For the hard-pedaling day laborers of Los Angeles, bicycling isn't exercise, a hobby, or a statement. It's a way to get to work-if there's work to be found.
Francisco Orellano wakes before sunrise. His mornings are often the same for weeks on end. He carries his bike from his apartment to the street. Then he pedals into the dawn. He passes among other riders, who sit upright and silent, moving almost nothing but their legs, which revolve not in spinning cadences but in slow-motion circles. The riders roll forward, determined, toward some unseen destination.
Francisco looks elegant on his bike. His gray hair and mustache are neat; his striped, button-down shirt is pressed. He is proud of his appearance.
He travels the wide boulevards that lead to the shipping terminals at Long Beach, California. He passes unopened supermarkets, unilluminated car lots. Occasionally he pedals through the glow from an all-night filling station. Sometimes, as he rides, he thinks about El Salvador, where he walked to his jobs. But mostly, as he rides, he wonders whether he'll work today.
Francisco rides to Harbor Park, a green patch amid the factories and warehouses that cover most of the area. He pedals up to a small trailer and locks his bike to a tree; a dozen other bikes are also chained up. The owners of those bikes, all men, all speaking Spanish, give their names to an attendant, are handed a ticket, and wait to be called for work.
Contractors and homeowners who need people to sweep away brush or paint houses or perform other labor arrive in pickup trucks. Ticket numbers are pulled from a hat, and the bike owners trundle into the trucks, lucky to have been selected for a day that pays eight dollars an hour, cash. Not every man works every day. Francisco waits calmly. With his dignified appearance, he wouldn't be out of place if the park had chess tables and he were a retiree spending his golden years at leisure. Instead, he wonders: Will I be chosen? Is today one of those days that adds up to something?
On this June morning, the temperature rises into the 90s. Francisco begins to consider his options. If he doesn't get work here, he can pedal to a few other sites, a Home Depot or one of several street corners where day laborers for hire congregate. If that fails, he'll ride home, only to reappear the next day.
Francisco reads the Bible every night, because it costs nothing. 'I try to earn $200 every week,' he explains. This barely covers food and rent while leaving him a tiny extra amount he can send back to El Salvador, where his wife and children are-though he quickly adds that his kids are no longer kids.
'They're grown,' he says and reaches into his wallet. I think he's going to show me a family picture, but he pulls out his green card. I'm surprised to learn that he's 68 years old; he looks younger. He tells me that he arrived from his war-torn Central American homeland 18 years ago and received political-refugee status in 1989. Since then, he's cleared hundreds of backyards, seen countless remodeled kitchens. He's read through the New Testament a dozen times and pedaled tens of thousands of miles on his bike. He's wired thousands of dollars back to his family.
'I haven't seen them in nearly 20 years,' Francisco says. 'I miss them so much.' There's an admonition on his green card, written in letters larger than his birth date, or name, or anything else: 'Not valid for re-entry.'
Francisco can't leave. The family he misses, the family he loves, needs the money he can provide only from this country. Thanks to his bike.
The men who pedal the streets at daybreak with Francisco are invisible in so many ways. Some are here without permission and must hide from the official world. They are not noticed by the cars and buses that roar past, sometimes to tragic effect. They're not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling. We'll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.
I live near downtown Los Angeles. South and east of me are the city's most densely populated neighborhoods-not Hollywood and Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, which all of America has heard of, but Boyle Heights and Pico Rivera, the only places in California where the number of people per square mile approaches that found in New York, Chicago, or Mexico City. The millions of Spanish speakers who live in these neighborhoods provide the region's muscle and backbone. The bicycle is the blood of this invisible body of labor, as it is all across the United States in a diverse swath of humanity. You and I have seen the bikes everywhere-cheap department-store rigs chained to fences and signposts outside car washes, lumberyards, budget chain restaurants. But we've never seen the riders, not really.
'There are more of them than us,' says Aaron Salinger, a public school teacher and bicycle-only commuter who also volunteers as a mechanic for local riders in his Los Angeles neighborhood. The 'us' Salinger is talking about is recreational riders, dedicated fitness cyclists, people who commute on two wheels by choice. For several weeks in June, Salinger and I rode among the unseen. The veil was hard to lift. Many riders were afraid to talk to us; some thought we were immigration officers and pedaled quickly away.
