A red van, sporting a colorful "Aussie" bumper sticker and pair of "Good day" plates, pulled across the entrance to the race course, acting as a vehicular barricade to potential track trespassers.
"Clear the path for the riders, get out of the way," an announcer barked over the loudspeaker as bicyclists whirred past the van and red cones that marked the perimeter of the 1.3-mile course at Pierce College.
With temperatures in the 100s, the cyclists raced round and round for 23 laps, sweating out the 30-mile endurance test called the Tour of California race. The race, which began and ended in the Pierce College eastern parking lot, has been nicknamed the Tour of Two Fields for its less-than-scenic route through the school's cow pastures and parking lots.
As organizer Dave Simpson surveyed the scene Sunday, he was pleased that his club's first race at Pierce had attracted so many competitors--and fans.
"We have about 300 riders here," said Simpson, who is president of the Van Nuys-based Rainbow Sports Club. "That's great. We even have a lot of spectators, especially considering the heat."
Nearly 170 onlookers--some strategically stationed to sprinkle water on the racers--were gathered along the course. Most didn't let the high temperatures lower their spirits.
The Rainbow Sports Club, one of three clubs in the San Fernando Valley sanctioned by the United States Cycling Federation, gears its activities toward the novice or beginning cyclist.
"We are a developmental club," Simpson said. "We start with the novice or junior riders and bring them up, through coaching and competition, so that they can join more competitive clubs such as Levi-Raleigh or 7-11. Those clubs sponsor their members in races, paying stipends, lodging costs, equipment repairs--all the things needed for competition."
Simpson says that although the club focuses on the fundamentals, it still stresses competition.
"Cycle racing is a very competitive situation and we prepare riders for that," Simpson said. "With a club you get the pack experience of racing, which can freak out a young rider in his first race, especially if he is used to riding and training alone. With a club, you've been in a pace line, you know what to expect in a race, and you've learned how to handle yourself in a pack."
And the Rainbow Club certainly is a pack. Begun in 1983 with only four members, the club now boasts nearly 90 members thanks to a popularity boost after the '84 Olympics.
In 1984, Southern California had 1,600 riders licensed by the U.S. Cycling Federation. This year, it has more than 2,000. Nationwide, the numbers have also risen. In 1984, there were 16,000 licensed cyclists. This year, there are almost 20,000.
"We have many riders this year who are just beginning," said Rainbow Coach Steve Ball, who co-founded the club and serves as the Southern California district representative to the cycling federation. "I enjoy watching them develop. When they first come to us they are very raw. And they have no idea what's involved in training and competition.
"But if they put effort into it, they develop very quickly. It's exciting to watch their reactions. Within the first six months, they can see a lot of improvement."
Perhaps that is because competitive cycling is such a demanding and all-consuming sport, requiring the endurance and tenacity of a marathon runner, the leg strength of a weight lifter and often the financial resources of a Rockefeller.
"It's a very expensive sport if you compete actively," Simpson said. "An entry-level bike costs between $400 and $500 and the price can go way up from there."
Race fees are about $30 a month and the season is about nine months long.
"The costs of traveling to the races, lodging, gas, food, run in the hundreds," Simpson added. "And equipment costs--shoes, uniforms and, especially, tires--run very high. Every 1 1/2 months, you have to replace your tires, which can cost $25 to $50 or more a pair."
But devotees insist that the benefits of the sport far outweigh the costs. They speak of improved health, a feeling of well-being and a renewed appreciation for the outdoors. In fact, some cyclists speak of arduous 50- and 80-mile rides over mountains and through canyons in the kind of flowery language usually reserved for nature enthusiasts or poets.
"It's something that's addicting," said Brook Henderson, a junior at El Camino Real High, who won the Tour of California juniors division Sunday.
"When I was over in Europe, I picked the dates that would coincide with the last sprints of the Tour de France race," he added. "And when I was sitting on the train looking out the window while traveling through this lush, green, beautiful scenery, I kept thinking of how fresh the air would be, how great it would feel to be out there riding my bike, taking in the sights.
"And I just kept thinking: 'Where's my bike?' "