Each Wednesday, 40 or 50 cyclists meet up shortly after 9 p.m. at a vacant lot near the Denny's at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown to get stoned and go for a fast-paced ride through Los Angeles.
They call themselves the Kushtown Society. What began five years ago as a fun weekly adventure has created a close-knit community of competitive, cannabis-friendly cyclists, most of them young men in their late teens and early twenties. "We're not like lazy pot heads," says Steven "New York" Mergenthaler, 23. "We're like the guys that smoke and want to climb a wall."
Hansel Echeverria, 24, a graphic designer and computer animator studying at Otis College of Art and Design, started the group as a more intense alternative to some of the rides posted on the popular L.A. cycling forum, Midnight Ridazz.
Some Kushtown bicyclists, including Mergenthaler, came to love cycling so much that they now compete at USA Cycling races on the weekends. The resulting racing team is called Gorilla Smash Squad.
"I always smoke a bowl or two before I ride," Mergenthaler says. "It really calms me down and puts me in the zone. I really just zone the fuck in."
Kushtown typically rides 20 to 40 miles through residential and commercial districts to their destination at a park, a viewpoint or a lake. They ride only fixed-gear bikes, which have no brakes and can't change gears, making it tough to tackle steep hills like Verdugo Road near Mount Wilson, one of their hardest rides. They hang out for an hour, smoke again, then ride back. They've trekked to such places as Long Beach, San Pedro and the Encino Velodrome.
Like most urban cyclists, Kushtown has had a few bad encounters with drivers. Motorist Christine Dahab allegedly plowed into them around 2 a.m. in Culver City on June 15, 2011, injuring 13 riders and putting one in a coma. Although the crash and Dahab's DUI arrest generated international headlines, the marijuana lifestyle of the riders went unreported.
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Many members of the media thought Kushtown's commonly used name, "K-town," stood for Koreatown.
Echeverria has been riding a 2014 Specialized Langster with a velocity wheelset; Mergenthaler rides a red Leader 735 with carbon forks, stem and handlebars, emblazoned with the logo of his Downtown L.A. sponsor, El Maestro Bicycle Shop. For racing, he rides a grey and black Leader EQNX with a carbon fiber frame provided by his San Diego-based sponsor, Leader Bikes. Leader pays his race fees, provides him gear and will cover his trips to New York, Spain and Italy to compete in the 2014 Red Hook Criterium Championship Series.
Lately, Mergenthaler has contemplated how he might get "in the zone" for these global races, wondering aloud whether it would be OK to fly with a eighth of cannabis stashed in his backpack or bike.
Echeverria advises against it.