wednesday night. The velodrome is near the tennis courts and municipal pool in the park’s northeast corner, and the amazing thing is that anybody can come here and train, even absolute beginners. The city supplies Sean to train you (currently the cost is $120 for six weeks), and equipment, like “fixie” racing bikes, borrowed from the city’s collection for free. If I’d realized, I would’ve brought gear. The circuit is 333.3 meters long, and has these exciting 27-degree banks on the corners, which is where the strategy is played out. Wednesday is training night. It’s been a bit worrying for Sean and the riders: a fine rain has swept through and left the concrete track slippery. Nobody wants to crash at 30 mph, but counterintuitively, Sean says speed helps. A dozen riders stand with their fixies, waiting for starter’s orders. “There’s a little bit of dampness,” Burke shouts, “so don’t ride super slow. You might fall down.”
I have come here because of Conrad, from Holland’s Bikes. He was talking about the “fixies” they race on here, single-speed racing bikes with pedals directly linked to their back wheel. No gears, no brakes, no coasting. The pedals keep turning round. They’re identical to the bikes used to race the very first Tour de France, back in 1903. These are the retro bikes that have taken off in trendy urban bike areas like South Park and North Park, and the chic quarters of San Francisco, Boston, New York. For street riding: go figure. It seems people love the challenge, and even more, the return to simplicity. In the bike trade, they’re calling it the “fixie revolution.”
“So, do your one-lap pulls on the blue line,” Sean is saying. “The last lap is going to be a sprint lap. Do not, do not, do not pull up on the last lap! Or you’re gonna cause a crash.”
It’s quite a collection out there, from young, compact Conrad to Tom Kindberg, a big-shouldered, muscular hardbody of 51. “This is the beginner group, but Tom’s the fastest in the group,” says Sean. “He’s done plenty of racing.”
“What separates you here from other races is how much you’re willing to go into pain,” says Patricia Ortiz, a German girl who’s the only woman racing tonight.
But why fixies? “One, you’re actually faster,” Sean says. “Two, it’s safer. When nobody has brakes, nobody can slam on the brakes. You can always speed up or slow down, but very gradually.”
While we’re talking, Tom, Conrad, Patricia, and her American husband, Roger, and the others thrum past, doing their elliptical circle around us at 30 mph or more. A few more rounds and Roger’s hanging in there in the lead. Patricia can’t catch him, even though she’s in his “draft,” sheltering behind him.
Roger comes in. “You out-sprinted me,” she says, when she finally pulls up.
“I was turning myself inside-out, though,” he says.
“There was no reason for you to go that early,” Sean says to Patricia. He’s talking about the moment she chose to make her final sprint. “Right here, you were wasting a bunch of energy, coming along high. You rode farther, and you weren’t in the draft. If you had waited, and made a move back there [on the far side of the circle], you probably would have beaten him.”
He turns to yell to another group still racing. “Four [laps] to go! Push-push!”
Tom Kindberg has just come in on his BMC Swiss carbon-fiber machine. He’s won another race. Sean says the guy has endurance and the sprint.
Now Sean’s at the edge of the track, training each person for standing starts. He stands behind each bike in turn, holding it upright by the saddle so the rider can stick his cleated shoes in the pedal cages.
“Five, four, three, two, one, GO!”
A heavyset guy hauls up on his handlebars and down on his right pedal leg. “It’s harder for someone big like him than, say, Conrad,” Tom says. “Look at it this way: the heart is how big?” He makes a fist. Tom knows about heart health. He makes stents at Abbott Laboratories in Temecula. “He’s got all that big body to irrigate with blood. Because as you get bigger, your heart doesn’t always get bigger with you. Your heart is about the size of your hand. But somebody who’s a serious cyclist? His heart can develop to the size of two hands. It will actually grow bigger as you make it pump more. There’s something in the heart called ‘ejection fraction,’ meaning the percentage of returning blood your heart pumps from the venous atrium to the pulmonary atrium. So when grandma can’t make it across the room, her ejection fraction is only 10 percent. A normal person is about 40 to 50 percent. A cyclist is about 65 percent. The tops you’re ever going to get is, like, 76 percent.”
And, yes, he says, if you start cycling seriously now, in a year your heart will literally grow bigger. “And it will become more efficient. But don’t try too hard too fast. You should start out nice and easy.”
