In the beginning, there was Ma’ Bell, Muff, Skull, and five others. They pedaled around downtown together, surprising a few motorists with a sight then quite rare in Los Angeles: bicyclists traveling in a peloton, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the city.
“When you’re a kid, you do those kinds of adventures,” said one of those original riders, an East Hollywood resident in his late 30s who goes by his biking pseudonym, Roadblock.
But they weren’t kids. They were people in their late 20s and early 30s, most with professional careers. Roadblock designs Web pages. “I’d been sitting behind a computer for years,” he told me.
Seven years later and 30 pounds lighter, Roadblock is still biking. And he has seen that one night of riding become a citywide movement.
There are thousands of Midnight Ridazz out there now, crossing the big grid of L.A. in groups of up to 100 or more at a time. To a lot of drivers, especially, the sight of pedaling packs is not a welcome one. But the riders will tell you the law is on their side.
“Read the DMV manual,” said Adrian Galicia, a Cal State Northridge student who organizes a monthly ride with 80 to 100 cyclists that begins near his home in Mid-City. “It’s pretty clear: Bikes are allowed to be on the street.”
Yes, sometimes they’ll force you to wait a little longer at a traffic signal while they pass through, with a few of the stragglers actually crossing when the light is red. Be patient with them. They’re not trying to irritate you — it’s just safer for them, and better for car traffic, if they stick together.
“It’s not a protest thing,” Roadblock said. “We’ve never been against cars.”
They bike at night because the streets are less crowded then. They travel in large groups for safety and companionship, organizing rides that cross 30 or 40 miles of cityscape at a time, usually from 9 p.m. to midnight.
Some of their rides are simple tests of physical endurance. Others incorporate visits to eateries, or to impromptu parking-lot concerts. Quite a few, like the weekly ride known as the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time, are organized with the express purpose of seeing beautiful, strange and interesting things in the city.
“We’re trying to find as many surprises in the city as possible,” Nathan Snider, 32, told me as the Passage of a Few People ride was about to set off Wednesday night from a Koreatown donut shop. “And we’re going places no one has been on a bike before.”
Snider and his friend Sean Deyoe, a 33-year-old graphic designer, have organized rides that include visits to failed banks and the Tour de Smells, which included a stop at a Vernon rendering plant.
The distances between landmarks in L.A. are too great, sometimes, to enjoy on foot, Deyoe explained.
“I’m too impatient to take walks,” he said. “A bike is a perfect tool. You’re in the city, and you can see and smell it while passing through it quickly.”
Your average city thoroughfare is designed, of course, to be enjoyed at 35 to 45 mph, behind the wheel of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Back when the bulk of L.A.'s sprawling city streets were laid out — in the 1940s and ‘50s — no one imagined they might one day become extra-wide bike paths.
But if the history of L.A. proves anything, it’s this: Eventually, people will get around using their surroundings in ways our city planners never intended.
“A lot of people say L.A. isn’t like Amsterdam because we don’t have a biking infrastructure” with lots of bike-only roads and the like, said Andrew Said, a 36-year-old member of the Ridazz. “But the infrastructure is already here — it’s our streets.”
The idea that all the streets belong to bikes is spreading. And in the last couple of years, the Midnight Ridazz movement has started to catch on with a younger crowd.
“I used to be one of the youngest people on my ride,” said Galicia, 25. “Now on my ride, I’m one of the oldest.”
Galicia organizes the Mid-City Misfixed, a play on the words “misfit” and “fixed,” the latter meaning fixed-gear bikes. There’s a daredevil element to fixed-gear riding — many of the bikes are brakeless.
For Galicia, channeling youthful exuberance into safe riding is a challenge. “I tell people, ‘If you don’t have brakes, you can’t ride with us.’ I have to be a leader,” he told me.
Last month, one younger group of Midnight Ridazz was taking a break during a ride to see the city lights at a Baldwin Hills overlook. A drunk driving suspect plowed into them, injuring 11. The driver wasn’t charged — police said the stationary cyclists were, in effect, pedestrians standing on the roadway.
The cycling community has rallied around the young riders and called for a new investigation into the incident.
But L.A. also needs a citywide adjustment to our attitudes about cyclists. We need to accept them as rightful occupants of the streets. This became clear to me as I talked to Deyoe on Wednesday night, and he explained how seemingly “crazy” behavior can actually make a cyclist safer on the streets.
“The worst thing you can do when you’re riding is to be timid,” he said.
To be safe, Deyoe told me, a cyclist needs to obey all traffic laws — while also sending the message to all the cars around him that he belongs on the road as much as they do.
“If a car cuts in front of you, you’re more likely to accept it,” Deyoe said. “But if a bike cuts in front of you, you get angry and call the rider crazy.” An aggressive rider, however, usually succeeds in being seen and respected.
A short while later, Deyoe set off on his ride with 15 or so friends. From Koreatown, they were headed to Downey, to visit some industrial sites related to the space shuttle and also an apartment complex that once belonged to the singers Karen and Richard Carpenter.
It was a route, I’m sure, no group of cyclists had ever taken before.