Randy Angel

Cycling advocate Ted Ernst continues active role

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Ted Ernst

Ted Ernst, founder of the South Bay Wheelmen in 1961, continues to play an active role in the cycling community. Photo by Randy Angel

Ted Ernst is truly enjoying his golden years, but don’t think for a minute that the 79-year-old Palos Verdes Estates resident is slowing down.

A life-long advocate of cycling, Ernst continues to bike or jog nearly every day. Talk to him about the sport he is so passionate about and his speech becomes as energetic as his lifestyle. The former racer continues to play an active role in the cycling community.

Ernst is still basking in the glow of the golden anniversary he and thousands of others enjoyed last month when the Chevron Manhattan Beach Grand Prix – a race he began to promote cycling and a family-oriented event – celebrated its 50th consecutive year.

In 2010, Ernst commemorated 50 years with the South Bay Wheelmen, the cycling club he founded in 1961 which, along with the Lions Club, hosts the Chevron Manhattan Beach Grand Prix each year.

Ernst’s passion for cycling is understandable. It’s in his blood. His father, Ted, Sr. began cycling in Germany in the 1920s and worked as a bicycle mechanic. In 1929, the elder Ernst moved to Chicago where his son was born.

In 1947, at the age of 15, Ernst began racing, reaching the level of Category 1 in 1950.

“I also played soccer and became a pretty good goalie and at the age of 19 played for a Division 1 team in Chicago,” Ernst said. “But the players said I had to make a decision between soccer and cycling and I chose cycling.”

He would go on to participate in the World Championships and nearly made two Olympic teams.

In 1951, Ernst was riding amateur races and eventually went overseas to compete

“When I went to Europe it was a whole new ballgame,” Ernst recalled. “In 1958 I competed in the last of the 145-hour six-day races which had been traditional since the 1920’s. These consisted of two-man teams who slept maybe three hours a night with partners who would go on and off the oval track to gain laps on the other teams. In case of a tie in mileage, the sprint times would determine the winner.”

In the 1920’s and 30’s marathon events were all the craze with events such as all-night dancing, flag pole sitting and length roller derby matches. But as society changed to a faster mode, so did cycling races.

Today, riders in six-day races compete for about eight hours a day getting a full night’s sleep each day. On many occasions, amateur races will be held in between stages.

“Some of the old-time guys wanted to keep the 145-hour race and when I went to Europe, they were already riding the faster modern races and I had nobody to go with me to race with,’ Ernst said. “So, as a single American rider with no partner or sponsorship, it was hard was a tough row to hoe. But I took my chance and gave it my best run. I stuck my neck out but savored every moment.”

Little did he know at the time that his experience would pay off down the road. He returned to the United States with newfound knowledge of the sport, joining the National Board of Directors of the American Bicycle League.

It wasn’t long before the league formed a whole team of riders that promoted cycling and pushed it along affording newer riders more races and tougher competition.

“Pretty soon, they were riding so well here in America that we got accepted into road racing where the big activity was,” Ernst said. “There were so many track riders when I went over to Europe that you couldn’t get a foot inside but they needed motor-paced riders to revive that sport and as a result I got into that as a sideline.”

Ernst qualified for motor-paced racing which he considers the most dangerous section in the sport of cycling. Five or six cyclists attempt to pass each other on a large oval track while closely following a motorcycle that averages 40-45 mph with speeds up to 65 mph. After three runs totally 100 kilometers, the competitors raced for one hour without stopping.

“It was like driving your car in first gear all the time,” Ernst explained. “You know what that does to the engine? That what it does to the body.”

But he didn’t complain. He was getting to race every week or two with a contract and side money to support him.

Then Ernst suffered a serious accident followed by a couple of close calls. He began to weight his future against what his financial earnings.

“Although I had a contract, I was riding on these old tracks in places like Holland and Germany and one bad accident would ruin me and I didn’t have 10 million bucks to retire on,” Ernst recalled. “After a calculated look, I put my ego aside knowing I had a good run and became as good as I could be. So I decided to enjoy my experience and pass my knowledge along and help other guys get better.”

