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Ironman cyclist John Howard stuck in high gear

The suggestion that he may wind up as the Evel Knievel of bicycling makes John Howard laugh.

The comparison strikes this former Olympian as odd, for there are no attempted canyon jumps or thrill-show stunts in his future. What does lie ahead is an assault on a speed record.

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Currently he's funneling his energies into winning ''The Great American Bike Race,'' a 2,970-mile trek that began Aug. 4 in Santa Monica, Calif., and should end Saturday in New York. ABC is filming the race to show on the Wide World of Sports at a later date.

''I plan to start my sprint about Pennsylvania,'' Howard joked before starting. A pure racer, he anticipated playing the part of a rabbit in a tortoise-and-hare battle against a trio of endurance cyclists.

The record for the distance (10 days and approximately 231/2 hours) is held by Lon Haldeman, who set it last year and is one of Howard's rivals this week.

To warm up for this latter event, Howard competed in a 24-hour bicycle marathon, which he won by pedalling an American record 475 miles around New York's Central Park.

Though basically a cyclist, Howard likes to explore his physical limits in long-distance triathlons. Perhaps the ultimate event in this regard is Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon, in which the contestants start out swimming 2.4 miles, follow that with a 112-mile bike race, and finish by running a marathon.Howard won this ordeal last year with a time of nine hours, 38 minutes, and hopes to defend his title in October.

''I consider myself one of the strongest endurance athletes in the world,'' he says, ''but I am not a masochist; I know when to back off.''

To John, life on the athletic treadmill is the perfect way to fuse his avocation and vocation into a seamless whole. Fitness is a way of life.

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If one had to attach a job description to what Howard does, ''professional free-lance athlete'' might sum it up as well as anything. ''I basically do whatever my sponsors want me to do,'' he says of the trips, interviews, and speaking engagements that are a part of his livelihood. He also writes for fitness-oriented magazines and is authoring a book entitled ''Endurance,'' to be published in December.

Howard has been going strong for years, but people are just beginning to take notice. He was once this country's top cyclist, a position of low visibility in the US. He finished higher than any other American cyclist in both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics. A high-speed crash marred his participation in the '76 Montreal Games, his final Olympic effort.

With the cross-country race behind him, Howard will turn his attention to becoming the fastest cyclist in history. He figures Dr. Allan Abbott's existing mark of 138.674 m.p.h., set in 1973, has stood long enough.

In a preliminary attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah last month he hit 115 m.p.h.

''There's no other safe place,'' he observes of his plan to return to the flats in September. The attempt will require that he tailgate a racing car, carrying a wind break at the back.

''This is a very technical project, possibly more of an engineering feat than anything else,'' Howard explains. ''The car has to be especially designed and outfitted so I can have two-way communication with the driver. It's all very expensive, probably $50,000 for the attempt, whether it succeeds or fails.''

Building up speed will be a gradual process, taking possibly 15 minutes utilizing over-sized gears.

When John, a sinewy 6 ft. 1 in, 157-pound Houston resident, goes bombing down Bonneville's natural dragway it will only be the latest chapter in a unique sports career. He boxed as a youth growing up in Missouri, and played the usual array of school sports. Eventually he turned to cycling, both as a means of rebellion (his father wanted him to play football) and because it appealed to him on aesthetic grounds. In college at Southwest Missouri State, where he studied art, he threw himself into cycling and began to win major national races.

Looking ahead, John only says, ''I don't see myself competing five years from now.'' Among his current hobbies, though, are white-water kayaking, sailing, and sports car racing. In other words, the beat of Howard's active sports life will go on.

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