October 09, 2011

Proceed with Caution

One of the highlights of my entire 14 years in NYC was getting up early in the morning one day last summer, taking Edith's bike out from her 34th Street apartment, and riding it up and down Park Avenue while it was closed to motorized traffic. At 8 a.m. on a weekend day, Park Ave - given the moniker "Summer Streets" - was safe, welcoming, and wide open like never before, all the way up to the 90s, and all the way down to the Brooklyn Bridge.

So when I switched coasts and heard that LA had something similar - the unfortunately named "CicLAvia" - I was thrilled to try it.

But in the flurry of my move and starting a new job, I never got the chance to buy a bike, and I never got the chance to run the shut-down streets of the first CicLAvia.

Fortunately, it returned this weekend.

And I have a bike now.

But I haven't ridden my bike much. I've only just gotten a helmet, and traffic and parked cars still intimidate me - so much so that I wiped out while nervously trying to avoid them on Melrose. I'm terrified to ride at night. And before today, the farthest I'd gone on that bike was probably 2 miles.

So how was I going to get to CicLAvia, mapped through Koreatown, Boyle Heights, Downtown, and other far-flung enclaves of LA?

Throw my bike on the rack of a Metro bus....?
....No, I would have to ride it.

The thought of riding my bike 5.2 miles through the city streets of Los Angeles - which are sometimes terrifying enough to drive through - was so nerve-wracking, I almost aborted mission and bailed on the whole idea.

But I forced myself to go.

Even on relatively traffic-free roads like Oakwood through West Hollywood or 4th Street through Hancock Park, there are plenty of hazards to make a bike ride harrowing: pavement cracks, drainage trenches, palm tree debris, swinging parked car doors, tumbling trash, camouflaging shadows, blinding sunlight, and thick layers of road paint can all trick a wheel, destabilize your grip, and sabotage the ride.

But at CicLAvia, on those wide streets blocked off by cones and police tape, guided by crossing guards and surrounded by first aid stations, water filling stations, food trucks and port-a-potties, the biggest hazard of all was other cyclists.

We rode close and tight, like a wild pack of beasts, menacing and advancing forth, handlebar to handlebar, basket to basket, each bell echoing another in a constant cacophony of metal on metal. Some cyclists wore costumes. Some rode low and hunched; others perched high above in tricked-out frames whose saddles reached the sky. A few towed babies and toddlers; one towed a skateboarder.

I labored and sweat. I smiled and squinted. I pedaled and coasted. I gazed and gawked. There is so much to see in LA, and so much of it you just miss out on by speeding past in a car.

I got over my fears while I floated through the streets of LA on the wave of cyclists, but once I'd gone nearly eight miles and decided to turn back, the trepidation set in again.

How was I going to get home? All the way home?

I retraced my ride, in reverse, repeating the names of streets and recalling the perils of intersections, cross-traffic, and left turns - not to mention the basket-rattling bumps. My return wasn't hazard-free, but it was accident-free, and passed quickly.

Before today, the farthest I've ever gone on a bike was 12 miles, from E. 34th Street to W. 34th Street around the southern tip of Manhattan. Today I conquered nearly 16 miles. Today I conquered my fears.

Next time, I'll have to figure out how to proceed with caution without letting the caution make me a neurotic mess.

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