On a recent summer evening, more than 200 cyclists gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall. But the moment was bittersweet.
They'd just come back from a 20-mile jaunt across L.A.'s diverse urban neighborhoods. The feat instilled riders with a sense of accomplishment, coupled with a euphoric high. As they converged for a group photo, the Bat Signal radiated in bright yellow behind them, splashing across downtown’s iconic edifice to honor the legacy of Adam West, who played Batman in the popular 1960s television series. He had died a few days earlier, and riders mourned him that night.
“Everyone grab your bikes and smile,” the photographer instructed. “This is going on Instagram.”
“Hey, bro,” one of the riders called out. “When you’re done taking our picture, I want you to get one of me pouring some of my beer on the ground to pay respect to the dead homie Batman.”
They laughed, but they felt kind of like superheroes at the end of this urban adventure. For nearly five hours, the streets belonged to the 41 Thursday Crew.
Every Thursday at 8 p.m., hundreds of riders — men, women and children — gather in a parking lot at the corner of Fourth and Alameda streets in downtown L.A. When rush hour subsides, and the streets have calmed, these night riders emerge with their own personalized BMX bicycles. They ride for miles – exploring every crevice of the city, blocking lanes and intersections, speeding through red lights and stop signs, delaying traffic and waving to curious bystanders. It’s a party on wheels as the 41 Thursday crew travels in a tight formation like geese flying south for the winter.
Riders come in all ages, sizes and colors; they speak different languages; and they represent various social and economic backgrounds. But they assemble to share their love of rolling through L.A.
“We wanna think young and stay young by riding bikes,” explains Mr. Cheech, 46, the group’s founding member and route designer. Mr. Cheech declines to provide his birth name; the other riders say he adopted the alias “Cheech” several years ago.
“We’ve been doing this for seven years now," says Cheech, who apart from his role with the group spends the bulk of his time restoring antique cars for private clients. "It gives us all a chance to forget about reality for a little while. It’s therapy for me, and I’m sure everyone else here feels the same way.”
For the 41 Thursday crew, cycling is a unifying cause, but diversity in cycling has seen its share of challenges. A recent study by researchers Charles Brown and James Sinclair at Rutgers University's Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center explored the various barriers to cycling for black and Latino riders. The study says that fear of traffic collisions is the first obstacle for many riders of all ethnicities, but other concerns are specific to people of color. The study shows that black and Latino riders often fear the risk of racial profiling by police when riding together as a group. Poor street conditions in some black and Latino neighborhoods were another impediment to cycling, according to the Rutgers study.
While Los Angeles has seen a recent uptick in cyclists killed in L.A. traffic in 2016, black and Latino riders are more likely to be involved in fatal biking accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the Vision Zero initiative, a program that aims to reduce traffic fatalities, which also indicates that "high injury networks" with a large "concentration of traffic collections that result in severe injuries and deaths" tend to be concentrated in places with a majority Latino or black populations.
Despite these challenges, L.A. offers a few opportunities to encourage communities to get on a bike. While some are highly organized, such as the large-scale CicLAvia riding events, and others are politically motivated, like the Ovarian Psycos feminist cycling troupe, the 41 Thursday Crew takes to the streets just to have a good time.
Many of the regular riders come from surrounding cities like Corona, Long Beach, Buena Park, Canoga Park, Downey, Paramount and Inglewood. Jesse Medina, 43, gasses up his SUV and drives a full hour from his home in Acton. “It’s worth the headache,” he says.
Thursday’s 20-mile excursion took riders through Koreatown, Chinatown, the Arts District and part of Hollywood; before they turned back for the return trip, the group had reached the outskirts of Glendale. The ride consisted of sharp hills, curvy highways, steep drops and bumpy terrain. Occasionally, riders would pass by restaurants and bars, where pedestrians cheered and asked for pictures.
Whenever a rider would fall too far behind, or a bike would malfunction, the entire pack would stop. Certain members were selected to hold traffic as everyone passed through intersections, and a handful of riders were on hand to provide first aid in the event of an injury.
The entire operation was organized and closely supervised. “That’s why we carry walkie-talkies,” Cheech explained. “We have kids riding with us. There’s protocol for everything we do, especially when it comes to safety.”
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The evening wasn’t entirely drama-free. Some motorists howled profanities and honked their horns. “Don’t you see the red light, you assholes?” one driver yelled. “Get the fuck off the road,” screamed another.
“This is my passion — a few angry drivers won’t turn me away,” says Long Beach resident Laura Fierro, 27. “This is my stress reliever. Some people turn to sports or drugs, but I turn to my bike. Riding with these guys equals freedom to me.”
As the crew returned to the starting point, the skyline was illuminated by lights emanating from the skyscrapers and office buildings downtown.
“This is something that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Orange County resident Erick Phillips, a 49-year-old father of two who sells commercial printing for a living. "I look forward to this experience because of the people I meet. We’re such an eclectic group — but there’s one thing that keeps us all bonded, and that’s the ride. We’re here to have fun. That’s our motto: ‘Don’t fuck with the fun.’ I have a blast, and when I bring my children, they do too. This ride has something for everyone.”