Decked out in spandex and a yellow and orange racing jersey with Eastside Bicycle Club: Ride To Live on the front, Gabriela Bilich was hanging out at club founder Carlos Morales' bike shop before a Saturday evening group-ride last weekend, joking with the other cyclists in spanglish.
Bilich says a couple of years ago, she would never have imagined herself riding a bike through the streets of LA. She says the cycling world just didn't feel welcoming to a 40-something Latina from Southeast LA who struggled with her weight.
"I used to hang out at the Rose Bowl a lot. I used to go walking and I would see the cyclists go by, the whir of the peloton [pack] going by so fast," she remembers. "All I ever saw were white dudes, tall skinny white dudes on the bikes, middle-age men in Lycra riding around the Rose Bowl and so I was like, 'Okay, that's another thing white people do.' "
But after being introduced to the roughly 400-member Eastside Bike Club, which is mostly Latino, bilingual and bi-cultural, Bilich has found a cycling family where she feels right at home. She's celebrating her one year bike-a-versary this month and credits cycling for her weight loss, but more importantly, her happiness.
"I was never an athletic person in my life," she says. "This is the first time that I've ever found anything that I liked and that I'm completely addicted to, you know? It's my therapy."
In fact, weight loss is what initially pushed Carlos Morales, the founder of the club, to get on a bike in 2008, after a years-long battle with obesity. At age 48, he was 400 pounds and on a dozen different medications. A sobering discussion with his doctor convinced him that if he didn't get in shape, he'd die.
Morales loved basketball, but was carrying too much weight to play. The next best thing: riding a bike. He remembered he loved biking around his East LA neighborhood as a kid and hoped it would bring him the same satisfaction as an adult. He spent months swimming to lose enough weight that he felt comfortable balancing on the old bike collecting dust in his garage.
When that day came, he called up eight friends from his largely Mexican-American neighborhood in East LA to ride with him. The only time that worked for everyone was Tuesday night at 7 p.m. He's been riding every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. for the past seven years.
As word of the ride spread, the number of cyclists grew from eight to 20 to 60. People in the neighborhood would come out and clap, Morales recalls. "They thought we were doing something special, and we were just having fun."
Now there are hundreds of active Eastside Bike Club members in on the fun, and Morales has turned cycling from a recreational activity into his life's work. A few years ago, he bought a high-end bike shop that had been catering to customers that could buy fancy bikes for thousands of dollars. He kept the name, Stan's Monrovia Bicycles, but changed things up a bit. Morales brought in more affordable models, and made the shop into a place where both a Hollywood producer and a day laborer could be comfortable, and where Spanish is spoken as freely as English.
Around 6 p.m., Bilich and nearly two dozen other riders headed out from Morales's bike shop parking lot and onto the unusually wet Southern California city streets. A tropical storm surprised the riders, but they decided to brave the weather and continue what Morales calls the "tour de tacos," a 35-mile trek with half a dozen stops at taco trucks along the way.
Morales says the Eastside Bike Club is about exercising — he calls the streets of LA his gym — but adds the social aspect is just as important. Having gotten so much from cycling, Morales wants his club to be a place where anyone interested can do the same. It's free to join; all you need is a bike that works and the will to make the wheels turn. The rest will take care of itself.
All summer, Code Switch is reporting stories on R&R: Race and Outdoor Recreation. Recently, we hung out with Korean and Korean-American hardcore hikers to find out how hiking has remained such a big part of Korean heritage.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Summertime is when many of us pull our bicycles out of the garage, maybe grease the chain, and go for a ride. But according to the most recent Department of Transportation survey, the average recreational cyclist is a middle-class, middle-aged white male. This summer, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji from our Code Switch team has been reporting on diversity and outdoor recreation. And today she's going to take us for a ride with a cycling club that is not the status quo.
CARLOS MORALES: Hello, Pedro? (Speaking Spanish).
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: I met up with Carlos Morales at his bike shop on a stormy Saturday evening, a rarity for a summer in Southern California. So he's fielding calls from people wondering if tonight's ride is still on.
MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).
So, yeah, all afternoon we've been getting calls, Facebook messages, private texts and phone calls here at the office that say, hey, is the ride still going on? So mostly everybody who's calling up say they still want to ride, so that's pretty exciting.
