THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : Portrait of a Fanatic : Brian Finke Was an Asthmatic Couch Potato Until a Brush With Death Turned Him Into a Compulsive Cyclist

Patricia Loverock is a writer living in Burbank. She was a member of Canada's 1976 Olympic track and field team

IN THE EVENING of Dec. 26, 1980, Brian Finke was on the brink of death, desperately sucking oxygen in an intensive-care unit in Panorama City. Earlier that day his breathing had become alarmingly difficult. An asthma attack had taken over his lungs, and he had experienced that hypoxic panic commonly felt by a drowning person. With each hour, his spasming bronchial tubes let less air into his body, and more of the tiny air sacs in his lungs became clogged with mucus. And every hour he took an inhaler to his lips, forcing epinephrine into his airways. The drug helps relieve asthmatic attacks, but it also dramatically raises the heart rate. Finke's prescription said to use the inhaler just once every six hours. By the time he was rushed to the emergency room, he had overdosed on epinephrine. Despite this near-lethal administration, his lungs were barely functioning.

"There was nothing they could do but hang IVs on me and try to liquefy what was in my lungs," says Finke, looking back on that frightening day. "I just vaguely remember a doctor standing over me for the better part of eight hours." Finke had been experiencing two or three asthma attacks a month, but none as bad as this. When he left the hospital, his doctor told him that if he didn't stop eating so much and start exercising, he might not make it through the next one. Finke was 5 feet, 6 inches, weighed 170 pounds and hadn't done a lick of exercise in more than 18 years.

Now it is November, 1987, in the San Gabriel Mountains just north of Pasadena. Finke, 50, is resting for a few minutes at Clear Creek Ranger Station, where the Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways meet near Mt. Wilson. He has cycled here from his home in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, along with four men half his age. It's a 65-mile round trip, including a steep eight-mile climb to the station. For most Angelenos, this is a day trip by car. For Finke and his cycling friends, it's a pleasant way to pass a Sunday morning. Finke, weighing 120 pounds in his skintight cycling togs, had been standing in the shade of a tree but now walks his bike into the bright sunshine. As he basks in the sun's warmth, he explains, "I have so little fat on my body I cool off really easily."

In his journey from a hospital emergency room to the Clear Creek station, Finke has done more than just follow his doctor's advice. He has become a fanatic in a sport that inspires cultism. Dedicated cyclists ride hundreds of miles a month, and when they aren't riding they are talking about the weight-to-strength ratio of bike frames, Japanese versus Italian components and the size of the gear they were "pulling" on their last tough climb.

The Bicycle Federation of America estimates that there are 42 million adult cyclists in this country. Of these, only about 1.5 million are hard-core participants. These cyclists regularly rack up lots of mileage, taking part in such events as century rides--non-competitive one-day tours of 100 miles. Finke has completed one double century (200 miles in one day), and in the spring he's planning to take on the Tour of Two Forests--a double century that climbs through the Los Padres and Angeles national forests. Finke is even more intensely dedicated to the sport than most of the hard-core elite. He has five bicycles with a total value of about $10,000.

Most cyclists have two bikes, a good one for racing or touring and a cheaper, heavier one used for junk miles--cycling language for commuting or riding in bad weather. Finke's junk miles are done on a $3,000 De Rosa, a top-of-the-line Italian bike frame outfitted with special-edition Campagnolo components. Brakes alone cost $450; a set of pedals $160. He spent $200 for a crocodile-skin bike seat. And even though Finke has never entered a cycling race, the 150 to 200 miles a week he rides are equivalent to the distance covered by the young competitive cyclists he joins on his weekend trips.

Finke's cycling compulsion is a welcome change from the poor health he had before he discovered the sport, says his brother, Barry Field. "When we used to get together at family functions, he would just hack and wheeze. My wife and I were in the Peace Corps and we went down to South America for a couple of years. Before we left we had a family get-together, and I actually thought to myself, 'I wonder if I am going to have to come back for his funeral.' " At the time, Brian Finke was only 36.

Taking his doctor's advice to heart, Finke looked for exercise after being released from the hospital. His son, Erik, was running on the high school cross-country team, so Finke thought he would try running along with him. This first attempt at turning his health around was a disaster. Running was hard, given his poor physical condition, but worse, Finke found it boring. Enter Jack Murphy, a fellow meteorologist with Finke at the National Weather Service. A cyclist, he suggested Finke try riding along with Erik instead of running. Murphy even accompanied him to the cycling store to select his first bike, a French Moto Becane that cost Finke $229. Finke discovered that he liked cycling a lot more than running, and he started riding two or three times a week.

"When I first started riding with him," Murphy says, "we would come to

a hill--one that now he would probably wonder where the hill is--and I would get up there and wait for him. He would get up there, and I would figure he was going to die on me right there."

It doesn't surprise Murphy that Finke has long since passed him in cycling strength and endurance. He and Finke have worked together for 23 years, and he says whenever Finke does something, be it a hobby or a job, he wants to do it perfectly. "Personally, I would consider him one of the best, if not the best, (forecasters) in the office because he pays attention to detail. His bicycles are a physical example of his striving for perfection."

Eighteen months after purchasing that first bike, Finke had lost nearly 30 pounds. He was riding every day and spending a lot of time checking out equipment in bike shops. He gave the Moto Becane to Erik and moved up to a $500 Italian road bike. Now his weekly mileage seldom drops below 150, and last fall, on a tour of Utah's Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks and the Grand Canyon's north rim, he covered 413 miles in seven days. "It's like I'm addicted to it. If I have to skip a day, I really feel bad and get down on myself. Two days in a row--well, to me that's just inexcusable."

He says cycling is the most important thing in his life. It has not only given him back his health but has also endowed him with a sense of emotional well-being he has never before experienced. In 1983, when he separated from his wife of 22 years, cycling helped. "One of the big things I found cycling--especially when I first started--was that any emotional or psychological problems I would have, they just seemed to all disappear when I went for a ride," says Finke, who has moved in with his mother and turned her garage into a bicycle workshop.

Now, Finke's asthma is almost non-existent. His respiratory system has become so efficient he has to remind himself to renew his prescriptions before he goes cycling in the New Mexico mountains, the only place he feels short of breath these days. He watches his calorie intake, but not because he cares about his appearance. In fact, most people tell him he looks too thin. It's just tougher to climb hills if he gains as much as a pound.

But in his drive for cycling perfection, Finke may be risking other health problems, even death. He was unaware of the danger of starting such an intense exercise program without first undergoing a physical. On his own, he had figured that his maximum heart rate should be about 185. His goal, using a wristwatch that doubled as a heart-rate monitor, was to keep his heart at that level as much as possible during his rides.

Finke's plan came as a shock to Howard Liebowitz, a doctor specializing in prescribing exercise. Finke met Liebowitz, a fellow cyclist, on a ride last fall and explained to the doctor that he was keeping his cycling heart rate at 185. Liebowitz says Finke's training heart rate should have been about 60% to 90% of that maximum. If Finke had any heart abnormality or arterial blockage, Liebowitz knew, he could drop dead on the next hill.

Finke was finally checked by a physician after Liebowitz persuaded him to undergo an exercise-tolerance test. Finke was lucky--the tests found no abnormalities. Liebowitz advised him to train at a heart rate no higher than 165 beats per minute but Finke has chosen not to work within these limits. He tried for a few miles and discovered that on an arduous climb, his heart rate elevates to as high as 175 beats per minute.

"I've never felt dizzy, lightheaded or short of breath," he says. "If I experience anything like that, I will really back off." Still, given the choice between a safe heart rate and the hill, Finke the cyclist chooses the hill every time.

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