I made it—all 23 bike-peddling miles. The week before I was worried I wouldn’t make it. I even told my friend and day’s riding partner, Glen Kitayama, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get something to eat with him after the ride. Turn down food? I surprised him. He’s done the ride 10 times, but I had visions of cramped legs, gasping for air, feeling nauseous, and losing bodily functions.
Friends asked if I trained for the ride. I told them I didn’t want to over train and burn out, so I’d stopped lifting weights in my early 20s, stopped bike riding in my 30s, and was resting and carbo-loading nightly for the last 15 years.
Truth was, I hadn’t ridden more than 20 miles since the 80s and it’s been over 12 monthly $50 payments to the YMCA since I last got on a stationary bike. But for Great Leap, I’d do it. No problem.
I got up at 4am and tried not forgetting anything like my helmet, water and an extra inner tube. I did forget my air pressure gauge and was too scared to fully fill up my 100 psi tires at the gas station. Better to ride with some extra effort than blow up a tire and have to change.
At 5am I parked in front of Foshay Learning Center on 37th and Western to meet Glen. I started teaching Foshay over 11 years ago. He thought I was going to be late and brought a book to read. I told him I was worried he’d be Nisei and show up 15 minutes early.
It was dark and cold. Glen had nice long-legged riding pants, a long sleeved riding jersey and a windbreaker. I had denim shorts and two t-shirts on. He also had a really fancy 24-speed road bike. I had my Brompton 3-speed folding bike. It’s world renowned as a “folder,” but not an asphalt burner.
By 6am we were in a giant line/mass of people near the starting line in Exposition Park. After 4 minutes of fireworks (not so cool for neighborhood folks trying to get some sleep) everyone inched their way forward. Around 6:15am with music and a PA system blaring we crossed the starting line and headed east on King Blvd. All kinds of peoples were riding: kids on BMXes, dudes on cruisers, ladies on mountain bikes, college students on city bikes, families towing toddler trailers and your standard roadies with black tights and colorful jerseys.
Glen said the key to the ride is not falling. Not only are there lots of riders, but it’s especially dangerous when you hit a hill and some riders slow down or stop and others come up from behind. It’s a bad combination. He also warned me about taking turns in the same arc as others.
By 6:25am I saw my first accident happen and it wasn’t pretty. Somehow a lady lost control on a straightaway and did a header. Her friend braked hard and another rider bumped into her and yelled, “Don’t stop like that!” The whole thing kind of freaked me out for a minute because everything was cool and people were bopping along all pumped up, and then suddenly, Bam! Crash and burn.
The first 4-5 miles around King, Central Ave. and Jefferson Ave. were around where some of my students live. It was early and only a few people were out cheering.
This was also around the time my butt bone started hurting. I raised my seat a bit and it helped, but for the rest of the day it was tender. Not bad, but a little uncomfortable. Luckily I never got winded. My legs got a little heavy about a third of the way in, but then it went away.
The toughest part of the ride was a sharp left turn onto 5th Street off of Figueroa. It rose west over the 110 Freeway. It was a steep hill and it bottled necked with slowing riders. About half of us got off our bikes to walk, but Glen was one of those who kept peddling and wove their way up. Later on 6th Street it was up a mixture of downshifting uphill and coasting and tapping the brakes downhill.
Volunteers were out in numbers and started handing out water and Gatorade. I was eyeing that Gatorade. All I had for breakfast was water and a banana. Unfortunately, the Brompton has tiny 16-inch wheels and a short wheelbase. It’s quick steering and doesn’t lend itself to no-hands or one-handed riding. Not wanting to crash, I passed on those little green cups and the sorority girls passing them out. I thought it would have been cool to ride by, grab one with one hand, swig it down and throw it away like they do in the movies.
It was somewhere on 6th Street that Glen said that we were past the halfway mark. I felt good physically and knew I’d make it—if I didn’t fall. That’s why I didn’t mess with that Gatorade.
The course weaved back and forth through East Koreatown and Pico Union along Olympic, Pico and Venice. When we hit Normandie, I knew it was straight down to Exposition and over to Vermont to the finish. That’s when my fear of nausea and rubbery limbs faded. I started thinking about food again. Our plan was to go to Tak’s Coffee Shop, a Japanese American breakfast joint over in the Crenshaw Square.
On Exposition, just before Vermont, the pace slowed with riders. I saw a yellow archway and asked Glen if that was the finish line. It was! We crossed the finish line and a young Asian kid holding a bullhorn and dressed in Jr. ROTC camouflages meekly announced something like, “Keep moving forward, people.” It was a little anticlimactic. Glen and I laughed. No double overtime Chick Hearn ending and no yellow ribbon ripping across the chest, flashbulbs popping or giant digital clock documenting the moment. But I was happy. I wasn’t chafed.
At Exposition Park, another line 15 bikers wide formed and it took almost 40 minutes getting our medals and making our way out. As we headed back to Foshay to get the cars I hoped to run into a few of my old Kindergarten and First Grade students who are now in high school.
A short drive later we slid into a booth at Tak’s for some hot links, eggs, rice and sourdough bread. Jenni’s Auntie Keiko works at the restaurant and without us knowing, kindly picked up our tab. “Very Nisei” Glen said.
I had a great time riding and hanging out with Glen, who was cool enough to ride at my pace. Of course raising money for Great Leap sweetened the day. I’ll ride again next year. Maybe Jenni and I can borrow a bike trailer and bring Maiya along.