To ride a bike in the City of Angels might just be the riskiest proposition on two wheels anywhere in the world. But the ringleader of a growing legion of fearless Angelenos is riding to change all of that.
It’s 10:30 p.m. on a dewy mid-February night in Silver Lake, and a large man wearing cutoff work pants and a black windbreaker with reflective road tape is standing in front of a clutch of bike riders who are ready to hit the streets.
His name is Don Ward, but he also answers to the name “Roadblock.” His size offers a hint as to why -- he’s 6'8" -- and in addition to towering above pretty much every other bike rider here tonight, he’s also as close to a fearless leader of Los Angeles’ diverse and sprawling urban cycling community as there is.
Among legions of pedal pushers in the most unwelcoming bike metropolis in America, he’s an increasingly visible spokesperson for a human-powered ecosystem that runs the gamut from blue-collar commuters and South L.A. homeboys on “fixies” to bohemians cruising between cafés on the Westside.
“I feel like I’ve always had this instinct in me to be the guy to say, ‘Hey let’s go do this,’” he says as he reviews the 40 miles of improvised race course they’re about to test themselves on over the next two hours. And tonight, like every other Monday after rush-hour traffic has subsided, “this” means meeting at Tang’s Donuts on Sunset Boulevard in the bohemian-slash-hipster neighborhood of Silver Lake. His voice, loud enough to be heard over the late-night traffic, is that of a coach and competitor.
It’s chilly by L.A. standards, and an odd assortment of about 20 speed and endurance addicts are milling about outside Tang’s. There’s some catching up and introductions, though most seem to know each other. Ward asks if there are any new people on the ride and makes sure to welcome them. But among this group will be a few first-timers who the faster veterans will drop in the first minutes of the ride as they almost immediately fall behind on Sunset’s graded curves. The ride is friendly, but it isn’t for leisure.
The route will take them from just east of Hollywood, through a deserted Chinatown, past the rolling silhouette of the Frank Gehry–designed Disney Hall in downtown, back to Oscar mecca Grauman’s Chinese Theater and west past the 405 Freeway, ending up at the Santa Monica Pier sometime after midnight. Average speeds will hit 20 to 25 mph. The streets go from eerily quiet to what could pass as midday traffic, the neighborhoods from vibrant to squalor.
After a full briefing, Ward gives the word and a parade of flashing red LED lights flows out into the street. Tonight’s ride, branded Wolfpack Hustle, is legendary in bike circles, if only for its mandate to host some of the fastest riders around. On this particular Monday, it’s also serving as a prep run for the crew’s annual Marathon Crash Race, which takes place early the morning of the L.A. Marathon. For the past several years, Wolfpack has sponsored an unsanctioned bike dash along the predawn runner’s course. Last year, several hundred riders turned out in the cold rain.
The early-morning ride is typical of Ward, who combines patient advocacy with a helping of punk rock to promote a life on two wheels in one of the world’s most unfriendly bike cities. At a time when European capitals are marking out special bike lanes on their centuries-old city plans and American cities begin adopting the bike-sharing programs so popular across the Atlantic, Los Angeles, the country’s second city, remains a glaring exception.
“L.A. is one of those places where if it was safe, it would be a beautiful place to just chill and ride through,” says Ward.
After years in his car, the L.A. native rediscovered his love for the bicycle, co-founding the city’s essential alternative cycling guide, Midnight Ridazz, in 2004. A punk-flavored bulletin board and advocacy website for the community, it feels more like it should list underground clubs and band gigs. Instead, it hosts 100,000 adventure-seeking visitors a month who feast on ride listings, photo galleries, and DIY videos. It’s no-frills in a way that immediately lets you know you’ve found the core. And if you want to take a ride on the wild side -- which the city is often quick to oblige -- then this is where to start.
The chief shepherd and moderator, Ward also operates the site’s Twitter account, engaging a full gamut of social reportage ranging from updates on hit-and-runs to answering a challenge to race a JetBlue flight from Burbank to Long Beach (but more on that later).
“Don is the community leader for the L.A. bike community,” declares Tim Jieh, a Los Angeles filmmaker and rider behind the 2010 documentary “To Live & Ride in L.A.” “His efforts to further the bike culture in L.A. have been tremendous. He‘s always got that positive energy, and it’s contagious.”