He takes a little display screen off his bike. He must have been wired to it while he was racing. “My average heart rate tonight has been 150, the whole time I’ve been riding. I’ve burned 550 calories in 34 minutes.”
“Five, four, three, two, one, GO!”
This is Sean, closing the evening with a pure drag race. “Four to go!” he yells a minute later, as the half dozen fly by. He means laps. Diminutive Conrad’s looking good, though he seems to have ceded the front. I’m just amazed he can keep up with these Goliaths. “Two to go! Two!” yells Sean. Does that mean Conrad’s out? “Not at all. Whoever’s in front is doing the most work. So usually you don’t want to be at the front for more than half a lap. You’re doing a third more work than if you’re behind, sheltering in the draft — One to GO!”
Tom’s at fourth position, Conrad’s in third.
“All the way to the line!” Sean yells across the velodrome to the other side. And then it’s over. The riders come blurring past. It seems amazing, but Conrad has pulled ahead. He comes in first.
With no brakes, it takes everyone a couple of circuits to slow down.
“That’s the thing,” Conrad says, when he catches his breath. “It’s any man’s sport.” I’ve asked him how he could beat this field of bigger guys. “It’s amazing,” he says, “The bicycle evens it out. Big, small, all ages. We all have a chance. That’s the beauty of it.”
People are walking around in pain from their last effort of the evening.
“Why do they do it?” I ask Sean.
“Why? Because it’s ideal biking. No cars, no dogs, no potholes, just pure speed,” he says. “It’s incredible fun.”
What do the top people ride? One Friday evening, I get a look by accident. I’ve wandered out from Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park feeling a little peckish. They have their own burger joint, but there’s a line, so I head for a modest, narrow storefront next door that I thought was labeled Pizza Place, or maybe Pasta Palace. Wrong, wrong. It was Pista Palace — “Pista,” as in “track,” in Italian. I walk in anyway and head on back to where this guy is assembling a bike on a clamp stand. It’s black and green and white, and the all-cap lettering on the frame reads “TIME.” The walls, glass counter, and shelves are covered in mysterious bike-part-looking products. But all clean, no oil, grease, rust. It’s like walking into a mini–Mercedes Benz specialist shop.
The slim guy is clipping brake cables. He doesn’t drop everything and rush to the counter. “How can I help you?” he asks, friendly, but it’s clear you’re in his territory. It’s only then that I notice another guy sitting on a nearby couch, sipping a beer. Well, it is Friday night.
“You sell…bikes?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “High end.” It sounds like a warning he has to issue a hundred times a day. “We basically sell two brands. TIME, like this one I’m building, from France, and Colnago, the Italian brand.”
“What kind of money are we talking?” I ask.
“It depends on the equipment, but probably ten,” he says.
“As in ten...thousand?”
“Ten, easy,” says the guy on the couch. “Twenty, if you really want to be particular.”
The assembler is Mario Lanese. His friend is “John,” who has been in the biz a long time and doesn’t want his real name used. “I’m way too involved,” he says. “It’s a small industry.”
It turns out that TIME is one of the most expensive and prestigious bikes on the planet. French. Multiple Tour de France winner. Colnago is the Italian equivalent.
Justin Beope, the guy who created this business, isn’t here today, but he runs a pro race team out of this location, as well as the business. You have to wonder: How can a little store hidden away in South Park, selling only two very expensive bicycle brands, stay alive?
“When we opened,” says Mario, “people saw these bikes, and their first question was ‘How much does this one cost? Did you sell anything yet?’ It’s funny because we sell the shit out of this stuff. It’s not people from the neighborhood who typically come here. We sell bikes to people all over the world. And that’s how we want it to be. We want it to be a shop where people say, ‘They have the top. We want to seek them out.’ So we have customers from England, Asia, Australia, New Zealand. And locally, from L.A., from Santa Barbara. Like, that red bike hanging up there, that’s a custom build we’re doing for someone in Pasadena. So they’ll come down, and they’ll spend the weekend here just to go through the process of buying a bike with us, going through a fit…. We demo $10,000 road bikes, and no one else I know of does that in this area.”
He says they don’t sell anything Asian. “It’s not because the Asian products are bad. They can be very good quality. It’s just that you can get those things anywhere. Specialized, Giant, Trek. We want to be the niche that other people don’t have. [The parts] we sell here are typically Campagnolo, or handmade in Italy.”