Neighborhood after neighborhood revealed surprises. The invisible riders, for instance, log far more hours than most 'serious' cyclists. They do so on equipment most of us wouldn't touch and under the most adverse conditions: at the height of rush hour on the busiest thoroughfares. Workers without documentation have no vacation or sick days, so they keep a grueling schedule.
Riders like me want to believe we're doing our part for the environment. We want to believe that having the best equipment is an expression of commitment. But I don't know a single rider who commutes more than the people I met for this story, who do it purely out of necessity, and who do it on bikes that, while they're fashioned to look like high-end mountain bikes, are stripped of so many essential engineering details that we'd consider them unreliable, unsafe, and certainly unenjoyable.
For the invisible riders, two-wheeled transit has nothing to do with style or making a political statement. The invisible riders are overtly saying nothing. But their actions? Nothing could be more politically charged than the way they live.
From overhead, the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard could be seen as the center of a giant cross, marking the center of urban Los Angeles. It is a busy spot. There's a construction site, a gleaming subway station, and bus after bus chugging by, each with its front bike rack nearly filled. At lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon, riders passed through continually. Most were riding Magnas and Micargis, popular department-store models in faux off-road style. A couple of messengers on fixed-gear rigs blew by, and one rider on a battered yellow Schwinn.
It wasn't easy to get people to stop and talk. A heavyset man on a frame branded simply 'Alloy' pedaled around us, saying, 'I'm late.'
'At those kinds of jobs,' Salinger pointed out, 'there are no second chances.'
One place these riders congregate is MacArthur Park, a city recreational facility a few blocks away. A rider resting on the grass there is somebody who hasn't found work yet that day, who might be waiting for a second shift to start, or who just won't go home because the distance, weighed against even the slim chance of getting hired for something, favors staying put. We rode to the park's southwest boundary, picking through a streetside marketplace of fake green card and driver's license merchants, then circled the soccer fields and basketball courts on an asphalt outer ring. Dozens of bikes leaned against trees or lay on the scruffy turf.
'I don't want to give my name,' said a man on a $130 Schwinn with a basket mounted to the front. The basket was filled with empty plastic bottles. 'When I don't find work, I try to make a little money by turning in empties,' he said.
He told us he pedals more than three hours a day, but limited to a minuscule area. He'd never been farther north than the park we were standing in, or much more than three miles in any direction. When I asked why, he got nervous, and the answer was suddenly obvious to me. This is his territory. He couldn't afford to be caught out, to be jailed or sent back across the border.
A few benches down, Hugo Moreno laid his bike on the ground and took a seat. A muscular 27-year-old with a faint mustache and an easy smile, he'd worked since 6 a.m. and wanted to rest before his ride home to Pico Rivera, a community at the heart of immigrant Los Angeles. I asked Moreno if his bike was a good substitute for a car. He looked at me with incredulity. 'It's more like a horse,' he said.
Dreaming of a world of smiling cyclists, of more bike paths, with less traffic congestion and coexisting modes of transportation, is easy for many riders. But on the streets, on a cheap-yet priceless-bike, there's little opportunity for idealism. Pragmatism and attention keep you alive. Safety sometimes has little to do with helmets or skillful riding techniques.
'My bike is safer,' Francisco Orellano says. What he means is this: Working day to day, he's usually paid in cash. When he took the bus, he faced a long and often late-night walk from the stop to his home, with a pocket_ful of money. Once he was robbed. 'That won't happen to me on a bike,' he says.
This doesn't mean the usual dangers of the street don't exist. Many riders pedal up the left lanes, against traffic. The reason, according to a 2004 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is 'significant cultural differences that affect how Hispanics behave as pedestrians and cyclists in the United States.' In much of Central America, riding against traffic is the norm. The report notes other dangers. For instance, signs advising 'yield' rely on a word that doesn't translate well, and whose logistical gist can be nonexistent on Third World roads.
Even the most familiar features of our roads become obstacles.
'If you've never seen a crosswalk,' says Christine Brittle, a research analyst for the Media Network Inc., a group that helped conduct the federal studies, 'how do you know what to do when you get to one?'
