Pilgrim on a biking mission


Jose Guzman fell in love with bicycles thanks to God.

His first long bike trip was a few hundred miles through the dry mountains of Jalisco in central Mexico, in a long line with a few hundred other pedaling Catholic pilgrims. Later, he turned his passion for biking into a small delivery business, stacking 200 pounds of fresh chicken over his back wheel every day in suburban Mexico City.

In Los Angeles, Guzman pedals everywhere -- from his apartment in Pico-Union to the Inland Empire, Sylmar, Harbor City and other places, often hitching a ride part of the way on a Metro bus or subway line.

Guzman is a day laborer and soccer referee for hire. He’s crossed the city on borrowed bikes and on bikes he’s put together himself after salvaging frames and rusted wheels from the trash.

Once he owned a rebuilt bike with a pink frame, and when a girl at MacArthur Park yelled out, “Mommy, that man is riding a girl’s bike,” he answered back: “Señorita, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, as long as the wheels turn and it gets me where I’m going.”

Now Guzman has a new set of biking friends. Every week he visits a workshop in downtown Los Angeles, picking up bike repair and riding tips from Arlen Jones and Ramon Martinez, “bicycle cooks” and volunteers with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

“In L.A. we have thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people on bikes that mainstream cyclists never see,” Martinez told me. He called them “invisible cyclists” but then corrected himself because really, if you pay attention, you’ll almost always see them on the streets.

I’ve seen the cyclists in the garment district, Koreatown and Pasadena, often in the uniforms of cooks or kitchen workers. They don’t wear spandex and they don’t bike to lower their cholesterol or to reduce their “carbon footprint.”

They don’t bike because it’s a cool lifestyle choice. Mostly they bike out of necessity.

“My bike is my salvation,” Guzman told me. “I see it as part of me. It’s my vehicle. I carry bags, backpacks, groceries on it. Everything.”

At the small work space on South Main Street, Guzman and a handful of other day laborers get lessons from some young but seasoned mechanics who are also passionate biking activists.

The two groups of men fix brakes together, take apart gear assemblies and push pedals with their hands until the spinning freewheels produce their normal, soothing clicks.

I was there on a recent morning, and it struck me as one of those rare but compelling L.A. moments when people from different backgrounds find a common purpose, bound together by a shared task and dream.

Martinez is a 23-year-old college graduate from Echo Park and a board member of the Bicycle Kitchen in Hollywood.

He’s part of the city’s ever more assertive biking movement. He imagines a future L.A. with a shifted ethos, where people abandon their cars and “quiet the streets” with muscle-powered vehicles. He wants the city to create more bike lanes and bikeways so people don’t have to risk their lives when they head out on their daily rides.

For Martinez, fixing a bike is something best done with a group of people, as at the Bicycle Kitchen, where on any given day 50 people come to learn the art of bicycle repair in exchange for a small donation.

And every bicycle he’s owned is a story made up of the memories of the places it took him. His current bike was assembled from a late 1980s Nashbar frame, with parts given to him by other bike cooks in many different places. “The bike becomes an extension of yourself,” he said.

For Guzman, a 39-year-old high-school graduate, every bike he’s ever ridden is a story too.

The bike he took on that first pilgrimage in Mexico was borrowed. He rode it from Zumpango just north of Mexico City to the shrine at San Juan de Los Lagos. After that 570-mile ride, he was proud of returning it without a scratch to its owner.

“I never even got a flat tire,” he said.

That first journey will stay with him forever. “I remember going down a mountain, and being at the back of the line [of pilgrims], and seeing 500 cyclists in front of me,” he said. The line of bikes stretched out more than a mile in the distance.

Guzman arrived in L.A. in 2004, and his biking life hasn’t been quite as picturesque since. But it has been memorable.

He showed me an album of his L.A. biking experiences that resembled one of those works of conceptual art in which the artist is photographed in many different places but always in exactly the same pose.

In one picture he’s on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Marathon, holding his bike erect. In others, he’s at a soccer field in the South Bay, at Union Station downtown and at his uncle’s house in Ontario. Always, he stands behind his bike with the same playful smile.

“I’ve been lucky,” he told me. “I’ve only had a couple of small accidents.”

Now he exchanges all his bike experience with other day laborers and with activists like Woodson Joseph, who showed up last week at the Main Street workshop. Guzman spoke of how a police officer gave him a thumbs-up when he saw the new reflectors provided by the Bicycle Coalition.

And Joseph dispensed advice about bike mechanics and bike geography.

“Alameda is bad because of the train tracks; Central is better,” he said, discussing potential routes for biking downtown. In Mid-City, he continued, “I really like Budlong Avenue. Fourth Street is a really good east-west route. I recommend it.”

Guzman and I took all this in. I imagined myself pedaling across the city. I thought of L.A.’s flat, bicycle-friendly topography, and how my rusty mountain bike was probably sturdy enough to get me to Santa Monica, Pasadena and other places.

Then I stepped outside onto Main Street, where cars and trucks zoomed past at 40 mph. It is not a landscape that encourages one to set off on a leisurely bike ride.

The bike utopia of L.A.’s future is still a long, long -- perhaps impossibly long -- way off. But thanks to a few working people and young activists with bicycle grease on their hands, it seems to get a little closer every day.