What kind of person is willing to drop so much cash on a bike? “A lot of people,” Mario says. “You get the stereotypical dentist, has a ton of money, right? Wants to buy a bike. And then you get a lot of ordinary people like us. Like, I have a bike that is worth way more money than I should be spending on a bike. I like riding that much. A lot of our customers are guys who don’t really have a lot of money. They drive a $2000 car and ride a $10,000 bike.”
Then there are the “Freddies.”
“‘Freddies’ are the weekend warriors who wear bright yellow so cars can see them, or that bright orange vest that can land a plane because its colors are so bright. Instead of having regular water bottles, they have a Gatorade bottle that doesn’t even fit in the holder. They’ve bought whatever was on sale at the Trek store, the Trek bike, with the Trek shorts, the full Lance Armstrong Mellow Johnny’s kit. They’re dressed exactly like the pros, but are fat, old guys. But you’ve got to remember: Freddies feed the industry, so I have no problem selling a TIME to them. Freddies put me through college. A lot of times I’m trying to do the fit, get a tape around their gut. I tell every one of them, ‘Listen, you’re not really in shape yet. So, understand that you’re buying a racing bike, but we’re trying to make it a comfortable bike.’ That’s what we call ‘Fredding out’ a bike.”
Most of the guys who run this shop race, Mario says. “But you don’t have to be a racer to enjoy it. There’s nothing better. Any new cyclist, the first time you get on a nice performance road bike, and you go down Torrey Pines hill, that’s like one of the best feelings ever. I do that ride three or four times a week, just because I like to go fast. And the first time you go out Sunrise Highway, climbing hills, man…”
“Riding’s not just good for jocks,” says John, who has given up racing. “I have a friend I ride with. He’s an anesthesiologist. We were sitting down by Mission Bay one day, having a break from our ride. And we see a handful of people come riding by on their bikes. He said that these people, who were in their 40s, and just totally casual riders, were probably still in the top ten percent of the healthiest people in the nation, for their age bracket. Because they rode.”
He takes another drag on his beer. “Still, that customer is not this place’s customer. This place is for the high-end road guy who’s, like, a dentist, a type-A, very anal, shaves his legs, likes things perfect.”
The phone rings. John gets it, looks up. “Hey Mario, the guy wants to know how long before his bike’s ready.” Mario’s winding white tape around the TIME NXR Instinct’s handlebars, like a boxing coach wrapping his fighter’s knuckles before a fight. It’s a curiously primitive thing to do to this space-age machine.
“This is who you’re prepping the bike for?” I ask.
“What does he do?”
“He’s a dentist.”
How Polo Can You Go?
Don’t bring your TIME bike to Park and Meade on Wednesday evenings. Bring the roughest old piece of junk you can find, because it’s going to get beat up.
It’s around 8:00 as I walk my bike onto the dankly lit court. Actually, it’s a church’s parking lot. The Fellowship of San Diego. But this time of night, nobody seems too worried. Hillbilly, Fraggle, and half a dozen of their buddies are waiting around, sitting on their bikes, chewing the fat, waiting for Mike Maverick to drop the mallets and start the game. Maverick walks to the middle of the space, jumbles six mallets around behind his back, then releases them in the air so they fall in two piles of three. The guys rush to see where their particular mallet has fallen. This is how teams are selected in this townie cousin of the oldest team game in the world: polo.
We’re talking bike polo here. Not quite the same ring to it as those charging horses. But it turns out that even this bike version goes back to 19th-century British Raj days, when soldiers stationed in India took new-fangled bone-rattler bikes and used them to practice their horse polo on. So this is a revival of sorts.
“Hard-court bike polo is taking off,” says Maverick, “because it’s more urban style, as opposed to grass. Europe, Asia, the Americas, it’s everywhere, because it’s cheap and easy to organize.”
Hillbilly (Chris Bamat) comes up with his girlfriend Jami. He’s wearing a gray “Play Bike Polo” helmet. Soon enough, Trevor (“Fraggle”) Fray, and Josh (“Jüsh”) Riccio follow. Fraggle’s wearing a horseshoe-shaped ring in his nose, through his septum, and a single earring, and blond dreads. He’s a bike messenger for Nationwide Legal, and his friend Josh Riccio rides for Cal Express. Gradually, a bunch of others turn up. Hillbilly’s the guy who brought this group together. He’d played the game in Washington DC, and when he arrived in San Diego last year, went online to find other potential bike-polo people. He’s a mechanical engineer. “I love the engineering of bikes,” he says. “And I like that anyone can play. It’s not so much that we like polo. It’s that we love bikes, and this is something to do on them.”
