La Grange: Then and Now
By Marco Fantone
Its approximately 4PM, February 1, 1997 and Im wrapping up a good day on the
slopes of Kirkwood just south of Tahoe. I come off one last jump, land ... and hear a sound from my right knee I hope most of you never have to hear. Little did I know at the time the impact that one skiing accident would have on the next seven years of my life. The first thing my knee surgeon suggested was to get a hold of a bike and simply soft pedal on flat surfaces. No biggie I thought; its not like Id never ridden a bike before. I mean I did ride a bike to school from 7th grade until I graduated high school after all. So Im out one morning on my beater mountain bike when I see this group heading around the golf course near San Vicente. I realize theyre all on road bikes. I also realize theyre a lot faster than I am, regardless of my knee. Over the next few weeks I find myself in various bike shops going through a crash course on what road bikes cost, getting familiar with different component sets and asking a ton of questions. Bear in mind that the last road bike I had owned was a Motobecane Super Mirage, circa 1987. Im actually pretty excited but also a bit apprehensive about the prospect of buying a new bike.
It's now late summer 1997 and I decide to attempt a ride with “this La Grange club” on my new Trek 5200 (yes, the same one I have today!). Some of the first members I met were Duncan, Bill Mock and Dans Weinberg and Chapman. We've done the warmup lap when Wes Oishi comes up next to me and asks the dreaded question: “how long have you been riding?” I thought: oh great! My attempt at remaining anonymous has just been blown. He explained that while he knew I was a new rider with the club, my bike handling skills weren't that bad but could be improved upon. He tells me about a skills clinic held at the original Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills and how other new road riders had benefited from the course. A few weeks later I find myself on the steep concrete banking of the Olympic Velodrome, the same velodrome I had been to 13 years earlier to watch Nelson Vails and Mark Gorski during the LA Summer Olympics. For a brief moment I actually had to ask myself; how did I get here? Everything was happening so fast!
I joined La Grange in September and soon found myself out on all of the weekday morning rides. My wife didn't know what to make of it. I can tell you she wasn't pleased that I was out riding all the time while she was at home with a newborn. I was absolutely addicted to every aspect of what I was experiencing. We were doing these really fun rides during the week, going on these long, amazing rides over the weekend and I was riding on this cool carbon fiber racing bike with this club that had team jerseys. La Grange in 1997 was quite different than it is today. Back then, La Grange was known as a club of mostly Master's racers and Lance Armstrong was hardly a blip on the radar screen of international cycling. When I joined, I was actually one of the younger members at the time. Club membership stood at about 100 and there was definitely more of a mountain bike presence than there is today. Tuesday rides would see a maximum of maybe 25 riders while Mandeville on Wednesday could see as few as 10. Thursdays actually had a different route; heading south on Ocean and down the California Incline to PCH followed by two laps instead of four (what were we thinking???) During the next few years, interest in road cycling began to increase and with it, an infusion of younger riders into the club. Many had just graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles while others were still students at UCLA. By 1999, what I like to call the “Lance effect” had inspired many people who'd never given a thought towards riding a bike to go out and be like Lance. Club membership was hovering around the 200 mark by this time and with new added blood, we had established a tight, core group of Cat 4 and 5 racers that began to make their mark in local races. Over the next few years, La Grange continued to grow due to positive word of mouth and the continuing “Lance effect”. Many of our original Cat 4 and 5 racers were now 1s and 2s racing with the local pros on any given weekend.
It's now 11PM, May 24, 2004 and I'm sitting here thinking about exactly what it is that has made the last seven years so gratifying. Certainly there's the camaraderie within the club itself. Where else can people from so many different walks of life become so equal with the simple straddle of a top tube? But looking at the big picture, La Grange has introduced me to a culture I never knew existed; that of Southern California cycling. From the club, I learned about amateur road racing as well as all of the epic group rides in the region. I've made more friends than I ever imagined and I'm in the best shape of my life. For all this, I have to thank that 80-something French guy who started this club 35 years ago. Thank you Raymond.