Street-Tough Racers Fight for Supremacy in L.A.'s Underground Cycling World

It's a Saturday night in South Los Angeles, and on the corner of Florence and Pacific avenues, an evangelical stands with a megaphone, beckoning passersby to save their souls. The veins in his throat bulge with impassioned pleas to join his iglesia, but he's having trouble drawing a crowd. People are watching the bicycle race across the street.

Hundreds of riders are amassed in a rainbow of Spandex for the annual Wolfpack Hustle HP Gran Prix, an all-out sprint of 1,000 feet, in which cyclists on fixed-gear bikes hit speeds above 30 miles per hour. Four blocks of Huntington Park's Pacific Avenue are cordoned off for the race. Down the road, spectators waiting expectantly nibble street food or bob their heads to a live DJ.

Everyone who's anyone in L.A. competitive cycling is here, for an event that not only reveals who's fastest on two wheels but is also the last chance for riders to score points in the Unified Title Series before a men's and women's champion is crowned. An announcer shouts, "It doesn't get any bigger than this, folks!"

Many people know about the monthly Critical Mass rides, which meet at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, and CicLAvia, which closes key streets to cars on a few selected Sundays each year. The real action, however, stirs after most Angelenos go to sleep, on wild, late-night cycling escapades.

There are "party rides" with names such as Taco Tuesday and Poppycock MoM Ridaz Thursdays, where cyclists sometimes chug malt liquor or don costumes. There are rides that include rock bands playing in parking lots during rest stops, and rides such as the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time, which feature changing themes and challenges such as scavenger hunts.

But for all the cheeky fun, in this vast community, competition and prestige run deep. While the Huntington Park drag race is city-sanctioned, this is actually a recent development. Almost all rides defy traffic rules, and most of L.A.'s cycling competitions remain underground, like The Fast and the Furious on bikes. There are even various styles: "drag" races, such as the 1,000-foot sprint down Pacific Avenue; "crit," or "criterium" races, in which cyclists do laps; "relay" races, where teams spar against one another; and "alley cat" races, in which riders must complete a challenge in the middle of the race, such as guzzling a quart of milk, or buying and donning women's undergarments at a specified store.

Street-Tough Racers Fight for Supremacy in L.A.'s Underground Cycling World
Photo by Ryan Orange

All the varieties are familiar to Edgar Juarez, or "Willo." Not only is Willo one of the fastest riders on the local Wolfpack Hustle team but he also has developed a following of fans who refer to themselves as "Team Willo." Willo's rise represents a larger trend that has shaped L.A.'s underground cycling community: He comes from a background colored by desperation and gang violence. Cycling is a way to escape crime, gain sponsorships and see the world. That transformation has touched far more lives than just his own.

When Willo returned to his native California from Mexico just before high school, his mother hoped she'd made the right decision. She'd wanted to raise him and his seven siblings away from the crime-ridden Long Beach neighborhood where they were born. However, "One thing led to another until it was just as she feared: I started making money the wrong way," Willo says.

One of his friends in Long Beach had connections to an organized crime syndicate and persuaded Willo to join a crew that stole cars — six to 10 every weekend, he says. Most were targeted for wealthy clients, but it didn't take long, Willo says, before "we were boosting cars just for fun."

Willo loved the adrenaline rush. They were chased by cops. They were shot at. It was like Gone in 60 Seconds, only with higher stakes. One night when Willo was on lookout, he heard the pump of a shotgun behind a metal gate door. "Yo, we gotta go," he told his friends. But his "crazy motherfucker buddies" decided to grab the car in front of the house anyway.

"Eventually the cops knew our names and would come by the house," he says.

"Hey, Edgar, how's it going? Where's your brother at?" they would ask.

Willo became cocky. Behind the wheel, he could outrace the cops, and that convinced him to try his hand at illegal street racing. His car of choice was an '88 Civic JDM with a customized trigger for nitrous injections: "Line 'em up, head 'em up, ate 'em up every time, bitch. It was awesome."

Awesome, that is, until he was caught in a police raid.

Willo has gotten used to people asking him to sign their bikes.
Willo has gotten used to people asking him to sign their bikes.
Photo by Ryan Orange

Willo spent six months in jail. "Thank God I never got caught for anything worse," he says. "But I realized it was time to change."

Two things turned his life around. First, his two daughters. The second was cycling.

