Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Sixth Street bridge would be demolished on Jan. 8. Its demolition has reportedly been pushed back to Feb. or later.
On a recent Sunday night, a who's-who of L.A.'s underground fixed-gear community turned out for the Last Crit, the final bike race across the Sixth Street Bridge. Identified by the city as a potential earthquake hazard, the bridge is scheduled to be demolished early this year. In an odd twist, one of L.A.'s least bike-friendly locations has become something of a landmark in the collective consciousness of the city's cycling subculture. From party rides beneath it to drag races atop it, the bridge holds a place in the history of L.A.'s midnight rides that few other locations share.
By 9:45 p.m. on Dec. 20, most of the 65 race participants had made their way up to the top of the bridge. With downtown's skyline as a backdrop, nearly 300 spectators lined up along both sides of the bridge, filling the sidewalk beneath the rusting steel arches to watch the sufferfest that was about to take place. The racers spread out across the bridge, blocking eastbound traffic and maneuvering for a good start position. A dazzle of flashing LED lights, reflective gear and camera flashes cast a flicker on the sea of Lycra.
A pace car guided cyclists on a lap to establish the route. The course was difficult, sending racers east along the bridge to Boyle Avenue, where they had to make a sharp right turn and then another onto Seventh Street. A right on Santa Fe Avenue set the racers up for a sharp left into a straightaway leading to the race's “Ghetto Hairpin,” a 180-degree U-turn onto Sixth Street. That was followed by a brutal uphill sprint to the finish line, halfway across the bridge.
Along with the Ghetto Hairpin, dangers included a pair of freeway exit ramps, a poorly paved and unlit stretch of road beneath the East L.A. interchange, and the frequent appearance of semitrucks that serve the few remaining warehouses in the Arts District.
But none of this mattered. When the race started, the field of 61 men and four women set off without hesitation. The racers separated quickly. A 15-man peloton of the strongest, most experienced male riders formed, and its members completed the first lap in less than five minutes. Nearly everyone in this group races for a team; they soared at a consistent 25 mph across the cracked pavement, narrowly dodging a bus at the right turn on Seventh.
The race continued for 30 minutes, at which point Hansel Echeverria of Kushtown Society, the bike crew that organized the race, called out for three more laps. The riders pushed harder, and a few minutes later the race finished; the peloton smashed a total of 18 miles in less than 45 minutes.
The male winner was a USA Cycling Category 1 racer turned fixie pro named Ronnie Toth from Pasadena. The women's winner was Shamane Morejon, a massage therapist turned bike racer from North Hollywood.
“Tonight was sick, everything I could have asked for. [Kushtown] usually ride[s] across the bridge when we're headed out to the Eastside on our Wednesday-night rides,” Echeverria explained after the race. “With it being gone next year, I thought we should throw one last race on it to get everyone together and give it a proper goodbye party.”
Every Wednesday night, Kushtown Society leads a fast-paced ride of about 40 miles from Koreatown. The bridge is a frequent waypoint. For instance, in late 2014, Kushtown threw an impromptu five-lap race with a course similar to the Last Crit's.
The bridge has been a part of cycling in L.A. nearly as long as the city has had a cohesive bike identity. Back in 2007, the bridge hosted its first race when Don Ward (aka Roadblock), founder of the ride and race series Wolfpack Hustle, decided to throw a drag race on the bridge.
“It had already become a regular regroup point for us on our Monday-night rides when we headed east, and the long, level straightaway was as good a place as any to hold another drag race,” Ward said. “I remember that night. We were there from 10 o'clock until 3 or 4 the next morning.”
There were no permits, no street closures and no rules. But the race was a success, cementing both the bridge and Wolfpack Hustle as icons to L.A. cyclists. Ward attempted to throw another race a few months later, but LAPD stepped in and ordered that the race be disbanded.
It wasn't until 2012 that Ward managed to make Wolfpack Hustle legit, persuading the city to issue permits to close down both the Second Street Tunnel and later the Sixth Street Bridge for drag racing. The crew had continued to host races between '07 and that time, building a name for itself by crashing the L.A. Marathon course and racing against airplanes on the Burbank-to–Long Beach route, but none of their events was officially sanctioned. City permits offered Wolfpack street closures, allowing serious racing to take place without the risk of traffic. It was a small victory for cyclists, who have long fought to be recognized by municipal authorities; the Sixth Street Bridge was the site of their victory party.
Ward is still the leader of Wolfpack Hustle, though the name now applies to a national series of fixed-gear bike races instead of a Monday-night group ride. Riders fly in from Europe, Asia and Latin America to compete in the races, which are predominantly held in Southern California but occasionally pop up in other spots throughout the West.
While Wolfpack was going legit, unsanctioned races such as Kushtown's continued to etch the bridge into the consciousness of L.A.'s bikers. “I remember one of the first times I ever raced was on this bridge,” says Raul Torres, a gangly but well-toned spectator at the Last Crit. “I did real bad, but I remember afterward everyone went down underneath the bridge to get real drunk. Someone brought a bunch of fireworks, too, and started setting them off.”
Despite the fond memories, the current bridge is woefully unsuited for pedestrians and especially cyclists, who share a poorly paved lane with high-speed traffic. The bridge that will be erected in its place will offer significant improvements, including a full bike lane and ramps distinct from the street itself.
Morejon, the women's winner, sees the bridge's demolition and rebuilding as a transition from an L.A. of cars to a more multimodal city. “I almost went to sleep tonight instead of coming out, but then I thought about all the memories on the bridge and how, hey, this really is the last crit,” she says. “I'm going to miss this bridge, but the best thing is the symbol the new bridge represents for L.A. It's such a huge mark showing a future where bikes and pedestrians are accepted.”
For local cyclists, that future cannot come soon enough.