A Move to the Golden State

In 1960, Ernst moved to California, taking a job as a bike mechanic in Manhattan Beach. After only a few weeks, he was given the opportunity to purchase the shop changing the name to Ted’s Manhattan Cycles.

“We lived in a room in the back and the store was in the front of the building,” Ernst recalled. “There was always a lot of cycling up and down the beach but it was all recreational cycling. From the late 60’s into the 70’s cycling really took off and because we were high profile from the club and the race and other community events, it really helped our business as well as others in the area. When the gas crisis hit in 1973, more people began to use bicycles as a form of transportation.”

After moving to Hermosa Beach, Ernst and his wife Mary relocated to Palos Verdes Estates in July 2000 and couldn’t be happier.

“Like most of the South Bay, the Peninsula is laid back, the big difference being the zoning and density which makes for more comfortable living for our lifestyle,” Ernst said. “We enjoy the rural setting. We’ve been riding our bikes up here for decades and, with the exception of some new development, it really hasn’t changed. The roads, the bluffs, the terrain are all pretty much the same. Being away from the freeways and hustle and bustle, it’s a great place to come home to. It’s almost an island to itself.”

Ernst said Mary, his wife of 39 years, rode with him for 35 years or so but doesn’t feel as comfortable riding in the street anymore. The couple still jogs together along fire trails.

“Sometimes we’ll pass high school teams out running that cheer us on,” Ernst chuckled. “That’s a great feeling. It might sound homespun but it’s the core fabric of our society.”

Ernst continues to ride the many course offered on the Peninsula, particularly on Via Valmonte, Via Coronel and up Hawthorne and Crenshaw boulevards.

“Around the Peninsula over Palos Verdes East and then up to the radar domes is a tough ride,’ Ernst explained. “There are good rides all around. You can put together combination of hills where you’re getting into Tour de France Stage racing which is a good workout. For flat rides, Torrance Beach or Vista Del Mar are good or one can ride down Western and into Ports O’ Call. There’s no end to what’s available for riders of all levels.”

Ernst sold Ted’s Manhattan Cycles in 2006 but continues to have a good working relationship with owner Manny Felix, referring people to the master mechanic. If Felix is unfamiliar with an older bike, he won’t hesitate to call Ernst, who will go in for special order by appointment.

“I help people fit their bikes so their saddles are comfortable, their shoulders, neck and back and legs are properly aligned so they are fit like professional riders even though they may just ride recreationally,” Ernst said. “If there is pain involved, it should come from a rider’s intensity level and not from the equipment. Otherwise, they’ll stop riding and that’s not what we want.”

You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down

Whether a weekend warrior or competitor on the professional level, injuries are a part of athletics and Ernst has had his share. Ernst raced into his 70’s and his most serious injury happened later in his career when almost 70 years old.

“I was riding with the younger guys and riding harder than I probably should have,” Ernst admitted. “I fell and ended up with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and collar bone and a fractured pelvis. My wife was really unhappy and to keep domestic tranquility, I backed off and just ride my bike now to have fun.”

In a six-day race, riders fell in front Ernst causing him to fly over the handlebars. He suffered a large laceration to his inner thigh.

In 1954, Ernst suffered serious injuries while riding to a race in New Jersey. He and two teammates were casually rolling along the side of the road of a divided highway when driver was presumed to have fallen asleep while driving a tractor-trailer truck. The motorist clipped all three cyclists.

“One rider was out for three days with a concussion but I was in the back and hit first,” Ernst said. “The police report stated I flew about 55-60 feet through the air before impact. A Catholic priest happened to come along and gave us our last rights. When I came to, I began thrashing around and they had to hold me down until the ambulance arrived. I woke up in the hospital on the operating table with a big light in my face and the doctor said ‘lie still. I’m cutting part of your eyelid out because it’s all shredded.’

It took over a week to heal and I would sleep with one eye closed and one eye open and the nurses had fun with saying that I was spying on them in the middle of the night because I always had an eye on them. I had also broken my 4th and 5th lumbar vertebra along with my nose. I was really hurt pretty bad. The doctors said the fact that I was bent over riding the bike probably saved my life because my back acted like an accordion.”

