It’s 10 p.m. on a dreary, drizzly Friday, and it looks as if it’s turning into one of those gridlock-filled evenings for which our city has become sadly infamous.
Traffic along Echo Park Avenue is backed up from the Echo Lake boathouse all the way to the 101. And along this serpentine stretch of road sits an improbable number of idling vehicles -- first dozens, then perhaps 200 or 300 -- all waiting for the light at Sunset Boulevard to offer release. Finally, with a flash of green, they come to life in a synchronized swell, inertia overcome not by petrochemical combustion but by mitochondria and muscle.
It’s no ordinary traffic jam, of course. It’s Midnight Ridazz, the loose network of bicycle enthusiasts, rogues and hipsters who have helped foment a cultural revolution in L.A. since 2004. Along with Critical Mass -- a multi-city bicycle “event” founded in San Francisco in 1992 to promote cyclists’ rights by taking the streets once a month at rush hour -- Midnight Ridazz and its growing diaspora of bicycle clubs have been pushing the envelope of what it means to be traffic, to the delight and fury of residents and officials.
Calling Midnight Ridazz “a reflection of the growing frustration people have with L.A.'s car-only culture,” Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti welcomes the challenge of incorporating its constituents onto city streets as a way to reduce car traffic and pollution. He also sees deep sociological significance in the group.
“There’s this myth in Los Angeles that we lead solitary lives, but I think that Midnight Ridazz and the other bike groups run counter to that. Los Angeles is a place where you certainly need to be in the know to find out where things are, but once you do, you see as strong and deep a community as anywhere in the United States.”
Considering the origins of Midnight Ridazz, the assessment couldn’t be more apt.
Conceived by 30-year-old graphic designer Kim Jensen -- known by her outlaw-affecting Ridazz handle, Skull -- during a late-night ride in Cambodia, Midnight Ridazz was inaugurated in L.A. on Feb. 27, 2004, when the Echo Park resident led five like-minded friends on bikes and two on skateboards on a rolling tour of downtown’s fountains. A sense of community and an almost liturgical fellowship was immediate, says Jensen, as was a consensus on where to take the nascent bicycle club: “We were all anti-establishment, creative and feeling a need for speed in a nonconformist format. We were really set on keeping it free and totally noncommercial.”
In addition to wanting to keep Ridazz events free-spirited, Jensen and company wanted them to be fun. So, in diametrical distinction to the politically charged but leaderless Critical Mass, Jensen set the precedent of promoting festively themed outings late Friday nights, when auto traffic is svelte and mellow, along routes mapped out ahead of time to avoid narrow streets, freeway exits and left turns.
From the get-go, the group’s well-planned approach and laid-back execution were a success. Perhaps too much so: “The first ride was planned very well,” says one of the original eight Ridazz, a strapping 6-foot-7 30-year-old who goes by the alias Roadblock (he refused to reveal his real name). “It was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know these places existed.’ By the third ride, it became a phenomenon.”
That’s no exaggeration. Although a few dozen cyclists had joined the core group for that third event, the Belmont Tunnel “Mural Ride,” hundreds began appearing thereafter. Within a year, the group was regularly pushing 1,000. To accommodate the swelling horde, which could no longer pedal through a single light cycle en masse, Midnight Ridazz felt compelled to adopt an extralegal practice popularized by Critical Mass -- “corking” -- whereby a few lead riders block an intersection so that cyclists who miss the green can stay with the pack.
“When we obey the lights,” says Roadblock of the namesake move, “it’s even more chaotic because the traffic is just insane for blocks and blocks. I’ve talked to police officers about it, and they say, ‘Yeah, keep it together and just get through.’ So that’s what we go on.”
If the practice was tacitly accepted and even occasionally assisted by the LAPD, it became increasingly unpopular with motorists caught trying to cross the ever-growing throng of cyclists -- or, worse, having to follow it. By summer 2006, things reached a truly critical mass.
