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10-speed ahead

Ripping through the streets, down a hill at about 35 miles an hour, I had about 100 yards to position myself for the righthand turn, a crucial one, onto Olympic Boulevard. It was an important maneuver, to me, anyway, because this was the only turn on the course that came at the bottom of a hill and therefore gave me a chance to gain on some of the 1,454 other cyclists in this race.

Every time I swung onto the top of the hill on Century Park West Boulevard, I put the bike into high gear, cranked the pedals as hard as I could, and headed for the corner onto Olympic. Most of the cyclists were coming into that corner at the bottom from a wide angle and swinging out fairly far onto Olympic once they were through the curve, trying to straighten it out. I found, though, that by hugging the right side of Century Park West and then attacking the corner hard, staying as close to the curb as possible, I gained distance on cyclists who went into the curve at the same time I did, putting me several lengths ahead. The only hitch was making sure no one was between me and the curb as I went slam-banging my way through.

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I leaned the bike over at a steeper angle each time around the curve as I attacked the corner faster and at a tighter angle. I probably could have taken the corner faster, but since I know as much about bicycle racing as I do about nuclear physics, I thought it best not to put the bike too close to the pavement.

The important thing to note about this is not my attempt at cleaning the road with my ears but that my scanty knowledge of cycling ranked on a par with the roughly 1,400 other new bicycle racers in this event. If anything sums up the newfound enthusiasm America has found for bicycles, it is the fact that all these people showed up for this 50-kilometer (32- mile) race in Los Angeles in September. About 1,600 people rode in a similar race in Salem, Mass., in June. Few of the participants in either race had any racing experience to speak of, and most used their bikes strictly for recreation.

As more and more people come to believe that bicycles might be at least a partial answer to current energy problems, bicycle commuting is coming into its own. And one of the side effects of this is that people have "discovered" bicycle racing -- both as participants and as spectators. The bicycle is a natural for both racing and commuting. Ten- speeds in particular, and good 10 -speeds even more so, are paragons of precision mechanics. The need for a vehicle that requires tiny amounts of energy to propel heavy humans up steep hills and across flat ground at speeds approaching 35 miles per hour calls for exotic metals and the sort of craftsmanship that went into the Taj Mahal. A reasonably good 10- speed bike tips the scales at about one-seventh the weight of the average rider, so the frame design and the metals in it must be tremendously strong as well as featherweight.

For sheer energy efficiency, the bicycle stands unrivaled by any other form of transportation. The driving mechanism on a bicycle is 95 percent efficient: That is, 95 percent of the energy the rider applies to the pedals goes into moving the bicycle forward. According to research done by Vance Tucker of Duke University, a man riding a bicycle is three times as efficient as a horse, five times as efficient as a car, and 100 times as efficient as a bumblebee. The exertion of about one-quarter horsepower, not much of a strain for an adult in average shape, will move a pedestrian along at 5 m.p.h. and a cyclist at about 19 m.p.h.

There are, according to the National Bicycle Manufactureers' Association, 105 million bicycles either whirling around on American roads or rusting in American garages. Annual sales for the past three years have hovered around 10 million, compared with 6.9 million in 1970. In dollars and sense, that works out to a $1 billion-a-year industry.

Christine Manor, president of the League of American Wheelmen, a cycling club , notes that Wheelmen membership has doubled over the last five years to 16,000, as has the number of affiliated Wheelmen clubs across the country. The number of touring and racing events listed in the monthly magazine has grown by similar proportions.

Bicycle racing has become a national sports almost overnight, says Otto Wanz, a director of the United States Cycling Federation, which is the official sanctioning body of the sport in this country, and sponsor of the US bicycle training progran. The federation will sanction almost 1,000 races this year compared with just over 600 races two years ago and "an increase of many-fold over 10 years ago," he says.

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For example, what was once a small weekend-long race in Boulder, Colo., has grown into a week-long spectacular of eight events covering 550 miles of steep mountain grades -- both uphill and downhill. A rich purse of $40,000 this year attracted teams from Europe as well as Central and South America. Perhaps the most telling statistic about this race, the biggest road race in the country, is that 50,000 people lined the streets to watch it.