The injury ended up being a blessing in disguise, keeping Ernst out of military duty.

“When I was drafted I took the x-rays of my back with me,” Ernst stated. “They said they liked my spirit and I was the kind of guy they would like to have but if something went wrong with my back in basic training, they’d have to give me a pension for the rest of my life and they didn’t want to do that. So they told me to get out of there. As I left I waved to the other 20 or so guys waiting in line for inspection and they all gave me the one-fingered Italian salute.”

Big Wheels Keep on Turnin’

Clad in tight sportswear of vibrant colors, large groups of cyclists are a common view on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Odds are favorable that at least one of the sightings includes riders of the South Bay Wheelmen (SBW).

The club has approximately 180 members from Long Beach to West L.A. with the majority from the South Bay and many Peninsula residents.

The oldest club in the South Bay and one of the oldest in Southern California, SBW supports development of competitive skills by sponsoring two special race series for riders. Theses are the Dave Richardson race series including road races and criterium races, and the Baxter Time Trial series. Both of these series are scored by age and/or skill level to provide effective motivation and improvement in racing skills and cycling conditioning. These races are an excellent way to learn and maintain skills before competing in amateur United States Cycling Federation USCF events, and obtain skills and conditioning essential for national and international competition.

SBW participates in weekly local rides for riders of beginning to intermediate skill levels and promotes several local group rides encompassing all abilities. The club holds regular clinics in the winter months to teach basic skills and bike handling techniques to less experienced cyclists, and those more experienced who wish to sharpen their skills.

According to South Bay Wheelmen President Cary Alpert, the club has four set rides each week. Saturday and Sunday morning rides draw from five to 30 riders. On Tuesday, cyclists ride to Brentwood and Mandeville Canyon. Thursday rides take place on the Peninsula.

“The Peninsula provides one of the most challenging and best training courses while offering spectacular views,” Alpert said. “If you live in the South Bay and are a cyclist, you’re in the best area in California to train.”

Ernst remains of the SBW Board of Directors.

“Ted’s extremely active in all club events,” Alpert said. “It’s still his baby. He’s very focused and, although we don’t always see eye to eye, his enthusiasm is hard to match.”

Ernst has fond memories of the club and has seen many changes in its 51 years. While he is proud of the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, he finds his involvement in the cycling community equally rewarding.

“In 1972-73 we actually had bike race in PV Center on Indian Peak Road and up Crenshaw, down the backside and up Hawthorne,” Ernst recalled. “It was a 75-mile race which was an Olympic Development race. Then they started building the condos and we just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Ernst said the SBW would hole bike rodeos and safety courses that the AAA noticed and emulated for their bike safety clinics.

He remembers riding on the Peninsula next to the many Japanese farms and cycling past a shooting range at the end of Hawthorne Boulevard.

“Sometimes we would ride from the South Bay to Knott’s Berry Farm along Artesia Boulevard,” Ernst said. “There was no 91 Freeway then. We’d pass dairies, a shooting range, citrus groves and farmland. At that time, there was no fence around Knott’s and no admission charge so we’d park our bikes, have a cup of coffee and watch the Wild West Show.

“Until the early 70’s we would ride to Malibu and go through the tunnel at LAX Can you imagine a group of cyclists doing that today? It was so wide open then. As Southern California developed, cyclists began to come to the South Bay and the Peninsula. It is still one of the best places to ride in the country.”

Ernst said he has visited nearly 35 countries, riding his bike in most of them. He has examined foreign cycling facilities and saw how other countries have interfaced bicycles with automobiles. Throughout his life he has shared his knowledge for the betterment of the cycling community.

Prior to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Ernst played a role in the development of the Velodrome at California State University Dominguez Hills. He was also on the Citizen’s Advisory Board that helped create bike lanes.

In 2006, Ernst was inducted into the USA Bicycling Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. His current project is compiling artifacts from the early 1900’s binding programs, articles, photos and labeling them as thoroughly as possible.

