It must have been strange, at first, for the joggers on the Santa Ana River trail.
There they were, loping through the '70s, lulled into a Zen-like rhythm by the crunching of their high-tech shoes on the asphalt, luxuriating in the unencumbered freedom of wind in the hair and receding miles at the back.
But then, out of the '80s, came the mechanized legions, zipping past the joggers with a quick hiss of loose dirt and a well-oiled meshing of gears, ablaze in shocking pink, turquoise blue and ads for Italian liqueurs across their chests. Shocking blurs of bandy calves and pumping thighs, booming along on lean machines that looked like they were built by NASA.
Welcome to two-wheel heaven.
In the four years since dozens of Olympic cyclists in Mission Viejo electrified a nation largely ignorant of anything to do with modern cycling, Orange County has become the Valhalla of velocity, a kind of land of Gatorade and honey for anyone who thinks bliss is spinning along at 20 m.p.h. on a pair of tires about the width of an index finger.
As a result of a combination of good weather, Olympic history, accessibility to good trails, a huge pool of fashionable amateurs, sore knees and the never-ending trendiness of Southern California in general, Orange County has developed itself a reputation.
"It's heaven for the cyclist here," said Mike Wolk, president of Orange County Wheelmen, the county's largest cycling club. "There are so many great places to ride. There are even a few Olympic hopefuls who train in the south county from time to time. And our club has grown tremendously. We started out 20 years ago with just a handful of people and there are close to 800 members now."
The cycling boom in the county, Wolk said, can be thought of as almost Darwinian in that bicycles have shown up in so many garages through a sort of process of natural selection. Many former recreational runners, he said, whose hips and knees had begun to suffer the effects of repeated pounding, switched to cycling to relieve the pressure. Also, he said, many triathlon enthusiasts tired of the swimming and running aspects of the event and became full-time cyclists.
And, said Bev Plass, president of the Bicycle Club of Irvine, "it's really great cardiovascular exercise, but it's also social. People get started and they come out on rides and they get to talking to other cyclists about trails and equipment and mechanics and they end up wanting to do more and more. We have former runners who like being able to cover more territory in a ride and see more things. Some people I know do centuries (100-mile rides) every weekend in the springtime."
Wolk said that "generally speaking, the beginning rider who comes to us is looking for the social aspect. That's fine, because it's certainly healthier to meet people on a bike ride than out in a bar somewhere."
Not to say that the sole benefits of the increase in cycling have to do with health. With the ceaseless demand for tires, spokes, component groups, brake hoods, digital speedometers, saddles, valves, gears, cranks, bottle cages, lycra shorts, Campari jerseys, cleated shoes, mesh-back gloves, helmets, handlebar tape, patch kits, pumps, grease and trail maps, equipment dealers are turning a very tidy dollar.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ken Hassen, the Southern California sales and promotion representative for Giro bicycle helmets. Two years ago, he said, his company had trouble selling one of the best-known helmets for $35. Now, he said, they sell without any problem for $70.
Hassen said the cycling trend is far more rampant in Orange County than anywhere else in California or even in the nation.
"It's interesting," he said, "but Southern California is really the forefront of any business. (Trends) start here and work their way east."
For instance, he said, such innovations as aluminum and carbon fiber cycle frames were gobbled up here before they won wide acceptance elsewhere in the country.
It is also no accident that the nation's largest bike shop is in Orange County. Two-Wheel Transit Authority, whose main location is in Fountain Valley, celebrated its 13th anniversary in May.
"When I opened my first store," said owner Paul Moore, 41, "we pulled in $13,000 in eight months. Last year we were the largest single cycling store in the United States with sales volume in excess of $4 million.
"It really boomed in '84 and '85," he said. "We doubled in sales each year. There's still a real boom, but it's leveled off for us mostly because there is more competition."
Two-Wheel's closest competition--both geographically and fiscally--is Bike Tech, an up-and-coming franchise only a few feet away from Two-Wheel. According to Hassen, owner Bill McCready, riding the crest of the cycling wave, now operates five Bike Tech shops.