Heavy Pedal : Ventura Third-Grader Rides His Way Into State BMX Championships in Bakersfield

Times Staff Writer

Eight-year-old Aaron Kleefisch fidgeted nervously with the Velcro fasteners on his new racing gloves--the same gloves he had worn to bed the night before--as he pressed his ultra-lightweight bicycle against the starting gate of a sun-baked dirt raceway here.

The wide-eyed Ventura third-grader was 1,000 feet away, through four steep bank turns and half a dozen refrigerator-sized jumps, from winning the state BMX championship and securing a place at the national meet this winter in Ohio.

In fact, the 4-foot-tall pedaler, clad in baggy red sweat pants and a racing jersey, had racked up so many points at bicycle motocross events all year that even a fourth-place finish in the championship meet would have earned him the cherished "1" plate--and maybe even a shot at the Olympics down the road.

Tough Competitors

But Aaron, who made the 115-mile trek here with his parents in the family motor home last weekend, might as well have been a Cub Scout sideswiped by Road Warriors.

Most of his competitors had the backing of bike shops or corporate sponsors, which meant slick racing outfits, company logos emblazoned in Day-Glo colors, shrewd coaches shouting instructions from the sidelines and customized chrome-covered bicycles.

Many of the riders, looking a bit like midget Darth Vaders behind their helmets and mouth guards, had intimidating nicknames splashed on their gear: "Jammin' Josh," "Zappin' Zeke," "Radical Richard," "Dyno Dan" and "Turbo Todd."

These kids were veterans, too, having started racing at 4 or 5--a good age to begin if the little-known sport makes the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, as some international cycling officials believe it might.

No Teammates, No Sponsor

But before he could set his sights on the gold in Spain, Aaron was bracing for stiff competition in Bakersfield.

Of the several hundred racers competing in the dozen or so age groups, many were defending state champions and some boasted national rankings. The 11 Ventura County youths who compete for Simi Bikeworks rode off with a basket full of honors, including a first place in the 10-year-old expert division to Bleu Patino of Camarillo and second places to 10-year-old Marisa Redburn of Oxnard and 16-year-old Jeff Hodgins of Ojai.

While also competing in an expert category, Aaron had no factory sponsor to provide him with a state-of-the-art bike or outfit him in sleek new threads. He had no teammates cheering him across the dirt track. He had no nickname advertising his prowess. And, before long, he was to have virtually no lead in points over any of his competitors.

"We're just trying to make our own way with this thing," his mother, Cheryl Kleefisch, said with a shrug as she stood watching the races from the sidelines. "We've just walked in here and done it all ourselves."

That was good enough 1 1/2 years ago when Aaron, then a second-grader at Juanamaria Elementary School, announced that he wanted to race BMX. Robert Kleefisch, who runs a landscaping business out of his east Ventura home, hadn't even heard of the sport.

"We weren't very serious," he said. "But Aaron was good from the beginning, and everyone started pressuring us."

Using an old, oversized bike, Aaron began building his endurance by pedaling around the citrus fields of east Ventura and practicing jumps taller than he was at the Farnum Raceway in Saticoy.

Bicycle motocross, which officials estimate has been an organized sport only since the mid-1970s, demands lightning speed and razor-sharp control. Each race, usually no longer than a minute, pits eight riders on a winding dirt course punctuated by jumps and 180-degree turns.

"You might have a kid who's stronger, but along comes a little guy who can maneuver an obstacle better," said Stu Thomsen, who was one of the sport's top professional racers before he retired and opened a bike shop in Riverside. "It all comes down to skill."

Growth Since 1974

The sport, which officials say began as a cheaper and safer alternative to motorcycle motocross, has grown from a few dozen riders in 1974 to the more than 41,000 competitors, aged 3 to 60, who fill the ranks of the National Bicycle League.

For two years, the league has sent racers to the BMX World Championships, conducted under the authority of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body for cycling.

Backed by the 37 countries that participate in BMX racing, international cycling officials last month made a presentation to the Barcelona organizing committee, returning optimistic that the sport will earn a spot as a demonstration event in the 1992 Olympic Games.

"Probably 1992 and, if not, surely 1996," said Marc Lemay, vice president of the international cycling union's BMX commission. "It's very popular."

To Aaron, it's totally awesome. "I like flying over the jumps," he said. "I want to be the best."

'A Lot of Stress'

He was certainly on his way. Within a few months, he had won the eight races needed to move from the beginner to novice level. A few months later, he had won another eight races, propelling himself to expert status.

His parents traded in his old clunker, sunk $600 into a streamlined, aqua-colored mini-racer and, last winter, along with his 10-year-old brother, Ryan, who races in the novice class, hit the road.

From Gilroy to Barstow to Ft. Ord to Hesperia, Aaron was leaving skid marks on his competition. First-place trophies began piling up in his closet. And the points he earned for each victory were bringing him wonderfully close to a 1988 state championship.

By the time they reached the year's final meet in Bakersfield last weekend, Aaron carried a hefty 168-point lead over his next-closest rival. That he was so far ahead, however, was a detail that Robert and Cheryl Kleefisch had chosen not to tell their son.

"There's already a lot of stress on these little guys," Robert Kleefisch said. "We didn't want to put any more pressure on him."

'Time to Get Serious'

So on Saturday, a day of qualifying races, the Kleefisches bit their nails as Aaron finished third in three successive heats, allowing his competition to come within 116 points.

On Sunday, under the blazing Bakersfield sun, Aaron met the top 8-year-old riders for three final races. In the first, he finished fifth and his lead dropped to 56 points. In the second race, he finished fifth again, holding just a 26-point lead.

Before the final race, Robert Kleefisch reluctantly pulled his son aside and told him that the championship was on the line.

"I had to tell him," Kleefisch said. "I had to get the realization in him. It was time to get serious or not."

So young Aaron Kleefisch went to the starting gate for the final time that scorching afternoon, pensive as he pressed his front tire against the metal starting gate.

'You Did Fantastic'

He squinted as the lights in front of him changed from red to amber to yellow to green. The starting gate dropped. And Aaron Kleefisch, head down low over the handlebars, pedaling with all his might, taking the turns as fast he could, flying over jumps, crossed the finish line once again with four riders ahead of him.

His father, who had been tabulating the points, assured him that he had still secured a second-place trophy and, if a sponsor is found, may go to Ohio. His mother, drawing out the syllables for emphasis, said, "You did fantastic," and squeezed his arm.

But Aaron, not seeking consolation in losing to the defending state champion, brushed his mother's hand away.

Back at his Ventura home the next day, though, he was in better spirits.

"I'll be No. 1 next year," he told a visitor, rushing off to ride his bike around the citrus fields.

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