Jack Rabbit died not long ago, and the Real Rydaz ride straight from his funeral to their weekly Saturday meeting in Exposition Park. You can see them coming up Vermont Avenue, the chrome of their bicycles glistening in the sun. There's Mr. Thomas, puffing away on his lowrider, and Ms. P., beaming as she rides her pink Cali Girl, and of course Henry, on his unmistakable Green Hornet.
Even though they're mostly middle-aged and live in South L.A., the Real Rydaz aren't real different from a hipster bicycle club in Silver Lake or Venice. Cycling, for them, falls somewhere in between recreation and a way of life.
"To me, it's not just a hobby, it's an adventure," Henry, 57, says. "Going where you wanna go, hollering at people. Ain't nowhere we can't go where a flock of people don't surround us like flies."
Style is everything. But while hipster bicyclists favor the stark minimalism of fixed-gear bikes, the Real Rydaz have embraced an aesthetic that recalls nothing if not MTV's Pimp My Ride.
Henry bought his Schwinn beach cruiser at what he calls a "frat boy's bike shop" near USC for $475. He took it directly to Manny's in Compton, where he got custom rims, mud flaps and 12 side-view mirrors mounted on his extrahigh handlebars. Most Real Rydaz bikes feature myriad custom parts double-dipped in chrome, although Henry's bike eschews chrome in favor of white parts. His bike's "knee action" is made of wrought iron.
It's the "knee action" that's the special sauce of Real Rydaz bicycles. The bike frames typically are severed just above the front wheel, then reattached with a spring and a metal pivot that looks like a knee brace, allowing the bike frame to bounce up and down while the front tire remains on the ground, creating the illusion of hydraulics. Real Rydaz can perform any number of bizarre tricks while waiting at stoplights, as people gawk and take pictures.
The knee action, or breakdown system, was invented by the club's president, William, a square-jawed, strong and silent type. He leads the rides with the discipline of an infantry captain, enforcing strict adherence to the rules of the road.
A typical ride draws about 20 members, although for parades and special events like CicLAvia, their ranks can swell. That includes more than a few women, like Helen and Ms. P.
"When I first got in, there were 65 guys, and I was the only girl," says Ms. P. "So I made my bike pink. Everywhere I go, everybody knows Cali Girl."
She points out that many of the Real Rydaz have good things going on in life. She, for instance, holds a double master's degree.
"Well, I have a master's in B.S.!" interjects Helen.
Today's 15-mile ride goes from Exposition Park, far down Vermont, past the 105 freeway to Gardena, then turns back up Figueroa. There are plenty of cyclists in South L.A., navigating streets as bad as any in the city. The Vermont Avenue asphalt resembles some Sarajevo back alley, with cracks everywhere and potholes the size of IED craters. South of the 10 freeway, bike lanes are a rare site.
The last to show up is G-Man, on his iconic black and chrome bike, the Spider.
"I'm the clown of the club," G-Man says. "I'm the fool. I'm the hot talker. If it's too quiet, I'm gonna pump it up. Ya heard?"
He looks around. "We ain't said the prayer yet? Hey Pete! Let's make prayer so we can roll out!"
The dozen Rydaz form a circle. William leads the prayer. They pray for Jack Rabbit, a fallen member. They pray for their own safety on the ride and the safety of this day's visitor. They thank God for the design of their bikes, and they thank Him for allowing them to wake up in the morning.
They break. Mr. Thomas exclaims, "Real Rydaz!"
"Ya heard?" G-Man retorts.
A few bikes have built-in stereos, which are tuned to Power 106. A song comes on, something about being in a club. William mounts up, and with a low, gravelly voice calls out, "Let's ride, y'all." —Hillel Aron