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From Inside Peloton: Climbing LA

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Feel My Legs, I’m A Racer

Los Angeles is a maligned city. Woody Allen’s famous quote from Annie Hall, “Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light,” sums up how the rest of the country looks at this misunderstood city.

interview: Brad Roe
Images: Jordan Clark Haggard

If you live in Boulder or the Pacific Northwest or anywhere that doesn’t have the 405 Freeway, Los Angeles is perceived as a bike-hating maze of freeways where everyone has personalized license plates, Pomeranians, fake tans and begins each day with a bong rip. Lotus Land. (Some of that is mildly accurate.)

The greatest misconception is that there is no good riding in Los Angeles unless you make a trip to the more expensive enclaves of Palos Verdes or Malibu. Matt Ruscigno set out to change that perception. A veteran racer (although you have to squeeze it out of him) having competed in the Ironman, the Furnace Creek 508, (solo), and 24-hour races, Matt is the organizer of Feel My Legs, I’m a Racer, a Los Angeles-based event you’ve probably never heard of and most likely never ridden. Chances are you won’t believe it actually exists.

Describe the inspiration for Feel My Legs, I’m a Racer?

I moved to Los Angeles and people said you couldn’t live in LA without a car, but I found it not only doable but also rewarding. I explored all the mountains surrounding the city, which are world class for climbing, but I also found plenty of difficult hills within miles of my house. And, being car-free it also showed me ‘shortcuts’ and ways to connect neighborhoods that people just don’t do when they rely on a car for transportation. I thought having a race/ride that showed people the hardest 10 hills I could find would show off the parts of LA that I love.

No registration, no prizes, no cash, correct?

We offer no prizes or entry forms in order to keep it simple. It’s an insanely challenging event, but I wanted to reduce the barriers to get people there. I want every person who wants to do this to be able to. I’ve been offered sponsorship and am often asked about prizes or a cash purse. But the people who want to win stuff are the kind of people I want less of there in order to keep it more fun. My bike club, Swarm!, started 10 years ago with the idea that we wanted more racers to ride bikes in the city and more city kids to race bikes. And to have more fun! We’d ride out to events, sleep in a park, and get up and race. Something can be challenging and also fun and an adventure. Too many people are too serious all of the time.

Are people amazed that the climbs are actually in LA and not in Malibu?

Once a photoset made it into some big bike forum and the most common response was, ‘This is LA? No way!’ And we are in the heart of the city: Echo Park, Silver Lake, East LA and many small neighborhoods like El Sereno, Montecito Heights and Hermon. I think car culture blinds people to what is right near them.

Is it possible to train for this event?

I highly recommend people train for this. Since I promote it as a local event, I suggest people give some of the hills a try on their own. What’s interesting is that roadies tend to have trouble because they may be good at normal climbs, but they aren’t prepared for 25 percent-plus grades. Some of those roads are poor quality and you may have some squirrelly rider next to you, which gives it a cyclocross feel.

Are most people racing or just trying to survive/complete the event?

We get about 80 to 100 people at the start and of those maybe 20 are there to race. That number quickly drops to about 10. Then about 50 or so are there to just attempt every hill. The rest are just there for the spectacle and the journey through LA.

What do you think is the hardest climb of the ten?

Fargo is definitely one of the hardest climbs anywhere. It’s steep and narrow from the start and unrelenting. But Eldred Street keeps getting steeper and narrower as you go up and probably takes out more people. It’s also full of potholes and loose gravel and has the same dog every year that barks at riders as they weave up.

Any strange/creative happenings (beer, food, marriages, crashes) that stand out?

I’ve done this race eight times and it rained for three of the first four, which makes it extra crazy and dangerous. The first year I rode it with a bike trailer carrying water and bananas for everyone. Coming down the backside of Baxter Street in Echo Park, I couldn’t stop and I launched it at the cross street. It was super scary even for me, a former BMXer! Two years later, a certifiably epic rider who I won’t name broke his collarbone from bombing the same hill and launching it without the luck I had. [The joke is he’s on Rapha’s Continental team.]

I put this on so people can see an entirely different part of Los Angeles. The bike is an ideal tool for exploration, and racing up these hills just makes it an extraordinary experience. I want to bring people joy via bicycles and for some, myself included, ‘joy’ can come from pushing your physical and mental abilities. For everyone else, they get a cool tour of the unknown Los Angeles. Every year people tell me they have no idea where they are or how they got there until I point out that we are only five miles from where it starts. That blows them away. The entire ride only covers about 20 miles, starting and ending in Silver Lake.

I feel bad for people who spend hours on trainers or drive 10 miles to ride in a park. Adventure and fun and challenging terrain are probably closer to you than you realize, and I want to encourage people to explore more.

Are you aware of any other event like this in LA or other cities?

My ride is based exactly off of Danny Chew’s Dirty Dozen in Pittsburgh. He’s been doing that race for decades. I know of Danny through ultra cycling, but I also happen to be close friends with Steevo Cummings, the guy who has won it 10 years in a row. He’s an old BMX/punk friend who happens to be a UCI cyclocross racer now. The name Feel My Legs, I’m a Racer is a reference to the BMX company S&M. Their first video was called Feel My Leg Muscles, I’m a Racer, and it’s hilarious. I wanted a fun name to balance the difficulty of this event.

I couldn’t do this without the help of many volunteers, almost all of them from my club, Swarm! They ride up to the top, keep score and set up at confusing turns so people know where to go.