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THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : Portrait of a Fanatic : Brian Finke Was an Asthmatic Couch Potato Until a Brush With Death Turned Him Into a Compulsive Cyclist

January 17, 1988|PATRICIA LOVEROCK | Patricia Loverock is a writer living in Burbank. She was a member of Canada's 1976 Olympic track and field team

IN THE EVENING of Dec. 26, 1980, Brian Finke was on the brink of death, desperately sucking oxygen in an intensive-care unit in Panorama City. Earlier that day his breathing had become alarmingly difficult. An asthma attack had taken over his lungs, and he had experienced that hypoxic panic commonly felt by a drowning person. With each hour, his spasming bronchial tubes let less air into his body, and more of the tiny air sacs in his lungs became clogged with mucus. And every hour he took an inhaler to his lips, forcing epinephrine into his airways. The drug helps relieve asthmatic attacks, but it also dramatically raises the heart rate. Finke's prescription said to use the inhaler just once every six hours. By the time he was rushed to the emergency room, he had overdosed on epinephrine. Despite this near-lethal administration, his lungs were barely functioning.

"There was nothing they could do but hang IVs on me and try to liquefy what was in my lungs," says Finke, looking back on that frightening day. "I just vaguely remember a doctor standing over me for the better part of eight hours." Finke had been experiencing two or three asthma attacks a month, but none as bad as this. When he left the hospital, his doctor told him that if he didn't stop eating so much and start exercising, he might not make it through the next one. Finke was 5 feet, 6 inches, weighed 170 pounds and hadn't done a lick of exercise in more than 18 years.

Now it is November, 1987, in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Pasadena. Finke, 50, is resting for a few minutes at Clear Creek Ranger Station, where the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways meet near Mt. Wilson. He has cycled here from his home in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, along with four men half his age. It's a 65-mile round trip, including a steep eight-mile climb to the station. For most Angelenos, this is a day trip by car. For Finke and his cycling friends, it's a pleasant way to pass a Sunday morning. Finke, weighing 120 pounds in his skintight cycling togs, had been standing in the shade of a tree but now walks his bike into the bright sunshine. As he basks in the sun's warmth, he explains, "I have so little fat on my body I cool off really easily."

In his journey from a hospital emergency room to the Clear Creek station, Finke has done more than just follow his doctor's advice. He has become a fanatic in a sport that inspires cultism. Dedicated cyclists ride hundreds of miles a month, and when they aren't riding they are talking about the weight-to-strength ratio of bike frames, Japanese versus Italian components and the size of the gear they were "pulling" on their last tough climb.

The Bicycle Federation of America estimates that there are 42 million adult cyclists in this country. Of these, only about 1.5 million are hard-core participants. These cyclists regularly rack up lots of mileage, taking part in such events as century rides--non-competitive one-day tours of 100 miles. Finke has completed one double century (200 miles in one day), and in the spring he's planning to take on the Tour of Two Forests--a double century that climbs through the Los Padres and Angeles national forests. Finke is even more intensely dedicated to the sport than most of the hard-core elite. He has five bicycles with a total value of about $10,000.

Most cyclists have two bikes, a good one for racing or touring and a cheaper, heavier one used for junk miles--cycling language for commuting or riding in bad weather. Finke's junk miles are done on a $3,000 De Rosa, a top-of-the-line Italian bike frame outfitted with special-edition Campagnolo components. Brakes alone cost $450; a set of pedals $160. He spent $200 for a crocodile-skin bike seat. And even though Finke has never entered a cycling race, the 150 to 200 miles a week he rides are equivalent to the distance covered by the young competitive cyclists he joins on his weekend trips.

Finke's cycling compulsion is a welcome change from the poor health he had before he discovered the sport, says his brother, Barry Field. "When we used to get together at family functions, he would just hack and wheeze. My wife and I were in the Peace Corps and we went down to South America for a couple of years. Before we left we had a family get-together, and I actually thought to myself, 'I wonder if I am going to have to come back for his funeral.' " At the time, Brian Finke was only 36.

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