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BICYCLE TOURING : East Side, West Side . . . All Around the County; Clubs Offer Something for Everyone on Two Wheels

Times Staff Writer

Step into the world of the Orange County Wheelmen, which, on this particular Sunday morning, is centered in the parking lot of an Irvine supermarket.

Members of the county’s largest cycling club, making final preparations for the morning rides, mingle about in small groups, toting with them their bicycles and the variety of reasons that brought them here.

There’s the man who joined the club after he quit smoking, and another who took up cycling because he fears aging without grace.

There’s one group that rides to train and another that rides to enjoy the sights.

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There’s a husband and wife who met through the club, and the guy who took up cycling only after his wife left him.

Bicycle touring, it seems, fulfills everyone’s needs.

Touring once was an overnight activity, such as a three-day ride down the California coast complete with a tent and sleeping bag.

But as cycling’s popularity has grown, so has the definition of touring, which now can mean anything from an early-morning 20-mile ride, to a 100-mile trip to San Diego and back, to a weeklong trek along the Grand Canyon.

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It’s all relative. To a 26-year-old who rides 400 miles a week, a 30-mile ride is just that. A ride. To a 69-year-old who rides for fun on the weekends, a 30-mile ride around South Orange County is a tour.

But don’t mistake recreational touring for recreational cycling. Although a touring cyclist may ride for pleasure only, he’s more serious about his sport than the person who rides to the beach on a 10-speed in his shorts and a T-shirt.

Touring cyclists spend hundreds of dollars on riding attire and equipment, and their bikes, often 12 and 14 speeds, are lighter and easier to handle than recreational bikes. An average 10-speed weighs about 27 pounds; a sport-touring bike weighs about 20 pounds.

Appropriate attire consists of body-tight, Lycra shorts and shirts, cleated shoes, gloves, goggles or sunglasses and a helmet.

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Standard equipment on sport-touring bikes includes a water bottle, tire pump, touring bag and a small computer, which is mounted on the handlebars and measures such data as current speed, average speed, pedal rotation, distance traveled on a trip, cumulative distance traveled and elapsed time.

Most touring cyclists ride regularly and many belong to cycling clubs. There are 15 clubs in Orange County offering everything from short, recreational tours and overnight, weekend rides to road, velodrome and criterium racing. (Criteriums are held on courses of a mile or less, usually held on city streets to maximize spectator viewing).

For Phil Cousina, a 36-year-old Santa Ana resident in the real estate business, bicycle touring provides the physical activity he thinks he needs to prevent a relapse into cigarette smoking, a habit he had for 20 years.

“Now I’m hooked on bikes instead of cigarettes,” he said.

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For Don McCue, a 49-year-old designer of air conditioning systems from Anaheim, cycling fills what previously had been a void in his life.

“I was getting older, and I got tired of not doing any exercise,” he said of his decision to take up cycling four years ago.

What had he done to stay in shape before this?

“Nothing.”

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Touring also filled a void for Doug McDonald, a 52-year-old engineer from Yorba Linda who began cycling about a year ago.

“My wife left me and I needed something to do,” he said.

Bob Farnsworth, a 34-year-old Irvine resident, took up cycling last October as a part of a rehabilitation program after knee surgery. Now, he races regularly.

Pat Flanigan, a 26-year-old government employee from Lakewood, gave up jogging for cycling and has developed into a competitor.

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“The object is to finish with the first group,” he recently said after completing a 60-mile ride.

“And not throw up,” Olsen added.

Their motives may differ, but the benefits are generally the same. Cycling is healthy, it’s fun and it’s something anyone can do.

“It’s kind of like being back to nature,” McCue said. “I enjoy the weather, the breeze, the scenery, the countryside, the birds chirping. And it’s a lot less strenuous on your legs and joints than jogging.”

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Said Flanigan: “You can cover some area on a bike and feel like you’ve accomplished something. Jogging burns you out.”

Keith Beebe, a physical therapist at the SCAR Clinic in Orange, said he didn’t know of any specific studies that have proved that cycling is less abusive on the body than jogging.

“But it’s well-accepted that bike riding and swimming are easier orthopedically on the knees, lower back, ankles and hips,” he said. “Cycling also is a good fitness activity for someone recovering from a (leg) injury.”

Recreational clubs, such as the O.C. Wheelmen and the Bicycle Club of Irvine, offer weekend rides for all levels of cyclists, often separating courses into three categories--short (10 to 20 miles), medium (20-50) and long (50-100) rides.

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Clubs usually plan their courses in different areas of the county each weekend, giving the cyclists a chance to experience new roads, terrain and surroundings. Most plan rides during the morning hours, when traffic is light and temperatures are comfortable.

For a beginner, there are many benefits to joining a club. There, a cyclist has access to the information and expertise of other riders. Experienced club riders can offer tips on equipment, maintenance and touring courses.

“It’s like a free education,” Cousina said.

There also are social benefits. Many cyclists mentioned the camaraderie among the riders as one of the main reasons they participate with the club.

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Many clubs combine cycling and socializing with monthly get-togethers, trips such as the Amtrak Century, in which cyclists ride from Santa Ana to San Diego and return by train, or riding events that are followed by picnics or buffets.

“You’re sort of in with a group that you’re familiar with,” said Jim Dobbins, a 68-year-old retired engineer and a member of the O.C. Wheelmen. “We all talk the same language.”

Bill and Joan Hillman, from Montclair, can tell you all about social benefits. They joined the Wheelmen in 1972 and met while Bill was an assistant ride captain and Joan was a club secretary.

They later married--and are cycling happily ever after.

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