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CicLAvia offers a new kind of recycling

I felt a little out of place on Sunday as I unloaded my creaky beach cruiser from the trunk of my car and strapped on a helmet so new it still had the price tag attached. I hadn't ridden a bike in years; there was rust on my fenders and in my knees.

But it didn't take more than a few wobbly blocks for me to realize that I fit in just fine with the thousands of bicyclists who turned out at Sunday's CicLAvia in downtown Los Angeles.

There were plenty of pros in padded shorts on bikes that cost more than my first car. But there were also kids with training wheels, middle-aged couples on tandem bikes and plenty of folks whose labored breathing on modest inclines suggested that they hadn't been out in a while.

Police say more than 100,000 people turned out. I don't know how you put a number on such a fluid crowd.

I do know there was something electrifying about being in the midst of so many people bent on enjoying their city, employing their bodies and celebrating a chance to ride safely, without competition from cars.

I cycled almost all of the 15-mile route — from Boyle Heights, through downtown, past MacArthur Park, through Koreatown to East Hollywood and back.

What I saw and felt was a welcome reminder that our city is not reflected in, or defined by, the actions of thugs at a Dodger game.

There were people of every age and race and inclination. High-spirited teenagers popping wheelies; nervous parents shepherding tiny new riders; packs of hard-charging jersey-wearing club members sharing space with mismatched groups of weaving novices.

When a teenage boy crashed hard on his bike, strangers surrounded him with help. When a little girl's wheel started wobbling, a middle-aged man broke ranks with his club and circled back with a pocket wrench. Young people blazing down the street gave a wide berth to meandering families.

It was a Los Angeles I felt proud to be part of.

I was there at the prodding of my daughter's boyfriend, a cycling enthusiast who often two-wheels it downtown to work from his Mid-City home. I figured if he could get my sleep-until-noon daughter to enjoy crack-of-dawn rides through the city's network of bike corridors — and he has — then CicLAvia was something I ought to explore.

I used to love riding when I was young. My husband and I were drawn here from Ohio in part for the prospect of biking year-round. When our daughters were toddlers, we took them along on trail rides through the canyons near our home. As we got older, the bikes became part of our past. That is a familiar story in car-addicted Los Angeles.

I found myself aligned with the anti-cyclists when a nearby street lost two traffic lanes to a bicycle path as part of a restriping project last fall. Hundreds of my neighbors complained that the city's so-called road diet had inconvenienced motorists by dedicating "our" space to bikes.

I joined the chorus in my column because the change increased my driving time. Trips to the market, the bank, the post office and the gym all take a few more minutes now.

But last month, at a community meeting on the issue, I felt my perspective shift. City officials admitted that the change had been hastily made, without enough public input. They came to offer a compromise. The residents booed, yelled insults and shouted them down.

I couldn't help thinking as I surveyed the crowd that most of the complainers looked like they could use some time on a bike. I felt a bit embarrassed to be on their side.

And as I walked the four blocks back to my car —for the one-mile drive up the hill to my house — that new bike path seemed suddenly inviting.

I will probably never ride a bike to work. I've got a 70-mile round-trip commute and a car that's good on gas and almost paid off. But that shouldn't put me at odds with bicycle riders. That's what Sunday's outing taught me.

CicLAvia is an event in search of itself. Most people can't figure out how to pronounce it, much less what to make of its mission.

It's been billed as a way to free Angelenos from the notion that cars are the only way to get around. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who introduced the concept to the city last fall, touts it as a way to "re-imagine the way public space is used."

But it's been perceived in the main as a sop to cyclists. The CicLAvia sloganeering about "reclaiming our public space" makes it sound like some kind of reconquista by the two-wheeled road warrior crowd.

It didn't feel that way at all to me. It felt like a rare chance for Angelenos to connect with what is so great about our city — the vista of snowcapped mountains on a tank-top day from the high point of the 4th Street bridge; the melange of songs and foods and languages; a vibe that was delightfully live and let live.

My own small moment of nirvana came during a pause at a stoplight, when I was flanked by a tiny girl in a Hannah Montana helmet on a bike with pink sparklers and training wheels and an elderly man on a rusty bike pulling a giant wagon-like contraption that carried an even older woman.

There are two more CicLAvias coming, in July and in October. The mayor wants to make it a monthly event.

I think he's onto something grand, but it ought to be more than just a treat for veteran cyclists frustrated with crowded streets. We should make it more accessible to residents who live far from downtown, so it's not seen as just the province of the Silver Lake crowd.

Host CicLAvia in the San Fernando Valley, the Westside and South Los Angeles. Expand the paltry food truck offerings. Bring in vendors to rent bicycles to those who don't own them. Put the word out through schools, gyms and shopping centers so that wannabe riders feel welcome.

Maybe it won't turn us into a city of two-wheeled commuters. If $5 a gallon gas can't get us out of our cars, I don't think a community festival will.

But make it an opportunity for people to discover, or remember, how much fun riding a bike can be.

That's a good start toward building public support for a vision of Los Angeles with safer, cleaner, free-flowing streets. And just as important, in the here and now, it's a way to beginning shoring up our shaky sense of community.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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