When he’s not travelling the globe taking incredible race photos of the most famous riders and teams in pro cycling, our regular contributor Brian Hodes tries to get some well-earned R&R in his hometown of Los Angeles. It was during some downtime that Brian spotted a peloton of gleaming chrome lowriders cruising through L.A. He immediately contacted us saying we had to feature these beautiful machines. That was two years ago, and ever since, whenever he was home, Brian had been keeping a watchful eye out for them. Eventually he was able to catch up with the riders and arrange to photograph them at their clubhouse. What he uncovered was a fascinating story that goes way beyond a few uber-cool dudes drifting casually through a Californian suburb on their shiny creations.
The owners of the glistening masterpieces that Brian first spotted are all members of the East Side Riders Bike Club (ESRBC). Their clubhouse is based in a district of South East L.A., appropriately called Watts. To give a little context Watts is about eight miles south of Downtown Los Angeles and four miles north of Compton.
It all began a decade ago when John Jones III and his family created the ESRBC. Recently laid off, John found himself with time on his hands. His bike-loving father had long held a desire to start up a bike club. John’s job loss was the catalyst to kick-start this family project.
The early rides they first embarked upon differed significantly from typical “club runs”. Rather than dressing in Lycra, stuffing their pockets with energy gels and filling their bidons with electrolyte drink, the family would load up their beach cruisers with food parcels or “sack lunches” and hand them out to those most in need on the streets of Watts. John had never before been a cyclist, but exploring the community on two wheels gave him the opportunity to view things from a new perspective. Rather than speeding past in a car, the slower pace of the bike meant the riders would witness up close the challenging circumstances of some of society's most needy. In those times there were few bike lanes, so the group would route their rides along the sidewalks, which afforded them an even closer view of what they could do to assist the disadvantaged.
After a couple of years doing what they could as a modest club consisting of a few family members and friends, the group created the “Ride 4 Love”. Almost 100 people joined them, riding around their local community administering random acts of kindness, such as handing out sweets and flowers. Each February this ride is now repeated with growing numbers of participants, helping enhance the profile of ESRBC and attracting new members. If you are ever in the area during February look them up and tag along – you’ll be made very welcome.
In parallel the club started to lobby and campaign for enhanced bike safety, more cycle lanes and more group rides. Through the lobbying John gained recognition as an expert in this area and landed a job as an advisor to the local authority, where he started to offer guidance on a new safer cycle strategy. Subsequently, the “Life Lanes” project was born. A collaboration involving the police, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Association and a local community-based association successfully engaged in dialogue with gang leaders to ensure safe passage through the Watts district for bike riders. Whilst Watts is a small community, the movement of youth can be restricted by gang-related boundaries. However the gang members now recognise ESRBC as a force for good in the community and their riders pass through without problems any time of day or night.
As the club expanded and its influence grew, a new mission statement was agreed. The club now exists to “prevent kids from [engaging with] gangs and drugs, help those in need or less fortunate and educate all who seek to enrich the community.”
Today the club delivers a number of valuable initiatives. Anyone is invited to accompany them on one of their Bike Ride events, and sample the family atmosphere of riding with their group. ESRBC also deliver a series of BEAST classes (Bicycle Education And Safety Training). These five-week programmes are designed to give adults and kids all the essential information they need to get them started on a bike and start riding safely.
Whilst the activities of ESRBC focus largely on cycle related subjects, such as safe riding, and bicycle maintenance, they also reach beyond into areas of active living, lifestyle and healthy eating. Furthermore there is always an emphasis on giving something back to your community, or “paying it forward”. They run a co-op which offers affordable new and used bikes and parts, and often arrange social activities from picnics in the park, to visits to theatre shows, or MLB and NBA games.
What started off as the simple idea to just ride bikes, from one guy who reminisced about tinkering with old 1980’s Schwinn beach cruisers as a kid, has grown into a force for good that's making a significant difference for dozens of young people growing up in a complex and challenging community. The project is testament to the fact that something as simple as riding bikes can bring diverse communities together and serve as a catalyst to open the minds of young people. Joining ESRBC encourages their members to think more openly about how cycling impacts transport, leisure, exercise, health and of course the basic yet often overlooked concept of doing something positive to help those less fortunate and disadvantaged amongst their community.
On top of all the life-changing work ESRBC bring to their surrounding communities, we simply love the bikes they all ride. Each one is a unique work of art and an absolute labour of love. We salute you John Jones III and each and every member of the ESRBC as true conquistadores of cycling. May the sight of this current crop of club members, going about their worthy deeds aboard their stunningly handcrafted machines, act as a symbol of hope for this and many future generations to come. Cruising the streets, avenues and boulevards of South East L.A., assisting the most needy of society, rebuilding the image of a community, restoring faith in humanity, and all the time looking like absolute bosses.
This feature was first published in Conquista 18.