No matter how you look at it, Fargo Street is some kind of hill. From its base on Alessandro Street it rises 150 yards, a ribbon of concrete so steep that in the morning light its crest throws a shadow back on itself. There are no terraces or plateaus, no relief from its inexorable grade.
At its top. where Fargo ends at Alvarado. there is a place to pause, to catch one's breath and, if it is a clear day, pay homage to Los Angeles' western skyline. In the near distance is the Griffith Park Observatory, where rebels James Dean. Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo tried to find a cause, and beyond that are the white wooden letters, 30 feet high, that spell HOLLYWOOD across arid hillsides. (Once upon a time they spelled HOLLYWOODLAND, the name of a subdivision. In fact, for a few years in the mid-'40s, they spelled OLLYWOODLAND because the H had slid down the mountain and no one cared enough to drag it back up.)
Fargo Street, with its 33% grade that increases a cruel degree or two just short of the summit, is to California's bicycle hill-climbing elite what Everest is to a mountaineer, what Boston is to a distance runner, what the Atlantic is to a single-hander—an irresistible test. A cyclist's only reward for strapping his feet into the pedals of an absurdly expensive bicycle and tearing up his insides for a minute and a half trying to conquer this hill on a run-down block in a shabby old Los Angeles neighborhood is the knowledge that somewhere a handful of people will know and appreciate what he did. If he succeeds, he will probably not even hear the cheers, because he will be throwing up behind a parked car. If he fails and there is no one alongside to catch him, he is apt to slide, helpless, bare-skinned on concrete, because his feet are locked in place.
On a sunny Sunday morning two weeks ago spectators started arriving an hour before the fourth annual Fargo Street Hill Climb was scheduled to begin. Whole families plodded slowly upward from Alessandro Street, looking for good seats on the curb. There are no steps cut into the sidewalks of Fargo Street as there are on some of San Francisco's steeper hills, so pedestrians were forced to improvise. First they walked facing forward, then backward, and finally they tried sidestepping. Parents clutched children and children clutched skateboards, each for fear the other might start rolling and never stop. A volunteer with a kitchen broom swept away menacing pockets of gravel. A group of teen-agers who had driven up from Orange County "to see how the L.A. hills compare," unloaded their bikes, laughed nervously and snuck sidelong glances at the hill. A blond 10-year-old named Bob Hale, who planned to mount his assault on a borrowed ladies' Schwinn with a 19-inch gear, killed time by running up and down the hill.
Meanwhile. 10 miles to the southwest, at the corner of La Cienega and Olympic, on a grassy plot next to a branch of the Beverly Hills Water Department, the Los Angeles Wheelmen, 200 of them, gathered for the start of their weekly Sunday ride. Today this was to include a stop at Fargo Street for the hill climb, followed by lunch at Olvera Street near the center of the old Mexican pueblo around which Los Angeles grew.
"We used to stop by Fargo Street now and then," says Hal Munn, a traffic engineer who has been riding with the Wheelmen for 17 years. "A few would try, but for years nobody could make it. Then, about 10 years ago, a couple of guys did, and the word got out and people began to get interested."
The hill climb has been a regular event on the Wheelmen's crowded calendar for four years, ever since a group of the club's hill specialists paused at the top of Fargo Street in the course of a 75-mile ride called the Hilly-Dilly and fell into debate over whether or not a tandem could make it up. The tandem team present at the time, Darryl and Carol LeVesque, owners of Bud's Bike Shop, said yes. Everyone else said no. Odds as high as 50 tool were offered, a date was set and Fargo Street as an institution was born.
The Great Tandem Assault of 1974 was successful, as the LeVesques had said it would be. Darryl, who is 30 and a former marathon runner, is also the owner of a three-seated bicycle called a triplet, with a two-wheeled cart called a Bugger attached, that has transported the four LeVesques thousands of miles and which carried them to the gathering of the Wheelmen on Fargo Sunday.
At 9 a.m. the L.A. Wheelmen—and women and children—were on their way to Fargo Street, single file. At the hill, the crowd had swollen to perhaps 200. Announcers from local television stations were interviewing neighborhood urchins, and unaffiliated hill riders were milling about near the start, awaiting the arrival of the Wheelmen.
A Southern California sporting event is not legitimate unless it has a true celebrity in its audience—Doris Day courtside. Telly Savalas trackside, Jack Lemmon greenside. In the case of Fargo Street it was Marv Fleming hillside. Fleming, a veteran of five Super Bowls, recently retired, was identifiable as a bicycle enthusiast by his black knit cycling shorts and as somebody by his cowboy hat and the diamond in his left earlobe. He rides his bike 35 miles a day, starting from his home in Marina del Rey, and though he would obviously have liked to try the hill, he knows that former tight ends are just too heavy.
The obstacles in hill climbing, other than the mental ones, are problems of ratios—strength to weight, gearing to lung capacity. A moderately strong cyclist should be able to complete the Fargo Street Hill, say the experts, as long as his gear ratio is low enough. A low gear ratio, however, means that the climb takes longer and that the rider's legs will have to pump many more times to turn his wheels.