At 31, he's scrappy in appearance, his hair slicked back into a wave that seems to match the curves of the tattoos on his forearms. His lean torso tapers into bulging thighs. A boyish grin reveals a few missing front teeth, lost when he T-boned a truck while cycling brakeless down a steep hill. He didn't make the green light.

Splitting time between family in Compton and Long Beach, Willo says he represents "Lompton." He's gotten used to people in both neighborhoods asking him to sign their bikes, typically with his personal motto, "Zero Miedo" — an English/Spanish hybrid for "No Fear."

As Willo's racing number is called, he jumps up nervously from his cushion. He grabs his Aventón fixed-gear bike with FSA carbon cranks, a 130mm stem, carbon forks and a carbon bar with no brakes. The frame itself weighs less than four pounds.

All of it has been paid for by sponsors, which Willo calls "a pretty sweet gig." And it's not even the best perk of being on the Wolfpack Hustle team. Last year Willo was sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to race in Barcelona, Spain.

"Can you believe that?!" he exclaims, shaking his head. "Spain, through cycling!"

The underground bike scene in L.A., most people agree, took off thanks to a single group: Midnight Ridazz, whose origins can be traced to a chilly evening in February 2004, when six cyclists and two skateboarders were hanging out in Echo Park and spontaneously decided to tour the fountains of downtown Los Angeles.

Their 18-mile adventure became known as the first Midnight Ridazz ride, a name devised by its eight participants. One was Don Ward, now a well-known face of L.A.'s cycling community. At 6 foot 8 inches, he's better known by his nickname "Roadblock," given because he would step into intersections and use his huge frame to block cars until all the cyclists, sometimes many dozens, had passed through.

"We called ourselves 'the Mommas and Papas,'?" says Ward, now 41.

Don Ward, Midnight Ridazz co-founder
Don Ward, Midnight Ridazz co-founder
Photo by Ryan Orange

For the original eight, the fountain tour was something of an epiphany. As the Mommas and Papas explored downtown, they realized something: At night, the city opened up to them. They suddenly had free rein on the roads, the freedom to discover L.A. on their own terms. They could pass through the richest and poorest neighborhoods in a single evening.

And so as most Angelenos relaxed at home, their group took to the streets. It felt adventurous — they could explore places such as the L.A. River, where cars aren't permitted. And it was a middle finger to commercialized entertainment and reliance on cars — something Ward vibed with, given his background in graffiti and playing in punk-rock bands.

They were hooked.

So the Mommas and Papas took to organizing a monthly ride that incorporated different themes, which they reflected in the route or in the design of the decorative spoke cards they handed out to riders to pin to their bicycle's wheels. Other times, they asked participants to wear costumes, as with their early "heavy-metal ride." Their idea was to be inclusive, to encourage people with all kinds of bikes and levels of cycling experience.

What began with a small circle of friends grew by word-of-mouth. By the summer of 2006, more than 1,000 cyclists met up monthly in the parking lot of Pioneer Chicken in Echo Park.

The organizers were beginning to feel overwhelmed. "It was just too much for us to handle on our own," Ward says.

In late 2006, Ward volunteered to put together a Midnight Ridazz website, an open forum where anyone could organize and post rides online. "Now, the ride belongs to you — the Ridazz community," the site promised. "Use www.midnightridazz.com as your community-organizing tool."

Of course, the decision to relinquish control came with growing pains.

Some rides were fast and physical, such as Wolfpack Hustle, which Don Ward began organizing. Others were geared toward urban exploration, like the original Midnight Ridazz rides.

The problematic crop were party rides. They encouraged debauchery: beer runs, party hopping, smoking weed. In extreme cases, it seemed bicycles were merely an excuse to get drunk — a way to score an adrenaline rush by biking while intoxicated.

Of the party rides, no other achieved the infamy of the Kushtown Society, a weekly meet-up in Koreatown cheekily named after the marijuana indica strain "kush."

"Before, drinking and smoking had been mostly on the D.L.," Ward says. "Then Kushtown came out and did it right in the open."

Hansel Echeverria, who still organizes the weekly Kushtown Society rides, says he posted the ride on the Midnight Ridazz site in 2009, after he and some friends were kicked out of the Chinatown Mosey: "Those Chinatown guys basically told us to fuck off, so we did our own thing."