We’re standing around a load of backpacks and bags placed in front of the wagon. They’re lined up behind the goal posts — two road cones — to stop the ball flying off out into the night across Meade.
“Po-o-Lo!” yells Maverick. That’s the start signal. Three guys lined up side by side at this end, and three at the other end, in front of the church hall, leap onto their bikes and charge toward each other, heading for the ball in the middle. “Once they get on, they can’t touch the ground with their feet,” says Hillbilly. “If they do, they have to go to the wall and whack it with their mallet and come back. Or on the other side, that light pole. We adapt to where we’re playing.”
Clack-clack-clack! A tangle of clashing mallets, as all six fight for possession while remaining aboard their bikes. It takes a moment for the ball to clear. Fraggle whacks it toward the church goal, and four riders tear after it. “In New York, when the ball gets stuck in some corner and people are just fighting over it and the game loses momentum,” says Maverick, “they call ‘Boring!’ and everybody has to break it up and let the ball out.”
Each game lasts ten minutes. You can see why: After the first two games, these boys need the break.
Maverick says it’s not too hard to pick up. “If you’re really good on a bicycle, which means you can ride with one hand, and have the other hand free to wield the mallet, you can play this game. These guys are mostly bicycle messengers. Their bike skills are superior because that’s what they do all day.”
Maverick’s originally from New York. “I was out here in San Diego and didn’t even know of the sport. Then I saw an ad in the Reader. I brought my own bike. It was a nice GT, with shocks in the front, and the shock seat. And they were like, ‘No, no, that bike’s too good to play polo. You need to go to a garage sale and get yourself an old, stiff-framed bike, so the shocks don’t take up the energy that you put into pedaling.’ So I went to a garage sale and bought a bike that was inferior, but stiff-framed, and started playing. And I’ve never stopped loving it.”
After the first game, the guys let me in for a session with a borrowed mallet. Riding Hawaii one-handed with the mallet — a ski pole with a bit of PVC piping jammed on the end for a hitting head — held in my other hand, is in no way easy. Heading for the ball, you’ve got to intimidate others, but not collide, not swing overhead, not stick your mallet in their spokes, and start swinging long before you’re within range.
I soon discover that just staying aboard takes everything you’ve got, and that it’s basically hockey sans ice, all spurts and games of chicken. You and some other guy — in my case, usually Hillbilly — are racing for the ball, and something’s got to give. There’s a lot of sweaty close-quarter struggles, a lot of laughs, followed by sudden dashes for the wild blue yonder. They were kind to me, let me get the ball and try to dribble the thing by mallet toward those goalposts. Giddy feeling! Except they have a “goalie” on a bike with the spokes protected by cardboard, so the ball can’t get through. I can only say that I got pretty good at riding one-handed. And at clanging that lamppost.
Then, unfortunately, in the midst of the fray, I stick my mallet in my own front spokes and…aagh! Splat: there I am on my back, laid out on the tarmac. Players gather ’round. The game comes to a halt.
“Boring!” Fraggle yells.
Conversation Under a Tent
Here in City Heights, at this Saturday farmers’ market, in the middle of Somali sambusas and Salvadoran pupusas and French crêpe tents, a blue canopy shelters a bunch of people huddling out of the rain as a small team of people fixes bikes. Two, Ken and Ted, stand behind a makeshift counter loaded with boxes of nuts, bolts, spokes, and other biking paraphernalia. Another two, Kelly and Andrès, man the spanners and position a rear wheel onto a blue BMX clamped on a stand. An 11-year-old kid named Michael stands watching with his mom. It’s his bike. “This is a bike kitchen,” says Ted. “We’re a collective. We mostly don’t fix bikes, we show people how to do it themselves.”
“Se Habla Spanglish,” says one sign, but some of the talk here is like sign language. A couple of Somali mothers don’t speak English. “It’s free, but about half of the customers, or more usually their parents, give us something,” Ted says. “Bikes are important here. A lot of people in this area can’t afford bus fare. This is about getting to work. The least we can do is give them a safe bike.”
