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Ridazz on the storm

In the heart of car culture, massive bike rides are hitting the streets. Should you admire them? Scorn them? Or join the pack?

December 06, 2007|LIAM GOWING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's 10 p.m. on a dreary, drizzly Friday, and it looks as if it's turning into one of those gridlock-filled evenings for which our city has become sadly infamous.

Traffic along Echo Park Avenue is backed up from the Echo Lake boathouse all the way to the 101. And along this serpentine stretch of road sits an improbable number of idling vehicles -- first dozens, then perhaps 200 or 300 -- all waiting for the light at Sunset Boulevard to offer release. Finally, with a flash of green, they come to life in a synchronized swell, inertia overcome not by petrochemical combustion but by mitochondria and muscle.

It's no ordinary traffic jam, of course. It's Midnight Ridazz, the loose network of bicycle enthusiasts, rogues and hipsters who have helped foment a cultural revolution in L.A. since 2004. Along with Critical Mass -- a multi-city bicycle "event" founded in San Francisco in 1992 to promote cyclists' rights by taking the streets once a month at rush hour -- Midnight Ridazz and its growing diaspora of bicycle clubs have been pushing the envelope of what it means to be traffic, to the delight and fury of residents and officials.

Calling Midnight Ridazz "a reflection of the growing frustration people have with L.A.'s car-only culture," Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti welcomes the challenge of incorporating its constituents onto city streets as a way to reduce car traffic and pollution. He also sees deep sociological significance in the group.

"There's this myth in Los Angeles that we lead solitary lives, but I think that Midnight Ridazz and the other bike groups run counter to that. Los Angeles is a place where you certainly need to be in the know to find out where things are, but once you do, you see as strong and deep a community as anywhere in the United States."

Considering the origins of Midnight Ridazz, the assessment couldn't be more apt.

Conceived by 30-year-old graphic designer Kim Jensen -- known by her outlaw-affecting Ridazz handle, Skull -- during a late-night ride in Cambodia, Midnight Ridazz was inaugurated in L.A. on Feb. 27, 2004, when the Echo Park resident led five like-minded friends on bikes and two on skateboards on a rolling tour of downtown's fountains. A sense of community and an almost liturgical fellowship was immediate, says Jensen, as was a consensus on where to take the nascent bicycle club: "We were all anti-establishment, creative and feeling a need for speed in a nonconformist format. We were really set on keeping it free and totally noncommercial."

In addition to wanting to keep Ridazz events free-spirited, Jensen and company wanted them to be fun. So, in diametrical distinction to the politically charged but leaderless Critical Mass, Jensen set the precedent of promoting festively themed outings late Friday nights, when auto traffic is svelte and mellow, along routes mapped out ahead of time to avoid narrow streets, freeway exits and left turns.

From the get-go, the group's well-planned approach and laid-back execution were a success. Perhaps too much so: "The first ride was planned very well," says one of the original eight Ridazz, a strapping 6-foot-7 30-year-old who goes by the alias Roadblock (he refused to reveal his real name). "It was like, 'Wow, I didn't even know these places existed.' By the third ride, it became a phenomenon."

That's no exaggeration. Although a few dozen cyclists had joined the core group for that third event, the Belmont Tunnel "Mural Ride," hundreds began appearing thereafter. Within a year, the group was regularly pushing 1,000. To accommodate the swelling horde, which could no longer pedal through a single light cycle en masse, Midnight Ridazz felt compelled to adopt an extralegal practice popularized by Critical Mass -- "corking" -- whereby a few lead riders block an intersection so that cyclists who miss the green can stay with the pack.

"When we obey the lights," says Roadblock of the namesake move, "it's even more chaotic because the traffic is just insane for blocks and blocks. I've talked to police officers about it, and they say, 'Yeah, keep it together and just get through.' So that's what we go on."

If the practice was tacitly accepted and even occasionally assisted by the LAPD, it became increasingly unpopular with motorists caught trying to cross the ever-growing throng of cyclists -- or, worse, having to follow it. By summer 2006, things reached a truly critical mass.

"The last ride that I led had 1,400 people," says 32-year-old group leader Monica Howe (a.k.a. Muff). "And it was just an unmanageable mob. There were police incidents. There were fights between bicyclists and motorists. There were guns drawn by civilians.

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