Most Kushtown riders were young, male teens — 15 to 19 years old, from neighborhoods surrounding East L.A., South Central and Koreatown. Some heard about the ride from videos posted on graffiti websites such as 50mm, which had started to cross over with cycling culture.

Party crew on wheels, DTLA
Party crew on wheels, DTLA
Photo by Julio Bustamante

"We had absolutely no control when all these other kids showed up," Echeverria says.

From the first ride, he says, other Kushtown cyclists engaged in "grab and go" operations at rest breaks — nicking items from liquor stores. While some riders spray-painted walls, others would run into stores en masse, grabbing armfuls of whatever was within reach — 40s, fifths of hard liquor, six-packs. On the very first ride, Kushtown hit a store on Melrose Avenue.

Things got serious when some Kushtown riders started going to other bicycle rides, where they stole accessories, and in some cases even bikes, from other cyclists. That got everyone's attention.

Heated arguments erupted on the Midnight Ridazz website: what to do about these young punks?

One cyclist expressed the frustration in a March 2010 post: "We rolled down pico by arlington and some kid, from his window sees us and yells 'KUSHTOWN' like its a fucking gang..... we're just trying to ride our bikes. stop fucking this scene up for us and tag and steal on your own time?...?"

A response from a Kushtown rider: "Mind ur own and let k-town ride...n stay out of our way...or u will get ur shit stolen and sold...haha...ill b next to u and u won't even notice."

Echoing the frustrations of many, one rider wrote, "These kids are running amok all over the city and we're basically letting them get away with it. Personally, I've had enough of them." A few forum users went so far as to threaten calling the police. They needn't have bothered: Kushtown was already well known to the city's law enforcement.

Senior lead officer Gordon Helper, whose Pacific division encompasses the Koreatown area, took a special interest in Kushtown. Previously head of the unit that trains LAPD's bicycle cops, he had advised the Critical Mass ride and followed activity on the Midnight Ridazz website closely.

"It was well known that if [Kushtown] pulled into a CVS, they would steal alcohol," Helper says.

Helper visited the ride off-duty in plainclothes, and found that a majority of the young men weren't there to cause trouble; most wanted to cycle. If the focus would shift more to cycling, he realized, the groups' penchant for theft and vandalism might fade. Cracking down would be counterproductive.

So Helper took a chance on Kushtown, holding back other officers who pressed him on why they shouldn't break up the ride, if only for all the traffic violations the cyclists committed.

"Because," he told them, "if most of these guys weren't cycling, who knows what they'd get into?"

That view was shared by a few cycling advocates, including Don Ward, as well as Mark Didia, who had been involved since the early days of Midnight Ridazz.

"There was a culture clash, no doubt about it," Didia says. "But when you consider all the nonprofits out there trying to attract these same types of kids and help them, just think: Here they were showing up each week voluntarily, pushing themselves in a positive activity, cycling."

"Things changed once we started inviting the party guys to the fast, serious rides like Wolfpack Hustle, and they got their asses kicked," Ward recalls with a chuckle.

At "hustles" — cycling lingo for fast-paced rides — party riders from groups like Kushtown Society found themselves exposed to cycling that required strength, conditioning, nutrition. Those without proper training were dropped within blocks. It was humiliating.

Willo
Willo
Photo by Ryan Orange

Willo, who rode mostly with Kushtown and Taco Tuesday, recalls one race where he was beaten in a sprint to the finish line. As he walked away after the race, someone quipped, "If you're not first, you're last!"

Willo froze, then wheeled around. "Being from the 'hood," he recalls today, "I yelled, 'Which one of y'all wanna get down? Y'all a bunch of bitches!' Not one of them said nothing."

But even Willo had to admit that rankings don't lie. And that's when he started to train seriously.

The year 2011 marked a turning point. As more young cyclists from Kushtown and other party rides participated, they got stronger. A competitive attitude moved through the ranks. Riders took fewer breaks. Some stopped drinking.

The group started racing on its return rides back to Koreatown. At first it was a friendly competition, but the riders kept close tabs, even silently, on one another's speed. No longer was respect earned by robbing a liquor store. It was earned by riding like a beast.

If one final thing crystallized the allure of competitive cycling, it was sponsorships.

Willo remembers one Kushtown ride in 2011, when Jesus Lizama, who'd helped to organize the group with Echeverria, showed up with a brand-new carbon-framed bike, wearing a full racing uniform — Spandex bike shorts and all.

