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Wolfpack Hustle cyclists: mettle, and nettle, with their pedals

It’s past midnight, and a fluorescent glow settles over LAX as travelers wrestle bags down the sidewalk and shuttles dart in and out of terminals.

A gust of whirring chains and gears cuts in. Speeding onto the departure level, a pack of bicyclists fans out across open lanes. Some sit up and stretch, no hands. One rider on a fixed-gear bike puts his feet up on the frame as the pedals furiously spin on their own.

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“Whoop! Whoop!” chirps one of the riders, warning of police up ahead.

Wolfpack Hustle is on the move.

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The pack is one of L.A.'s most notorious underground cycling clubs. For more than six years, it has prowled the pavement at night — a high-speed middle finger aimed at L.A.'s car culture.

Red lights and cars are minor inconveniences. Potholes, broken glass and metal shards that can cut up tires? Just bring a repair kit.

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Every Monday at 10 p.m., a couple dozen Wolfpack riders surge from the parking lot of Tang’s Donut in Silver Lake for a journey that can carry them up to 60 miles or more.

They mix it up each week — Mt. Wilson, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, Magic Mountain. They ride at night because there’s less traffic. Sometimes, they make up the route as they go. Detours, like this casual loop through LAX, are just part of the fun.

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Everyone is invited: high school students, twentysomethings, working professionals in their 40s. But no one waits if you can’t keep up. Some of the state’s strongest road and track cyclists have ridden with the pack or raced in its events.

(Last year, a handful of riders made international news during the Carmageddon freeway closure by racing a jet from Burbank to Long Beach — and winning. And, in a sign of how the pack has been inching toward the mainstream, they say they did it without breaking any traffic laws.)

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“It’s the top of the food chain in underground bike street racing,” says 17-year-old Kevin Molina, who lives near Dodger Stadium and started riding about two years ago. “Even though it’s risky and may seem completely and utterly stupid, the Wolfpack Hustle is the only way we can truly release our anger and stress out in those streets.”

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The push-as-hard-as-you-can style of Wolfpack and other L.A. street bicyclists has earned them both the adoration of a dedicated following and the rage of some motorists, who believe some cyclists trolling L.A.'s streets are out of control.

Santa Monica resident Robert J. Rausch, 65, calls many of the bicyclists who dart along L.A.'s streets rogues. He says he has narrowly escaped several crashes involving bicyclists who ran red lights.

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“When you throw outlaw bicyclists into the mix, it turns everything upside down,” Rausch says.

But outrage from motorists hasn’t appeared to stop the number of street cyclists from growing. Titanium, pavement and a splash of rebellion — it’s a cocktail made for L.A.

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The Critical Mass movement, made up of bicyclists who ride through city streets in large enough numbers to create their own traffic, was taking off in San Francisco and other cities in the early 1990s, but it took several years before the street biking movement really caught on in Los Angeles.

But over the last decade, local groups like the Midnight Ridazz have drawn thousands of cyclists to their open-invite rides. Fueled by social media, they grew so large that a few years ago the organizers stopped planning rides and instead use their website as a hub for bicyclists to start their own.

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A handful of bicyclists from the Midnight Ridazz, wanting more speed, formed Wolfpack Hustle.

For years, Wolfpack’s founders worked hard to keep up the group’s renegade reputation. But as its numbers grew and Wolfpack found itself an unexpected vehicle for activism, they’ve shifted closer to the mainstream, sometimes working with authorities to make sure no one gets hurt — or a citation.

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But not tonight. Whizzing through LAX, the pack keeps a steady pace while swerving past construction workers and orange cones.

They pour on the speed and exit onto Century Boulevard. The pack falls into a single-file line so riders can take turns blocking the wind.

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The hustle back to Tang’s is 15 more miles — and, who knows, it’s a big city, and they’re already talking about another detour.

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Wolfpack riders acknowledge that negotiating L.A.'s streets in the dark, zigzagging around cars and running red lights, can be a dangerous addiction.

On their way to LAX, the riders climb Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, standing up on their pedals through a dark stretch illuminated by infrequent street lamps and headlights.

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Ivan Therrien, a 33-year-old bike shop manager from Mar Vista, is pushing his neon-red carbon S-Works Tarmac to the limit but is caught off guard by a protruding asphalt ridge. He topples head-first into a concrete light post.

