Ever since Mickey Cohen's house in Brentwood, Calif. was bombed one misty morning 35 years ago, that community in the Santa Monica Mountains has been hostile toward strangers. The explosion leveled the mobster's bedroom, incinerated his 200 English-cut suits, took out 17 of his neighbor's windows and reverberated in the West Los Angeles police station 3½ miles away. Today, Brentwood street signs say things like: 24-HOUR SECURITY, ARMED GUARDS ON PATROL and WRONG WAY—SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE.
The reception 226 bike riders got last November as they pumped up the 20% grade of Mountaingate Drive in the seventh annual Turkey Climb was considerably less frosty. This time trial is one of the few sporting events Open to outsiders that Brentwood tolerates on its sacrosanct streets. It's not a neighborhood where you're apt to see skateboarders from East L.A. or dirt-bike cowboys from Chico, but rather Porsche and Mercedes drivers bombing down the hill toward Rodeo Drive to give their American Express Platinum cards a healthy workout.
From its base on Sepulveda Boulevard, Mountaingate Drive rises a cruel foot for every five traveled. The Turkey Climb runs for a mile along this winding ribbon of asphalt. The bikies pedaled out under the olive trees that line Mountaingate, 30 seconds apart. They rode customized Allegros, 12-speed Fujis, Schwinn mountain bikes and old clunkers hauled out of flatland garages.
In Europe it's traditional to hold steep hill climbs toward the close of the racing season, with the winner often taking home a live turkey. The first Turkey Climb was held in November 1978 in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. The winner received a frozen bird, compliments of the Poppy Food Company. The rest got packaged parts. Unfortunately, the fowl thawed in an official's car before it could be awarded. "You know," recalls Turkey Climb organizer Joe Kossack, "my Olds-mobile never smelled right after that." Nowadays, winners still get the turkey; an extra $3,000 is for gravy.
A battalion of Lycra-clad bicyclists watched National Guardsmen in camouflage fatigues and on roller skates set cones along the course to block traffic. Rock music rolled out of giant loudspeakers. "It's a happening," said three-time Olympic cyclist John Howard. "What can I say?"
The 37-year-old Howard won the Turkey Climb in 1981, the same year he won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii. Two summers ago he set a world 24-hour distance mark of 514 miles in Central Park, wearing a catheter so he wouldn't have to dismount. According to Howard, the Turkey is the most intense competition of all. He figured his heart beat 220 times a minute during the '81 race. "You're treading a very fine line here between the aerobic and the anaerobic," he said. "You try not to break the anaerobic threshold."
And if you do?
To veteran cyclist Roy Bossier the Turkey Climb is like a bottomless hourglass. "The sand just whooshes out," he said. "It's lost, it's gone. There's no replenishing."
Bossier was straddling a Nishiki, its sewn-up tires glued to featherweight rims and filled to a pressure of 150 pounds per cubic inch. The bike weighed 19 pounds, Bossier 149. Winning this race is more a function of body weight than heart size. To make the grade you need bird bones and the airiness of a sitcom star.
And something more. "The guy who wins the Turkey Climb," predicted Steve Hegg, the Olympic gold medalist in the 4,000-meter individual pursuit, "is the guy who's been practicing for this all year and doesn't know any better."
Tomàs Rodriguez, a 5'10", 135-pound ex-marathoner, took up bicycling six years ago because of bad knees. In 1982 he set the Turkey Climb record of 4:14.2 for the mile event. This year Rodriguez, starting first, stormed the hill while Roxy Music's While My Heart Is Still Beating poured from the P.A. The song finished in 3:26; Rodriguez took 4:27.
Jennifer Kraft, who holds the women's mark of 5:57, inexplicably lost seven pounds about a week before the race. Explicably, she was dizzy after finishing in 6:32, good for fourth place. At five feet, women's winner Stephanie Parodi is an inch shorter than Kraft, but 14 pounds heavier, due in part to the eight gold hoops dangling from her ears. Parodi had prepped for the race by silk-screening homemade Christmas cards with the saying FOR WHERE YOUR HEART IS, YOUR TREASURE WILL BE ALSO. Parodi's heart was in her mouth after her 6:03. "This race was a gagger," she said.
A somewhat out-of-shape Hegg, who hadn't cycled competitively since the Games, was a few pounds over racing weight. "It's like filing your taxes," he said. "You've got to think all the time about how to beat the system." With his 4:16 he seemed to have done that. But Hegg grew tired of waiting around for the results, and, though he arrived on a Raleigh, he left in a huff. Too bad. He won.
The one cyclist who didn't bother to check his time was "Iron Mike" Massell, a 77-year-old retired analyst for Douglas Aircraft Company. He didn't bother to register, either. "It takes too long," he explained. "I don't got time for that."
Massell is a smallish man with a round, ruddy face that crinkles easily and often into a smile. He does 200 jumping-jacks and two dozen chin-ups, sit-ups and push-ups each day. Massell figures he rides about 1,000 miles a month, including a weekly cruise up Mountaingate Drive. His time has always been the same: 11 minutes.
"Physically, it's nothin'," Massell says. But the strapping septuagenarian concedes it's sometimes hard to obey Brentwood's restrictive signs. Particularly difficult is the one that reads: SPEED LIMIT 35.