Ride Report: Tour de Café
by Richard Risemberg (Los Angeles, March 2008)

For a long time, I had been toying with the idea of a group ride that would put the "café" back into "café racer," fifty easy miles or so deliciously interrupted by stops at establishments dedicated to a variety of gustatory experiences. After all, the term evolved among motorcycle riders in England, who would race in noisy squadrons from pub to pub, regrouping there to refresh their spirits and recount their exploits immediately past. What better way to continue the tradition than with the more civilized mode of bicycling? And so I invited a few friends and set the date for yesterday, the Ides of March.

The last stop would be chez nous, where Gina, who did not feel up to a fifty-miler that weekend, would cook up a little something to top us off. As Gina is a spectacular gourmet cook, this was almost adequate compensation for the loss of her company on the road.

The vicissitudes of organized sociability in Los Angeles being what they are, the crew was small, with some to join us en route, while others would peel off partway through. First to arrive outside our apartment was Rook, formerly a bike messenger and sponsored bike racer, now a PhD student at USC, followed shortly afterwards by James Black, the originator of the James Black Hat. Unfortunately for Rook, her rear tire revealed a gigantic aneurysm as we inspected the wheel, and, we being commuter types, all the substitute tires we could offer her wouldn't fit into her racing frame. She was able to stay for the first course--homemade chai tea--before wheeling her bike to the bus stop for the trip home.

Gina's chai tea, though, is worth a trip in itself: made with spices she blends herself and strong assam tea from India, simmered in milk for over an hour, and sweetened with honey, it is both powerful and sensual, and a delightful stimulant. Well-fortified, James and I headed off towards Hollywood on the first leg of our trip.

Our first stop was only five miles off, a coffeehouse known as Sabor y Cultura, where I used to spend the last civilized moment of each workday before heading into the office in the time before becoming my own boss. Besides plenty of light coming in through tall plate-glass windows, interesting and amusing art on the walls, and lively, lovely patrons, it offers some of the best coffee drinks in Los Angeles. There we settled in to wait for Patrick Miller, passionate cyclist, superb photographer, and masterful designer of sound environments, who lives a few blocks away. He arrived late, of course, but we were being entertained by an old photo business crony of mine whom we'd chance upon there, and didn't mind the wait one bit. After we finished our refreshments, we saddled up and rode on.

Onward--and upward. The next leg of our journey took us up the Cahuenga Pass, where the Hollywood Freeway and two frontage roads climb over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Valley. It is only a couple of miles at the most, but it is steady climbing, all arduous, and some sections quite steep. As I was on the fixed-gear, and the lads were on geared bikes (and had twenty years on me anyway), they were unable to complain. At the top we turned onto a side road to amble along between quaint hillside bungalows, sidestepping a rather banal little stretch of Barham Boulevard in the process. I brought us back to Barham at the beginning of a long, steep, smooth descent, where the road was also very wide. The lads zoomed deliriously downwards, freewheels buzzing, while I spun rather ploddingly behind to meet them at Forest Lawn Drive, at the bottom of the hill.

This road also is wide, but fairly level, and has a bike lane, as it is popular with roadies for their eternal training rides. On the right hand are two large hillside cemeteries, beyond which rise the peaks of Griffith Park, while on the left, just over the concrete trench of the Los Angeles River, lies a succession of movie studios, with most of the acreage dominated by Disney's digs. The air was bright and clear, with a few wispy clouds to decorate it, and the Verdugo Hills, with the San Gabriel Mountains behind them, were vivid in the north. We made good time here, though I at least had to maneuver to avoid an old fellow in a sedan who seemed intent on improving the cemetery's business. Despite his efforts, I made it alive to the turnoff into Griffith Park, where I waited for the lads.

A brief turn around the locomotive museum and a spin along the bright green foothills with their oaks and picnickers brought us to Victory Boulevard and the central section of the Los Angeles River Bike Path.

At this point the bike path runs between the desperate cacophony of Interstate 5 on the right, and the stark though placid vacancies of the LA River on the left, as you head downstream. The riverbed being wide, the banks concrete, and the water level minimal at this season, it has more the effect of a gigantic modern sculpture than of a natural feature--though there has been progress in the effort to re-green it lately. Overall, though, riding between the freeway's brutal frenzies and the river's reverberating emptiness makes for a somewhat surreal experience, which is exaggerated by the inabiliity to communicate with your fellows over the noise. Fact is, though, I rather enjoy it...once in a while. And, with no stop signs or intersections (except with a bridle path once) to detain you, you can really make time along here, and kick up your velocipedal heels a bit.

We rode the bike path to its end at Fletcher Drive (it resumes several miles further on), then followed Riverside Drive along a former Pacific Electric right-of-way to San Fernando Road, which led us along the railroad tracks and under the Pasadena Freeway to the old Art Deco bridge where Broadway crosses the river and takes you to Chinatown. That was our next stop, where we were to meet John Vu, as well as as Patrick's girlfriend Christene, who would join us for lunch at Café Via before heading off to Long Beach.