The bike survives. Therrien fractures his wrist and injures his shoulder. He hitches a ride to the next regrouping spot at the Santa Monica Pier, hobbles back onto his bicycle and rides home.

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“You can’t live in fear,” Therrien says. “You can account for drivers and you can be defensive, but you can’t account for every eventuality. The question is: Do I feel whole if I don’t do this? And the answer is no.”

When Elliott Pallett arrived in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, he heard Wolfpack had some of the “most hard-core riders in L.A.” So the 26-year-old aerospace engineer with a red goatee went out to see for himself.

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On his first ride, he struggled to hang on as the pack pounded up a hill on Sunset. After the first incline, he was gasping and dropped off the back of the pack, struggling to make it to the first of three regrouping spots. He caught up for a moment, but before he knew it the pack was off again.

“It was a humbling experience,” he says. “I made a resolution to someday join the lead pack.”

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He pushed himself each Monday for about five months. Then he did it.

The weekly rides are for fun and exercise, Wolfpack riders say, and even though their motto is “It’s not a race, it’s a hustle,” each Monday night is a challenge: “First one back to Tang’s.”

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A few hours before the start of the Los Angeles Marathon, thousands of bicyclists are illegally blocking Sunset Boulevard. Wolfpack Hustle’s informal leader, 40-year-old Don Ward — better known by his handle, “Roadblock” — is chatting with a group of police officers.

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The riders are there to crash the blocked-off marathon course for their own race before runners show up. It’s a chance to hit the streets with no traffic and an organized course.

Now an annual event, the pre-marathon ride draws cyclists from out of state and even some LAPD officers participating as civilians.

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Police have shut down several impromptu Wolfpack rides over the years. But Ward has built a relationship with some City Hall officials and LAPD Sgt. Gordon Helper, a supporter who believes the group is helping young people be healthier and more engaged.

Charlie Gandy, a bicycle consultant based in Long Beach, said city officials there have sought Ward’s advice on how to attract more youths to the sport.

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Ward and Wolfpack Hustle have become formidable voices of bicycle activism. This summer, with Helper’s encouragement, Ward negotiated the city’s first permitted bicycle street race — The Midnight Drag Race: Code Name “The Final Effin Sayso” — through downtown’s 2nd Street tunnel.

While doing interviews at the tunnel race, Ward said his message was about equal access to L.A.'s streets for bicyclists and pedestrians. As thousands of spectators cheered the head-to-head sprints, Ward said matter-of-factly: “We’re not trying to be outlaws.”

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Still, it’s a fine line to ride.

When Wolfpack started out, the group was more reckless. But pretty early on, Ward says, he realized some rules were in order. But that can be difficult, Ward says, because the riders are often “all young, all rebellious. How do you get them to listen?”

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These days, before each ride, Ward or another veteran meets with Wolfpack rookies and lays down the law.

“We want to respect everybody that’s using the road. And cops are out. And we’re generally staying as safe as we can,” Ward explained to a group of new riders outside the doughnut shop earlier this year.

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They nodded and Ward continued: Riders need to slow down before an intersection and time stoplights so they don’t run a red.

“The last thing we want to do is cause motorists to skid out or stop or hit a baby on the side of the road,” he said. “Call out everything you see, car left, car right, car back, potholes.”

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Not far away, Fabian Vazquez, 20, in a black Wolfpack Hustle riding shirt, was using his iPhone to plan the night’s route.

“We could get crazy and go down Topanga,” Vazquez said, relishing the prospect of steep hills and a dark descent.

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“The Hollywood sign is open,” pack veteran Jon Budinoff suggested.

They eventually decided there were too many new people for a nighttime mountain assault.

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Ward gave the rookies directions to the first regrouping spot: south from Silver Lake through Echo Park and into downtown through the 2nd Street tunnel and then north to the North Broadway Bridge.

The riders crowded onto the sidewalk, fastened helmets and clicked into their pedals.

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“Rolling!” Ward called out from up front, the signal for everyone to get going. “Yo, you guys ready?”

They looked for an opening and poured across Sunset Boulevard, hustling east toward downtown.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

armand.emamdjomeh@latimes.com


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