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Talkin' 'Bout Some Revolutions : Shifting Gears and Pursuing New Paths in Search of the Perfect Ride

August 06, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

You are probably not a cycling junkie if:

* There's no stretch Lycra in your wardrobe.

* That bike hanging from the rafters in your garage weighs more than the set of barbells rusting in the corner.

* You think braze-ons are for barbecuing burgers.

* You're a guy, and you've never considered shaving your legs.

Not to worry if you fit this profile. Bicycle manufacturers, hoping to put a bike in every garage, are making their products lighter and more user-friendly all the time. And Orange County is actually getting more good places to ride, along with a more politically active cycling contingent that is trying to make sure the interests of cyclists are considered in transportation decisions.

The upshot is you may get hooked yet. But be warned: The shiny new hybrid bike you buy for Sunday rides could lead to harder stuff and, before long, terms like gear clusters and fork rake may litter your conversations.

Less than a decade ago, about the only choice in bicycles for anyone looking for more than a spin around the block was a racing-style road bike, what used to be called a 10-speed.

What happened next is beginning to take on the sheen of mythology. A few adrenaline junkies in Northern California began bombing down the hillsides on old Schwinn cruisers, modified with motorcycle-style brakes and multiple gears, and voila --the mountain bike was born.

A few of the pioneers began putting out their own hand-crafted mountain bikes, but it wasn't long before the Big Bike Makers caught on and began churning them out too. It seemed that folks who were intimidated by skittish road bikes, with the skinny wheels and the down-turned handlebars, felt a lot better about those big tires and the upright riding position.

As it turned out, lots of people never took their mountain bikes on the dirt at all. They became the bicycle of choice for weekend warriors, who wanted a nice bike for a Sunday ride but weren't ready to plunge full-on into the Lycra set. The problem, alas, is that real mountain bikes have knobby tires and relatively heavy frames, built to withstand off-road abuse but less than ideal for a smooth roll along the asphalt.

So bike makers decided to split the difference, and in what was either a bold stroke of design genius or just a shrewd marketing move (depending on whom you talk to), they invented the hybrid bike, also known as the cross-trainer. It looks like a mountain bike, only with skinnier wheels, smoother tires and a lighter frame. Hybrids have 15 or more speeds, as mountain bikes do. Built primarily for asphalt, they are tough enough for moderate off-road use.

Bike makers entered the hybrid market gingerly a couple of years ago, maybe offering a single model tucked into the back of the catalogue, but that quickly changed. Specialized, for instance, now offers six bikes in the Crossroads line, while Trek has six Multi-Track models.

Hybrid bikes "opened up cycling to a lot of people who were maybe intimidated by racing-style bikes," says Sue Gomer, manager of South Coast Bicycle in Santa Ana. Hybrids have caught on almost immediately, Gomer says, while mountain bikes took a few years to hit their sales stride.

The introduction of hybrids has split the market into three main segments. Road bikes (including such subsets as racing cycles and triathlon bikes) retain a very dedicated group of followers. They are built for speed, and many people also find them the most comfortable for long rides and for daily training.

Hybrids are great for cycling around town and for occasional longer rides, along with light duty on dirt roads. Mountain bikes remain the choice for serious trail riding, and continue to evolve with the introduction of suspension systems.

Then there is the rebirth of the tandem. Neglected for years, the tandem is back and fitted with many of the same-quality components found on better single bikes. Many people who got into cycling in the '80s and now find themselves married or in serious relationships are buying tandems as a way to share their favorite pursuit.

Purchasing a bike is a complicated subject, one that could take up several articles of this length. The best thing to do is visit several specialty bike shops (the kind that sell nothing else, and have their own service departments) and talk to some salespeople about what's available. Good bike shops are staffed by people who really know bicycles, people who are probably avid cyclists themselves. Take a look at the cycling magazines too.

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