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THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : L.A. BODY, INC. : A New Crop of Entrepreneurs Is Turning Our Obsession to Gold

January 17, 1988|KATHLEEN DOHENY | Kathleen Doheny writes frequently about health and fitness for the Times.

Skeptics claim that the health and fitness boom is a figment of Madison Avenue imaginations.

That most Americans spend more time thinking about workouts than breaking a sweat.

And that a healthy-size chunk of the population buys its share of Reeboks craving comfort and fashion, not better 10K times.

Still, some bodies--actually millions of them--say they're out there exercising. About 70% of Americans claim to get some exercise, surveys show, and about 20% report working out at levels recommended for cardiovascular fitness. Myriad Southern California industries and entrepreneurs catering to fitness and health have cashed in on our obsession.

Industry observers say that the business end of health and fitness has even picked up considerable steam in the past five years:

SPOKING ALONG

When the U.S. cyclists won four gold, three silver and two bronze medals in the 1984 Olympics, millions of Southern Californians decided to rediscover the joys of bicycling.

The Olympic track record--plus many exercisers' desire to switch to lower-impact exercise--are two factors behind the bicycle boom that has swept the country and Southern California in particular, say experts.

In 1986, 12.5 million new bikes were sold in the U.S., estimates Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of America in Washington, contrasted with 11.4 million in 1985. "As many as 8 million Southern Californians take to their bikes each year," Wilkinson says. "About 51% of American cyclists are adults age 16 and over."

"Southern California is probably the center of the universe when it comes to cycling," adds Bill Tigue of California Bicyclist, a 5-year-old magazine that distributes 45,000 copies a month in Southern California. "And Orange County is the white-hot center."

"Mountain bikes (wide-tired with straighter, upright handlebars and 15-18 speeds) are the fastest-growing style," adds Mary Osolin, project coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of America. In 1985, she says, 600,000 mountain bikes were sold; by 1986, sales totaled 1.5 million.

Southern California membership in the U.S. Cycling Federation, the governing body of amateur competitive cycling, grew in 1986 from 3,244 to 4,073. According to federation spokeswoman Diane Fritschner, this region has the highest concentration of amateur cyclists in the country.

The boom in bicycle sales is good news for shops like the Two Wheel Transit Authority, a Fountain Valley store with 10,000 square feet of retail space. In 1982, says owner Paul Moore, he sold fewer than 1,000 bikes. This year, he expects to sell more than 4,000.

"I'm sure it's (the bicycle craze) still yet to peak," says Moore. As one indicator that cycling is more than a fad, he points to dozens of organized rides throughout Southern California. On one recent weekend, for example, there were three big rides going on.

CYCLING DUDS

"Five years ago, people were riding (bicycles) wearing T-shirts and cutoffs," notes John Kucharik Jr., president of Kucharik Bicycle Clothing in Gardena. "Now, people are educated."

To Kucharik, that means they've ditched the grubby duds for brightly colored, tight-fitting, sometimes expensive bicycle clothing--jerseys, shorts, tights, windbreakers, one piece "skin suits" and special bicycle underwear, among other items. The attire is designed for practicality--pads sewn into bicycle shorts, for instance, reduce chafing and increase riding comfort.

"Back in 1980," says Kucharik, "we used to sell 50 or 100 pairs of shorts a month. (Shorts now retail for $35-$60, he adds.) In 1984, we sold 400-500 a month. That's probably doubled now." Mark Holler, president of the San Fernando-based Aussie Racing Apparel, a firm he founded five years ago, recorded first-year sales of $6,000. He expects 1987 sales to surpass three-quarters of a million dollars.

HEALTH CLUBS

When "Peak Performance," a marketing research letter for health and athletic clubs based in Bellevue, Wash., tallied the number of health clubs state by state in late 1986, it was no contest.

California won hands down. Of 19,052 clubs operating nationwide, reports Peak Performance newsletter editor Ellen Doub, 2,563 are in California. (In a lame runner-up position is Florida, with 1,327 clubs.) And about two-thirds of those California fitness emporiums--nearly 1,700--are in the southern half of the state, estimate local experts.

Says Doub: "California does not have the largest number of clubs per capita. Colorado usually does. But California has the largest sheer number of clubs."

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