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Downtown will be alive with electric energy this Saturday, as nine blocks of its historic core are transformed into a criterium race course, where bicyclists from Los Angeles and abroad will converge for the second annual Civic Center Criterium. The race, hosted by Wolfpack Hustle, is one in a series of races that is drawing competitive cyclists from across Southern California, and their peers from cities as far as New York and Milan, to the streets of Los Angeles to test their strength and skill for a chance at a coveted set of Wolfpack dog tags.
But the Unified Title Series is more than just a bunch of races that shut down the streets and lure every would-be racer out of hiding. The races are giving people a reason -- to train, to stay focused, to get disciplined, to eat better, and to grow as individual athletes and members of dedicated racing teams.
In a city with climbing obesity rates, giving people something to train for is a pretty good idea. Between 1997 and 2011 the percentage of adults who were obese increased by 74 percent. The obesity epidemic is one of the most serious health threats in Los Angeles, contributing to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and several kinds of cancer, along with escalating healthcare costs and rising mortality rates.
For the hundreds of cyclists coming out to compete this weekend, the dangers of squaring off against the fierce competition may be closer on their minds. However, as if love of the battle wasn't enough, their dedication to cycling is lowering the risks of heart disease, stroke and depression. According to the county's public health report on obesity, the adverse risks of physical activity are far outweighed by its positive benefits, while the city's Bicycle Plan maintains that a cyclists get healthier with every mile he or she rides. By that estimate, competitors in the crit will be about 20 times healthier by the time they finish the day's race, completing 24 laps on the 0.6 mile course at average pace of 25 miles an hour.
Last year was the crit's pilot run, and the first event of its kind in the city of Los Angeles -- an amateur street race on a closed course that anyone could enter. All you needed was a bicycle and some bravery.
With the starting line outside the steps of City Hall, the Civic Center Crit took on the air of something magnificent and stately. Spectators filled the steps and lined the sidewalks in between athlete tents and local vendors. Then the races began. The air was on fire. Men and women whose names no one knew graced the starting line, alongside others who had international notoriety. Sean McElroy, a last-minute entry, stole the men's road race, breaking away to leave the whole field in a cloud of dust. He was just 14, and no one saw it coming.
"I really just went out to race," said McElroy, looking back on the win. "I didn't really know who my competitors were because I never really raced with anybody down in L.A."
This year, McElroy's coming back. This year, the competition won't underestimate him.
"When you don't know racers you don't know what they're capable of," said New York courier Josh Rovner, who is returning to Los Angeles to face off against McElroy and the rest of the competition, once more. During the race, Rovner thought the young cyclist was breaking away from the peloton prematurely. "Nine times out of 10 when you're riding off the front of the race solo, you're gonna get caught."
Rovner, 25, got bit by the racing bug four years ago when he got into cyclocross. Last year the crit was a reason for him to come and get a taste of riding in L.A. and compete in one of the most high-profile races in the country, racing against some of the best, most impassioned cyclists -- and a reason to get together with friends he'd made over the years through cycling.
"Racing bikes is about people," he said. "It's not so much a physical thing. You can develop relationships based on racing bicycles that are stronger than a lot of relationships."
Here in Los Angeles, those relationships are pushing men and women to grow in ways they had never anticipated.
"My first [racing experience] was the drag race in 2nd Street tunnel [in 2012]," said Susannah Lowber, who now leads an all-womens' racing development team called She-Wolf Attack Team, or S.W.A.T. "My friends were like 'They need more women to race, you should come out and do it.' I didn't have a track bike, so I didn't know how I was going to do the race, and a friend of mine loaned me his so I could do it."
"I got the bug for racing there, as well as fell in love with fixed gear. The other interesting thing about that race is I didn't know any of the other women, and now when I look back at the roster of everyone [from that race], I know most of those people and most of them I ride with. It's kind of funny that that was our first introduction but we didn't really know it at the time."
Like Susannah, the drag race was my first race too, and meeting other women who were excited to challenge themselves on a bike was a beacon of light in a sea of really fast, rather intimidating, competitive male cyclists. There were 25 women in the race; I made the top 16 by a tenth of a second that day.
Less than two years has passed since that day, and registration for the women's crit races is three times as high. At least 10 of them are racing for S.W.A.T., and for many, it will be their first race.
"It's not only bringing women here in L.A. together, but it's bringing women outside of L.A. together who also ride," said Martha Mauricio. Mauricio, a physical education teacher, used to go out to fast-paced rides like Wolfpack Hustle and Cyclones, but ultimately spent a lot of time riding by herself until S.W.A.T. was established. Last year the crit gave the She-Wolves something to rally around, and built momentum for the club, which has just passed its one-year anniversary, and meets to ride together, fast, every Tuesday night. All women are welcome.
"A lot of us have started post more -- people just post that they're going to be riding, so people come and we ride together," she said. "It's empowering to see so many women coming together."
This weekend, the women of S.W.A.T. will race in both the road and track categories, squaring off against heavy hitters like multi-time dog tag winner Jo Celso, a San Diego native who made her debut to the local racing scene at Wolfpack's Marathon Crash Race in 2012. Today she is the indisputable star of the Wolfpack Racing Team, returning champion of the track category, and winner of the first women's race at the esteemed Red Hook crit. A few years ago, she was just a girl with a vintage steel road bike; now she's a champion.
Like Celso, her podium peers are setting an example of excellence that is driving others to better themselves in the name of competition. While women's participation grows exponentially, another unlikely group has also taken to competitive cycling: inner-city youth. A young man from South L.A., an area he calls Lompton (between Long Beach and Compton), is becoming known as a hero in the streets. Edgar "Willo" Juarez, 2013's Unified Title Series Champion, is the target of this year's men's track race, and the competition will be steep, with notorious racers like NYC's Austin Horse, Francesco Martucci from Milan, and a whole lot of local blood, including heavy hitters from Kushtown and Gorilla Smash Squad (GSS) -- cyclists that Willo grew up with on the fast-paced rides and races of Los Angeles.
"The GSS kids would come out on the Wolfpack rides -- Henry, Felipe, P-Nut -- they would come from Pico-Union or wherever and try and ride these Frankenstein bikes with no straps," said race organizer Don Ward [also a contributor to KCET Departures], recalling their beginnings. "Fixed gears, and they would ride with no straps, brakeless. It was crazy, and I had to figure out a way to get these guys to buy into the system so they don't run red lights or ride crazy.
"You just reel them in, with the idea of riding fast and far, adventuring. Pretty soon they weren't even tagging anymore; they wanted to just train. They're really into it; they're talking about nutrition, they're talking about training, that's how the GSS guys are now, way too intense."
This Saturday, the men and women who've caught the racing bug will be putting their intensity on full display in the heart of Downtown. Qualifiers begin at 3 p.m., and the finals start at 6. Registration is closed, but the event is free for spectators, and the Pure Luck food truck will be on hand to satisfy any hunger that the races don't quell.