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Life in the Bike Lane : Cyclists Gear up for Fun, Health


The Saturday morning haze had not yet lifted when about 15 members of the North County Cycle Club took off on their weekly ride from Restaurant Row in San Marcos. Clad in the bright jerseys, stretch shorts and riding helmets that mark experienced cyclists, they soon bunched according to ability.

For front-runners such as Jim Markwell, this would be a quick, hilly, 34-mile training ride through San Marcos, Vista and Oceanside. For Dan Deal, it was a chance to spend time with 18-year-old daughter Renne, doing something they both enjoy. And for first-timer George Elwers, it was a chance to check out the club and the terrain.

Whether they race or tour, ride for fitness or pleasure, stick to the roads or head into the woods, North County's cyclists agree that the sport is a natural attraction for the health-conscious population that makes up much of this section of the San Diego County.

The miles of well-marked bike lanes, varied terrain, temperate climate and spectacular views of North County's geography also create one of the nation's most hospitable environments for cycling.

Small wonder then that a sizable number of the world's top triathletes (who bike, swim and run) have made North County their home. Or that Bicycling magazine this year named San Diego the third-best place to ride in America (after Seattle and Palo Alto, Calif.).

Bicycling "is an athletic activity that helps to maintain a certain amount of physical fitness," said Ben Hatfield, a founder of the North County Cycle Club, who rides about 5,000 miles a year. "It's recreational. It can be social. You can see so much from a bicycle that you never see otherwise."

"The big attraction for North County is the coast bike route," added Dennis Thompson, transportation planner for the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag), who tracks the growth of cycling. "It's very heavily used, and it's probably some factor in people locating where they do."

Consider some statistical evidence of the cycling boom in North County:

* On any given weekend day, as many as 1,000 people traverse the coast route between Camp Pendleton and Torrey Pines Mesa, making that stretch the most heavily traveled in the county and one of the most heavily used bike routes in the nation, according to a 1988 count conducted by the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.

* According to a 1987 count by Sandag, the intersection of Lomas Santa Fe and the coastal highway in Solana Beach is one of the three top intersections in the county for peak-hour bicycle traffic (excluding the intersection of Montezuma Road and College Avenue, where San Diego State University students make heavy use of bicycles to commute to classes).

* The Tour de North County, now in its sixth year, bills itself as the largest cycling event in Southern California. This year, the Oct. 14 "Fabulously French Cycling Adventure" and subsequent French-style feast will attract an estimated 5,000 participants, promoters say.

Most sports run through boom and bust periods, and bicycling is no exception. For perhaps the past five years, the sport has enjoyed an impressive surge in participation nationwide. The Bicycle Institute of America estimates that, in 1989, 23 million adults were riding at least once a week, more than double the 10 million in 1983.

Sandag has no statistics on the number of county cyclists, but it estimates that in 1988, 230,000 bicycle "trips" were made, for reasons varying from recreation to fitness to a commute to work. That number is up from 160,000 in 1980. By 2010, the number should reach 500,000, Thompson said.

The forces behind bicycling's growth are diverse, but almost all are typical of North County's lifestyle or geography.

Bicycling is part of the overall health and fitness boom, but it also is benefiting from the conversion of former joggers and tennis players looking for a lower-impact workout, say experts who chart the sport's re-emergence.

"Cycling is, let's face it, easier on the body," says the 60-year-old Hatfield, "and people do it for that reason."

Interest in cycling also stems from the nation's reawakening environmental consciousness, a sentiment that should take on added dimensions with the recent jump in gas prices, says Scott Martin, a senior editor for Bicycling magazine. In the 1970s, a cycling boom followed the Arab oil embargo and the sudden reality of gas lines, Martin said.

"It's part of the rise in environmental concerns," Martin said. "People are seeing that the bicycle is one of the good guys, I guess you would say. You can save a lot of money (and) it's something good and positive you can do."

Then there is the emergence in the past five years of the mountain bike, whose fat tires, sturdy construction and upright handlebars allow cyclists to take to the hills and trails of off-road terrain while providing more comfort than traditional road bikes. Last year, U.S. sales of mountain bikes surpassed sales of road bikes for the first time.

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