My friends who lack the particular affinity for waking up at the crack of dawn on weekends to ride a bike up a canyon or two long lamented my absence at the time-honored gay pastime of brunch. Since 2011, when I began a five-year stint riding in and raising money for AIDS/LifeCycle, the 545-mile, seven-day trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles that benefits HIV programs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center, my weekends have revolved around my rides and my bike squad, composed mainly of my LifeCycle team. My team, Pretty Little Riders, was created with my bike bestie, Marc, in 2014.
At first, the rides were about training for the herculean challenge of riding 500-plus miles in a week as much as they were social. But I began to notice a pattern; if I was sick, if it rained, if I had to be on weekend duty writing for The Advocate — any time I was pulled from my bike for the week rendered me moody and out of sorts, and it definitely made my work week longer and more stressful.
During the lead-up to the 2016 election and the news became more partisan and angry, I realized my rides were my respite from the world around me. I simply could not be on my phone if I had two hands on the handlebars. And the combination of fresh air (debatable in L.A.), sunlight, exercise, and laughing my head off with people I love kept me centered.
Still, another pattern emerged in that no matter how many miles I’d gone, I didn’t feel quite right unless I’d climbed a major hill or two. My ride squad lovingly called me type A for demanding hills, but recently I came across an article in Bicycling that proved my body and mind knew what they needed when it came to climbing.
“Longer, sustained efforts trigger the release of mood-lifting chemicals like endorphins and cannabinoids, which, as the name suggests, are in the same family of chemicals that give pot smokers their high, kick in,” the article said about climbing. “Research also shows that regular efforts in the lactate threshold range, which incidentally is where you climb, may help ward off mood disorders like depression.”
Since Donald Trump won the Electoral College, my rides have only become more imperative. For all of the good that came out of the reckoning around sexual harassment last fall, as The Advocate’s feminism editor, I wrote about the details of rape and sexual abuse nearly every day for three months straight, and it took its toll, but I made sure to get on the bike as often as I could to ensure I was in the best place for myself and for what I hope was meaningful work for those who joined in the #MeToo movement.
At the end of a “solid climb,” as my friends and I often say of our rides, the lift I enjoy is more than the act of merely being on the bike and pushing my body to its limits, although that’s part of it. The climb is about the ritual of preparation, of coffee with friends, of laughter, and even of brunch. Here are the 19 steps to the weekend climbs that prepare me for the week ahead and for the news of the day.
The bike squad is a busy bunch of professionals, so we may not touch base for several days during the week, but typically by Thursday, someone will initiate the first group text, which often begins with “Who’s riding this weekend? Where are we going?” From there, we choose the route based on schedules, the predicted heat (we try to stick to the ocean on oppressively hot days), and essentially the kind of week we’ve had at work. For me, the harder my week, the more time I allot for my bike.
The squad semi-regularly rides 80 miles to Santa Barbara to return on the train. Once, three of us rode 134 miles from Union Station in Los Angeles to San Diego in a day. We’ve climbed Mount Wilson, a 24-mile climb that ends with Frito Pie at the Cosmic Café at the top. But those days are extra special and they need to be planned well in advance. For the weeks that we have an average amount of time to ride, we choose a route that begins in West Hollywood, goes up through Nichols Canyon, a four-mile hill that takes us up to the famed Mulholland Drive. From there, we descend and head over to Burbank and up another four-mile hill in Griffith Park before returning to West Hollywood.
The plan is the first step in knowing that at the end of the week I get to enjoy a day out with friends — big kids on bikes that we are.
On Saturdays, we wear high-visibility pink! We don’t always dress alike, but there’s often some discussion of kit (cycling outfit) solidarity, especially for our special destination rides.
Preparing for the ride is not my favorite piece of the process, considering I often arrive home exhausted on a Friday night ready to zone out with Netflix, but I spend a good 40 minutes or so on ensuring I have everything I need ready for the ride.
First, I pick the outfit based on the weather and often on what I wore the week before. I fill my water bottles and toss any extra nutrition I think I may need, like a protein bar or electrolyte chews, in my bike bag. Then I throw some Greek yogurt and cherries in a to-go bowl to take with me for the drive to our meet-up. Next, I double-check that my bike computer, rear taillight, and backup battery for my phone are charged. Finally, I pump my tires to a little more pressure than I need so that they’ll be just right by morning.
I’ve never been a morning person. Even if my body is up and moving, I take hours to actually feel awake. Some weekends when my alarm goes off I think about the possibility of more sleep or of enjoying a relaxing morning of drinking coffee and reading the paper with my cat on my lap, but the ride always makes me snap to.