MERAJI: Morales started a cycling group called The Eastside Bicycle Club in 2008, after spending years battling obesity. At 48, he was 400 pounds, on a dozen different meds, and his doctor had given up hope he'd ever shed the weight.
MORALES: So he says, I know you know a lot of people. The only thing I could tell you at this point - that there will be a lot of people at your funeral. And that's what caused me to do this, to actually start this, get on the bike and start riding.
MERAJI: He says he had fond memories of riding around his neighborhood in East LA as a kid, so he wanted to see if it gave him the same satisfaction as an adult. He spent months swimming to lose enough before he felt comfortable balancing on the old bike collecting dust in his garage. But when he finally could, Morales called up some friends from the neighborhood to ride with him for encouragement. The only time that worked was Tuesday night. That was seven years ago.
MORALES: Every Tuesday night at 7 o'clock, all my friends - everybody knows that don't expect me to do anything else but ride.
MERAJI: Morales lives in El Sereno. It's two-thirds Mexican, so naturally his Tuesday ride reflected the community. Word spread, and it went from eight friends to 20, to 60 mostly Mexican-American cyclists.
MORALES: And when we used to go through the neighborhoods, people would come out and clap. They thought we were (laughter) doing something special, and we were just having fun.
MERAJI: Now there are 400 active members in on the fun and Morales has taken cycling from a recreational activity to his life's work. He bought a high-end bike shop a few years ago. It's about a 13 mile ride north of his house. The shop used to cater only to customers that could buy fancy bikes for thousands of dollars, but now he says it's a place where both a Hollywood producer and a day laborer can find something.
GABRIELA BILICH: For me, you know, riding a bike - it was like, OK, you see your, you know, your homeboys riding around the street and the little, you know, short huffies (ph) or whatever, you know. But I never saw cycling as a Latino thing.
MERAJI: Gabriela Bilich is standing in Morales's bike shop wearing black spandex shorts and a yellow and orange racing jersey that says, Eastside Bicycle Club, Ride To Live on the front. She says, before being introduced to this group, she didn't think the cycling world would welcome a 40-something, overweight Latina from Southeast LA.
BILICH: I used to hang out at the Rose Bowl a lot. I used to go walking there a lot, and I would see that the riders - the cyclists go by. And you just hear the (whirring sound), you know, the whir of the peloton, you know, just going by around the Rose Bowl - going so fast. And all I ever saw was, like, white dudes - you know, tall skinny white dudes on the bikes (laughter), middle-aged men in Lycra riding around the Rose Bowl. And so I was like, OK, well, you know, I guess that's another thing white people do.
MERAJI: Bilich started riding after her divorce. She's kept it up for a year now, has lost weight and has her diabetes in check.
BILICH: You know, I was never an athletic person in my life. And this is the first time that I've ever found anything that I liked and that I'm completely addicted to, you know? And it's my therapy.
MERAJI: And tonight will be her first time riding out in the rain.
MORALES: OK, (speaking Spanish). All right, guys, let's go.
MERAJI: Tonight's ride is a social one. Morales calls it the tour de tacos, a 35-mile ride to nine different taco trucks. Morales says the Eastside Bike Club is about exercising. He calls the streets of LA his gym but adds, the social aspect is just as important.
MORALES: He's carrying the salsa (laughter). (Speaking Spanish).
MERAJI: He leads a group of two dozen brave riders out into the rain-soaked city streets. Most of them are from his group, but he invited some racers from a nearby Pasadena club to slow down and join the fun. David Zates (ph) was among them.
DAVID ZATES: And we do kind of have a cross-cultural thing going on here.
MERAJI: Zates says the clubs he rides with tend to skew white. And although Southern California is super diverse, it can be segregated. So moments like this don't happen as often as you'd think.
ZATES: My mountain bike club - one of the guys is from East LA. And so he's much younger than me, but, you know, him and I talk a lot. And he said to me, you know, David, you're my first Jewish friend. And he's in his 30s.
MORALES: OK, so we're going to make a left right here, guys. It's our first taco truck.
MERAJI: Cycling saved Carlos Morales's life and opened up his world. He wants to do the same for other riders, and what better way than biking and breaking bread - or, in tonight's case, tacos?
MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.