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by Peter Flax
March 8, 2018
Photography by Peter Flax
When I rolled my bike out the back gate, I thought I was just going out for an easy, hour-long spin. I didn’t even bring a water bottle or a tube. But I suppose I had something to work out.
I live right near the beach in Los Angeles, and pretty much all road rides start by heading north or south along the ocean — from a cyclist’s perspective, heading inland is like rolling into infinite sprawl. Malibu, and its famed canyon roads, sits an hour to the north. Palos Verdes, a mountainlike peninsula that is full of good roads, sits 30 minutes to the south. I headed south, figuring I’d cruise along the coast through Hermosa and Redondo Beach and then turn around when I got to the spot where Palos Verdes rises up from the beach.
I haven’t really been squeezing into spandex and jumping on a road bike on weekends that much lately. I often feel bone tired from years of commuting on my bike five days a week, and most days I feel more connected to transit riding and advocacy than roadie culture. I’m ambivalent about this shift, because road riding has framed my identity for a long time and given me as much as I’ve put into it.
I probably should also mention that along the way I’ve put on some weight — not the kind of thing that prevents me from riding semi-hard along the beach, but something I most certainly can feel as soon as the road tips uphill. I could make plenty of rationalizations about this weight but the truth is that it sucks, knowing that I ride all the time but can’t sit in on the best group rides in the area, knowing that I’m not in control of my body in a way that I’m used to.
Luckily, none of this was really on my mind as I meandered south on my bike. The last few weeks had been rough and I wanted to clear my mind. I knew that a short, easy ride would help one way or another.
It was one of those winter days in Southern California where the sky is a spotless blue and a stiff breeze rolls off the water and the air feels genuinely cold. But it was late February and I wasn’t wearing gloves or leg warmers — so complaining about the weather would be offensive to most of the world.
This is a story about a Sunday ride, but it’s also a story about three people in my life who recently died and how I’m trying to sort it all out. And as I pedaled through Hermosa, I started thinking about one of them — Andrew Tilin, a veteran journalist who often wrote about cycling and was the author of the 2011 book The Doper Next Door.
I would hardly consider myself a friend of Tilin’s but I knew him professionally, and we had talked about stories and bikes more than a few times over the years. About a week earlier, Andrew had been killed on a group ride in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. My understanding is that the episode began when he had a puncture and pulled off to the edge of the shoulder to fix the flat.
When we ride bikes on the road we are at the mercy of a turbulent universe, a place where a mistake made outside our field of view can change the course of our existence. That morning in Austin, a young woman driving a Ford F150 slid into the opposing lane of traffic, where it collided with a Toyota Tundra. I know this because I emailed a staff sergeant with the Texas Highway Patrol, and he sent me a preliminary incident report. That document recounts how conditions were damp that morning, and how the Ford reportedly hydroplaned before it slammed into the other pickup and then spun back to the shoulder — right into the spot where Andrew was on a knee, fixing a flat tire. He was pronounced dead later that morning at Round Rock Medical Center.
As I rode through Hermosa and into Redondo, I looked around me — I saw two distracted people open car doors into the bike lane and dozens of drivers glancing at cell phones — and thought about what happened to Andrew. He is victim of a culture that is profoundly inured to the dangers on our street. What happened to Andrew is the farthest thing from an accident, because we know incidents exactly like that will happen hundreds more times and yet we don’t take the most obvious steps to prevent them.
As I spun by the beach, I knew that at that very moment Andrew’s friends and family were gathering at a memorial in San Francisco, and I felt at once deeply tied to the sadness that surely was filling up his childhood synagogue and completely disconnected from it.
The last time Andrew and I had communicated, I had emailed him a few sources to contact for a cycling safety story he was working on. I tried to loosen my grip on the handlebar and I let out this dramatic exhalation and I remember thinking, enough is enough. It felt more like the kind of thing that you would holler into a megaphone at a rally than whisper to yourself on a bike ride, but that’s what came to me.
And somehow, I felt incrementally better after that. I think people who ride understand what I mean.
About a half hour after I left home, I cruised up to the parking lot for RAT Beach (“Right After Torrance,” if you’re curious) — the spot where I’d planned to turn around — and looked up at Palos Verdes rising up toward the sky, and right there I decided to go a little farther. I thought I’d ride another mile or so, up to this cool plaza in Palos Verdes Estate, all of it built around a fountain that’s a replica of one Giambologna completed in 16th century Bologna.
As soon as I started climbing, I felt every pound that I’ve gained in the last year. I felt it in my knees and my ragged breathing and my gear selection. I had a lot of ballast to contend with.
Fortunately, most of the routes up into Palos Verdes aren’t that steep, and though I was far from poetry in motion, I was arcing lazy circles around the Italianate fountain 10 or 15 minutes later. I knew that there’s this nice overlook another mile and a half up the hill, offering a panorama of the South Bay and Malibu and on a clear day like this, the Hollywood Hills. So I decided to keep going.
The climbing starts in earnest on Via del Monte and I just puttered along. As I climbed, the houses and the views and the implications of my weight kept growing. But I had a 34-tooth compact and a desire to keep pedaling and so I just grinded it out.
As I crawled into a tight switchback, I started to think about Jake. He and I had been tight in high school and for the decade after that. We both liked to hike and play ultimate and drink beer. We both liked to write and became journalists. Jake brought tremendous energy to every night he went out in the city. He gave everyone nicknames — The Legend, Wimpy Thang, The Mingler — that stuck. He called me Ax Man.
It’s hard to explain exactly how and when we drifted apart. By my early 30s, I was living in the Connecticut suburbs with a serious girlfriend and riding all the time while he was still partying late on weekdays in New York. His father died horribly from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and then he picked up and moved to Hong Kong maybe 15 years ago. I initially tried to keep in touch but felt it wasn’t mutual, and I gave up pretty quickly.
