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Freewheeling Fun : Recreation: Bicycle clubs offer exercise and camaraderie to riders looking for a serious race or just a good time.


You see them on Pacific Coast Highway, on San Vicente, on Zoo Drive, on the Angeles Crest. You see them all over the Southland--usually early in the morning, wherever traffic is light and the scenery pleasant. They're bicyclists riding together--sometimes in a tight pack, sometimes in a long string.

Who are these people who have been known to provoke the ire of motorists?

Chances are they're members of one of the dozens of bicycle clubs in Southern California. The clubs--like bicyclists themselves--come in all shapes and sizes. What they share is a love of bicycling, of the camaraderie of riding with a group, and the mutual motivation that gets them on the road when they might be sleeping in.

Clubs fall roughly into two categories: recreational/touring clubs and racing clubs.

The Los Angeles Wheelmen, formed in 1945 and the oldest club in Southern California, is an example of the former. It's also one of the largest clubs around, with more than 700 members.

Like most clubs, the Wheelmen have a full schedule of group rides that might include two or three options on any weekend morning. A monthly newsletter keeps members up-to-date. As with any group that's been around awhile, traditions have grown, and some rides are almost sacred: the Wednesday and Sunday morning rides in Griffith Park, for example. The Wednesday ride is a gathering of old friends, most of them over 65, who have been riding together for years.

"Age doesn't really make a difference in bicycling," said Hal Munn, 68, vice president of the Wheelmen. "It's something you can do for a lifetime. You just slow down a bit. There's always a slow group to ride with."

Most Wheelmen rides are taken at a casual pace, but most naturally divide into two or three groups. The "tigers" take off at a fast clip, while the slower riders prefer their own unpressured speed.

One needn't be a member to join a club ride. "We always welcome newcomers," said Munn, "and we keep an eye out for them. If one is a first-time rider, we'll encourage them, help them with a flat tire, make sure they're not left behind. If they have a good time, they come back. Eventually, because they notice other riders' equipment, they begin to upgrade their own, get stronger. . . . Soon, we have another committed bicycle rider."

At the other end of the spectrum is a club like Ernie's, which is affiliated with a Brentwood bicycle shop of the same name.

Newcomers are welcome on an Ernie's ride, but they better be up for a rough ride. A typical Sunday morning training ride starts out at 20 m.p.h., climbs steep canyon roads and keeps up the pace for 40 miles.

Ernie's riders are focused on training for races, which take place on weekends all over the Southland. Racing clubs are often headquartered in bike shops, where racers can hang out, run into friends, tinker with their bikes or find riding companions.

The Los Angeles Racing Team (LART) is a relatively new racing club with an emphasis on developing new and younger riders. While most racing clubs rely on informal sharing of racing tips, LART coach Carl Cantrell offers his members professional coaching, which includes an introduction to the fundamentals of the sport, frequent skills clinics and training lectures.

"We take recreational cyclists and train them in everything an Olympic cyclist learns," said Cantrell. He described the membership as ranging from "weekend warriors" to serious bike racers, with members ranging from teen-agers to over-35s.

Though riding is always the focus of a bike club, it's the social nature of riding together that is the tie that binds.

Evening meetings often include talks by celebrity cyclists, or slide presentations on an exotic bike tour. A typical club ride is followed by breakfast or lunch; bicyclists inevitably know the best "high-carbo" breakfast restaurants, where they chow down to replenish lost calories.

Nancy and Richard Wedeen of North Hollywood belong to several bicycle clubs.

"Ninety percent of our social life revolves around cycling," said Nancy Wedeen. They ride with the L.A. Wheelmen, the Lockheed Cyclists and American Youth Hostels, a group that emphasizes bicycle touring. The Wedeens plan their weekends by looking over all their club newsletters to choose a ride. They also attend at least two club meetings a month and take bicycle vacations together.

"Bicycling is a synonym for togetherness for us," said Nancy Wedeen. "Before, Richard would go do his thing and I'd do mine. But bicycling is an activity we can both enjoy. Richard is stronger, but on a club ride we always have someone to ride with."

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