"At first we were like, 'What the fuck is he wearing?' Those dorky shorts and shoes looked so funny to us," Willo recalls.

But when Lizama replied that he'd been given the bike and suit by a sponsor, for free, the other riders were floored. Most worked low-paying jobs as store clerks or in trade professions (Willo daylights as an electrician).

"It didn't take long for some of us to realize: Wait a minute, we're already faster than [Lizama]. How can we get sponsored like him?" recalls another rider, Stephen "Neu York" Mergenthaler.

Riders began reaching out to bike shops and attending cycling conventions such as Interbike, offering to represent the companies in races. Others formed their own teams in order to pursue corporate sponsorships.

Willo began to aspire to a sponsorship after he won the Wolfpack Marathon Crash Race in 2012, held on the L.A. Marathon route the night before runners took the course. The win put him on the radar of Don Ward, who later offered him a spot on the Wolfpack Hustle team. It came with a full sponsorship from Aventón Bikes.

"My wife had been critical of all the time I spent cycling," Willo says. "But when I came home with that new Aventón bike, I saw her and was like, 'I told you!' I almost teared up because I was so fucking happy."

The next Kushtown ride, Willo took his prize bike, and his compatriots congratulated him. Many now have sponsorships of their own, and the stealing and tagging seem a thing of the distant past.

Even LAPD's Helper has to admit: "I have no complaints now."

Of course, not everything has changed. On one recent Kushtown ride, about 50 riders are scattered in a parking lot behind a Denny's. Most sport "fixies" with high-end carbon or aluminum frames, and one group launches into a discussion about some cyclists who were ticketed by police on Pacific Coast Highway.

"Those pigs were already waiting for them, and gave the leader of the ride a ticket for the whole group, because they were cycling along the inside lane of PCH," one rider says.

"Damn, that's fucked up man," another agrees.

A pipe with a freshly packed bowl is passed around. Then a cyclist named Chris arrives with a brand-new Fuji spec bike. Someone asks if he can give it a test ride, and starts doing tricks on it.

"Hey, don't skid on my carbon, dude!" Chris yells.

Nearby, another group including Hansel Echeverria fondly recounts the epic party they threw last weekend: "Pizza and bud, man, that's all I need." But they trail off midstory when they see a young Latino couple pedal into the parking lot.

Evelyn "Nyrah Hearts" Lemus and Neu York have arrived.

There's a certain air of celebrity about Nyrah and Neu York, and their presence has tensed the mood somewhat.

Nyrah says it's because they're like the "Brad and Angelina" of the underground cycling world. Like Willo, the couple has developed a virtual following using social media — people recognize them in coffee shops, she says, and ask for autographs.

And Nyrah is only the second woman to show up to tonight's Kushtown ride. The urban cycling world is dominated by men, although there are some all-female groups such as S.W.A.T. — the She Wolf Attack Team — as well as rising stars like Jo Celso.

"The catcalling is ridiculous," Nyrah explains. "It's not like we're looking to hook up; we just want to ride like everyone else." The only reason Nyrah feels she can go to Kushtown is because she's Neu York's girlfriend, and no one wants to mess with him. Not only is he a fast cyclist but he's also a mixed martial arts fighter.

Nyrah is Salvadoran and lives in Koreatown. At 26, she has two kids, 7 and 5, from a previous relationship. Growing up was tough. She was kicked out of one high school because of her bad attitude, and moved to an all-girls charter school across the street from MacArthur Park. "That school was even worse. They would search our hair. There were metal detectors. We had to take our socks off, move our bra around."

She began riding in 2011 on Taco Tuesday party rides; as she discovered a talent for racing, she helped found the Gorilla Smash Squad racing team. Outside of working for a trucking company, it's become her primary focus.

"Now, it's hard to do things with other friends who don't ride. ... They don't understand my weird tan lines and battle scars."

Nue York and Nyrah Hearts, the “Brad and Angelina” of the underground cycling world
Nue York and Nyrah Hearts, the “Brad and Angelina” of the underground cycling world
Photo by Ryan Orange

Neu York, 24, also races for Gorilla Smash Squad and works as an assistant at a bicycle shop. Born in L.A., he got his nickname from being raised in the Empire State. He has plenty of battle scars; his ears are cuffed from years of boxing, and from cycling — as Nyrah puts it — "he's missing a piece of his butt" from a crash onto hot gravel.