“The younger guys that are really active can collect the current material,” Ernst explained. “I’ve got to get this older stuff in order to keep the chronological sequence in order so interested people will have that history in addition to their own and it keeps the knowledge basis alive and doesn’t get lost.”

The State of the Sport

Ernst is optimistic about the future of cycling the South Bay and the country, seeing it grow as a family sport with more companies promoting cycling.

“Every time you get another bike on the road, you get a car off the road,” Ernst said. “Public transportation will get more efficient and things will work together.

He also believes there will be a change in society’s views of physical fitness.

“The pendulum seems to be swinging back,” Ernst explained. “In spite of our technological exposure with our electronic devices people are getting back to the basics. It’s almost like a technological overload where people are feeling there’s too much for them to absorb. They’re stressing out because they don’t know whether to do Twitter or YouTube or Facebook. To relieve that stress, they going for a walk or going for a bike ride. It’s moving back to reality – or normality – for a better balance of our time and energy. Everyone needs physical activity and leisure time, whether it’s reading a book or listening to music, to relieve that work stress. We need time to ourselves to get away from electronics that have our brain going a hundred directions at once. I don’t believe we were wired to do that.”

Ironically, one of Ernst’s pet peeves comes when he spots families riding bikes together.

“They passed a law where kids had to wear helmets but I see families going for a bike ride and the parents aren’t wearing helmets,” Ernst said. “The parents have to set an example. It’s as if the parent drives through a stop sign. Well, that gets in the kid’s computer (brain) and he thinks its okay to break the law.”

With the London Olympics a year away, Ernst feels confident the United States will have a good showing.

“Our road guys are there and our track guys are knocking on the door,” Ernst said. “Our women riders are as good as any in the world right now.

“The Americans now are the innovators and have taken the ballgame from the Europeans and are leading more now than they are following. For decades the Europeans were ahead of us but now we have come up with new inventions and refinements so once again, like the early 1900’s, we’re among the leaders in the cycling world. Our technology has surpassed our riding base but we are coming along well with that now as evidenced with 10-12 riders in the Tour de France.”

Ernst’s Pride and Joy

Fifty years ago, the 29-year-old Ernst met with members of the Manhattan Beach Fire and Police Departments to map out the safest and best course for a community bicycle race within the beach city, where he had noticed the growth of cyclists pedaling their way up and down The Strand. City officials welcomed his idea.

“We only had 15 to 20 members in the Wheelmen at the time but I wanted to have a real family-oriented community event where friends could get together for a day of cycling and decided to take a chance,” Ernst said. “The Public Works department worked with me by just marking lines on the streets and not putting the dots –- or traffic bumps -– on the course which made for a safer race.”

The MBGP is considered one of the oldest single day races in the United States and the only race continued to be held on the original course.

“This is part of the community and ‘Real America,” explained Ernst, who continued to race well into his 70’s. “It’s people doing things together from all walks of life and background. From the corporate level to the civic level to the home level, it’s all just great and it all functions. It’s what made America strong and what will keep America strong.”

Cycling was one of the charter sports when the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 and Ernst is proud to see how not only his race has grown, but also the sport of cycling. “Cycling is one of the oldest sports and one of the oldest activities that actually began with the Industrial Revolution,” said Ernst.

The inaugural Manhattan Beach Grand Prix was sanctioned by the Amateur Bicycle League of America has grown to become one of the premiere competitions on the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) circuit. The event draws up to 10,000 spectators and nearly 1,000 racers in various categories.

“We had 120 riders in all the classes and the entry fee was $2 that first year,” Ernst said. “I am humbled and honored to have been able to give back to the sport and have a city that we intrude every year yet still embraces us.”

The challenging and technical 1.4-mile course has been described as a “bent paperclip.” It circles clockwise past Live Oak Park, up Valley Drive and down Ardmore, from 15th Street to Pacific Avenue. It features two long straight-aways, two sweeping 180 degree turns, and 50 feet of climbing per lap. A headwind on the downward leg makes a breakaway difficult and stresses the importance of team tactics going into the final turn.

With the exception of the removal of the Santa Fe railroad tracks and the islands now standing in the final turn, the course has been the same since the inception of the race.