Two old classmates messaged me a few weeks ago to share the news that Jake had died. A week or two earlier I had seen a post on Facebook in which he said he would be leaving Hong Kong to head back to New York. I can’t say why, but that gave me a bad feeling. Later friends would pass along stories that he had been found in his Hong Kong apartment days before he was scheduled to head stateside, and that he had taken his own life.
I felt numb when I got that news, and there, rolling up Via del Monte at 5 miles per hour, I again felt this emptiness. I was staring down at my front wheel, pedaling and ruminating. I imagined the pain and isolation that a person I’ve known for four decades must have experienced there, alone in his apartment, with no one to turn to. Or how none of Jake’s childhood friends knew what was troubling him.
I have found that middle age brings this odd mix of engagement and isolation— I am totally committed to my work and family and bikes, and pretty disconnected from everything else. And I thought about how I can be so caught up in my hamster wheel that I don’t reach out to people I care about. I formulated a quick list of five people I wanted to get in touch with.
I can’t explain why, but I can think through my problems and untangle my emotions with greater clarity when I’m on the bike. And as much as I love my urban commuting life, I was struck with how much easier it was to do so while churning up a long grade.
I have had my share of ups and downs in life, and I have pedaled my way out of all of them. Part of it surely is the ceremony of the ride. But part of it is in the act of turning the pedals, how that helps me process the things that can overwhelm me when my feet are on the ground.
I remember going for a mourning ride the day Marco Pantani died. And when I learned a high-school classmate was the mother of the youngest victim at Sandy Hook. I remember going for a ride a few days after my father died, and how that was when I finally gave myself the space to grieve.
This was turning into one of those rides. I got to the overlook and didn’t even stop. I knew that Plaza Coronel, this nice little grassy square that sits on this high plateau, was another mile and a half up the hill. So I decided to keep going.
There were some spots now where the grade got a little steeper. I was struggling but buoyed with the re-realization that with a gear like 34×32 I could basically climb all day. I also was remembering how you can only suffer so much when you’re semi-fit. I really couldn’t go deep enough to hurt myself.
I crawled up this road appropriately called Granvia Altamira, maybe 1,000 feet above the start of the climb, and I knew I wasn’t going to stop until the top. The air suddenly got colder and moister, but I left my gloves in my jersey pocket. My breathing was labored, as if I was some overweight middle-aged guy doing a big climb for the first time in months.
The road had almost no traffic and everyone’s lawns were empty — no kids playing ball; no adults doing yard work or dragging trash bins out to the curb. It was as quiet as this part of Los Angeles can get.
I didn’t pause when I got to the park. I knew that the top was another mile and a half up the road. I was too busy thinking about my aunt Ruth at that point. That morning I had talked to my mom and she had told me that Ruth, her sister, had finally passed. She’d been fighting emphysema for years.
The older I get, the more complicated family can seem. My mother and her sister had fought for decades, going through long stretches — years — without talking to each other. Their father had died from cancer when they both were teenagers, and it’s as if they never reconciled that trauma with one another. As a son and nephew, I never could comprehend how things could come off the rails like that.
As I ascended, I tried to make sense of what my mother had told me. Ruth’s death hardly was surprising, but I was unmoored by this story my mom had recounted. A week earlier, after hearing from a relative that the end was near, my mom decided to visit her sister. I don’t think they’d seen each other for a couple of years, even though they both live on New York’s Upper East Side, maybe six blocks apart. And a few minutes after my mom arrived, Ruth, only a few days before she would die, looked up at my mother and asked her to leave.
I was on Highridge Road now, near the top, surrounded by gnarled trees and sprinkled in mist. I was in something resembling a rhythm on the bike, exhausted and yet completely within myself. I felt present in the landscape and the effort and mostly was struggling to understand how two sisters couldn’t bridge their differences at the last possible moment.
For some reason, that scene from American Beauty came to mind — the one where Wes Bentley’s character talks about filming a plastic bag dance in the wind. “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in,” he says in the film.
And there, up near the top of Palos Verdes, I felt like sometimes there’s so much pulling us apart that it’s hard to take it all.
I honestly wish that these three deaths were all I was dealing with but that would be a lie. I had been looking over my kit and thinking about how my shoes were made by a company with ties to the gun industry, and my socks were made by a company recently purchased by billionaires with family ties to the largest gun retailer in America. I was thinking about a conversation I’d had the previous day with a woman who related stories of repeated harassment at a leading company in the bike industry. I was thinking through my frustrations with my 13-year-old’s garden-variety rebellion. I was thinking about many of my former colleagues, talented journalists and friends of mine, who are reeling from vile corporate layoffs that could force them to move. And all the weird stressful stuff I can’t possibly ignore when I go on Twitter to commune with bike people. And the school shootings and the hit-and-runs and the melting ice caps.
But the reality is that despite all the shit weighing me down, I already had shed quite a bit of ballast. I had just spent an hour in a place where I could grapple with my demons, where I could turn the pedals and truly think. I felt this very real sense of peace to be on a bike, suffering a little bit and tending to myself in the best way I know how.
I was basically at the top now, but the highest point in this part of Palos Verdes is on an anticlimactic suburban road called Whitney Collins. The last 2/10ths of a mile is steep — around 14 percent — and the view is obstructed by all the 1960s ranchers that line the street. But I got out the saddle and creaked up this last pitch. At that moment, I did not care at all that it was the slowest I’d ever climbed that six-mile stretch. I was tranquil and full of grace and perhaps a little bit thirsty.
As I rolled over the top of the crest, I threw the bike into the big ring and got into the drops. The ride home was going to be less difficult. I had solved nothing, but I had fixed something.