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Shifting Gears

Special to The Times

WHEN Robert Petersen bought his bike a few months back, he hadn’t ridden for two decades and didn’t know if he would be able to stay upright. He was so nervous about falling that he lowered his seat.

“I never even considered the bike as a method of transportation,” says the 29-year-old, third-generation Southern Californian. But he was sick of forking out $6 to $20 per day in parking fees for a lot in downtown L.A. near his work. Plus he’d been gym-less since graduating from UCLA Law School last spring and figured pedaling to work from his home in Angelino Heights would force him to exercise regularly.

He approached his maiden voyage carefully and with not a little stress. “The first day was a little strange, not knowing if I was more car or pedestrian,” he says.

So he took it slow. Really slow. He spent a lot of time on the sidewalk, especially when he hit the thick traffic on Figueroa Street. But -- and it surprised him -- by the time he’d gotten to work he’d cycled through most of his fear.

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“I was really, really worried that first day,” Petersen says. “Within one week, I was going fast and enjoying going fast.”

Petersen is a good example of the new face of bike commuting -- professional and average folks who are abandoning their daily drive for bikes in increasing numbers for a variety of reasons: fitness, a refusal to sit in traffic, politics or pocketbook, especially during days of skyrocketing gas prices.

Every day, according to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, between 100,000 and 240,000 Angelenos ride a bike and 24,000 commute by bicycle. There are signs that the number is climbing and set to climb higher. For the last seven years, large employers in the El Segundo area have been conducting a Bike-to-Work challenge -- including one last Tuesday, during national Bike-to-Work week, that saw 306 cyclists pedaling to work versus 245 the year before. (This year’s winner: Raytheon, which beat Aerospace Corp., Los Angeles Air Force Base and Boeing when 61 of its employees showed up to work on bikes.)

Demand for on-site bike commuting seminars at workplaces has surged, including requests from big employers such as LAX, 20th Century Fox and Disneyland, according to Kastle Lund, executive director of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

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Demand has surged too, for hybrids, the kinds of bikes often ridden by new commuters -- bicycles with wide tires, flat handle bars and a relaxed riding position -- and they’re being purchased by customers who haven’t ridden much in the past, says David Landia, assistant manager of Budget Pro Bikes in Eagle Rock. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Assn., last year was a bumper one for bike sales, which totaled close to 20 million.

Los Angeles is working to become more bike friendly. It recently completed a bike lane that runs parallel to the Orange Line, and the first phase of the San Fernando Road Bike Path, which will run from Roxford to San Fernando, is scheduled to open in a few months, says Michelle Mowery, senior bicycle coordinator for the City of Los Angeles.

Next year, the city plans to begin construction on the next segment of the Los Angeles River Bike Path, which already stretches from the north end of Griffith Park at Victory Boulevard to Fletcher Drive; and to install bike lanes near LAX, the harbor and the San Fernando Valley, Mowery says.

There are also plans to add an additional 800 bike racks to the 2,500 racks that are currently placed on sidewalks throughout the city on which cyclists can lock their bikes.

Potential changes are cropping up on the national front as well. In April, a bill was introduced in the Senate that would give employers a tax incentive to offer employees $40 to $100 a month to cycle to work. A similar bill is pending in the House.

It’s smoggy. It’s congested. But actually, L.A. is a great place to ride, Lund says. “Los Angeles is relatively flat, has beautiful weather and the destinations are relatively close together,” she says. “What makes Los Angeles seem onerous to get around is the traffic. But when you ride your bike, you don’t have to deal with 10 or 15 minutes to find a parking spot or sitting through three cycles at a light.”

Lately, she says, she’s seen an increasing number of men in suits commuting on bikes.

“Gas came to the forefront last year,” she says. “It got people thinking, ‘Hey, there has to be a better way.’ ”

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No gas required

The price of gas got Lisa Anne Auerbach out of her car and onto her bike full time four years ago. She wanted to see if she could go car-less for a month -- and by the end of the experiment, the 38-year-old artist, writer, photographer and college instructor viewed the city differently. It seemed smaller.

“The city just becomes compact when you’re able to traverse it very easily by your own power,” Auerbach says. “On the bicycle, you feel like it’s all within reach.”