Not surprising, this disrupter and organizer got his start as a graffiti artist, launching the seminal street-art blog 50mm Los Angeles in 1996. A decade before that, “Roadblock,” a nickname bequeathed to him both for his size and his early role as intersection blocker for his fellow riders, cut his politically minded teeth in a straightedge punk band. Like a lot of So-Cal youth of the time, his life melded graffiti, punk, skate, urban exploration, and a dichotomous Gen-X mix of both “F***” and “Un-f***” the world attitudes.
“I played in this band called Social Justice,” he recounts. “And that’s where I was really exposed to, like, activism and human rights issues. It kind of set me on a path towards just thinking differently about the world as somebody that’s a white person. White people in this country, we have this privilege that you’re not really conscious of growing up until you start really digging in with other people and hearing and experiencing the other side of things.”
Ward is quick to talk politics and ideology, espousing the libertarian philosophy of Ron Paul or the plight of the Occupy movement. Maybe because he’s a half-generation older than the lithe teen and 20-somethings that now represent the fast and the fearless set, his voice is increasingly tuned to more responsible riding and civic engagement.
It wasn’t always like that, he admits. “Early Wolfpack was mob it, run lights, do crazy s***. But after you do it for five or six years, week after week, there’s lessons that get learned. You just get older. It’s almost like [the riders are] my kids or something… I want to make sure these guys are not doing stupid s*** and being safe.”
As we follow Ward in our chase car, snapping pics and trying to keep up, I notice him quietly swing left down a dark street, as the rest of the pack powers straight on. Using a deep knowledge of the cityscape to shave off seconds and keep himself close to the front, he’s not shamed to cut himself some slack. He’s not as fast as guys like the 20-year-old Fabian Vazquez, who’s been riding with Wolfpack since he was 16, outfitted with aerodynamic gear, black spandex, and a bike that just looks fast.
“The speed of the ride really depends on who shows up that night,” says Vazquez. “When others are attacking, it eggs you on to come out of your comfort zone. Especially when there is a good pace line, where people take turns shielding people behind them from the wind, the speed of the pack picks up dramatically. That is the beauty of Wolfpack Hustle; we ride cohesively as one group, keeping the ride fun with a side competition.”
Ward sees the young Vazquez as the future. “He is one of the fastest... always in the front pack killing it. Wolves kill but they also take care of their own,” he adds. “He could probably jet a lot faster, but he holds back a bit on Mondays when he‘s leading. We aren‘t trying to drop people, we are trying to keep them going and pushing themselves to be [the] strong riders that this vast city deserves.”
During the ride, Ward and whoever is in the lead help to alert the others to any perils. “Holes left! Car left! Hold your line!” L.A.’s unpredictable roads are rife with hazards many of the riders know well. “It’s a car town. It’s crazy to ride bikes in this city,” Ward says to me before the ride, “because car drivers don’t expect you to be there.”
Minutes later, we’re at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Doheny Drive near Beverly Hills, about two-thirds of the way through the route. Ward is positioned in front of the pack again explaining the next leg, which, given the city’s sheer size and complexity, is essential. Even lifelong locals can find themselves suddenly on their own if they miss a turn or meeting spot. Safety in numbers is the philosophy of any ride, and every rider knows the streets are hostile to lone bikes, especially at night.
When I ask Ward about the craziest thing to ever happen to him on a ride, he vividly describes a ride in 2009 when he was struck by a Jaguar. Ward was taking one of his shortcuts when the car he noticed driving erratically was now dangerously close and swerving by him. Seconds later and the scene is unfolding in slow motion.
“I remember sinking into the hood and going, ‘Oh, this actually isn’t that bad,’ ” he recalls. “Probably just years of eating s*** on skateboards kind of prepared me for that moment, because I didn’t get hurt terribly bad, but my bike was smashed and I was just laying on the road in total shock. And the first thing that I did was, like, repeat the license plate over and over in my head, out loud actually, and I tweeted it from the pavement ‘cause I knew I would forget.”
The driver of the Jaguar took off, and the next morning after leaving the hospital Ward would learn his first hard lesson in bike-rider advocacy from the Los Angeles Police Department: “The detective just totally didn’t care. He was just like, ‘Well, are you OK?’ ‘Yeah, I’m OK, I’m still alive.’ And the detective said, ‘Well, it’s going to take a couple of weeks to run the plates -- you only got six out of seven numbers.’ I was just devastated and I almost wanted to cry.”
