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For Health-Conscious Americans, It’s Wheel Love : Cycling: Advances in technology and comfort are also reasons why many folks have apparently rediscovered their love for bikes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you left your old chrome-plated, balloon-tired Schwinn in a closet 40 years ago and haven’t thought much about bicycles since, these items might surprise you:

* 900 million bicycles are in use worldwide, making the bike the prime source of transportation for most people.

* 100 million bicycles--that’s three times more than cars--were produced globally in 1992.

* The number of bikes in the United States has soared to 120 million. That’s more bikes per capita than there are in China or India.

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* Only “exercise walking” and swimming are more popular participatory activities than biking in the United States.

* Over the past decade, the number of Americans who commute by bicycle has increased nearly threefold, to 4.3 million. Every state has a staff bicycle coordinator attempting to integrate bicycles into the transportation system of the future. (In car-clogged Los Angeles, $50 million has been allocated over five years for such programs as bike lanes, bike bridges and bike lockers at Metrolink stations.)

Why are Americans getting back into the saddle?

“The No. 1 reason people give in surveys we conduct every year is always health, fitness, exercise,” says Chuck McCullagh, publisher of Bicycling magazine. “They’ve embraced the bicycle as they did the running shoe in the ‘70s.”

Add to that advances in bicycle technology and comfort and, well, let some bike riders tell it.

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Ezra Brown, 54, heads out of his home in West Windsor, Conn., at 6:15 a.m. on a 10-speed Peugeot. He turns left on Herman Way, makes his way over to Ellington Road, then does some hair-raising navigation on congested Route 5, careful to avoid broken glass along the shoulder. The 12-mile trip to Trinity College, where he is plant engineer, takes 45 minutes. His estimated annual savings in fuel: more than $500.

“I’ve been commuting by bike for about 15 years,” he says. “Hartford’s not bike-friendly, but the drivers are decent and courteous. When I lived in Fairbanks (Alaska), I had drunks throw bottles that shattered in front of my wheels. In western Pennsylvania, (people) would give me the finger and try to run me off the road with their pickups. So Hartford’s not bad, but if they want to get more people biking to work, they’ve got to sweep the glass off the edges of the street and fill the potholes.”

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Two years ago, Norville Jones, a 64-year-old retired Washington lobbyist, left the West Coast on his 21-speed Trek 520, designed for long-distance touring, and pedaled for two months until he made it home to Virginia, 4,246 miles away. He averaged 74 miles a day.

Since then, he’s made a 3,000-mile transcontinental crossing, taken a 1,500-mile trip through New England, and started planning a big loop through the West as he closes in on his goal to bicycle across all 50 states.

His only complaint? “The head winds. They’re psychologically debilitating, like pushing a rock uphill. Other than that, it’s been terrific. My bike has never broken down. People have been great everywhere. It’s just a wonderful way to discover America at ground zero.”

Officers Linda Erwin and Dianne Gittins of the Alexandria, Va., Police Department, one of 600 law-enforcement agencies in the country that uses bike patrols, took some good-natured ribbing from their male colleagues when they showed up in shorts and with their own mountain bikes as the first volunteers for a pilot program two years ago.

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Thirty minutes later, they made a heroin bust. Soon each was averaging 30 arrests a month; the department average for officers in cars was 10.

“On a bike, you tend to roll right up on stuff happening, like drug deals,” Erwin says. Alexandria now has nine full-time bike officers, patrolling 24 hours a day, and a long list of volunteers who want to join the unit. (Los Angeles has 119 officers on bikes.)

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When bicycling was at the peak of its popularity a century ago, 400 U.S. companies were manufacturing bikes. Today the United States has only six major producers and the industry is split into two distinct segments:

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* The mass retail market for low-cost and children’s bikes, dominated by three U.S. manufacturers: Huffy, Murray and Roadmaster, which are keeping a wary eye on imports, particularly from China. This segment accounts for about 8.5 million of the 12 million bikes sold in the nation annually. (Californians buy one out of every six new bicycles).

* The upscale market, which caters to 5,000 independent dealers. The dominant manufacturers in this segment--Trek, Cannondale and Raleigh--have always faced keen international competition, and, like the Big Three auto makers in Detroit, have staked their futures on technology, design and quality.

Trek is a good example of the renaissance of the U.S. bicycle manufacturer. Started in 1975 with one model and four employees working in a rented warehouse in Waterloo, the company has grown into a major international producer with 812 employees, 41 models of advanced design, and sales that have increased 40% annually since 1987.

On these busy days of the pre-spring rush, up to 2,000 bicycles a day roll off the assembly line.

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“If we tried to sell the same product as the Chinese, they’d blow us out of the water because we can’t compete on price,” says Thomas Albers, Trek’s chief operating officer. “So in a global market, we have to differentiate our product, and you do that through, among other things, quality and innovation.”

At Trek and other manufacturers, the mountain, or off-road, bike has captured the lion’s share of the market, and enthusiasts are finding no shortage of routes to explore.

They can roll through 45 states on 6,808 miles of abandoned railroad right-of-ways that have been converted into paved recreational pathways.

One interlinking bike path extends from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, Pa., save for a 20-mile section still under construction. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C., hopes its off-road bikeways will extend coast to coast.

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More significantly, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 1991 gives states flexibility so that federal funds traditionally set aside for highways can now be used for biking, pedestrian and transit improvements.

The act, which will provide $155 million over six years, reflects a major revision of the goals of the federal transportation program, created 40 years ago to build the interstate highway system.

One result, transportation planners say, will be more bicycle-friendly cities that try to accommodate bike commuters with protected lanes, parking facilities and access to public-transit vehicles.

A number of communities are already moving in that direction.

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City workers in Santa Monica who regularly bike to work receive an extra $1 a day. Pasadena bought 12 bikes and gave them to city employees who promised to pedal to work.

Los Angeles hopes to put bike racks on all 2,000 city buses. Davis, Calif., has an extensive network of pathways to virtually every neighborhood. Madison, Wis., has a bike thoroughfare that carries 7,000 bikers a day through the heart of the city. New York City is planning a 500-mile network of bike routes through Manhattan.

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Transportation experts point out that if 10% of car commuters switched to a combination of public transit and bicycles, the nation’s saving in fuel costs would be $1 billion a year. Plus, they say, traffic problems would be reduced because 18 bikes can be parked in the space needed by one car.

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Of the many companies encouraging bike commuting, Fleetwood Enterprise Inc. in Riverside, the world’s largest maker of recreational vehicles and manufactured homes, is considered among the most innovative.

Its four-year-old program, known as “Blood, Sweat and Gears,” provides bike-commuting employees with shower and parking facilities, free helmets, reflective vests, discounts at a local bike shop, and a guaranteed ride home--by car--for family emergencies.

At last count, more than 10% of Fleetwood’s 650 employees were bicycling to work.

Says Roberta Holden, Fleetwood’s employee-transportation coordinator: “This isn’t the answer to all our congestion and pollution problems, but it’s certainly one of the strategies that needs to be considered.”

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