Many of her friends and colleagues were incredulous when she switched to biking, she recalls. They didn’t believe that it was possible for someone to ride from South Pasadena to Venice, a trip she made regularly.

They asked her so many questions that she started Saddlesore, a magazine devoted to cycling in L.A., “so I didn’t have to answer the same stupid questions over and over,” she says.

Not only did riding change the way she viewed L.A., it also changed the way she wanted people to see her. She wanted to become a billboard when she was on the bike. So she started making handmade pro-pedaling sweaters with slogans such as “On My Bike Los Angeles is Mine” as well as many with political themes.

Cycling, she says, is fun and liberating: One of the best things is “treating the city like it’s a playground and feeling like there are no real boundaries ... You get to see neighborhoods that you wouldn’t otherwise see or pay attention to.”

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The people who bike are varied, as are the reasons that caused them to take to two wheels.

Politics was the motivation for 40-year-old Chris Ziegler. The self-described conservative Republican and Navy veteran cites the war in Iraq and reducing reliance on fossil fuel as reasons to forgo driving. Ziegler says he rides more than 10,000 miles a year and thinks that putting two wheels to pavement to get to work is “probably the most patriotic thing that anybody can do at this point and time.”

Time was the motive for Zack Beatty, 29, who started using a bike as part of his Santa Monica to Hollywood commute a year ago. It got him to the bus stop quickly, and if he missed a bus by a minute or two he could pedal to the next stop and board there.

Weight loss inspired 29-year-old Mauricio Alanis. A year ago, he was still carrying 25 pounds he had picked up during his freshman year of college. In a few months, he had shed his freshman 25 and went from a 38-inch to a 34-inch waist.

The reasons were more nuanced for Sherman Oaks orthodontist Harry L. Dougherty, 48.

Pedaling, he says, reminds him of his childhood in the San Fernando Valley where he had to ride anywhere he wanted to go. But the seduction of the cycle was also a lure: “The mechanism of a bike is simple and elegant ... I guess that just appealed to me,” he says.

Dougherty’s been commuting the two miles to his office for a year and says he likes it so much that he wishes he lived farther from work. (He recently bought the same bike that Lance Armstrong rode to four Tour de France victories, and he rides it 50 to 70 miles on weekends.)

Converts do acknowledge that bike commuting has hazards beyond the obvious ones of potholes and sometimes scary traffic. Among the indignities they’ve endured: being attacked with eggs, slapped on the butt and knocked down by an elderly man.

Ziegler was riding home through Little Tokyo one evening when a driver started tailgating him and honking aggressively -- even though Ziegler was riding legally and there was an available lane next to him. The driver passed him but shifted lanes, cutting Ziegler off. The cyclist barely evaded a crash.

As the two stopped by a red light, Ziegler asked, “What’s the problem?” and the driver responded with a barrage of profanities and suggestions that the cyclist get off the road.

The chase continued for more than 20 minutes, with Ziegler jumping curbs, ducking down side streets and eventually losing the driver and slipping into a cold storage warehouse to hide out, only to be chased again when he emerged 30 minutes later.

Most human beings are friendlier than that, but cyclists quickly learn that dogs are not man’s best friend when man is on a bike.

Jason Saunders, 33, who regularly commutes from the West Adams district to downtown, was a block from Pico Boulevard when he met a Chow who didn’t like the commuter on his road. The dog gave chase, and he outran it.

This scenario repeated itself regularly over the months, until one day, after a long week at work, Saunders snapped -- and turned around and chased the dog instead.

The dog continued to regularly chase Saunders until a few months ago, when it was finally put behind a fence. Saunders misses it.

“I used to fear that dog,” Saunders says. “Now, I’m always a little disappointed when I ride by and it’s not there.”

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Beats sitting in traffic

Despite their war stories, commuting cyclists are quick to sing the praises of their new mode of transportation. For starters, they can do something that’s almost unheard of in Los Angeles: predict arrival time within five minutes. Even standstill auto traffic does little to impede a bike.

Money is another benefit. It took Petersen less than two months to recoup the $200 he spent on his bicycle and lock. And when Ziegler and his wife got rid of one of their vehicles and became a one-car household in the mid ‘90s they invested the $500 per month earmarked for insurance and an auto payment into real estate.

