A motley crew of former BMX pros, bike messengers, accomplished road racers and regular folks who just love to pedal will line up two at a time this Saturday night in Los Angeles on the 6th Street Bridge. Although the Wolfpack Hustle road-biking races don't have a lot of rules, the 6th Street Drag Race is strict about its single requirement: one gear only.
This event is the final leg of the 2013 Unified Title Race Series, and it's incredibly spectator-friendly: Last year, more than 2,000 curious onlookers watched, some clanging cowbells in support of the riders. Many of the almost 200 competitors will be on single-speed bikes, and some will be on geared rigs with disabled derailleurs. By the end of the night, the top man and woman will receive one of the most coveted trophies in bike racing: a set of dog tags. First place also earns a unique Chrome jersey and cash, but owning the dog tags is shorthand for being one of the fastest riders in the U.S.
The top 16 finishers on Saturday will be awarded points, and those count toward the Unified Title Series Championship, which also includes the Civic Center Criterium (held June 23, 2013) and the Wolfpack Hustle Marathon Crash Race (held Mar. 17, 2013). If there's one element that binds these races, it's chaos, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Marathon Crash Race. Competitors range from folks who have never pinned a number to their back to pro cyclists, riding everything from beat-to-death converted fixies to sub-15-pound carbon race rigs with $10,000-plus price tags.
And everyone races the 26.2 miles of the L.A. Marathon course together. Everyone.
This would almost be sane if there wasn't a mix of fixed and geared bikes. There is. Like Big Wheels, fixed-gear bikes can't coast. If the wheels are moving, so are the pedals. Not being able to coast makes it difficult to dive into corners, because sticking a pedal into the ground at speed all but ensures a crash. So fixie riders typically turn differently than their coasting-capable brethren. To complicate matters, the geared guys' short-term goals are to enter a turn as fast as possible.
Even if they don't know where those turns are, exactly.
"I don't think any of the people who show up really know the course. There's no signs, there's no cones telling you where to go, so all of a sudden everyone goes left and people are crashing," says former BMX pro Robbie Miranda, now a competitive road cyclist and Unified Title Race Series rider.
Miranda is on a first-name basis with two-wheeled insanity: He earned a gold medal in 2002 in Downhill BMX, an X Games race that went on to become the model for the BMX Supercross tracks currently in use by the UCI (the Union Cycliste Internationale, which is the official sanctioning body for Olympic bike racing).
The Unified Title Race Series itself is an anomaly. Despite support from corporate dollars, it maintains its renegade ethos, and its three DIY events have experienced massive growth in recent years. The reason is simple. They have the one attribute marketers want in spades: authenticity.
The Marathon Crash Race is the brainchild of Don Ward, a Hollywood, Calif., native who is 6-foot-8, 220 pounds and better known by his alias, Roadblock. To understand his effect on the bike scene locally, regionally and nationally, you have to know a little bit about bike history in Los Angeles, which underwent a renaissance about a decade ago. Its rebirth can be tied to one ride: the first Midnight Ridazz, a casual ride where a woman led seven friends -- five on bicycles and two on skateboards -- on a tour of downtown fountains on a Friday night in February 2004.
Only one of these folks could be called a serious cyclist. Ward? He didn't even have a bike. He was on a skateboard.
The ride grew exponentially by word of mouth. Each month featured a different leader and theme (costumes were encouraged). A lot less combative than Critical Mass, it was a rolling Mardi Gras. To keep rides together, cyclists would block traffic, and this is how Roadblock earned his moniker. But the ride was too successful. It can take 1,300 cyclists more than 10 minutes to go through an intersection, which was creating conflicts between Ridazz and motorists. Organizers changed start points, but the ride was still attracted too many.
After much heated debate about dismantling the ride, Ward stepped up and created MidnightRidazz.com, where anyone, anywhere, could promote their own ride. Along the way, Ward and some friends created the Wolfpack Hustle -- markedly different from Ridazz, whose motto was "No Rider Left Behind." Wolfpack Hustle met every Monday night at 10 p.m. at a donut shop in Silver Lake and let it be known that you might get dropped.
It also attracted former BMX pros like Todd Lyons, who loves the ride. "You're charging through the streets, late night; the streets are wide open. It's something fun and different to do, and it relates to BMX," says Lyons, one of the first BMX dirt jumpers to compete at the X Games in the mid-'90s.
"It's a renegade thing. It's what BMX used to be. BMX now is in the Olympics and it's more structured and formal. But, back in the day, [BMXers] were just the dudes who went out there who did our thing and didn't give a crap about anyone else. It's what Wolfpack is," Lyons explains.
At the end of 2009, the L.A. Marathon announced that they would no longer offer a pre-marathon bike tour. This annual event, which started in 1995, allowed about 10,000 people each year to pedal the 26.2-mile course that started and ended near downtown, at the USC campus. The cancellation was partially due to a new point-to-point course layout: The ending was miles away from the start.
Ward saw this as a diss and decided that if the Marathon was going to give the cyclists lemons, they'd make hard lemonade. So, in 2010, Roadblock and 400 riders decided to show up anyway -- but instead of just riding the course, they raced it. Last year, about 2,000 crashed the marathon course, and this year that number doubled.
The series went semi-legit this year, with more permits and insurance for two of the three events as well as cooperation with the LAPD and sponsors, including title sponsorships by Chrome and Red Bull. The Crash Race is still technically illegal because it lacks permits and insurance, but the police help keep it safe. The roads aren't officially closed, but this year 20 black-and-whites leap-frogged the course, doing their best to keep it clear.
"The fact that the cops are there and blocking off the intersections is f---ing fantastic; I owe it all [to] Senior Lead Officer Gordon Helper," says Ward, giving props to the officer with a bike-racing background who took an early interest in the race and continues to help out. Ward is generous with gratitude for volunteers as well as people like Sara Bond, who helped produce the first two events of the series on a shoestring budget.
Miranda, whose roots are in the courier scene in Washington D.C., is currently 17th in the 2013 Unified Title Race Series standings -- largely because he didn't place in this year's Crash Race. In 2012, however, it was a different story: Despite atypical wet conditions, a false start and mess of 2,000 riders, Miranda, who lives in nearby Huntington Beach, used his sprinting skills to become the first non-Angeleno to win the race.
He could still take the 2013 overall title, though. He'll just have to outmatch an outstanding field that includes Lyons as well as BMX dirt-jumping legend Rich Bartlett, who's in seventh. A recently uploaded YouTube video shows Miranda's serious about his training:
This year's Drag Race matchups will start at 6 p.m. and run until just before midnight. It will be the last year for the 6th Street Bridge location, as the bridge is going to be torn down in the near future. Attending the races is free, and if last year was any indication, it will be a great time. Don't miss it!