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Bicycle drag racers take over downtown LA

A racer prepares to take to the track at the starting line of the Midnight Drag Race in the 2nd Street tunnel on Saturday night.
A racer prepares to take to the track at the starting line of the Midnight Drag Race in the 2nd Street tunnel on Saturday night.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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Los Angeles image to the world is a city with a love/hate relationship with the automobile. It’s simultaneously the heart and soul of car culture, but also infamous for rage-inducing traffic jams. But hundreds of diehard bicycle fans routinely challenge that image — sometimes in the middle of the night. KPCC’s Vanessa Romo reports.

It’s a Saturday night in Downtown LA. Music blares, lights flash and 31-year-old Cathy Chang wears the tightest, most body-conscious outfit she owns. Not because she’s about to hit the dance floor. She’s at the first legally sanctioned Midnight Bicycle Drag Race inside the 2nd Street tunnel. That’s the white-tiled aerodynamic wonder you see in every other car commercial. No cars here tonight, though.

From those bleachers about 500 people watch the race. Its sponsor is Wolfpack Hustle, a motley crew of urban cyclists from steampunk riders to hard-core racers, who once a month, maraud the streets of LA for 40-mile, late-night bike rides.

On this night, 200 people sprint in the qualifying round. The next round is kind of like "Thunderdome," 16 men and women enter, and the eliminations begin. Only two rules apply: ride in a straight line and pedal as hard as you can.

Don Ward is Wolfpack Hustle’s leader — as fearless as he is tall. His 6-foot-8-inch height earned him the nickname Roadblock. He says the first one of these races launched from this exact spot five years ago …totally “guerilla style."

"I tell you what it was really cool. The parking enforcement came by and they saw what we were doing, and there was live traffic going on, and this lady just put out cones and flares and closed the tunnel off for us," Ward said. "So we had it the whole night so you know it was a blast."

It was possible to get away with it back then, Ward says, because that guardian angel intervened — and because the crowds were much smaller than they are now. These days, Ward says, “I went through the political process.” That means the LA City Council issued a permit for this night’s event.

Wolfpack Hustle and its races still take place under most peoples’ radar. But within a subculture called fixie-fanatics, they’re way popular.

19-year-old Christopher Lopez, is visiting the event from Sao Paolo, Brazil. "I got my first paycheck Thursday. I bought the first plane ticket to LA and I came here at 10 in the morning. And I’m leaving Monday in the afternoon."

As he speaks, he absent-mindedly strokes the frame of the limited-edition turquoise Bianchi Pista Concept beside him. "These are like a Ferrari in the streets. My girl’s my bike," Lopez says.

For about five hours, cyclists ride two at a time along the length of the tunnel. Their legs pump so hard, the typical speed exceeds 30 miles an hour — and they pass in a blur. Most of the serious riders who make it to the final 16 compete on local cycling teams.

By about 2 a.m. on Sunday no one’s left in the stands. Cheering fans surround 25-year-old Beatriz Rodriguez, and Tim McGhee, a 21 year-old who just started racing last year. They’re tonight’s winners. As McGhee steps onto the first place podium, here’s another sign that LA’s bike scene has arrived and gone mainstream: the winner’s crew douses him with a bucket of Gatorade.