After posting on the Midnight Ridazz forums, Ward got a call from a lawyer who happened to ride, and over the next few days, went on a reconnaissance mission worthy of an Encyclopedia Brown mystery. Eventually, after tracing the car to the repair shop and filming it, he showed up to the police station with the evidence. “The detective was blown away,” he recalls.
But after a year of waiting, the driver only ended up with a $500 fine and 30 days of community service for vehicular hit-and-run. “That really pushed me to get active politically,” he adds.
Now a vocal participant in the LAPD Bike Task Force, Ward shows up at community and planning meetings, often organizing rides to them. And he’s pesky enough to push for new regulations such as streetlights timed better for bike traffic, and speed reductions. L.A.’s penchant for ratcheting up surface streets to near-freeway speed is particularly frustrating to cyclists.
Some of Ward’s riding compatriots “take back the streets” through confrontational spectacles like freeway rides, which make for great YouTube fodder but don’t do much to engender civic support. But Ward actually found himself at the center of an L.A. biking public-relations coup last summer during a mid-July episode that became known as “Carmageddon” (and subsequently “Carmaheaven”).
When the 405 Freeway, one of this car-loving city’s vital arteries, was closed for a weekend last year, the airline JetBlue audaciously began offering flights cross-town from Burbank to Long Beach to people wanting to skip the presumed impending crush of traffic. The expected snarl never materialized, but someone floated the idea on Twitter of a race between a JetBlue passenger and a bike rider, and Ward jumped on it. After he tweeted about the plan, JetBlue got in touch and offered a seat to a blogger to document the 38.4-mile challenge. Which turned out to be not much of one at all.
“[The riders] got to the [Long Beach] lighthouse before the jet even took off,” says Ward.
Media outlets from Germany, England and China showed up to cover the ride, and the City Council was so impressed it recognized Wolfpack’s efforts with a plaque, which Ward thinks is “bizarre.” But racing a plane shows the sort of creative approach he believes is necessary to begin bending minds in a city so obsessively car-oriented.
Ward doesn’t have much time for projects like Critical Mass, the aggressive flood-the-streets bike movement begun in San Francisco in 1992. Uncomfortable with the blanket demonization of cars or their drivers, he would rather push for mutual respect and road sharing. He also tries to keep the cops as fellow advocates.
“I feel like I have a way of humanizing them, as well as humanizing us,” he says, noting that one of the first things he plastered on the front page of the Midnight Ridazz site were the words, “Thank you LAPD.”
A 6'8" frame doesn’t hurt when you’re leading a group of riders on a midnight dash across the city, but it also helps Ward to “be more aggressive with traffic and sort of demand my place on the road,” he explains. But the new Roadblock -- the biking community organizer and frequent guest at City Council meetings -- would rather pace his riding and time the stoplights as opposed to run them. And even though he communes and often rides with a more rogue constituency, he says, “When I am speaking on cyclist rights and so forth, we should really be watching out for kids and women first [and] the smaller humans on the road.”
But the simple act of going for a 40-mile ride at midnight is still fraught with big-city dangers, from drunk drivers to rutted streets to simply ending up lost in the wrong neighborhood. Ward doesn’t like to talk about the incident in Venice that led to a “green light” on all riders of anything resembling fixed-gear bikes by a violent beach-area gang. For a time, this meant that a cyclist who happened to have the wrong style of vehicle below him could be subject to a pummeling or much worse, the unfortunate byproduct of a city rife with gangs.
The risk is surely part of the appeal to riding in this city, from the traffic that acts almost shocked that you dare “share” the road with them to the gangsters who eye passing bikes topped by wiry kids like a cheetah might a tasty young wildebeest. It’s part of the dichotomy of Los Angeles that has made it interesting and compelling and so oddly beautiful to so many people.
To ride a bike in Los Angeles is to see the city’s paradoxical nature up close. “I actually had that kind of epiphany when I was riding in the Netherlands, which is one of the safest places in the world to ride,” Ward says. “[But] I was thinking I miss the danger of Los Angeles, where you know you could turn a corner and come into some kind of situation. It’s like you feel you need to have that risk there or something, strangely.”
It’s half past midnight, and Wolfpack Hustle rolls up to the Santa Monica Pier, just steps from the end of the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, which spans all the way from Florida to where we are on the Pacific coast. In a few hours the roads will be packed again with stressed-out commuters stuck in their beloved automobiles, but right now, the beach is still.
Take a ride: midnightridazz.com
Check out the May 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 10) for more features and articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.