Nate Berg

Taking advantage of closed streets for a bike ride down carless streets – at 4 a.m.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 18, Los Angeles was preparing itself for flooded streets. Rains were expected this night and the morning to come, but the city was more concerned with the 23,000 people who would soon be competing in the 27th annual L.A. Marathon. Five hours before the official start of the race, parking enforcement trucks trolled the city streets to tow away the last remaining cars in the race path.

The marathon runners were still asleep, perhaps dreaming of the grueling, 26.2-mile adventure there were soon to begin – from "Stadium to Sea," as its organizers have dubbed the point-to-point race. But as the city and the runners waited, another race had already begun. More than a thousand bicyclists had gathered on the official route at 3 a.m. to hold their own marathon – an unofficial race through the 26 miles of city streets now conveniently cleared of cars and traffic, a rare opportunity in a city better known for its car culture than its burgeoning bicyclism.

Packed along the sides of Sunset Boulevard in the city's Silver Lake neighborhood, the overwhelmingly male crowd lingered, waiting for the roads to officially close. Lycra shined in the night, as cyclists pinned on racing numbers, tightened their helmets and prepared themselves for what promised to be a very wet late night bike ride into downtown, then back west through Hollywood, Beverly Hills and right to the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. As the cyclists prepared to hit the streets, it felt like a ciclovia, the street closure festivals increasingly common in cities around the world – a cocktail of one part Tour de France, two parts Critical Mass and a twist of late night raver revelry.

At about 4 a.m., the crowd took off, mobbing down the street like a river of flashing lights.

Since its first running in 1986, the L.A. Marathon's course has had four main iterations, with minor changes from year to year to accommodate better flow, flatter terrain, reduced impact on church-goers and – what may be the overriding concern of the city, in general – less disruption to traffic. Beginning in 1995, the organizers had a non-competitive bike race on the route before the runner's race – an event that had drawn more than 10,000 cyclists in years past. But in 2009, new race organizers eliminated the bike tour from the official program.

But cyclists – and maybe especially cyclists in L.A. – are not a group to be deterred by official rules that tend to disregard them. In the same way the cycling community of Los Angeles has adapted itself to navigating and co-existing with a car-centric city, they organized their own unsanctioned marathon race.

Dubbed "The Marathon Crash Race," this late-night jaunt was organized by Wolfpack Hustle, a local bike group probably best known for racing – and beating – an airplane from Burbank to Long Beach in 2011. More than 2,000 people registered for the 2012 marathon race, and it looked like most of them showed up.

Standing on the side of the road, it seemed like the onrush of cyclists would never end. The front-end of the pack, clearly the experienced and semi-serious bike racing crowd, rushed by, followed by those who seemed far more interested in riding the empty early morning streets than crossing the finish line.

That was the appeal for me, anyway. So, with some friends I managed to con into staying up even later than they'd planned on this St. Patrick's Day, I rode around for a while, taking in the spectacle of the crowd and then the novelty of empty and (mostly) closed L.A. streets. We bailed from the crush after a few miles and enjoyed an undisturbed ride through the middle of one of L.A.'s busiest corridors. It was a great night to ride a bike in L.A.

Photos: Nate Berg

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