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Californian bicycle racer is right at home in France

When you're trying to open a door on tradition that has been closed to Americans for 78 years, you had better have a French last name, speak the language fluently, and have the talent to control a bicycle at speeds up to 70 m.p.h. It also helps if you've got the stamina of a camel.

All four qualities abound in the steel-hard, 128-pound body of Jonathan Boyer , a six-foot Californian who in July became the first American ever to race in the Tour de France. No, Jonathan wasn't satisfied with his 32nd-place finish either, even if his competitors consisted of 149 of the world's best professional cyclists.

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The reason that no American has ever raced in the Tour de France before is that entries are by teams of 10, rather than by individuals. Even though Americans compete regularly in European races, none stayed away from home for eight years the way Boyer did, winning often enough so that Renault-Gitane, the No. 1 French team, decided it could use a man with his credentials.

The Tour de France, a grueling race of between 2,200 and 2,600 miles, depending upon which city is picked as its starting point, takes 23 days to complete, including rest stops. Even though the race usually ends in Paris, where as many as 2 million spectators may turn out, it has also finished in Frankfurt, West Germany.

It is not uncommon for riders who begin their ordeal in 90-degree temperatures to wind up brushing snow from their shoulders or chipping ice from gears by the time they reach the mountains. Talent is so even that riders are almost always bunched up. Top finishers are also medically tested for drugs after each race.

Although roads are closed during the race to traffic and contestants are given a motorcycle escort, nobody smooths out the rough pavement, stops the rain , or warns that the next downgrade can produce frightening, wind-assisted speeds. No wonder first prize is $30,000, which the winner always shares with the other members of his team.

''Each day is a separate race, usually from 120 to 160 miles,'' Boyer explained. ''Riders' performances are clocked by officials, who award points at the end of the day to those with the fastest times in several different categories. The next morning those same people are given different colored jerseys to wear so that the opposition knows who they have to beat.''

''When we stop at night, we go to a hotel to sleep, just like anyone else,'' Jonathan added. ''We have two conventional meals a day, a sit-down breakfast and supper, but lunch is different. We are given fruit and fig bars while pedaling past designated lunch areas along the way.''

Water comes from a tube that has been inserted into a plastic bottle mounted on a bike's handlebars, and each team is followed by its own motor home, which carries mechanics, extra bicycles, tools, and maintenance equipment.

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''Most racing bicycles cost between $1,800 and $2,000, are made using special steel frames, and weigh about 20 pounds,'' Boyer said. ''We have hand brakes front and rear and our bikes are built so that we can either pedal or coast down hills. Our biggest maintenance problem is with tires, which are silk with a rubber coating, cost $30 apiece, and generally last only one day.''

What launched Boyer's overseas career was a first-place finish in the California State Championships in 1972. That made him eligible for the 1973 Junior World Championships in Munich. Once in Europe, he had an insatiable desire to visit the home of his French ancestors.

''I loved the country right away,'' Jonathan said. ''There was no trouble adjusting because nobody I met ever treated me like a tourist. It was like I was one of them - I guess because I was always riding my bike, spoke their language, and had a French name.''

Boyer's special talents on long European mountain climbs and high-speed descents became his trademark. Eventually he was invited to join a Peugeot bicycle club in southern France, where he won six of his first 12 races and gained the extra experience needed to turn pro.

Boyer now makes between $50,000 and $80,000 a year racing in Europe, while enjoying the same kind of hero worship that Americans lavish on athletes like Pete Rose, Tony Dorsett, and Tom Watson.

Asked to explain the success of bicycle racing's top riders, Boyer replied: ''Mostly it's physical. Stamina and power-to-weight ratio is very important. And if you are more than 175 pounds you are going to have trouble on steep grades, like the French Alps.''

But while Jonathan doesn't talk much about his mental toughness and quickness , those qualities are easily recognizable - along with the dedication that has him riding (when there is time to practice) 400 to 800 miles a week.

Boyer and his wife, Elizabeth (1976 Texas State collegiate women's fencing champion), were in the United States recently to promote a nationwide series of bicycle races.

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