They now own multiple rental properties in Monrovia.

But greenbacks and traffic-dodging don’t capture another element of riding a bike: It’s fun. After all, even the president gets a little gooey when he talks about pedaling.

“I still ride the mountain bike to settle the soul,” President Bush said last month. (He regularly rides a Trek dubbed Mountain Bike One.)

Those who commute by bike say they actually look forward to getting to and from work. It’s a different way to experience the city. Cyclists often get little snapshots of day-to-day life that seem to be pulled from Norman Rockwell’s palette: seeing a child learn how to ride a bike in Hancock Park, or a Great Dane that sleeps like a “lazy lump” in a postage stamp-sized yard; developing a silent, small-town-like relationship from greeting the same crossing guard every day.

To Auerbach, what stands out are “the smells of the city and how that makes the whole world into a total sensory picnic.” Her favorites: air fresheners coming from open car windows, taco trucks, hamburger stands (though she doesn’t eat burgers), perfume on pedestrians, Latino church sidewalk buffets, car brakes, exhaust and jasmine.

She also likes the smell of moving from one part of the city to another when the air changes and the scents shift -- in a way, she says, that is “totally subtle and only noticeable by bike....it brings the topography of the city to my nose.”

Last week, in Lincoln Heights, she experienced her favorite collaboration of scents -- the odor of “green” wafting from lawn clippings, moist leaves, mulch, flowers, a hint of manure and a bit of dirt kicked up by leaf blowers.

Many commuters think that riding a bike is the perfect way to experience a neighborhood. It’s just fast enough to be able to cover serious distance, with plenty of opportunity to burn off energy and stress, but slow enough, when you want to, to get a waft of the proverbial roses and unwind a bit.

What a difference a few weeks make.

Just before 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, Petersen pushes his blue and silver Diamond Back (seat now at the appropriate height) out the front door of his 102-year-old Victorian, lifts his leg over the top tube and confidently rolls into traffic, passing trash bins and palm trees as he crosses a bridge, the white noise of the 101 Freeway buzzing beneath him.

Turning right onto Beaudry a few blocks later, he finds a sea of traffic at a standstill -- so he nonchalantly bikes up onto the sidewalk and cruises past. A few minutes later he’s riding parallel with the 110, approaching 1st Street.

The pre-June gloom has finally burned off, and the traffic on the highway is going the same speed as he is. The cars surrounding him on the street are like the skyscrapers ahead -- not moving.

As he takes a left onto the sidewalk on 5th Street and slows down, he rolls by vendors in a farmers market arranging fresh flowers and plump produce and smells cheese and pork pupusas cooking on a grill.

A few minutes, later, with nary a bead of sweat on his brow and less than 15 minutes after leaving home, he is pulling up outside the Central Library.

“It’s super quick,” he says, locking his bike to a rack and sauntering toward his office, helmet still on his head and bike seat in his hand. (He’s already had one stolen.)

“It blows me away because it’s so much quicker than driving.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting there

Commuting to work by bike takes some planning. Map out your route ahead of time, taking into consideration your fitness level and comfort around traffic. Here, for example, are four routes to City Hall chosen for their lack of difficulty, with gas savings.

From Grauman’s Chinese Theater

Distance: 7.82 miles

Elevation gain: -89 feet

Gas savings* (per five days, round trip): $13.69

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From Old Town Pasadena

Distance: 13.01 miles

Elevation gain: -670 feet

Gas savings*: $22.75

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From USC

Distance: 4.21 miles

Elevation gain: 115 feet

Gas savings*: $7.37

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Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce

Distance: 4.04 miles

Elevation gain: 92 feet

Gas savings*: $7.07

*Based on $3.50 per gallon and 20 miles per gallon

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Calories burned (per every hour of cycling)

*--* Speed Body wt Body wt Body wt 130lb 155 lb 190 lb Leisure cycling, under 10 mph 236 281 345 Light effort, 10-11.9 mph 354 422 518 Moderate effort, 12-13.9 mph 472 563 690 Vigorous effort, 14-15.9 mph 580 704 863 Very fast racing, 16-19 mph 708 844 1,035

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Sources: www.bikemetro.com, NutriStrategy.com, Times research.


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