But they’re not the only bike people with a social conscience. There’s Sky Boyer of Velo Cult, who has started a program where, if you ride your bike to participating merchants instead of driving, you get 10–20 percent off your purchases. Jinna Albright and her husband Don, who own Thomas Bikes — by far the oldest bike business in the county (think 1903) — sell used bikes; their ancient garage in South Park has become a gathering spot for enthusiasts. They organize all sorts of biking events and riding-safety classes that encourage the habit.
Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe, farther up University, collects parts and makes and sells secondhand bikes cheap, and is a sort of social center if you just want to talk bikes and organize rides.
“The bike is the most perfect invention ever,” says Ted. “Why has it survived? Because it is appropriate technology.”
That doesn’t mean the rest of the world agrees, least of all our town planners, he says. “I live in Golden Hill. But to get across the craziness of the 15 freeway I have to make a three-mile detour that cars don’t have to make. That loses me 15 minutes right there.”
Is it worth the hassle?
Ted sighs. “We’re here, aren’t we?”
Adam Maxwell’s looking a little battered. He’s got scarring up his arm and burn marks on his leg. He’s just pulled up on his fixie outside Ye Olde Bicycle Shoppe’s café at 69th and University, a hangout where they’ll even assemble bike parts into a machine and sell it to you for a reasonable price. Adam’s fixie isn’t cheap. It’s a $1000 machine.
“It’s so simple, and yet it’s the most difficult bike to ride. You have to focus,” he says.
It wasn’t fixed-pedaling mistakes that scarred up his arm and left burn marks on his leg. “I got hit by a car,” he says. “It wasn’t an accident. There were four guys in the car. They started throwing food at me as they pulled alongside. It was about 7:00 in the evening. This was near 42nd Street, on El Cajon Boulevard. I was heading down to work at Urban Solace in North Park. They followed me. They hit me, shunted my bike. I careened off to the side and crashed. They stopped and all four jumped out. If it hadn’t been for four Lacrosse guys who ran up, I don’t know what they would have done. You get a lot of aggression from cars. They don’t like us. They don’t think bike riders should be on the road.”
The Uneven Contest
Maxwell’s not the only victim of deliberate aggression by motorists. “The tragedy is that what might be a bump between two cars can become catastrophic, or even deadly, for bicyclists,” says David Casey, a San Diego personal injury attorney who is famous for his work with the 9-11 Victim’s Compensation Fund, and the Exxon Valdez litigation. “I had a case a few years ago where some kids were drinking, and they actually drove into a bike lane and opened a door to [deliberately] hit a bicyclist. Then I had a very tragic situation on Friar’s Road where a young man was driving a car, and he hit a law student who was on a bicycle. The impact was so hard it amputated the student’s leg. He carried him about 550 feet before he even stopped. [The driver] was on a cell phone. He was not even aware of the bicyclist. Even after impact, he didn’t begin to react for a period of time because his focus was on the cell phone [conversation]. And that makes it even more dangerous. The law student died on the scene. I think there are a lot of risks to bicyclists out there because people in cars, particularly if they’re on a cell phone, or the radio’s on, they’re not really focusing. The City has been trying to create safe bikeways and bike lanes. But what happens is they [the bike lanes] will go so far, and then they temporarily end. And these bicyclists are stranded suddenly in a position where they have to confront danger. We [as a society] need to make a decision that we’re going to create very safe areas for bicyclists to be, so they can enjoy themselves safely and cars [aren’t put] in direct proximity to bicyclists.”
Casey says that bike-injury cases are increasing. “The reason, I think, is that more and more people are starting to ride bikes. Which is wonderful, but with the current level of safe areas to bike in, bikers are at significant risk. There are very few places in the country that really have safe, delineated bike areas. If you could figure out a way to get people to ride bicycles safely from outlying areas into the city of San Diego and back again, you’ll find a lot of people who want to save the gas money, want to get the exercise, and should be able to do it without putting themselves at risk.”
Taking Your Life In Your Hands
So, time to try bike commuting myself. On this fresh Friday morning, the birds are tweeting in the trees near Pershing and Upas at the northeast corner of Balboa Park. Planes fly past seemingly at eye level, heading for Lindbergh Field. We’re a few hundred feet above downtown here, but, as they say, in a different world. Just beyond the crossroads, the land falls away, and somewhere down at the bottom, the pencil-tips of the tops of San Diego’s central business district highrises sprout up.
