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REVENGE OF THE SUPERCOMMUTERS : It's a bicycle. It's a pair of roller-blades. It's an electric car. For some, transportation to work is anything but a gas-guzzling auto.

April 15, 1993|DOUG McCLELLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Baker was hurrying in to work one morning when a flat tire brought him to a standstill. He fixed it, only to get another flat a mile later. He fixed that one, too. Four miles later came his third flat tire.

That was the same morning he had to deal with loose brakes, a wobbly wheel and a dog that wouldn't quit chasing him.

Then there was the goofball who drove by while Baker was bent over by the curb fixing flat No. 2.

"He leaned out of the window and yelled, 'Oh, you crashed! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha," said Baker, doing an impression of the guy's cackle.

And you thought you had a lousy commute. Try it on a bicycle.

For Baker, a researcher at the Rockwell Science Center in Thousand Oaks, going to work is work. He pedals from his private park-and-ride spot in Agoura Hills every morning, a distance of about 10 miles.

In return for putting up with flats and flakes, Baker gets an $85 quarterly bonus from Rockwell plus free fruit and juice at the company canteen.

Ventura County firms love employees like Baker, who help them meet tough clean-air mandates imposed by the county Air Pollution Control District. Any firm that has at least 50 employees in one location must promote alternatives to the one-person, one-car routine that is a major contributor to the county's poor air.

Most companies are happy just to get their workers into car- and van-pools. The city of Thousand Oaks--and soon Ventura County government--has opted for a four-day work week to, among other things, reduce the number of commutes made by employees.

But for a handful of other workers like Baker, commuting isn't a commonplace event anymore. It's an adventure.

Here are three of them, all working for different employers and strangers to each other, for whom the drive-time grind is no longer just a job. What ties them together, though, is that each has adopted a peculiar and pollution-free way of beating the traffic. Call them the supercommuters.

Last summer Baker was so gung-ho that he bicycled all 20 miles from his home in Canoga Park, in the west San Fernando Valley, to work--or back. He would do one leg by bike and the return leg by car, into which he would load the bicycle. He would reverse the pattern the following day. The bicycling part took an hour and forty-five minutes.

"I thought I'd get in pretty good shape," he said. But his time never seemed to get shorter, and he never seemed to arrive any less tired.

So Baker struck a compromise with himself. Now he drives to Agoura Hills, leaves his car in a safe spot and cycles the rest of the way in.

It's a little more than halfway in, so he now spends only 80 minutes a day on his bike, 40 minutes before and 40 minutes after work.

Still, the ride is taxing. When he pulled into the parking lot of the Science Center a little before 8 a.m. one recent day, Baker clipped on his security badge with a photo in which he looked serious and dignified in dark suit, white shirt and dark tie. In the flesh he was pullover-clad, sweat-drenched and breathing hard.

He had just winged past high school students on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, cut through the early morning mail call at the Thousand Oaks Post Office, bobbed across the rolling terrain of Hillcrest Drive and finally cut onto the Science Center's hilly campus in Lynn Ranch.

He had no flats and encountered no hostile dogs. The only annoyance was a woman in a Ford Fiesta who refused to let a mere bicycle keep her from turning right on red and squeezed perilously close to Baker before swinging around him.

Later, Baker shrugged off the encounter, which looked fairly close to a reporter following him. "I forget how polite people are around here," he said. "It's a lot tougher riding downtown."

Downtown was West Los Angeles, where Baker used to cycle to his office.

As he spoke, the bicycle rack began to fill as other commuters arrived. They call themselves the SCyclists, after the initials for the Science Center. About half a dozen of them are hard-core bicyclists who soldier on in the worst of the winter weather. Another dozen are sunshine pedalers.

Patent lawyer Jay Deinken, one of the hard-core riders, said he learned a valuable lesson about carrying his work clothes on his bike. He folds them into a pair of panniers that he flops over a rack.

"After the first hard rain, I found out they weren't waterproof." Deinken said, waving the panniers. He spent the day working in damp clothes. Now he wraps his clothes in plastic bags that he gets from the supermarket.

Some of the SCyclists arrive on flashy new mountain bikes. Others, like Emilio Sovero, are more modest. He rides a woman's 10-speed, the kind with a dropped center bar.

"I bought it for my wife, but she never uses it," Sovero said. "I started riding to lose a little bit of weight. I don't do it so much for the money but because it's a goal to reach."

The SCyclists filed off to the locker room, a cubbyhole in the basement, to shower and change. When he was done, Baker looked more like the picture on his badge.

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