Wheelmen at a recent club meeting.
The Los Angeles Wheelmen
By JO COOPER
The Los Angeles Wheelmen is the largest bicycle club in California and the third largest in the United States. Oddly enough, one of the reasons
they have 675 members is the Los Angeles freeway system. Members live all over Southern California but think nothing of driving 40 miles or more to wherever the weekend rides
begin because it's only minutes on the freeways.
The rides are held in different areas each week so that many of the members can bike from their homes to where the rides start.
The club is primarily a touring club. It was founded in January 1945 by Mary May Hesketh and Margaret Kemp. They came here to work during World War II and found bicycling the best way to explore the new area. As Mary May writes from her home in Alaska, "I well remember those days when smog was an unknown word, gas was rationed, and you could wheel down most boulevards in relative ease. Our worst problem was the long work week during the war." She rode until 1952 and still has her bike, "Buttercup." "It's too rusty to ride, but after 30,000 miles I can't throw her away," Mary said.
Grant Cotter is the current President of the Wheelmen. HIs dynamic personality is obvious from the minute he drives into the parking area before a ride tooting his horn, or arrives at a business meeting wearing a Swiss Alps outfit: short red pants, hand-knit red sweater with a bicycle in white block on the front, and a white windbreaker completely covered with patches.
I interviewed him in front of a delicatessen in Montrose one Sunday. He and his wife, Lorraine, wheeled in on their bright orange Jack Taylor tandem.
I asked him just how large an area the membership covered.
"We have members as far south as La Jolla, and as far north as San Luis Obispo...no Palo Alto...and as far east as Chicago."
I raised my eyebrows.
"Yes, we have a member in Chicago. He used to live here and he retains his membership. Just look in our roster. We have them in Colorado and a couple in Illinois."
"No wonder you have such a large membership."
"But remember in our club you can't just send in your money and automatically become a Wheelman. You have to apply for membership, ride at least three rides with us, and be accepted. We try to make sure the person is seriously interested in cycling, able to keep up, rides safely, etc., before they're
"Must be a lot of time involved in organizing such a large club. How many hours a week do you find you spend at it, yourself?"
"Oh, at least 10 hours a week...NOT including riding. I mean telephone calls, paper work, correspondence, meetings, yes, about 10 hours a week. In addition to that we spend two nights every month publishing the Gooseneck (the club newspaper). We meet at our house. Usually the Beigles, the Baughns, and Frank Ferren work with us. My wife types it, cuts the stencil, and Jack Beigle and I print it. We print close to 1300 Goosenecks with 10 pages each and last month we printed a new roster, too."
He went on to explain how many sides and sheets that was but I shook my head, remembering they call it a "Gooseneck Party."
"Like most organizations, I suppose there are just a few hard-core members who do most of the work?"
"True. I'd say about 50 medium-core and 25 hard-core. By medium-core I mean people who attend the Gooseneck parties and take part in some functions but the hard-core plan the meetings, lead the rides...maybe 20 to 30 of them really make the club work."
"I know one of the reasons the club is such a success it the large library of rides..."
Yes, Ralph Boethling, our very capable Vice President has the library of rides, maybe as many as 175 different routes. Like today, we have three basic rides; a short, medium and long. We have different rides for every weekend of the year plus holiday rides and special rides and most rides have 3 or 4 variations. That's all the province of the Vice President. Ralph has catalogued them all and has them all right at his fingertips."
"Were you Vice President before you became President?"
"No, I was treasurer."
Did A.J. prepare your for being President?" (A.J. Wallis was President prior to Grant Cotter.)
"No, there isn't even any paper work to turn over like when you're Treasurer. I paid attention to how how conducted the meetings and when I took over I just let common sense be my guide. I've made a lot of friends and I've made some enemies., That right Al?" he winked at a member eating a sandwich nearby.
