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How to Bike Through Hell

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; source images Getty

My friend Dana put it best when she said: “L.A. doesn’t have seasons, but we do have thick white air that covers everything in its path, so it’s worth it.” Dana, who rides her bike six miles to her office, churns through this soft chalk soup each workday. And at times, I’ve bike-commuted as my primary mode of transportation — in New York, Chicago, and Providence — but I’ve never biked less than I do now, when I live in a city with perpetual sunshine and zero chance of fatal ice slips.

Yes, the traffic is dangerous in L.A., but that hasn’t ever deterred me before. It’s the air, which is less immediately life-threatening, that I think about. Breathing in L.A. feels like I’ve just smoked three cigarettes when I have actually smoked zero cigarettes. When I do ride, panting up Griffith or L.A.’s other crunched hills, I always have to stop halfway through to lie on the ground and play Normani from the phone on my chest. This phone tells me, every other day, that the air quality is “unhealthy for sensitive populations” and the news tells me that the air in Southern California is getting worse. When I’m heaving up the hills, inhaling like a frantic maniac, I imagine all the ultra-fine pollutants hurtling into my respiratory paths with even greater force as I breathe harder.

We do breathe more often and more deeply when we’re exerting ourselves, confirms Dr. Ed Avol, the director of Environmental Health at the USC Keck School of Medicine, and our lungs are vulnerable organs. As Beth Gardiner wrote in Choked (an examination of our ruined atmosphere and how it’s being absorbed by our bodies): “While it has its defenses — the mucus that traps some contaminants, the hairlike cilia that sweep away others — this is the place where the outside world makes its way into the very center of the body, barriers left far behind as the air and whatever it carries come within a whisper of the bloodstream.” My instinct was right: It’s fairly comparable to smoking cigarettes, especially in terms of the variety of linked problems caused by polluted air.

L.A. is notorious for grimy air and Southern California has the worst in the states. It’s a point of hometown shame. The L.A. Times published a photo gallery called “Smog Through the Years.” It’s a particularly unlucky set of circumstances, in which breeze from the ocean in the west picks up pollutants from refineries and highways throughout the city. “It literally cooks in the sunlight,” said Dr. Avol, and then gets halted by the mountains in the east. A separate and additional problem: smoke from wildfires. More and more frequently, L.A. is aflame. These aren’t just wildfires, but houses with all their paint and insulation that become ash.

Like Gardiner, Avol also regularly runs (undaunted) in Los Angeles. They both give me the same uncalming (yet encouraging!) spiel about how we must keep exercising even though the air is horrible. Except during emergencies — like “during the recent spate of wildfires, so smoky that you can smell it, see it, taste it and it may cause you to cough — you should be outside exercising,” Avol said.

“I am always noticeably happier on the days I bike,” Dana tells me. I probably am, too. I beam around at the tops of hills I bike to, sending selfies to my parents and telling them about the hawks I’ve seen. My boo, who is a viciously good cyclist and just found out from some competitive bike app that they climbed 266,000 feet last year which the app calculated this in terms of “Mount Everests,” can be just as dramatic about biking in L.A. While catching their breath in my living room the other day, they tell me with earnest thrill that the haze caused a 2 p.m. early afternoon to look “sunset-y, like a rainbow without a rainbow. It was so beautiful, I almost cried or I mean, I did cry, but with no tears.” If endorphins could talk, they did.

Who would want to deny anyone this joy? I grill the experts about tricks to avoid the worst of the air. To reduce the gunkiness of the air she breathes, Gardiner chooses to walk on quieter parallel roads with less traffic. Avol suggests places with stop signs (versus traffic lights, where people will be stuck idling). Avoid rush hour and the hottest part of the day. “If you live in a community with a refinery or power plant or chemical operation, you don’t want to run around the immediate boundary of that area when they’re generating a lot of exhaust,” Avol says, so learn their hours.

The thought of learning exactly what chemical refineries were clogging my lungs put me off biking for two weeks, even with these Easy & Helpful Tips from trusted experts. Instead, a friend brought me to a pretty aerobic studio with a “magnetic filtration system,” which somehow uses ultraviolet lights. When one of the instructors tells me to imagine I’m breathing in white light and breathing out dark gunk, I understand this is a metaphor and not.

I ask Gardiner about pursuing exercise in filtered air. Her answers brought me to realize I was making a selfish, privileged coward’s choice in our poisoned climate. We have to change the whole atmosphere. “Anything else is a Band-Aid, but having said that, we have to live in the world that we’re in and it’s worth thinking about what you can do to protect yourself.”

Though I don’t judge myself for fantasies of separatism, I want to be someone who is in the world, even if the world’s air quality is horrible. I’m back to biking now, trying to catch up my much faster partner. And while I’m in L.A. I can still say that the reason I must lie down halfway through a climb and listen to Normani is not because of my aerobic fortitude, but because of the big bad air.

How to Bike Through Hell