“One year, a train – which fortunately was only pulling a few cars -– stopped to let the cyclists pass over the tracks before proceeding to its destination,” Ernst said. “That could have been a mess.”

In recent years, the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix has been held on the final Sunday in June, but that wasn’t always the case.

“The race has been on Labor Day weekend and on the Fourth of July. As the event has grown, we’ve worked around the calendar of the Cycling Federation. Because we have an earlier summer in Southern California, the end of June has become a convenient time for many top riders to come and compete in the event,” Ernst said.

Ernst recalled having to alter a race at the last minute during the 1960s.

“There was an unexpected rain storm that made the streets extremely wet and we were concerned about the safety of the riders trying to make the final turn after coming down the straightaway,” Ernst explained. “So we decided to just reverse the course, which worked out fine.”

Ernst laughed while remembering a tandem race in the 1970s.

“The tandem race, with two people riding the same bicycle is a spectacle in itself,” Ernst said. “But these guys made a wrong turn and ended up pedaling down the railroad tracks. The way they were bouncing up and down reminded me of an old black-and-white Laurel and Hardy or Keystone Cops movie.”

Along with Chevron, which has served as title sponsor for the past 20 years, the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix includes additional sponsorship from Palos Verdes Bicycle Center, Helen’s Cycles, TalkRadio 790 KABC, Honda and Cytomax© Sports Performance Drink.

The race has featured numerous up-and-coming riders along with many Hall of Famers, Olympians and Tour de France competitors.

Bob Tetzlaff, a member of two Olympic teams in the 1960s, won the inaugural Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.

One of the top racers in the 1950s and 1960s, Jack Disney also competed in the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. The five-time National Champion competed in the 1956, ‘64 and ’68 Olympics before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.

Now 63, Kenny Fuller returned to Manhattan Beach to celebrate the race’s Golden Anniversary. The Corona Del Mar resident raced in the first Manhattan Beach Grand Prix in 1962 before becoming a member of two Olympic teams and a world champion. He placed first in the Master 60-99 category April 30 at the San Luis Rey Road Race and April 23 at Devils Punchbowl. Fuller won the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships in 2010

“I don’t always make this race because of other commitments but I had to come back for the 50th,” Fuller said. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been here but I’ve probably raced in it over 30 times in my career.”

Fuller reminisced about his first MBGP race when he was 13 years old.

“The biggest difference now is there are a lot more people and a lot more racers than way back when,” Fuller said. “With the exception of the railroad tracks being taken out, the course is basically the same but the bikes are close to half the weight from when I started 50 years ago. So the race is faster. I had 10 gears back then, now I have 20.”

Another veteran of the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix was World Champion Steve Hegg, who represented the USA at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, winning the gold medal in the 4000m individual pursuit and silver in the 4000m team pursuit. In road bicycle racing, Hegg became the first three-time winner of the United States national individual time trial championship, winning the elite men’s race in 1990, 1995 and 1996. In 1994, Hegg captured the United States national road race championship and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

The list of notable riders includes a pair of 1999 Hall of Fame inductees. Eric Heiden, also know for his speed on the ice rink, raced in Manhattan Beach in 1985 and Wayne Stetina won the race riding for the 7-11 team during a career in which he earned five National Cycling Championships and five Masters National Cycling Championships.

Ernst feels the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix is one of the growing numbers of races that help American riders in Olympic competition.

“There are many more races in America now, with European riders coming over to compete,” Ernst said. “The level has been raised and American riders such as Levi Leipheimer have moved into the top levels of riders. We’re winning more sprint and road races. It’s a natural progression and our country has the man power, nutrition and talent to succeed in the Olympic Games.”

Although he touts the elite racers who have competed in the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix during the last half century, Ernst gets equally enthused when talking about the kids races.

“I meet a number of cyclists who tell me their first race was at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix,” Ernst said. “Many of them bring their sons and daughters to Manhattan Beach so they can enjoy the same memorable experiences in the kids races.”

It’s just Ernst’s way of re-cycling the popularity of the sport.