Café Via is in the old square in Chinatown, but is basically a Vietnamese bistro, with a relaxing atmosphere and excellent food. We ordered up and spent probably a good hour chewing and chatting and watching the passersby, both tourists and residents--the latter comprising both old-line Chinese and the artists who hang out in the new gallery row in Bamboo Square. Quite a number of folks pushed bikes past the window as we addressed our lunch, and we had to force ourselves to leave.

James, Rick Patrick, and John in Chinatown (photo by Christene)
Leave we did, though, and--now four strong--we rode Broadway straight through downtown, past the very building where our Bicycle Fixation clothing is made, and on to Jefferson Boulevard, where we turned to wander past the USC campus and head on west towards, of course, yet another eatery. This time it would be John Vu's suggestion, VegiSoul, a tiny storefront takeout place with a few formica tables and a vegetarian soul food menu, run by a friendly and efficient black family. I don't know whether John's a vegetarian, but I am, and I'll definitely be back. John called friends Brian and Yvonne on his cell phone, and they bicycled down from East Hollywood to join us for the feast, so we slammed a bunch of the little tables together and once again addressed ourselves to degustation. We were coming dangerously close to offsetting the calories we'd expended in riding, but the food was good, and we didn't care!

When we came out, the wind had mounted to make sure we wouldn't gain weight. Massive battlements of clouds had built up on the hills to northward, signs of a low-pressure zone that was sucking air towards it from the sea. A cold, blustery headwind would face us for the next fifteen miles, as we followed Jefferson Boulevard westward through a diversity of distinct and interesting neighborhoods...from ghetto storefronts featuring haircuts, barbecue, and God, through the aimless rambles of mid-Wilshire, past the movie studios and little picket-fence houses of Culver City, alongside the massive apartment blocks of Playa Vista, and finally to the Ballona Wetlands, or what's left of them: home to herons, egrets, and placid winding channels hemmed in by lush green grasses and nodding reeds. A long run against a cold wind that gusted up to fifty miles per hour, drawing water from your eyes to blow it straight back into your ears. The Bottecchia tracked straight and true despite the battering she received, and soon we had arrived in Playa del Rey, a little enclave at the end of the road where Ballona Creek empties into the sea.

Tanner's Coffee waited for us there, and never was a cup of the black brew more appreciated!

We were further warmed by the knowledge that the wind would be pushing us all the way back to chez nous, where Gina and her marvelous cooking waited.

James had left us as we passed the street he lives on, so Patrick, John, and I saddled up, crossed over Ballona Creek on the bike bridge to the jetty, turned inland, and flew effortlessly along the creekside bike path, soaring swiftly along with little effort, as though in a magic bubble. Great flocks of pelicans wheeled overhead, while smaller seabirds huddled on the rocks under the concrete banks of Ballona, dodging the wind. Small waves rolled up the normally placid creek, and we raced them to the end of the bikepath in Culver City. This let us out onto familiar streets only a few miles from home base.

Within a few minutes we were slipping past the knots of traffic in Little Ethiopa (site of a future Tour de Café stop, no doubt), past Tom Bergin's famous bar, up Eighth Street for a few blocks, then finally onto Burnside, where we stowed the bikes in the garage and climbed the stairs to the final feast of the day.

Rook had come back, by bus, to join us, and Gina had been hard at work grilling, breading, sauteeing, assembling, and baking, so we cracked a few beers and set to, devouring a sampler of mini-panini sandwiches featuring Camembert or mozzarella combined with kalamata olives, exquisite grilled mediterranean vegetables, sauteed mushrooms, sweet red onion, and much more in various delectable combinations--and the centerpiece, which I can only describe by its genesis, not name. To wit:

I like brussels sprouts, and always have. But Gina, in common with most other persons, has a considerably lesser regard for the noble green. Recently, I decided to challenge her, and asked her to devise a recipe that would make Brussels sprouts irresistible to all, and not just to a devoted minority. And, in a fit of alliteration, I asked her to make them "braised, breaded, and baked."

She had no recipe to follow, no precedent to depend on. But she took up the challenge. And, working her magic, she succeeded, beyond my hopes, and far beyond her own.

Scented with a delicately-balanced blend of spices, and paired with a homemade marinara sauce, they are a favorite of all who try them. Even Gina likes them! We gobbled them up with neither grace nor restraint, washed them down with more sandwiches, cleansed our palates with good beer, and had a wonderful time to end our ride. Everybody lingered beyond the times when they needed to leave for other parties, and I for one was so well-fed that I felt not the least bit tired from all the miles, the hills, and the wind.

In fact, a couple of hours later, Gina and I saddled up and rode to the famous old Farmers Market on Third Street to listen to an Irish band play, and Irish dancers dance, in honor of St. Patrick's day.

But, I must confess, we didn't eat.

Richard Risemberg