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BIKES: L.A.’s Fixie Scene

Angelenos stay ridin’ hard in the City of Angels. But we’re not talking muscle cars, bangin’ or anything like that. Think Fixie bikes.

Words: Kristie Bertucci
Images: Eric Kim

It’s a beautiful, summer night in Southern California, in Alhambra, a Los Angeles suburb just 20-some miles from downtown to be exact. The scorching hot temperatures from earlier in the day have subdued into a refreshingly cool early evening breeze that will undeniably turn into a chilly night as it gets closer to midnight. It’s just the right temperature for the weekly 626 Bike Ride held every Tuesday at 8:30 pm in the parking lot of El Patio Tepeyac restaurant. The riders, named after the San Gabriel Valley region’s zip code, start here in this very industrial part of the city, at this family-run restaurant owned by fellow rider Erik Hernandez.

A few of the riders are already there, waiting for the main guy to open the eatery, standing next to their fixie bikes, shooting the shit. When El Patio Tepeyac is finally opened about 15 minutes later, the numbers of riders have now increased to about 15. What happens next is pretty much a social gathering of sorts, as more and more riders roll up on bikes and in cars. The 626 Bike Ride officially starts around 9:15 pm, but before that the riders chill outside and within the restaurant — some drinking beer, others smoking (both herbal and tobacco and all are of age) — getting their bikes and equipment ready for the night’s run. Many bring their MP3 players along, while a few riders balance stereos on their bikes or carry them in their backpacks. On this particular night, Snoop Dogg could be heard playing in the background.

Some are new to the night’s festivities, hearing about the ride from friends, while most are weekly participants. The bikes are mainly fixies, which are fixed-gear bikes, while a handful sport mountain bikes and even BMX cycles. Some come geared up with helmets and professional cycling shoes, while many are dressed casually in jeans, shorts and tees.

A fixie bike is one that has no “freewheel,” which simply means that it can’t coast, so the pedals have to always be moving. When the rear wheel turns, the pedals turn in the same direction, allowing the cyclist to stop without the use of a brake by resisting the rotation of the cranks, and also to ride in reverse. They’re lightweight and are what professional cyclists like Lance Armstrong use in major races like the Tour de France.

The group’s meeting is just one of many bike rides that spawned in Southern California over the past couple of months. The rise in popularity of fixie bikes has garnered a community of bike enthusiasts, who form communities of friends and like-minded people that go on a 20-plus mile bike ride throughout the city just for fun. Although there’s always been some sort of interest in cycling, the whole “fixie scene” was really underground before it became a mainstream interest. What was once a trendy accessory for the “hipster” type has now transformed into cycling “cool.” There are now various websites dedicated to hosting calendars for local rides, numerous Facebook pages devoted to each specific crew and many unique projects in regards to the L.A. fixie culture overall.

The 626 Bike Ride began when Jose Aguilar, Peter “PD Pete” Gonzalez and Robert Castillo had their interest sparked during a 213 Bike Ride, a neighboring bike “crew” that travels around downtown L.A. and its surrounding areas on Thursday nights.

“I got interested in bikes after seeing how much fun it looked like when a friend stated riding,” Castillo describes. “I asked him where he got his bike, purchased my Freqnt Flyer bike in August 2010 and started riding a lot with the 213 Bike Ride. Then Jose got his bike at the end of 2010 and we’d both go out on Tuesdays to get some extra exercise in. Peter then got involved, too. So as more and more friends purchased bikes, they started to come along with us on Tuesdays and people started calling us ‘the 626 Bike Crew’ because we all lived in the area. What started out as 10 friends riding every week has now become anywhere from 30 to 45 people every week, with the past summer months having the highest amount of riders thanks to Jose creating a Facebook event page for the ride.”

Welcoming everybody interested in riding (with the exception of unwelcomed “snappers”), riders must have lights on their bike—if caught without, cops might issue a citation—and are encouraged to bring, as per their FB event page, helmets, tools, spare tubes and a light jacket. The founding trio prepare the weekly routes that take them all over the 626 area and beyond.

“We come up with routes that are anywhere from 20 to 26 miles and always incorporate a sweet downhill toward the end,” Aguilar explains. “We also map out some rest spots and a 30-minute stop at a store for people to buy water, snacks or whatever.” And when he says “whatever,” Aguilar means time for those who want to pick up a few “drinks”, too. The trio have also worked out tactical mechanics for the rides so that riders don’t separate from the group, get lost or are left behind.

“We always tell the riders where we’re going in the beginning, but never tell them all the stops at once,” Aguilar continues. “We let them know where the first stop is so that the faster riders can meet us there, while we always have three guys running the pack. One will be in the front or leading the group, we’ll have someone in the middle and at the end so that no one gets lost, splits up or feels they have to ride fast to keep up with everyone [else]. This isn’t meant to be a hard or fast ride, but it is long, so we let them know that they’re in for quite a ride.”

