I step out the door of my Los Feliz apartment and head to the parking lot where my rust-colored bicycle awaits. Strap on the helmet. Key open the bike lock.
It’s another sunny morning in L.A. The pavement rolls by under my single-speed bicycle. Commonwealth Avenue. Talmadge Street. And finally, Sunset Boulevard.
Dodge, roll, brake, roll. Shattered windshield glass. An opening car door. A downed branch of a palm tree. Sun in my eyes, I pedal my way downtown, glancing with schadenfreude at the traffic backed up on the freeways.
I moved to L.A. in early December from Milwaukee, where I had been bicycling to work for years, even through the frigid winter months. I figured I would never bike again. My head was filled with all the preconceptions Midwesterners have about this sprawling city. In no particular order: There is no public transportation, the car is king, nobody walks, lousy drivers abound, the air quality stinks and you’re bound to get killed if you try to ride a bike.
I’m still getting adjusted to L.A., but my five-mile each way bike commute has made things much easier and clarified the city for me.
Before I moved here, a friend told me there are 100 L.A.s and you just have to find the one that fits you. I think I’ve succeeded so far in breaking off a very small, manageable chunk of the city that doesn’t overwhelm me.
For the first month I drove my car to work, zipping downtown in the morning and then sitting in traffic on the way home. I considered pedaling, but I’ll admit I was intimidated by the traffic. I remember seeing a bike commuter downtown when I was interviewing here and thought he was nuts.
But with bike lanes lining both sides of Sunset in most of Echo Park and Silver Lake, I worked up the courage to bike.
Those lanes that give me cover are part of a larger effort to make L.A. a more bike friendly city — so far, more than 200 miles of bike lanes have been added and more are being carved out every week, the city transportation department says. There’s a bike sharing program starting this spring, and the annual car-free festival CicLAvia drew an estimated 100,000 people downtown last year. While it’s no Minneapolis or Portland, I get the sense that L.A. is finally moving in the right direction.
That’s not to say that biking here is without peril.
Although I haven’t experienced any road rage incidents, there have been half a dozen close calls when a motorist didn’t see me at first or cut me off in a busy intersection.
I hit a deep pothole recently that disfigured my rear wheel. Someone stole my bike light when I parked on the street. Now I bring my bike into the office. The roads are congested, and I seldom see any other bike commuters during my ride.
But in the saddle, I have the pleasure of seeing the city through a different lens. Riding at a pace between 15 and 20 mph, the city is a slide show instead of a blur.
I mentally catalog the names of the food trucks, carwashes, coffee shops and thrift stores tucked into strip malls that line Sunset. I watch people congregating around the bus stop at the Echo Park Avenue intersection and can even hear snippets of conversations from sidewalk cafes. (“I finally got a TV credit. Everything else is gravy, right?”)
I smell marijuana wafting through the air, along with other less pleasant smells from homeless pedestrians, trash and dead skunks. Honestly, how many dead skunks can there possibly be in one place?
After a few months, I’ve grown accustomed to the daily rhythm. It’s built-in exercise and provides psychological separation between home and work. There are other benefits: I’m more alert at work and I don’t have to waste time finding a spot in the parking garage and walking from there. And my 25-minute evening commute is faster than if I drove because I don’t have to wait in traffic.
There are drawbacks: Sweat soaks through my T-shirt, so I bring a change of clothes. I ride a fixed-gear bike, which was a cinch on flat Midwest streets but can be pretty dicey in the hills between my apartment and downtown. A few times I figured I would try shortcuts, only to end up walking my bike up a steep incline.
By now, though, I find myself looking to my bike before my car. I started recreational riding with co-workers and organized group rides that tour the city at night to avoid the gridlock.
During a recent night ride, the group headed west from Koreatown into the hills of Brentwood and back along Melrose through Hollywood. Countless traffic lights. Lurking potholes. Mile after mile of them.
Near the end of the 33-mile night ride, I was worn out and a little dehydrated. It was after midnight, and my stomach was aching. I needed something to quell my hunger pangs and some water, so I stopped at a taco truck on Virgil Avenue in Silver Lake and scarfed down three carne asada tacos buried under a heap of onions and cilantro.
I think I’m getting the hang of this Los Angeles thing.