that never ceases to surprise

I was up in Barnsdall Park the other night watching the sunset when I was struck – as I often am – by how flat Los Angeles seems. The park isn’t particularly high up, but it affords views of what seems like the horizon (though it’s really only Century City and Westwood). There’s something of a stage-set quality to it, a skyline shorn of depth, or a plain that could go on forever.

I mention that because one of the things you quickly learn riding LA’s streets is just how much topography there really is. The city asserts itself in a whole new way. Riding in a car – or even on the bus – you have the luxury of rolling through and over most hills. And even if a hill looks substantial, they’re rarely large enough to merit thinking seriously about the fact of the hill. At least for me, I’ve long had it in my head that there’s a fairly simple topography to Los Angeles: Ocean gives way to plain gives way to mountain.

Hop on a bike for any length of time and you’ll see how wrong that topography really is. Last night’s ride took me from Bundy and Pico back home to Koreatown – just about 11 miles, mild traffic, a beautiful night that smelled of water – and I learned a thing or two about the city’s curves.

Commenter Ed was good enough to relate his own ride from a couple days ago in the comments to a recent post, and on his example I thought I’d give Olympic a try. What I learned is that after traffic dies down – this would have been half past eight, though it felt later – Olympic is mostly empty of traffic. What traffic there is tears by at a furious pace, but the right lane is mostly smooth and wide enough to ride easily. What Olympic also has is a hill. It’s not a big hill, mind you, and in part that’s where the problem starts. See, this hill, with its long sloping grade running up to slip under the Avenue of the Stars, feels interminable. And suddenly, all of those imaginations about Los Angeles being a plain city beside the sea go out the window.

When I first started writing about biking, Alex Thompson of WestsideBIKEside commented that, “I think you’ll find that you have distinctly different insights into LA’s geography as you travel by bike, as opposed to your colleagues.” Time has proven him right, but I’m still being surprised at how rich that geography is. It isn’t simply being able to ride new streets that I never thought of before; it isn’t simply being able to peer into open windows and living rooms while riding down darkened streets; it isn’t simply feeling the cracks and ruts give way to smooth pavement; nor is it getting off the bike with trembling legs at the end of the ride, feeling as though I’ve done something, gone somewhere (nor is it even beating the bus, though I beat the 16 east from La Cienega tonight). It’s all of that and more than that.

It’s Pico to Barrington to Olympic to Doheny to Clifton Way to La Cienega to Third to the long ride back to Kenmore. It’s a city and a ride that never ceases to surprise.

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4 responses to “that never ceases to surprise

  1. Yes! I was arguing this “LA is flat” point with someone last night.

    That Olympic hill into Century City is not to be trifled with – it’s long and gradual to take the wind out of you, and then it tips up in a heartbreaking way. On Cub Camp, the Westside’s original hustle ride, we’ve broken a lot of people on that hill.

  2. Honestly, I don’t think I could ever argue that LA is flat with someone again. Perhaps as you start moving towards South LA, but even in Koreatown, there’s elevation. Again, I think a lot of it has to do with people learning the city in a car: The car takes a lot of the effort out of movement, and once you learn the freeway system, it feels like everything is at the same level.

  3. That’s one of the great things about this town. If you want to avoid hills, you can usually find a flat route that will get you there. Or you can find a route that takes you to the exact same place with some intense climbing on the way. The only thing you can’t find is a bike lane that will get you there.

  4. Yeah – I probably wouldn’t have picked Olympic except rush hour had already mostly passed through, and I had plenty of space on the road. But yeah: LA and its micro-topographies.

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