Smog City Cycling

Back in high school, waaaayyyyy back, there was a guy in one of my classes who had this catch-all phrase for real-life stuff that happens outside of the make believe confines of the secondary school classroom. Generally bad stuff. He said “that’s life in the big city.” Nowadays, people say “shit happens.” Same concept, different generation.

This past Sunday, my buddy Mario and I went out on our bikes looking for “life in the big city.” Not the bad stuff, but the interesting stuff that you see at the speed of bike and where a bike can take you. Since we’re talking LA, it’s “life in the smog city”, although several other big cities, like Beijing and Mejico D.F., probably have bested LA on that score. But the reputation remains, as demonstrated by the beer stein shown below.

Smog City stein

Smog City stein

I’m getting ahead of myself, the beer comes later. Let’s start at the start.

In the morning as we were kitting up, Mario suggested that we ride to the inland city of Downey, because a new location of Porto’s Bakery had opened there recently on Firestone Boulevard. Porto’s already is well-known and loved in Glendale and Burbank, Downey ought to be the same. And I am ALL ABOUT latte and pastry mid-ride or after, so no argument from me about the destination.

As we get rolling, check out this picture of Mario at the corner of Western & Carson. What’s that fuzzy stuff in front of his ears? Come on now, it’s not 1970, those can’t be sideburns can they? Mais non! They are Cat-Ears, a made-in-the-U.S.A. product ingeniously designed to reduce wind noise and enhance your hearing while riding. Who could argue with that?

Cat-Ear man on the prowl!

Cat-Ear man on the prowl!

Mario says he won’t ride without them now. Sorry, my goofy-meter gets pegged when I see those things. Besides, I think they make him look not like a cat, but like… Wolverine!


We headed inland from Chez Mario in south Torrance near the beach, and found our way to the LA River, which is one of those unfortunate hydrologic features that have been channelized into a ruler-straight concrete strip, gently dropping inches over miles to the ocean, with barely a bend to be seen. However, we cyclists benefit from having the river strapped in, because a lovely bike path has been created along the top of the concrete bank. No stop signs, no traffic signals, no cars/trucks/buses, just miles and miles of time-trial ready pavement.

Alas, life in the big city found us, even on this isolated bike path. In fact, that very degree of isolation perhaps is the source of how we were found and impacted. The channelized river, and the bike path, encounter bridges for the roads that need to span the river. The bike path dives under these bridges and pops back up on the other side. The larger bridges, for example, the bridge carrying the California Highway 91 freeway, provide a degree of shelter for itinerant homeless folks. Some of these folks drink alcohol. In glass bottles. Some of these folks break bottles, sometimes on the bike path.

As we were diving down under the 91 freeway bridge, I rolled over a spread of broken glass and my rear tire went “pow!” flat right now. We came to a stop under that same freeway, with that well-remembered traffic dirge sounding in my ears. At least we were in the shade on a hot, sunny day. As I was fixing the flat I looked around and noticed a small tent encampment maybe 30 yards away, also under the bridge. I imagined some fellows eyeballing us from inside those tents and making a judgement call on whether or not to get involved.

We pulled off that bike path at Firestone Boulevard and into a used car lot so that Mario could check his genius phone for the address of Porto’s. We found this big boy guarding the sales lot.

Finally! We made it to Porto’s Bakery, where we indulged in guava strudels and coconut maccaroons along with hot drinks, a nice steaming chai latte for me. There was another group of cyclists there, they had ridden north on the San Gabriel River bike path from Long Beach. Word has gotten out, it’s becoming a cycling destination! It was quite crowded, apparently it’s a traditional Sunday Latino post-church stop. But there is a big staff, they keep the product moving and the tables cleaned.

With many more calories onboard we headed back to the river bike path. But first we had to make a stop to see another big boy, this one the real “Big Boy”. Might be the last one in town for all I know. The Big Boys have been vanishing as tastes change, that’s life in the big city.

Then downstream we went, the miniscule downhill grade being totally offset by a headwind coming north from the LA harbor. This is where I let Mario practice his long distance leadouts, at least that’s what I tell him as I’m sitting on his wheel enjoying the pull. As a reward, once we exited the bike path and headed west to Torrance, I suggested that we make another stop at Smog City Brewing. No argument from my pal if there is cold beer to be had…

So in the end, we had a nice clear day for riding in the smog city, and ample refreshment at Porto’s Bakery and Smog City Brewing.

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