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Friday, May 18, 2001
Home Edition
Section: California
Page: B-1

Getting Out the Old Bike for a Good Cause

Commuting: A reporter makes it 28 miles to work by pedaling and riding the rails.


Buying into the hype over Bike to Work Day, and ever willing to challenge the notion that you can't get around in Los Angeles without a car, I left my Ford curbside Thursday. I would bike and train the 28 miles from my home in Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles.

I can't remember the last time I rode my oversize 12-speed, which I bought used in the mid-1980s. When I pulled it out of the garage for a pre-ride inspection, I had to clean off the dirt-encrusted seat and frame and put air in the rear tire, which was flat. Though my bike-riding credentials are suspect, I am a seasoned commuter, always looking for the best way to get to work. How hard could it be?

8:05 a.m. I push off from my home on Alamitos Bay after putting a last blast of air in my tires, hoping the rear tire had gone flat out of neglect and not because there was a serious leak. Only one or two gears are working, but I figure they are all I need.

As I get underway, I'm trying to remember the 20 safety tips on cycling put out by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Some are obvious, like, "Ride in a straight line." And, "Watch for chasing dogs."

A few worry me, such as: "Ride a well-equipped bike," and "Get in shape."

8:14 a.m. I get on the Long Beach bike path at Bayshore Avenue in Belmont Shore. This will take me five miles along the beach to downtown Long Beach, where I plan to hop a Blue Line train.

I'm immediately reminded why cycling makes great sense in most of Los Angeles County. Much of the area is flat, with little rain, balmy weather and gentle breezes. Of course, the area is also decidedly not bike-friendly, with threats in the form of cars, trucks and buses everywhere. Still, on this morning, the weather is just right, cool, with just a gentle breeze. The sky is gray, hiding the sun.

I wish I had one of those neat T-shirts I had seen: "Un Menos Carro. One less car."

I don't notice any other cyclists doing a morning commute.

I understand.

I was weaned from a bike at 13 1/2, when I was given a learner's driving permit. You could do that if you lived in Texas in the mid-1950s.

My first car was a 1947 Ford convertible. As a 14-year-old with my newly minted license, I would cruise the local drive-in restaurant, top down, a box of Marlboros on the dash, and my hand hanging just right off the wind wing. Bicycles, which had been my ticket to freedom just months before, were out of the picture.

Now, as I pedal along the bike path, the sense of freedom and joy is unmistakable.

8:39 a.m. I arrive at Pine Avenue and Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, a block from the Blue Line station.

At this point, I must make a decision.

The MTA has a ban on bicycles on its trains from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Did I want to wait until my bike was permitted?

The alternative would be to park my bike a block away at the Long Beach Bikestation, and get on the next train.

The Bikestation has a small restaurant, bike repair shop and restrooms, all offered in the hopes that more drivers can be persuaded to use bikes in combination with public transit.

As a free service, the Bikestation's staff will valet park your bike for the day.

This is attractive. I wouldn't have to hassle with the bike on the train.

But the spirit of Bike to Work Day is to use the bicycles in tandem with MTA's trains and buses. For one day, bike riders get a free pass on MTA trains and buses.

I decide to hang out at the Bikestation for 20 minutes.

Cyclists, being in such a small minority, have great camaraderie, so time passed quickly. Tina Fife, who works at the Bikestation, gives me an "I Biked Today" decal.

Worried about the tire, I get the bike checked out by Manuel Garcia, who is part of a bicycle safety program sponsored by the Automobile Assn. of Southern California.

He gives me some good advice, suggesting a cleaner that might cut through the grease that has built up on the bike.

"You use both hand brakes, don't you?" he asks, gently quizzing me. "Your back tire is beginning to show some tread," he says, but adds that I should be OK.

9:01 a.m. The Blue Line train pulls out of Long Beach.

The last car is practically empty. One concern evaporates. I thought I might have to stand for the entire 22-mile trip, balancing myself with one hand while holding up the bike with the other.

But there is enough room at the end of the car to sit and hold up the bike at the same time.

9:30 a.m. Another cyclist, who obviously knows what he is doing, boards. He nonchalantly leans his bike against the rear panel of the train, rests his backpack against the front tire, and flops down in a seat. I am still holding up my bike with one hand.

He shows me how to do it. You lean the bike against a door at just the right angle, with the front tire braced against a seat. Nothing to it.

His name is Rosendo Hernandez, 32, and he is a downtown bike messenger. These guys are often portrayed as the bad boys of Los Angeles cycling. They have been known to blow through red lights and cycle against the traffic. Their archenemies are the MTA bus drivers. When bus drivers pull in front of them, they have been known to take the steel U-locks they carry to secure their bikes and use them to give the drivers an attitude adjustment in the form of a broken rear-view mirror.

For the most part, Hernandez says, couriers abide by traffic laws. But sometimes attorneys give them a legal filing to deliver 10 minutes before the courthouse closes. It is the courier's job to make the filing, doing whatever it takes, he says.

9:55 a.m. We arrive at the end of the line in downtown Los Angeles. From here, I will pedal the final mile or so to The Times parking lot at 2nd and Spring streets.

I get off the train and immediately begin walking with the other passengers. I notice Hernandez is waiting. He explains that it is a matter of courtesy to let the other commuters go first, rather than push the crowd with a bike.

As I get ready to leave, Hernandez watches me closely. He can read my mind. I'm thinking about avoiding the traffic and riding on the sidewalk, which is legal as long as you don't interfere with pedestrians.

"You need to get out in the street, experience what we experience," he says, waiting and watching as I think it over.

I hit the street, going east on 7th to Main Street, which is one-way going north. I stay to the right and constantly look over my shoulder. I encounter buses, trucks and cars, but no problems develop. A bike rider's best ally is slow-moving traffic. The worst part is breathing in all that exhaust. I wonder if the aerobic benefits of the ride are outweighed by the particulate matter settling in my lungs.

10:10 a.m. I arrive at The Times garage. There is one other bike in a rack on the first floor of a six-story garage filled with cars.

Would I do it again? Maybe not every day, but now and then.

Now, if I can just find a bike seat with lumbar support. . . .

PHOTO: Times reporter Douglas Shuit boards a Blue Line train in
Long Beach for Bike to Work Day. Only a couple of gears worked and the
back tire was showing some wear, but it was an easy trip.
Descriptors: Commuting, Bicycles, Transportation


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