Part of the ritual of every morning is coffee, but on ride days, I savor my first cup of French roast French pressed. I drink my coffee while feeding my cat, and lathering up with sunscreen.
The news cycle is a big part of why I need my rides more than ever. Most days I listen to NPR en route to the starting point while I eat my yogurt at stoplights. But there are other days when I need to feel pumped and inspired, or when I just can't listen to another horrifying news report. That’s when I turn to pop staples like P!nk or Kelly Clarkson to get me ready. Once, when Marc and I were driving to the start-up for the two-day charity ride for cancer, Pedal the Cause, we blared Clarkson’s “Stronger.” On another occasion, we played and sang along to her “Catching My Breath” on repeat while ascending a hill.
Some days it takes longer to get out on our bikes than others. Marc and I are notorious for our habit of “stopping to smell the roses,” but we know that about each other and plan accordingly. There are mornings when I arrive late to our meet-up or he’s still searching for his cycling gloves and makes an espresso while I wait. No matter what, our meet-ups include a hug and an acknowledgment that it’s good to see each other. We don’t have to necessarily say it, but we implicitly know that it’s a special person who is down for the adventures on which we embark.
Strava is like Facebook for cyclists, runners, and swimmers who want to connect while also tracking their mileage but without Facebook's fake news and bots. Once a ride is finished, Strava uploads a map of the route with stats about speed, elevation, and segments where you’ve beaten your record of previous rides. While climbing for me is not just about getting a “personal record” on any given Strava segment, there’s something inspiring about beating my own record, especially when it doesn’t feel hard to beat. Progress in my training is part of the high.
The ride north from West Hollywood to Nichols Canyon is a slight incline. but we really get into the meat and potatoes of the climb once we cross Hollywood Boulevard at about four miles in. The first part of the ride is a slog with a nasty little 13 percent grade of a kicker right off the bat. But at about 1.5 miles in there’s a right turn that takes us up a gentler slope past some hiking trails and where the hills are dotted with old Hollywood mansions. Nichols is always a little bit of a push because I'm still waking up, but I love that moment when my heart rate kicks in, my legs are pumping, and I feel like I’m working.
There’s a gnarly 18 percent grade at the top of the climb, which is dubbed “The Wall” on Strava. But once the wall has been conquered, it’s a sweet ride past Runyon Canyon and all of the hikers down Mulholland Drive.
Since I replaced my old aluminum frame bicycle with a carbon frame, which absorbs the road better and provides a smoother ride, there are times on my bike when I feel I’ve achieved lift-off — that I'm flying. It’s happened occasionally while navigating the switchbacks on Mulholland that I feel somewhat out-of-body, enjoying the weightlessness and the scenery as I descend.
We don’t always stop at the scenic overlook on Mulholland that looks into the Hollywood Bowl and down the 101 freeway to downtown L.A. But we do often stop to take in the beauty of our city and kick-start our social media for the day. I’ve posted so many pictures of me in a bike helmet that friends have joked they don’t recognize me without one. While people have begun liking my bike pictures less and less out of repetition, I suppose, I keep posting them so that in a year Facebook will remind me that a year ago I was out with friends doing what I love most.
There’s a point once we descend Mulholland where we can choose to brave the insane traffic up the relatively flat Cahuenga Boulevard or we can make a hard right through a high-end Hollywood Hills neighborhood that is a longer 18 percent climb. If we take the harder climb, there’s the option of dropping down around the gorgeous Lake Hollywood with its vistas of the Hollywood sign. Some days we take the hair-raising, heavily trafficked route, and there are others when we push a little harder and take in the view.
No matter if we climb at the fork or head up Cahuenga, there’s no other way to descend than down the heavily trafficked Barham Boulevard, which leads to some of the big studios, including Warner Bros. and the unmistakable water tower. I especially love that lot because it’s where Pretty Little Liars was shot, a show that another friend and I convinced Marc to watch and was the inspiration for our team name. When the news from about the Trump administration’s latest injustices becomes too much, I still turn to my pop culture happy places like Pretty Little Liars, The Good Wife, and most recently, The Bold Type to take me out of it. Riding past the Warner Bros. lot is a little collision of things I love.
Cyclists and coffee go together like strawberries and cream, or Laverne and Shirley, or something like that. There are plenty of times when the squad, waiting at the light at the bottom of Barham Boulevard, makes a split decision to go straight for a quick coffee at Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake. There’s nothing like a strong almond-milk cappuccino smack in the middle of a ride. And the squad often takes turns treating for coffee, an example of how we look out for each other.