On the street, these factors play out in tragic ways. Los Angeles, according to federal and state statistics, is among the most dangerous cities for cyclists in the country, routinely at or near the top of the list for bicycle-car accidents. In 2003, 3,253 Los Angeles County riders were injured, and 26 killed, in collisions with automobiles, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Most of the riders I met viewed their commute as a battle but exhibited none of the smug antiautomotive posturing many committed middle-class bike commuters wear as a badge of honor. Guillermo Diaz, who works at a restaurant near MacArthur Park, was standing near the entrance of a shopping center, waiting for a friend. He lives in a house with seven others, all of whom ride bikes, all on the sidewalk. I thought of cycling advocates who engage in pitched ideological battles over whether it's safer to mix bikes and traffic or to separate them. There's no doubt that a rider with the skills and equipment needed to navigate alongside cars is probably best balanced between efficiency and safety, but I couldn't argue with Diaz that getting off the sidewalk is simply 'too dangerous.'
The major arteries from South Central into downtown are huge-sometimes eight lanes wide. Because they pass through some of L.A.'s oldest and poorest neighborhoods, road surfaces are generally crummy. The bridges that cross from East Los Angeles into downtown, spanning the concrete-covered flood-control channels of the Los Angeles River, are narrow and long. Traffic quickly accelerates to freeway velocity-a nearly impossible situation for any rider, let alone one on a bike with heavy wheels and poor brakes. On the sidewalk, in comparison, the guarantee of safety is nearly absolute.
What would it take for Diaz to use the streets?
He answered instantly, without a hint of irony: 'Owning a car.'
The Los Angeles yellow pages list many more bike shops in the zip codes that cover South Central and East L.A. than in the wealthier parts of town. But the definition of bike shop is different. Some double as florists, gift shops, or even auto-repair outlets; some also sell groceries and hardware. At the Alameda Swap Meet, a sprawling indoor-outdoor marketplace that resembles the traditional town-square mercados found throughout Latin America, Tony and Maria Mata sell bikes and baby carriages in a stall bordered on one side by a tattoo parlor and on the other by a butcher shop. Few riders actually take home a bike on their first visit. Most bikes, Maria says, are sold on layaway: 'It usually takes three or four months for somebody to pay.'
Independent shops find it hard to compete with high-volume department stores on price, even though they sell the same bikes. Inner tubes, at two dollars each, make up the bulk of Tony and Maria's sales. Yet even that purchase can spell disaster for their customers. Jesus Galvez, who owns a shop on South Central Avenue, says the typical customer is desperate. 'Somebody comes in and says, 'I have three dollars-can you please make it work?' '
Maybe these riders won't leave behind the idea of bikes as something to be used, rather than enjoyed, as we have. Maybe, as they and their children struggle up the American ladder as all immigrants have, they'll tell nostalgic stories of how two wheels made it all possible. Maybe the invisible riders will be the catalyst that transforms our polluted cities, fulfilling the mission at which the conventional, more-well-heeled bike community has so far failed.
So why not now? Why not build bike paths, and safer streets, and secure parking, and inexpensive, practical bikes, and financial incentives for riding, and all the other things we recreational riders dream of-and that riders like Francisco actually need?
The answer is simple, and cruel: because Francisco and the other riders like him are invisible. And the answer is wrong. The question, in fact, is wrong.
The real question, the one that must be asked first, says Kastle Lund, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, is 'Why do so many of us fail to see these groups as constituencies that even exist, let alone that we need and are duty-bound to serve?'
Francisco is not invisible. These riders, on these streets, in the peril of traffic and smog, have not somehow made themselves hard to see. If I hadn't seen them in 15 years of daily riding in Los Angeles-and if you haven't seen them in your cities-it's not because they are transparent.
Aaron Salinger, the bike-riding translator, and I were talking as we sat in MacArthur Park. One of my original goals was to see if these riders could somehow transform into racers, tourists, enthusiasts.
Salinger nearly laughed. Kids, he said, have a better understanding of bikes than I do. He told me about what happened when he assigned his junior high class to draw pictures of people doing things on bikes-'whatever you imagine,' he'd said.
One student drew his father on a superbike, vaulting the border from Mexico. Another drew a comic: Bike riders rob a bank, pedal to evade police, and use the money to open a business.
Evidence of moral weakness? No. Evidence of how powerful the desire to live in the United States, and participate in our prosperity, can be. And of the central role the bicycle plays in that dream.
Ask your friends why they ride. To summit mountains, to swoop along singletrack, to lose weight, to get fit. To see things. To feel free. Francisco Orellano doesn't ride to be seen. He rides to become free.
Dan Koeppel's latest book is To See Every Bird on Earth (Hudson Street, 2005). Excerpted from Bicycling magazine (Dec. 2005). Subscriptions: $19.94/year (11 issues) from Box 7308, Red Oak, IA 51591; www.bicycling.com.