The first time I attended a meeting of the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee, I sat silently in the auditorium at the old Parker Center, where the BAC used to meet.
Afterwards, a small man approached me unsteadily, trembling with age, but without hesitation. And asked why I was there.
It wasn’t a challenge, as the phrase so often is.
It was an offer to help with whatever problems had led me to attend.
When I explained I just there to observe the committee, he invited me to come back again. And said to to let him know if there was anything they could help me with.
Then he turned and walked away on those unsteady legs.
And with that, I had just met Alex Baum. The founder of the BAC and the father of modern bike advocacy in the City of Angels, who passed away early Sunday at the age of 92.
That alone would be enough of a resume to cement anyone’s legacy. But for Baum, it’s little more than a footnote in a truly extraordinary life.
A native of German-speaking Lorraine, France, he was in his late teens when the Nazis overran the country. Rather than flee, the young Jewish man chose to fight, joining the French resistance along with his brother.
An article in the Jewish Journal quotes him as saying “We fought the Germans any possible way we could.”
Captured while attempting to guide an English pilot to safety, Baum somehow managed to hide his heritage, and spent the next two-and-a-half years as a political prisoner in Nazi concentration camps.
After the war, he rebounded to play soccer, first for the French national team, then as a center-forward for a Chicago semipro team before moving to Los Angeles in 1960 and establishing a successful business.
Yet it’s his lifelong love of bicycling that led him to leave a lasting footprint on the city, and on the sport itself at the highest levels.
In fact, it’s Alex Baum who should be credited with the rise of women’s bike racing, which this year will see professional races at the Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta a España, as well as four days of racing at the Amgen Tour of California.
Because he was the one who ticked the box that brought women’s road racing to the Olympic Games, with an inaugural race at the ’84 Olympics that saw Americans Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg take gold and silver, respectively. And let girls around the world know they could compete at the highest levels.
In fact, he was instrumental in bringing the games to LA, after serving first as a board member of the United States Cycling Federation — which would later be rebranded as USA Cycling — then later as the first American appointed to the Union Cycliste International, the governing body for international bike racing.
That alone should have been enough for anyone.
But for Baum, it was just a start.
He also gets credit for building velodromes in Encino and Dominguez Hills, and at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And he was influential in the birth of the Tour of California, according to the LADOT site.
It was also Alex Baum who first approached then-Mayor Tom Bradley about forming a city committee to serve the interests of bicyclists and improve the streets for everyone on two wheels, serving as chairman of the BAC for over 30 years under four successive mayors. And continuing as chairman emeritus of the committee right up to his death.
As leader of the BAC, he can be credited with helping in the development of the 1996 and 2010 bike plans, and leading in the creation of the LA River Bike Path. As well as working towards completion of the path all the way from LA to Long Beach.
In other words, if you ride a bike anywhere in Los Angeles, you owe Baum a round of thanks.
Despite the obvious effects of age, it almost seemed like he’d be here forever, guiding the city forward to a more bike friendly future.
And maybe he will be.
Because his influence will live on right here on the streets of LA as long as any of us ride them.
Word of his death came Sunday afternoon in an email from his longtime friend and associate, LADOT Senior Bicycle Coordinator Michelle Mowery, who said he passed away surrounded by family early that morning.
In some ways, though, we are all his family. And he will be long missed by a city that he changed for the better, yet one that barely knew him.
According to Mowery, his memorial will be held at 1:30 pm this Wednesday at Santa Monica Synagogue at 18th and Broadway. If you plan to attend, you’re asked to RSVP to his daughter at dgardnersm @ aol.com.
Personally, I’d like to see LA’s current mayor and the BAC Baum served for so many years host a public memorial at the bicycle bridge named for him over Los Feliz Blvd.
It would be a fitting chance to say goodbye to one of the true giants of our city, and our time.
Update: David Wolfberg has written a wonderful remembrance of Alex Baum on the BAC’s Facebook page, adding much detail to his time in the French resistance, as well as with the Olympics and LA bike advocacy. It’s definitely worth reading.
My prayers and deepest sympathy for Alex Baum and all his loved ones.
Thanks to the Jewish Journal and LADOT Bike Blog, whose profiles provided the basis for this piece.