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Critical Minimum with the East Side Riders: From Watts to Long Beach on a Friday Night

1:11 PM PDT on May 21, 2012

"You are friends with them?"

It sounded more like a statement of surprise than an actual question.

The Japanese tourist couldn't seem to reconcile that tiny, road-biking me might be hanging out with some burly, tough-looking guys on tricked-out cruisers late on a Friday night in a Long Beach gas-station parking lot.

"Yep," I nodded.


He processed this for a minute.

Then, he pointed to Calvin's cruiser and said, "I never see bikes like these in Japan."

"CALVIN!" I shouted, pulling the tourist over with me. "He says he's never seen a bike like yours before."

After taking a few photos and offering a polite bow of the head, the tourist was gone and the parking lot was ours again. We packed up our goodies and headed across the street to the Metro stop to catch a train back to L.A. It had been a long night and some of us were ready to sit for a bit.

The Friday Night Ride began outside Hope Central Watts around 7:00 that evening when I met up with Ron, Calvin, John, Fred, and Val (who had come all the way up from San Diego to ride with us). The kids that had come by to take advantage of the church's Friday night dinner for the community were thrilled to see the East Side Riders' cruisers parked outside.

One over-confident youngster hopped on Ron's bike, swearing he was big enough to ride it despite being barely able to reach the handlebars.

Watching him wobble his way down the sidewalk, I debated chasing after him. Going straight ahead seemed straightforward enough, but I wasn't sure that he would be able to turn the heavy bike around and remain upright at the same time.

Egged on by his friends and not wanting to take a spill in front of the men he clearly admired, the youngster held on, made a shaky U-turn, and wobbled his way back to us, triumphant.

So triumphant was he, in fact, that he was soon challenging anyone who would listen to a foot race.

It was after 8:00 P.M. when the six of us finally rolled out, headed for Long Beach.

"We're not Critical Mass," I eyed up our crew and joked with John Jones III, head of the East Side Riders. "It's more like Critical Minimum."

But small is often beautiful.

The ride was peaceful. Drivers gave us ample space, honking their support and waving at times, and even the police were nice. Several patrol cars rolled up alongside us in Long Beach warning us to be safe and to watch out for drunk drivers.

We laughed about the kind reception a bit, wondering if it was due to there being a girl rider in the mix, but the gestures were welcome all the same.

The advantages of a small riding group are many. It is easy to keep the group together and there is a lot of space for conversation as you ride.

Best of all, at least for me, was watching grown men on tough cruisers turn into kids. As we reached the first downhill, I heard a shout and turned to see Ron go flying by with his feet up on the handlebars, his over-sized shirt billowing out behind him like a parachute.

"Don't pedal!" John warned Ron, laughing and pushing off in pursuit. "Don't pedal!"

Suddenly, all the men were racing to see whose bike could get them the fastest and farthest down the hill.

The fun ended when they had to start up the incline the other side.

We waited at the top for Calvin, an older gentleman on a gorgeous but heavy bike who was hampered by having only a single gear. He hadn't been on a 12-mile ride in a long time and the hill took its toll on him.

"First thing I'm changing this out for some gears," he puffed at the top, resolute. "Tomorrow!"

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