Such popularity comes nowhere near that of the month- long Tour de France, which becomes the French national pastime while it is being run, but it marks a remarkable turnaround from the days when a bicycle was something for the kids to ride until they were old enough to drive.

Racing breaks down into two general categories: road and track. Most road events range from 60 to 100 miles (over 1,000 for the Tour de France) and, like track events, are contested either by teams or individuals. Track events, held in velodromes -- indoor arenas with steeply banked oval tracks -- cover much shorter distances. Unlike road bicycles, which use up to 15 different gears, track bikes generally have just one fixed gear -- and no brakes. The events usually last no longer than five minutes and speeds can reach upwards of 40 m.p.h.

Individuals in a team ride on behind the other, no more than six inches separating their machines. The technique is called "drafting," which means that the lead rider breaks the wind for those behind him, or her. When he gets tired , the leader drops back to the last position and allows someone else to do the work. The pace can be so ferocious that if the rider dropping back fails to get back into line right away, he may not catch up to the pack and will be out of the race.

Among the most grueling of track events, for both teams and individuals, is the pursuit. Opponents begin at opposite ends of the track and then try to catch each other.

Competition, especially road races where judges are often out of sight, bristles with intensity and is often vicious. One ride might jam his air pump in the spokes of another or touch his front wheel to the rear wheel of a competitor, sending opponent and bike tumbling to the ground. A team might force a lone opponent off the road. Crashes and injuries are common. Tires go flat; wheels are jotled askew by rocks or potholes; even the friction from taking a turn too hard can roll a tire right off its rim.

Training to race a bicycle is about as much fun as falling off one.

"We expect a minimum of 300 to 400 miles a week," Mr. Wanz says. That includes muscle-searing sprints as well as distance work. The regimen also demands an absolute abstinence from other sports.

Claude Langlois, a Canadian national champion and gold medalist in the 1979 Pan American Games, aptly sums up training in his thick French-Canadian accent: "By the time you reach the peak of training, it becomes so that never again do you want to see a bicycle seat."

Seated over a lunch that seemed to include one of everything on the menu, this blond-haired, blud-eyed 18-year-old briefly explained his training program during an interview. In winter, Claude works out with weights, "especially for the arms and the back. My arms do not have much exercise from bicycling, and the crouched-over position is very hard on the back."

When spring clears the snow from the roads and the biting cold from the air, he hits the pavement, starting out with two hours of riding a day and working up to six hours a day over an eight-week period. He keeps meticulously detailed, color- coded charts that plot his progress, and he has them analyzed by a computer. "When you train, you work up to a climax, to a peak, and once you hit that peak you are in the best shape you can be in. After you hit the peak you are no longer in the best shape and cannot stay at it no matter how hard you try ," he believes. "So the idea is to time your training so that you are in your peak when the race comes. . . . After the race you start building for another peak."

By contrast, I put in 20 to 30 miles a day, five days a week, for three weeks to train for the 50-km race, riding between one and two hours a day and mostly wishing I hadn't by the end of the workout. For pacing, I tried to keep my pedaling at about 96 revolutions per minute. (The primary purpose of having 10 or more gears on a bike is to allow the rider to pedal at a constant r.p.m. level, usually between 80 and 120 r.p.m. Bicycle gears are not set up for use like car gears, shifting from first to second to third, and so on until you reach 10th. The training paid off, by the way, with a halfway respectable time of 1:27 hours -- the winner made it in 1:15 -- for the 32- mile ride.)

For years, the international cycling community has treated the US contingent with a disregard that borders on disdain.

"WE have never been very good," one federation official says. "It's the competition that makes good racers, and the competition in the US has been almost nonexistent."

That situation is beginning to change. "US cyclists still don't amount to much internationally," notes Barbara George, publisher of Velo News, a cycle-racing newsletter published in Vermont, "but we are getting a small toehold." Specifically, US women won the sprint and road championships and a US man took fifth place in the world road championship in France this September. There was strong speculation that, had the US participated in the Moscow Olympics, and American rider would have had a shot at a bronze medal.

Much stronger possibilities lie ahead, however, according to Mr. Wanz.

"We've had a very strong juniors program since 1978, and some of those juniors are starting to graduate into the seniors. Our depth is getting much better."

