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Cyclists take on one of L.A.'s steepest hills

At a whopping 33% incline, Fargo Street is one of the sharpest grades in L.A. Many never made it to the top. One man climbed the peak 51 times in a day.

March 15, 2010|By Kate Linthicum
  • Climbing Fargo Street in Echo Park is no easy task. One woman tipped over and tumbled into a bush. Other riders used a zig-zag approach.
Climbing Fargo Street in Echo Park is no easy task. One woman tipped over… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The…)

There are people who sprint with the bulls in Spain, and people who plunge into icy oceans on New Year's Day.

Then there are the several dozen men and women who gathered in Echo Park on Sunday morning at the bottom of a beastly hill and looked up. Before them stretched Fargo Street, one of the city's steepest roads.

The challenge: to climb it. On a bicycle. Without stopping.

Some tried and failed. Falls were so common that no one blinked when a woman tipped over halfway up the hill and tumbled violently into a bush on the side of the street.

But many triumphed. More than half of the 105 people who signed up made it to the top, where they were greeted with cheers and dazzling views of Griffith Park and the Hollywood sign.

Dan Wyman was one of them.

His chest was still heaving from the ascent when someone asked him, "Why do you do it?"

Wyman, 58, raised a hand in the air and said he needed a minute to cool down. "Sorry," he said. "Nausea is overtaking me."

A couple of deep breaths later, he explained: "It's not something you want to subject your body to. But the feeling when you conquer the hill is so special. You know you can do something no one else can do."

Wyman has participated in the Fargo Street Hill Climb almost every year since the inaugural event in 1974, when someone bet bicycle enthusiast Darryl LeVesque $100 that he couldn't make it up Fargo Street.

In front of a crowd of about 50 members of the Los Angeles Wheelmen bicycle club, LeVesque and his wife, Carol, got onto a tandem bicycle. As they were preparing for their climb, a man on a track bike made a sudden, unplanned run at the hill and cycled to the top.

LeVesque, 64, who came to watch Sunday's ride, said he still harbors resentment. "He was some young punk," he said. "He stole our thunder."

The LeVesques hold the record for first tandem duo to make it to the top, and Carol holds the record for the first woman to make the solo ascent. The record for number of climbs made in one day is 101.

Kent Karnes was this year's top finisher, with 51 climbs.

With a grade of 33%, the street is so steep that the Fire Department and car manufacturers are said to test equipment on it.

Many people make adjustments to their bicycles, putting cogs as big as pie plates on their back wheel, and tiny chain rings on the pedal cranks, LeVesque said. Riding techniques vary. Some go straight up, while others crisscross their way to the top.

"You've got to watch out for the zig-zaggers and for all the looky-loos on the side," cyclist Hazziz Ali told Andres Morales, a younger cyclist who was considering making a run at the hill. "The biggest obstacles are the other people.

"You can't pace yourself," Ali, 64, told Morales. "This is a sprint."

Morales, 32, couldn't decide whether he should try the climb. He plans to run in the Los Angeles Marathon next week, and he didn't want to injure himself before that. Besides, he said, looking up at the sharp incline, "it's intimidating."

"Man, people give too much respect to this hill," Ali told him. "The truth is, it's about 1% physical and 99% spiritual."

"Yeah," Morales said. "My old coach said it's not the size of the body but the size of the heart."

When Ali pedaled away to warm up for his second ride, Morales said he had decided to bow out. "I think I'm going to skip it," he said. "I'm going to ride to the beach."

At the bottom of the hill, Bruce Bates and his girlfriend sat on a guardrail, smoking cigarettes in the late-morning sun. Bates, whose bare chest was pink from sunburn, took swigs from a bottle of whiskey and loudly heckled the bicyclists.

He said he had tried to ride the year before. "Halfway up I said, 'Nope,' and fell over backward.' "

His girlfriend said she wasn't crazy enough to attempt the ride.

"It would take me about three hours to get up the hill," she said, "and there would be a lot of stopping."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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