SPORT REPORT : Because It's There

Even cars avoid Fargo Street and its 32% grade, known to ravage transmissions and sear brake pads. Only the architects who designed Toontown could appreciate such a road.

Riding a bicycle up the block-long Echo Park street seems a witless task. But each year, members of the Los Angeles Wheelmen bicycle club gather at the hill's base, tilt their heads skyward and offer petitions to the gods of acclivity.

Last year, I was one of about 40 riders at their 21st annual climb. The ascent is not a race, rather an endurance test. Feet must remain on pedals at all times.

I began my first attempt with a zig-zag technique I was sure some cars have used to ascend Fargo. The torque was fearsome as I wrenched body and bike upward. Halfway up, my lungs crumpled into pleats and I slid on a patch of paint.

Walking my bike down, I crossed paths with a tandem. Seconds later I heard a crack and the sound of bodies hitting asphalt. The tandem's rear axle had snapped.

Second time around, climbers were heaving air, toppling over and walking bikes. We cursed the hill and its row of faded houses fronted by rotted summer gardens.

On my third attempt, I slowed down, breathed deeply and fixed my eyes on cracks in the asphalt. My thighs quaked at the halfway mark. I feared I would fall off the hill.

A roar rose from below as I neared the crest. Looking up from the road, I saw what people see when they die--pleading beings surrounded by white light. My lungs howled once more and I reached the top. My body, cut from its moorings of wheels and gears after 10 minutes of hell, tumbled free.

This year, the vertical challenge will be held Jan. 16. I'll be there. Look for the guy with the oxygen tank strapped to his handlebars.

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