Next, we head toward Griffith Park with its picnic areas, carousel, zoo, horseback riding trails, and, of course, the observatory where James Dean engaged in a knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause.
Garbage Truck Hill, which winds up the backside of the park, does not allow cars, a rare and welcome addition to any climb. The beauty of Garbage Truck is that while it’s the last big push often after a long day of climbing, especially if we’ve extended our ride out to Pasadena, is knowing that once we’ve crested the 11 percent grade at the top and ridden past the gates, it’s literally all downhill from there. But also, that part of Griffith Park, with its scattered cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders, is completely peaceful. I love to stare out over Beachwood Canyon below and toward downtown L.A. removed from the hustle of city life.
The descent from Garbage Truck Hill is broken up into two — the upper part, free from cars, and the lower, where it’s challenging to navigate them. Toward the end of the first piece of the descent is a prime picture spot for tourists and for those of us who can never get enough. To the right is the Hollywood sign, a continual reminder to me that 12 years ago I packed up my car and my cats and drove cross-country from Connecticut to California to pursue my dreams. Just off to the left is the Griffith Observatory, a stunning example of art deco architecture on a precipice in the park. I have dozens of pictures at these two picture-taking spots roughly 40 feet away from each other and I cherish every one as a reminder of how lucky I am to live where I do.
I’m new to Instagram stories, and mine are fairly rudimentary. Some include just panning from the observatory over the horizon. Others are pictures of Marc and me, and the rest of the squad (if they’re with us), in our natural states clad in spandex, helmets, cleated shoes, and all.
Ostensibly, anyone can climb on a bike and pedal. And there are plenty of groups with varying levels of experience to join. But I can’t imagine laughing harder with another group than I do with the band of people I met on AIDS/LifeCycle who make up my squad. One evening, after a 60-plus-mile ride that took us all day while we “stopped to smell the roses,” Marc and I hit the part of the descent where tourists in cars block the road waiting for parking spaces to open up. One of us cussed “damn tourists” under our breath as we rode three miles per hour down what is a glorious descent that we believe was less packed with cars prior to the release of La La Land, part of which was shot in Griffith Park.
I don’t know which of said it first, but one of us decided to blame the movie’s director, Damien Chazelle, for our decelerated downhill and said, “Fuck you, Damien Chazelle!” Now we say it at least once during that descent. And because we are usually bonking at that point, meaning we’ve burned more energy than we’ve taken in and may actually be lightheaded, we laugh every time.
Once we’re down the hill, there’s nothing left but to make the six- or seven-mile trip from the neighborhood of Los Feliz to West Hollywood. The traffic can be intense, but as AIDS/LifeCycle taught us to do, we call out cars poking out of side streets, car doors about to open, glass in the road, and any other detritus we happen upon. A big piece of riding with the squad is knowing we look out for each other. If one of us gets a flat or drops a chain, we all stop and help in whatever capacity that is, even if it’s just one of us making off-color jokes about the tightness of our tire rims.
There are cyclists for whom speed is paramount. While I love when I notice I’ve gotten stronger, when a certain climb felt easier than the last time, or when I hit a personal record without even feeling a burn, my rides are about laying down the phone (or in this case, tucking it in a Ziploc case in my jersey pocket) and taking in the world around me. L.A. is so steeped in history, lore, art, eccentrics, and weirdos that I can discover something new on every trip. These miniature libraries with a “take a book, leave a book” policy that dot the city are just one of those quirky, lovely touches.
I really do enjoy brunch, but I love it when I feel as though I’ve earned it. One of our favorite spots to decompress and refuel after a ride is Kings Road Café on Beverly Boulevard, which draws cool people and celebrities (we sat next to an Oscar winner once) and makes outstanding cappuccinos (yes, that’s likely strong coffee number 3 for me, for anyone keeping track). You’d think that hours on a bike chatting about our work, lives, and families would be enough, but the squad is my West Coast family and there's always more to say over food.
No ride is complete until the Strava is turned off. We have ridden in circles at the close of a century ride (a 100-mile ride) because one of us forgot to turn on Strava right at the beginning and there may be 0.3 miles to go to hit the goal. While waiting to order brunch, we check our stats and medals — who got a personal record and where— and we post our final pictures of the day to Instagram. My rides begin with the alarm on my phone going off and end with social media, but for the three hours or more of ride time, depending on the route, my bike saddle is where I decompress from the chaos around me.
Cycling may not be a panacea for everyone, but I encourage everyone to find your own “climb.”