"The gear ratio can be made so low that one turn of the wheel requires two turns of the crank, but you'd need slow motion to see the feet go around," says Mike Leone. An engineer with a helicopter company and a purist in matters pertaining to hills, Leone has completed the climb twice, lowering the center of gravity of his 180 pounds by replacing the front wheel of his $1,200 Teledyne Titan with a smaller wheel from his son's Ideor Asso. Whereas Mike attacks the hill head on all the way, 10-year-old Chris starts out straight and then switches to a traverse, weaving from curb to curb as his momentum slows. Mike says, "I have to go straight up because I don't have the balance to tack. Chris tacks. He is one of only three people I've seen who can do it. If I make an error and the wheel points downhill for one second, I'm done for. I can't recover."
Leone immigrated to Southern California from Vineland, N.J. in 1968 and has not yet adjusted to the wonder of his good fortune. "I couldn't believe the hills," he says. "I became obsessed with them. I love hills."
He also loves being in shape. He says it is a form of cowardice, a fear of the pain of riding a hill when he is not in shape. He did that once and says of the experience, "I thought I was going to swallow my tongue." Leone stows five complete changes of street clothes in his office each Monday and rides 40 miles back and forth between his home in Torrance and Hughes Helicopters in Culver City. At lunchtime he lifts weights at a local health club. "Tell the people," he says, with the fervor of a missionary pointing out the One True Way, "that where there's a will there's a way. It takes a little bit of thinking, but it can be done."
When the Los Angeles Wheelmen reached the foot of the hill on Fargo Sunday, five Leones in matched shirts were with them, as usual. Mike, Chris and 12-year-old Virginia lined up with some 70 others to try the hill.
In the oral history of the Wheelmen the Leones are prominenti. Mike is one of the two heaviest men ever to make the ascent and Chris last year was the youngest. If Virginia had made it this year (she did not, though she came close) she would have been the first female.
First in line to test his lungs, legs and gear ratio was Ron Kriss, 19, one of a group from Fountain Valley, a town south of Los Angeles in Orange County, heretofore known primarily for having produced Shirley Babashoff. Kriss practices on the hills that rise out of the Pacific at Laguna Beach, and he had made a trial run on Fargo Street the previous Sunday.
"Before that I had never totally extended myself for one minute in my life," he said. "I've ridden 180-mile days and felt about the same." Kriss set off in a straight line. As the grade increased, his pace slowed, and occasionally his rear wheel would shudder as it lost and recovered its grip on the pavement. Only in the final 10 feet did Kriss begin to tack. His front wheel had run over a spectator's toe, and for an instant the bike came to a complete stop. Kriss managed to retain his balance long enough to force another rotation of the pedals, and as he cleared the crest he disappeared into a forest of waving arms.
It was an exhilarating beginning for a day on which the old hill took a bit of a beating. Seventy-three cyclists made 90 attempts, of which 21 were successful. Dennis Barrett, a 28-year-old Delta Air Lines reservations clerk who had been riding for less than a year, made it to the top twice on a Lambert 10-speed street bike. Ron Skarin, who has been on the last two U.S. Olympic cycling teams, made it, though at 165 he is 15 pounds over his racing weight. David Smith, an electrician and the finest road racer in the Los Angeles area, made it, and so did Tony Herdrich, a good junior racer from Fountain Valley.
Ralph Boethling II, a frail, blond 23-year-old with hill climbing in his genes, made it for the fourth year in a row. His father, Ralph Sr., president of the Wheelmen, is the club's best all-round hill specialist, but he suffers, says his wife Laverne, from a syndrome known locally as Fear of Fargo, and has never attempted the climb.
A man-woman team, this year's only tandem entry, had the crowd at the top of the hill near frenzy as it approached the crest, but just short of the top it ran afoul of an immovable photographer and was forced to a standstill.
A "recumbent" bike caused a brief flurry at the starting line. It had a small front wheel and an attachment on the rear that looked like the training wheel for a child's two-wheeler. Because the rider's position was nearly supine, the contraption seemed to have solved the pervasive problem of loss of rear traction, but the complete potential of recumbents went unexplored as this one came to a halt and began to roll backward some 15 feet past the start.
One of the day's real heroes was Bill Harris, a 55-year-old American Airlines mechanic. He was among the early starters, but as he was getting underway his chain came off after a few feet. With dozens of people close by, but none close enough to catch him, he fell to the ground. He got up smiling, though, and disappeared back into the crowd to work on his bike. On his second try he made it to the top.
Harris began riding after a trip to Austria in 1964. He had marveled there at how many people rode bicycles for transportation, "even 80-year-old women," and he decided to try it himself. When he got home to California he bought an old bike and began riding five miles to work every day, an act of courage for which he says driving a Volkswagen had prepared him. "Everybody looks like a Mack truck to a VW."
Just a few days ago, Harris experienced a moment of rare enlightenment. "I was driving my car on a freeway and looking in the rearview mirror when I suddenly realized I was scared. I feel more natural on a bike now." So Harris rides between 100 and 200 miles a week, 50 of them to work and the rest on weekends, on Saturdays with a group of young hotshots and with "a touring bunch of oldtimers" on Sundays.
On Fargo Sunday, after the climb, Harris sat on the terrace of an Olvera Street restaurant, alone at a table for two, still wearing his black leather crash helmet and eating enchiladas and refried beans. A marimba band played under nearby olive trees, and Wheelmen milled around on foot with the Sunday tourists. "It's all leverage," Harris said. "I asked the boys in the bike shop to give me the lowest gear ratio they could put on my machine. I'm embarrassed to say, I don't know what it was. But it's like the guy said, 'Give me a lever and I can move the world.' "
In the case of a man who has conquered Fargo Street, the idea does not seem so farfetched.