Many of 626’s methods are similar to what other bike rides entail. While their backstories may differ, specifically, the catalysts that drove their popularity up, the intrigue remains the same. Bikes can now be customized to fit individual tastes. Parts like cranks, pedals, spokes, tires and handlebar grips come in every color and just like cars, fixing them up doesn’t come cheap. The prices on the bikes can start at $800 and go all the way up to $2,000 and more, depending on what you want.

Many say that the burgeoning culture started its rise in 2009 and in Los Angeles, has been hit its peak within the last year. “The closer you are to Downtown Los Angeles, the more cyclists you will see on the streets—partly due to the city’s heavy traffic,” says Anthony Lim, co-founder and co-owner of Freqnt Flyer bikes, one of the boutique bike companies that caters to the fixie scene. Lim first became interested in the culture four years ago, after he encountered a swarm of bike riders at the Santa Monica pier one night.

“I [had] never seen such a gigantic group of bicycle enthusiasts randomly congregate and this conception was in my mind from that time on. Being involved in the bike industry, I began to learn more of this L.A. underground bike culture and Midnightridazz.com was the catalyst. More of my biking friends started to invite me to various group rides, and I instantly began to enjoy another type of biking (and socializing) activity. Months passed along on my new fixed-gear bike, and one night I had a epiphany: start a bike company for this new phenomena, city-biking.”

According to Lim, there are several reasons why he believes the bike culture has enticed many. “Fortunately, the riding weather here is year round,” he says. “We have riders from all races joining group rides; riding for exercise, or commuting to places. Besides adults and pre-bicycle enthusiasts, more students are using bicycles and easily filling up bike racks at educational institutions or social hot spots.” Most of the bike crews ride at night given there’s less cars on the streets than in the day, and it’s not as hot as during the day. While it’s generally a time to hang with friends and have a good time, some choose to take it more seriously than others, opting not to partake in alcohol or other recreational habits. Many like the culture because it provides them with something to do that’s different, yet entertaining.

But for newcomers who aren’t accustomed to riding in the street or who don’t have the right bike, the ride can be a bit intimidating. Not only is riding for 20-plus miles a strenuous thing for those not used to it, but having to watch out for cars, pedestrians and finding a right pace isn’t always easy. But the guys in the crew are more than friendly and don’t mind helping the slower riders who might find their first ride a bit tiresome. In fact, not all the rides are smooth, with some nights seeing many riders with flat tires and the like. Overall, the experience is fun, which is why many of the regular riders say they got “addicted” after their first experience.

With the scene being so popular now, many have taken the opportunity to help extend it to the masses via various projects, such as the documentary, To Live & Ride in L.A. Released back in June and directed by David Rowe, who also directed the bike documentary Fast Friday, viewers receive an intimate look into the lifestyle of riders as they tackle some of L.A.’s meanest streets, cruise through the city’s dangerous back alleys and as they party on two wheels. There are also all-city ride events that bring together various crews and companies for an afternoon of riding fun.

Unlike many trends that come and go, L.A.’s bike culture has a bright and promising future. Not only is it appealing for various reasons, but it’s easy and something everyone can do. “This is the biggest bike culture ever!” Lim exclaims. “Just like how BMX started in the late ’70s, this new phenomenon is just beginning to shape up. More bike shops and bike events are blooming around Los Angeles. The mayor recently passed the construction of [1,000-plus mile] bike paths around the county. Plus gas prices and car parking are always an issue for commuters.”

Noticing the rise of bikers, the city of L.A. is aiding the effort. But because L.A. is primarily a driving city, motorists aren’t always too thrilled with having a swarm of bikes in the area, even at night. There have been several accidents involving cyclist crews and drivers in the past few months, which back in July, prompted the Los Angeles City Council to pass a pioneering new law that will protect bikers from harassment by drivers. As the toughest of its kind, the law makes it a crime for motorists to threaten biker readers verbally or physically. It also allows victims of harassment the right to sue in a civil court without having to wait for the city to press criminal charges.

When asked if they’ve had any trouble with police while on the 626 Bike Ride, Aguilar explains that nothing serious has happened yet, but they’ve received a warning or two from passerby cops for blocking an intersection. “They don’t really bother us,” he says. “We always make sure that each ride is safe and are very cautious that we are signaling correctly and stuff.”

As summer dies down, Castillo and the rest of the 626 Bike Ride troupe won’t be slowing down just yet, like many other crews around the region. “We might not get as many people because of school starting and other things, but we’ll still have a good amount of riders. This is a year-long thing for us and we’re going to try to keep it alive until it isn’t fun anymore…but that won’t happen any time soon.”

Images by Eric Kim exclusively for Stark.

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