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.