One of the most promising juniors has been an 18-year-old named Greg Lemond. In October at the Junior World Championships in Buenos Aires, he surprised teammates and opponents alike by pulling in a silver medal in the 3,000- meter individual pursuit, and he has chalked up over 90 other victories in the US and Europe. Unfortunately, at least for the amateur US Cycling Federation, Lemond has decided to turn professional.

The federation's training program consists almost entirely of a man known and revered in cycling circles as "Eddie B." People seldom sound out the name that follows the "B." because it is a phonetically fumbling Borysewicz. For years, Eddie B. was the top training coach of the Polish national cycling team, which, under his tutelage, was consistently one of the top teams in the world. He defected during the Montreal Olympics and lost little time in applying his skills to the US Cycling Federation. He now runs a year- round training camp for the federation at the US Olympic training village in Colorado Springs, Colo. For those riders foolish, and qualified, enough to show up, the federation pays room and board while Eddie B. elevates hard work and exhaustion to the level of a science.

Cyclists such as Greg Miller from California drove out to the camp at his own expense last spring to take advantage of Eddie B.'s expertise. But car fare to Colorado is only the beginning: A good bicycle costs a minimum of $1,100. Add $ 300 for proper clothing, six wheels at a minimum of $150 a pair, and six tires that start at $40 each. Travel expenses to races add considerably to the tally and turn racing into a costly, if not prohibitive, proposition.

But cycling has lately become popular enough to attract corporate sponsors willing to chip in the $50,000 or so needed to support a team of five or six riders. AMF, Exxon, and Schwinn are among the wealthier sponsors. And the news media are beginning to notice bicycle racing.

"We've been getting quite a bit of media exposure," Mr. George comments. "It can't help but do the sport a lot of good." Among the more promising signs of media interest is the presence of Eric Heiden -- the speed skating hero of the Lake Placid Olympics-turned-cyclist -- on the staff of ABC Sports as a cycling commentator. His sister, Beth, has also hung up her two skates for two wheels and is well on her way to becoming one of the top US women road racers.

Any serious bicyclist is nothing but passionate about his or her machine, and the most passionate dream about Campagnolo pedals, cranks, seat posts, headsets, derailleurs, hubs, bearings, brakes, levers, cables, and drop outs. Each is exquisite, handcrafted in quantities so small the company does not seem to belong in a modern industrial society. To refer to one's bicycle as being "100 percent Company" (all Campagnolo components) is what it would have been like to have had Albert Einstein as a best friend. Top-of-the-line Campagnolo, its "Super Record" line, runs about $1,000, and that does not include bicycle frame, rims, tires, saddle, handlebars, or stem. Middle-level "Record" Campany parts go for about $700.

"A lot of Campagnolo components is the mystique, the prestige of it," comments Douglas Foy, a Boston lawyer and cyclist whose bike is outfitted with Campagnolo Record components. "There are other manufacturers who make components that are just as good and cost less."

For example, Super Record road pedals cost $175 a pair. Record pedals run $ 60 a pair. A certain Japanese pedal, described in the widely circulated Bikeology catalog as "indistinguishable from Company," costs $35. The only difference, according to the catalog, is that the Super Record pedals boast titanium axles which shave off all of two ounces.

Still, most cyclists who can afford Campagnolo will buy it. "The components last virtually indefinitely," Foy says. "The surface is anodized aluminum, so all you need to clean it is a rag and a little kerosene. You also are almost certain to find the tiniest nut or screw you need at any bike shop worth its salt anywhere in the country. With Japanese components, the distribution is not so good." Mr. Foy estimates that his components have about 60,000 miles on them.

The integrity of craftsmanship that holds for components holds true for frames. The very best frames are made of "double butted" tubing, that is, tubing thick at the ends for strength and thinner in the middle for lightness. Also very expensive. Reynolds and Columbus are generally considered the two best brands.

Not so expensive but still very good are frames in which the tubing lacks double butting but is lugged and brazed -- connected in a reinforcing sleeve. In cheaper frames, the tubing is welded together. A substantial part of the difference between various-quality frames and components is weight. The use of exotic metal alloys -- molybdenum, titanium, and (not so exotic) aluminum and chrome -- retains the strength of heavier steel while shedding ounces.

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