We were standing in the sunny mall. Most of the members preferred to use the benches as tables after riding 3 hours that morning. Grant continued. "Some
people aren't too enchanted with
what I've said but I had to think for the good of the majority just like when you're in the service. You can't worry about this
guy or that guy, you have to worry about the 1200 people over here and if there's 100 or 200 people who want something and two or three guys want something else..."
"Other members have described you as a strong leader and a forceful person. From the way you handle these large crowds of people with your bullhorn and all I always pictured you as the president of a big company or something. Are you the same personality when you're at work as when I see you with the Wheelmen on weekends?"
"I never change, but I'm not with a big company. I'm a shoemaker by profession."
"Do you have other people working for you?"
"No, just my son. It's a two-man operation, a family business."
But you run these hundreds of people like it was second nature."
It does just come natural to me. I guess because people listen to me. Whether I bluster over them or whether I...I don't know. One thing, I'm a great stickler for details. For instance, I planned next year's tour 14 months in advance. By that I laid out the route, planned the overnights, laid everything out way ahead of time... Most people want to be directed. They want to be told when to go, where to go, how to go, and how to do it when you get there. And I like to do it. It just comes second nature to me. I enjoy it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it."
"You must enjoy biking, too. How long have you been riding seriously?"
"Since July 1969. That's when I rode my first Wheelmen Club ride."
"How many miles do you ride a week?"
"I average, with everything, about 7500 miles a year. That's tours, club rides, commuting to work...I ride exclusively to work on my bicycle."
"Your wife, Lorraine, told me she only rides on weekends on the tandem but that you have other bikes?"
"Yes, actually we have two Jack Taylors, and I have a blue Mondia and a red Mondia and a yellow Schwinn that I ride to work." "I know the club started in 1945 but can you give me a brief history?"
"Yes, it started in 1945, flourished until the early 50's. Then it almost stagnated until Jack Flynn came along and really kept it together
50's for t5hree of four years. He was President, Vice President, editor, chief cook and bottle washer. They were down to about four memgbers at one time. He rejuvenated it,
brought it back to 40 or 50 memgers. From 1959 to 1969 it fluctuated between 50 and 100 members. When I cam in the middle of '69 it had jumped to 200, then gradually it came
up to 300, 400, now we 4exp0ect to go close to 690 gbefore renewals come up."
"What are the goals for club?"
"The goals are to make everybody a contented bicycle rider. By that I mean to try to have something for everyone. We like to please the clyce-campers so we're starting to do some overmight camp0ing. We like to please the long touring ridersx so we have 4 or 5 long tours every year. That's Hal Munn's Spring and Fall Fling, Boethling's New England Tour, and I'm going to have another tour down the Oregon and Californa Coast nest August. We try to please the short tourist by having the Ventura Labor Day weekend, athe Memegt overnigher, and the Ojai twin (200 mile). We try to please the short rider by having the beginners and advanced beginners rides with John Bauman and Walter Shatsky, but you can't please everybody."
"Obviously you're doing something right because you're tgetting fantastically big turnouts."
"Yes, when I first came with the club and average turn-out would be 35 or 40 people. ON a medium ride you knew averybody's first name by lunch. Now, we aberage 110-120 people just ona amedium ride. The turn-out today at the Corner (Olympic & La Cienega where many of the rides orginate) we had well over 125 people...and that didn't include the short riders who started at the Rose Bowl."
It was an exceptionally beautifu, clear day for Southern California, not too hot or too cold, perfect for cycling. I began to look longingly at the tandems, myself, as my husband and son pedaled off on their bikes. (They are stro9nger riders than I am.) It was a day to be riding instead of writing. I thought of one more thing to ask Grant before they left...
"This is probably a stupid questiohn, but do you have time for any other hobbies or other activities?"
"I used to play tennis, but I'm really not interested in it any more. Cycling is my life."
And thanks to Grant Cotter, and others like him it's becoming a way of life for hundreds of others who are now members of the Los Angeles Wheelman Club.
By Ralph Cooper, 4-23-08