Neu York is a fierce competitor who remembers his own turning point: In one of his first races, the winners were rested and smoking cigarettes by the time he crossed the finish line. It was embarrassing. "I didn't like to lose — that feeling of coming in behind."

That certainly isn't the case now. When the other Kushtown riders see Neu York, they know the second half of the ride back to Koreatown is going to be fast.

"OK everyone, rolling out!" Echeverria yells.

The ride takes off, a phalanx of flashing bike lights rolling down Vermont toward Jefferson, taking up both lanes on the right. Allowing cars to pass is not a common courtesy, and from the "fuck you" salvos the riders get from drivers and a few guys outside liquor stores, it's apparent they're a known menace. Some of the riders respond with sing-songy "fuck yous!" of their own.

One cyclist skids in and out between plastic traffic dividers in the middle of the road. Then, as a T-intersection approaches, there's some confusion about which way to turn, until someone shouts "LEFT TURN, DUMBASSES!" The ride whips through the red light to a symphony of honking.

Nyrah grins. She's riding a bright pink fixie manufactured by her sponsor, Leader Bikes.

"I wanted it pink so people would know they're getting beat by a girl," she says. "Your bike is who you are."

Neu York is close behind, on a black Leader EQNX fixie that runs to $1,300 just for frame and fork.

As the ride digs deeper into South L.A., it picks up pace. Riders whoop and crack jokes above the rushing air. Neu York positions himself in the front of the pack. He looks relaxed — perhaps because his chief rival, Willo, isn't there.

As online ranking systems become more sophisticated, and riders develop followings on Instagram, there is pressure to be on top. Finding out who's fastest is as easy as clicking on the latest race statistics.

While Willo has been fastest in the past, crowned champion in 2013's Unified Title Series, recently Neu York has been turning heads; last April he won the Beast of the East crit for his fourth time running.

"Love him or hate him, he's really fast, and nobody can deny that," Nyrah says.

Willo actually might deny that. But while he's usually at Kushtown rides, he's also been in Barcelona racing for Wolfpack Hustle, along with 18 to 20 other Americans in the BCN Red Hook Challenge. It was Willo's first trip to Europe, all on the dime of his sponsors and team Wolfpack Hustle.

Even with the sponsorship, "hustle" is a good way to describe Willo's lifestyle. The night before he left for Barcelona, he visited the Bicycle Casino to play no-limit Texas Hold 'Em for four hours, coming away with $200 and using the money to flip some Go-Pro cameras. That left him enough money to provide for his family while he took time off from his work as an electrician.

Neu York brushes off his rival with some fighting words. "I mean, I wouldn't sleep on him in races — but at this point I'm all around stronger than him." 

Once Willo is back, it won't be long before he and Neu York square off at the HP Grand Prix drag race on Pacific Avenue.

"Number 94, number 94, you're up!"

It's the sudden-elimination rounds at last year's Wolfpack Hustle competition in Huntington Park, brief, intense races lasting less than 30 seconds.

Willo feels determined to put in a good showing; in Barcelona he didn't do as well as he'd hoped, placing 38th out of 200 riders. "Now I know what A1 Sauce tastes like — those guys in Spain don't fuck around," he says.

Neu York, Willo and Nyrah have all placed in the top eight men and women. But Nyrah is knocked out in the third round. And although it had seemed likely that Neu York and Willo would race one another directly, Neu York is unexpectedly eliminated after a bad start, finishing sixth.

Instead, Willo faces the defending champion, Nate Koch, who cycles for the USA Olympic team and is dressed like Captain America.

It's come down to the electrician versus the Olympian.

"3-2-1-GO!"

It takes only 22 seconds to determine the race winner, but when Willo returns from the finish line, he's smiling anyway. "I'm third, baby! That's whassup!!"

Koch goes on to win the night's event for the men, and Nissy Cobb takes the honor for the women.

Since it's the end of the season, awards also are given out for the entire year. Neu York is third for the season; Willo is third for the drag race.

As bottles of Champagne are handed out, Willo playfully douses Neu York, who can't help but beam.

The journey to make L.A.'s urban cycling community legitimate has been a tumultuous one. As if to show how far things have come, the riders cheer and take pictures under the supervision of the police, who've shut down the street to let them celebrate.

Among them is LAPD's Helper, who actually ran the megaphone for the event.

"It's so inspiring to see these kids now racing," he says. "In fact, my dream is to see them some day in the Tour de France."


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