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Mountain Bicycling: It's as Old as the Hills and Just as Hard : Off-Roaders Look Like Old 2-Wheelers

June 27, 1985|PAUL SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Bicycling in rough country on a fat-tired, multi-geared mountain bicycle can be a change of pace for those bored with working out in a floor-to-ceiling mirrored gym.

Roger Piper thinks so, and he's been bicycling in the Santa Monica Mountains since the mid-1960s.

Piper once joined a gym but after a single visit decided that weight lifting and raquetball were dull. "I'd rather be riding in the hills even though it's not as convenient and hardly as comfortable (as a gym).

"I like the solitude and the beauty of the surroundings. It's interesting that you can be close enough to civilization to see the swimming pools and yet far enough out where, if you get in serious trouble, the ravens will find you before anyone else does."

Upright Handlebars, Fat Tires

At first glance a mountain bike, with fat tires, upright handlebars and a frame made of oversized, thick-walled chrome molybdenum tubing, seems to resemble the old newspaper delivery boy two-wheeler of 30 years ago, before European-style racing bikes came into fashion. A racing bike is distinguished by drop handlebars, skinny tires and a frame of small-diameter tubing.

The large tires not only help absorb the jolts of the trail, Piper said, but also provide better traction than the smooth, skinny racing bike tires. To a mountain biker, obstacles like fallen logs, mud, streams and loose rock may not be discouraging, at least not enough to make him go back to riding regular roads, he said.

But riding in the mountains presents other problems.

On a recent evening, Piper strained to pedal uphill on a mountain trail peppered with rounded pebbles and small boulders. He was 10 feet from the top when he lost traction and began to slide back on the loose gravel and down the steep incline he had tried to conquer.

Piper got off the bike and hefted it onto his shoulder. "Sometimes you have to carry it the rest of the way," he said as he walked to the top of the trail.

Hanging In There

"The better riders are going to be the last ones to get off the bike and walk," he said. "There are many places where you'll make better progress if you throw the bike over your shoulder and carry it, but jumping from boulder to boulder is not mountain biking."

Piper rides in Rustic Canyon, Sullivan Canyon, on stretches of the Backbone Trail and in other areas. He likes the unexpected in mountain bicycling. "A trail that you rode two weeks ago is unridable because of a slide or a downed tree. It's interesting because the geography (of the mountain trails) changes so fast."

He also likes the technical challenge. "If the handlebars are too wide (and you are riding the dry stream bed at the bottom of Rustic Canyon), the willows will grab the bikes's handlebars and throw you to the ground," said Piper, who designs and builds customized mountain bikes at his Santa Monica bike shop. He recommends that the bars be no wider than 20 inches across.

Mountain biking has been around almost as long as bicycles, said the 35-year-old Piper, a Venice resident. During the early 1900s British bicyclists referred to off-road biking in mountainous terrain as "rough-riding."

10-15 Gears

But the mountain bike's new popularity and modern design originated in California, according to Glenn Odell, president of the National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. (NORBA).

Like a racing bike, the mountain bike is equipped with 10 to 15 gears. (The number of gears depends on the manufacturer's design or on a rider's preference if the bike is built to order.) But the mountain bike, with a smaller chain wheel and larger sprockets on the rear hub, has lower gears than a racing bike to ease the strain of pedaling up steep grades.

Since 1982, when fewer than 5,000 mountain bikes were bought in the U. S., Odell said, sales climbed to 225,000 last year. Bicycle manufacturers have projected sales of 460,000 this year. A spokesman for the Bicycle Federation, a national organization that promotes recreational bicycling, estimated that sales of off-road bikes should increase this year by 100% over 1984.

Piper said many customers are looking for a macho image when they buy an all-terrain bike for about $700. "They've read some magazine article called 'I RodeMt. Kilimanjaro on My Mountain Bike' and suddenly they want one," he said.

Few Ride Mountains

Locally, many are buying mountain bikes, but few ride the mountains. That's how it appears to people who run bicycle shops and to park rangers in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Where are the bikes if they're not in the mountains? "The vast majority are riding them on the street," said Steve Aldridge, who runs a Marina del Rey bike shop. "It's the macho image--like people (who live in the city) who own four-wheel drive Jeeps. The bike is a cheap off-road vehicle, but most of these people will never be going off-road. It's a comfortable street bike, an upgraded cruiser, for people who have been scared off 10-speed racers."

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