It is 3:30 AM on a chilly Sunday morning and I am preparing to do something illegal through the streets of Los Angeles. It is the morning of the LA Marathon and I have already spent the last 90 minutes riding from Santa Monica to Tang’s Donuts in Hollywood, the meeting spot for this illegal rendezvous. In about 45 minutes about 4,000 bicyclists and I are going to crash the marathon route and race to the finish before the runners even get a chance to put foot to pavement.
I often ride my bike to work when the weather is good and make the occasional ride down to the beach. However, I wouldn’t consider myself a biker and certainly not on the level of 80% of the people currently around me. Most of the participants are wearing the kinds of bike attire you see the weekend road warriors wear and I’m lucky enough to have borrowed a padded pair of bike shorts from my uncle. I’m there for the experience and just want to make it to the finish in a reasonable time.
Before the Race
I made sure to get there early enough to lock my bike and wander around, camera in hand. Meandering through throngs of cyclists, I can loosely separate them into those here for the experience, the semi-serious riders who will ride their guts out and the serious riders here to win the race. The leaders in four categories (men’s & women’s fixed gear and men’s and women’s multi-gear) will win a set of dog tags. For those competing this is no joke but a very serious prize. The Los Angeles contingent is intent on keeping the dog tags in LA, while a group from Arizona is seeking to take them out of state.
It’s now a little after 4:00 AM and the bikers are lined up and ready to go. The race begins with a rolling start from Tang’s to the actual start line of the Marathon. Once the riders reach that point, the race is on and there’s zero chance of my getting any more images of the leaders until I catch up with them at the finish. I have managed to grab some images, talk to the lead organizer and the coordinating LAPD officer and am now on my bike ready for the race to start.
About the Race
The Marathon Crash Race started in 2010 when a group of riders decided to take advantage of the road closures established for the LA Marathon. That first year there were about 400 participants, and it has grown ever since, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 participating this year.
“Roadblock”, the lead organizer, is part of a group of LA riders who participate in a Monday night ride called the Wolfpack Hustle. “The Hustle” meets at Tang’s Donuts in Hollywood and rides anywhere from 35 to 70 miles as a group. Often reaching in the hundreds of people, the hustle is a regular event open to all and considers the safety of the group a top priority.
The weekly hustle and other events that the group helps organize help to escalate the bike community in Los Angeles and promote the rights of bicyclists throughout the city. Groups like Wolfpack Hustle (http://wolfpackhustle.com/) and the Midnight Ridazz (http://www.midnightridazz.com/) are a constant influence on the City of Los Angeles. The LAPD even created a bike task force in response to various giant sized rides that were taking place from 2007 to 2010. Some of these officers are involved in the Marathon Crash race and help clear the roads at the start.
For my own personal safety, and the safety of my Canon 7D, I opt to stow my camera for the upcoming 26+ mile ride. Having just finished taking pictures at the start of the pack, I’m right up front as the rolling start gets underway. We have a couple miles to go before the race really begins and those preparing to compete are already passing me left and right.
As we ride into downtown, it dawns on me how interesting a ride this is really going to be. I’d already ridden 18 miles just to get to the meeting point, but riding around with little traffic at 2:30 AM and riding through closed streets at 4:30 AM is more different than you’d expect. Having the streets closed means you have the freedom to experience them in a radically different way.
Imagine riding through some of the most famous and well-visited parts of Los Angeles, a city well known for its traffic, without having to devote a single thought to an automobile. While it isn’t 100% free of cars just yet, it’s damn close. From Downtown to Echo Park to Hollywood, through Rodeo Drive into Century City and Brentwood, finishing in Santa Monica, the ride itself is quite an experience.
Some of the roads aren’t completely closed by the time the pack gets to them but there are volunteers participating that hold all traffic until they’re through. I passed the results of two crashes that looked to be pretty serious, but didn’t see any actually take place. Roadblock told me that there are crashes every year, usually due to overly aggressive or overly defensive riding. Because of this, everyone keeps an eye out for themselves and each other throughout the ride and it feels like an instant community from start to finish.
I didn’t time my ride but I’d estimate we started rolling from Tang’s about 4:15 AM and I got into the finish area around 6:30 AM. I was exhausted and had tweaked my left knee at some point along the way, but I was also energized and excited about what I’d just accomplished. I quickly stowed my bike, pulled out my camera and grabbed some images of the winners.
Crash Race Outlook
Roadblock’s primary hope is to get this to be a legitimate event, where they can get permits to have the streets officially shut down and have more time at the finish to deal with assessing winners and handing out prizes without having the police break everything up at 7:00 AM. A real finish line camera and rolling closure permits might be further away than they wish, but I have little doubt the Marathon Crash Race will continue to grow in size and scope.
When asked about having international travelers come along for the ride, Roadblock’s response was essentially the more the merrier. Who’d like to join me for next year’s Marathon Crash Race and experience the city in a whole new way?