I’m waiting for Chris Kluth. He’s the bike guy at SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments. He commutes to work every day on his bike from North Park. Right on schedule at 20 minutes past 8:00, Chris rolls up, a tall rangy fellow of maybe 35 in gray shorts, white polo, and a blue bike helmet. His bike is a silver-gray stretch model Univega Alpina Pro, with extra handlebars behind the saddle and a kind of skateboard seat mounted behind. “My two kids, who are six and eight, fit on there,” he says, “or I can pack it up with six bags of groceries, or I can take my wife out on a date in North Park.” He says it only requires “about ten minutes” to be in his SANDAG office in the Wells Fargo Plaza HQ building at 4th and B.
Of course, my solid, stolid Hawaii is in no way up to Chris’s bike’s standard. Fortunately, it’s mostly downhill. We start out where the curvy pathway meets Sherman. “Bike Lane,” says a sign at the start of the big downhill run. That’s encouraging. A wide white line gives us bike riders about five feet to ride on. Chris heads out and down. Man, he’s swift. I follow, and pretty soon it’s too fast to pedal on my one-gear wonder. We curve down to the right, amid trees smelling of gum and olives.
I pull out a little digital recorder for my first ever bike-to-bike interview as we sweat up a shoulder by the park’s municipal golf course.
“This trip is about three miles,” Chris says. “It’s faster by bike than by car, by the time you find a parking spot in the SANDAG building. And more pleasant. Most people in the office say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could come to work this way.’”
Now we’re flying downhill with a scarily steep drop-off on our right. Florida Canyon. I’m asking him if he’s going to Critical Mass’s monthly ride tonight. “No,” he says. “I have before, and it’s pretty fun. But over the last year, they’ve started to do some things that just plain aren’t very smart. Like going onto the Coronado bridge, or the 5 freeway…”
Lordy. Suddenly Chris stops, because, guess what? The bike path just disappears. Evaporates. Our road has turned into an on-ramp for the freeway, the 5 North. Cars speed up.
“We have to cross through them?”
“Yup,” says Chris, and heads out between oncoming cars with his left arm stuck out like a train signal. I follow, and almost mistake a lady’s intentions — thought she was going to slow for me, but she didn’t. Zoom! Man. That was too close. The next car takes pity, and I skittle across, like a cockroach. What happened to the safety of the bike path? The City just gives up on us here? And now we have to brave the freeway entrance to the 5 South before the traffic-light-regulated haven of B Street?
“If this were Portland, Oregon, they would have made some sort of accommodation for bikes back there,” Chris says. “Colored bike lanes, a bridge, or something.” Then he says, almost casually, “There have been two bicyclists killed in that spot in the last few years, doing just what we did.”
Wow. That’s sobering, and straight after, angering. No car driver would put up with this. Why should bike riders? Lawsuit! We’re people, too.
The trouble for bike riders, Chris says, is they have no stats with which to build a case for reform. Amazingly, nobody knows how many bike riders there are in San Diego County. The good news is, that may change next year. In 2011, Chris says, SANDAG plans to initiate its first-ever cyclist count, putting people at street corners to count how many bicyclists pass by. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
Returning to Critical Mass
So the very next night, I’m thinking of all this as I huff and puff to keep up with the hotshots on Critical Mass. It’s about 11:00 p.m.
We’re on Harbor Drive, a small remnant of the original group. According to someone who has a cell phone, the jocks are over the hills and far away, heading past Point Loma to Mission Beach. Too fast for us. I stop near where Kipling Mitchell and Alexi Glines have coasted to a halt. Kipling’s dressed in a kind of bloodied giraffe top, this being Halloween. “I’m Giraffrey Dahmer,” he explains. Alexi is dressed as a black cat with a tail, some climbing rope, and an eye mask. “Cat burglar,” she says.
“I used to be a lot more idealistic about Critical Mass,” Kipling says. “And I used to ride a lot more often. I tried to make a lifestyle of it, tried to get a job where I could ride to work. But San Diego is a difficult place to do that.”
Yet, says Alexi, in Portland, where her sister lives, you pretty much can do it. “My sister doesn’t own a car. She just has a bike. And the streets and traffic are much more bike-friendly than here.”
“Still,” says Kipling, brightening. “I mean, Critical Mass. When you’re with a thousand other people, and you ride right down the middle of the street, king of the road, it’s a great feeling, isn’t it?”