Racers push hard off the start during a street bike race inside the 2nd Street… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)
It was an unlikely setting for a bike race.
But as night fell Saturday, more than 2,000 spectators filed into the 2nd Street tunnel in downtown Los Angeles to cheer on riders.
With their heads down and legs pumping as fast as they would go, the cyclists blazed through the tunnel in pairs at a pace that reached well over 30 miles per hour.
The best of the riders didn't even have brakes — slowing down was not their concern.
"You just give it all you can, just pedal as fast as you can," said 29-year-old Mike "The Cheetah" Chitjian of Monterey Park, who was one of about 200 participants. "Your legs hurt, but you just block out the pain."
There have been bicycle drag races in the city before, but what made Saturday night's event unique was that it was legal, permitted, and endorsed by city officials and the police.
That's a big change for bicycle groups like Wolfpack Hustle, which created the event, because they have not always played by the rules of the road. For example, they have sometimes treated red and green traffic lights the same and have seldom — if ever — sought permission for their rides.
"We're not trying to be outlaws," said Don Ward of Wolfpack, who is known as Roadblock and was the event's lead organizer. "We're just trying to get our bodies in shape." He hopes "The Midnight Drag Race: Codename 'The Final Effin Sayso' " will become an annual event.
Wolfpack held its first drag race through the 2nd Street tunnel in 2007 as an unsanctioned event. They were competing with cars and said they were able to pull it off only because an agreeable parking enforcement officer helped regulate traffic.
They got away with another race on the 6th Street Bridge a few months later, but when they returned to the 2nd Street tunnel for their third event they were met by police who sent them packing.
The one Los Angeles Police Department officer on hand Saturday night, Gordon Helper, said he was relieved that Wolfpack decided to make the event legitimate. Participants signed waivers, emergency medical technicians were ready for any injury, alcohol wasn't permitted, and the tunnel was closed between Hill and Figueroa streets so there was no worry about a car barreling through.
"This will be the first time in the city of Los Angeles that it's actually been permitted and legalized with sponsorship from the City Council," Helper said, noting that "an underground race can be broken up at any time."
Many at the race said they didn't think Saturday night's event would have been sanctioned a few years ago. They said it showed how politicians and local authorities have changed their attitudes about bicycling.
"L.A. cycling culture has developed to the point where this event has been able to shut down a street," said 25-year-old Stella Ngigi of Inglewood. "And that's not just a typical thing, it's a huge thing, because before the cops would try to shut down rides."
"This is a big thing because it legitimizes L.A.'s cycling scene," Ngigi said. "Takes it from the underground to mainstream."
Helper agreed, saying there has been a dramatic shift in the role bicyclists play in the city over the last few years.
"Had it not been for the economy, gas prices the way they were ... CicLAvia, Critical Mass, the City Council and the city of L.A. becoming more aware of cycling ... the mayor of L.A. being more acceptable to the idea of cycling in L.A., the number of bike lanes going throughout the city ... it wouldn't have happened three years ago," Helper said.
For Ward, Saturday's drag race was a statement that "bicycling in L.A. is here!"
"It just always feels like there's this avalanche that's about to break. And the only thing that's kind of holding us back is the streets. They're designed for cars," Ward said.
The racing went from about 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. with riders as young as 8 and others in their 40s. Some of the bicyclists train with teams and compete regularly, while others like 23-year-old Daniel Alvarado came out mostly to race against themselves.
"There's a lot of really strong riders out there," Alvarado said before his qualifying race. "It's just an opportunity to see how I would compare myself against them and see what I'm capable of."
The length of each race was 1,000 feet and the night began with time trials to find the fastest 16 men and women. Then it was tournament-style, one-on-one elimination until early Sunday morning.
Beatriz Rodriguez, 25, won the women's category with a time of 28.41 seconds. On the online roster for Saturday's event, her home city was listed as "Outer Space."
The final men's race was between 21-year-old favorite Tim "Smiley" McGee of Van Nuys and 41-year-old James Zaldua of Los Angeles. Earlier in the night, McGee posted the fastest qualifying time of 23.55 seconds.
Zaldua was on the inside lane and carefully clipped his black and white racing shoes onto the pedals. He lightly smacked himself in the face a few times to get focused on the sprint and took a deep breath.
McGee stretched his back, sat atop his bicycle, grabbed his handle-bars and then stared straight ahead while breathing in and out several times as the starter announced: "Three, two, one, go!"
The racers began neck-and-neck, sitting higher on their bikes before leaning forward for more speed. The crowd whooped and hollered and rang hand-held bells as McGee began to pull away.
Times staff writer Armand Emamdjomeh contributed to this report.