“The last ride that I led had 1,400 people,” says 32-year-old group leader Monica Howe (a.k.a. Muff). “And it was just an unmanageable mob. There were police incidents. There were fights between bicyclists and motorists. There were guns drawn by civilians.
“It was getting a little scary because people started to suggest that some [stuff] was going to go down eventually and that if anybody needed to be held responsible it was going to be the people organizing. Kim, MaBell [another of the original octet] and I, by that time, were the ones in charge, and we decided to step down and let other people take it where they wanted it to go.”
This might well have been nowhere if it weren’t for the towering figure of Roadblock, who devised a new approach for Ridazz: No more e-mails or fliers promoting the original second-Friday-of-the-month ride; a wiki-style website on which any member could post his or her own ride theme and itinerary; and an open call for remote Ridazz to start new, smaller franchises in their own neighborhoods.
With a more democratic support base, Midnight Ridazz grew down and out. Dozens of new clubs and rides popped up on the site, including Roadblock’s own Wolfpack Hustle, a fast Monday night ride that recently celebrated its first anniversary with a 100-mile “Century Ride” around L.A. And though most of the remaining vanguards left to focus on new ventures, several stayed active in the cycling community, including Jensen and Howe, who became outreach coordinator of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition.
It’s a role that’s kept her busy of late, as the proliferation of clubs and group rides in the Southland has led to new conflicts with motorists, municipal officials and law enforcement. Just last month, these issues came to a head in Santa Monica, where police detained and ticketed or arrested dozens of Critical Mass riders for corking intersections as well as a host of minor infractions such as having reflector lights affixed to backpacks rather than fenders.
But none of these issues is on the minds of participants in Midnight Ridazz’s aforementioned slog out of bike-friendly Echo Park -- the “Heavy Metal II” ride. Even in the pouring rain, riders are exultant. Pedestrians raise their voices in sympathetic celebration while drivers forced to wait at blocked intersections honk their horns in the funky rhythms of solidarity. Clearly overwhelmed by this onslaught of positive energy, one driver jumps out of her Corvette to express herself in a more personal manner: removing her top to reveal two tokens of support.
As one instructive night with Midnight Ridazz shows, there are plenty of ways to achieve critical mass.
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WHERE TO GET IT IN GEAR
Local Midnight Ridazz chapters include:
Midnight Ridazz (Los Angeles): midnightridazz.com
Cruz With Us (North Hollywood): myspace.com/cruzwithus
Hollywood Ridazz (Hollywood) midnightridazz.com
IE Ridazz (Riverside): myspace.com/midnightridazzie
SB Ridazz (Santa Barbara): sbridazz.blogspot.com
Westsidazz (Santa Monica) midnightridazz.com
Offshoot clubs/ rides include:
GoGA Ladies’ Ride (Hollywood): gogabikeride.blogspot.com
Ride Arc (Los Angeles): ridearc.org
Sins and Sprockets (Chinatown): myspace.com/sinsandsprockets
Wolfpack Hustle (Silver Lake): wolfpackhustle.com
The following regular rides can be found at midnightridazz.com:
The Badger Song (Covina, Thursdays)
C.R.A.N.K. MOB (West L.A., Saturdays)
Cub Camp (Santa Monica, Tuesdays and Thursdays)
Juggernauts (Claremont, Tuesdays)
Pier Pressure (Santa Monica, Saturdays)
Southbay Cruisers (Hermosa Beach, Saturdays)
The following sporadic rides also post to midnightridazz.com:
Armadillos (Northeast L.A.)
The Bad Idea Ride (various locations)
International Assn. of Armed Librarians/Mobile Assault Force (various locations)
Mulholland Massacre (Hollywood)
Trenways (Northeast L.A.)
Information on Critical Mass events, which regularly originate in Highland Park, Koreatown, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Westwood and Van Nuys, can be found at cicle.org/cm/criticalmass, while information on events in Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Irvine, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Palm Springs and the world can be found at criticalmass.info.