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Fortner Wants to Reach an Elusive Finish Line : Cycling: An established road racer, he considers another shot at completing the Race Across America.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Scott Fortner sees a map of the United States, his eyes invariably turn to West Virginia, his mind drifts to a foggy night on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the haunting question: Why on earth did I stop?

Fortner, a 28-year-old Laguna Niguel resident, had spent 10 days cycling 2,800 miles in the 1985 Race Across America and was about 450 miles away from Atlantic City, N.J., and the finish of a grueling event.

But when he reached West Virginia’s rolling mountains, Fortner’s emotions began to fluctuate with the terrain. He was physically exhausted, mentally drained, and the limited visibility made the ride even more daunting.

“I couldn’t tell whether I was going uphill or downhill,” Fortner recalled. “I was just miserable. The crew suggested I sleep for a few hours and then continue, but I didn’t care how close to the finish I was. I just wanted to stop riding.”

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So he did. Fortner returned to Southern California and successfully switched gears from ultra-marathon cycling to the road-racing circuit, joining the few elite American riders who earn a living in the sport.

But when Fortner was flying home from a road race July 31, he read an article about the start of Race Across America in Irvine that weekend. It reminded him of some unfinished business.

“Now, when I look at a map and see how close West Virginia is to Atlantic City, I realize that I should have just finished that race,” Fortner said. “That’s one reason I’d like to go back and do it. It’s a scary thing, but it’s such a challenge.”

Fortner, who grew up in El Monte, is strongly considering entering this fall’s John Marino Open, an 800-mile race through the deserts and mountains of Arizona that serves as a Race Across America qualifier.

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He first competed in the Marino Open in 1984 and won the race as a 19-year-old in 1985. The 1994 road-racing season ends in early October, so it wouldn’t be much of a conflict to ride in this year’s Marino Open, but Fortner would have to leave the Saturn Cycling Team--and his regular paycheck--to compete in the 1995 Race Across America.

“I’d love to do it again, but it’s such a financial strain,” Fortner said. “Ten years ago I needed $10,000 to do the race, and you probably need a lot more now. Plus, you have to find your own sponsors.”

Fortner hasn’t had to worry much about financial details the last five years. He was a member of Paris-based Team Bonnat in 1990 and ’91, competing in Europe, Asia, South America and Central America. In 1992, the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Fortner joined the Michigan-based Saturn Cycling team, which now has 10 male and three female riders.

Fortner, an alternate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic road-racing team, rides 15,000 to 18,000 miles and competes in 80 to 90 races a year throughout the country. His expenses are paid for, he receives a salary and Saturn team members share the prize money.

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The top U.S. Cycling Federation riders earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, but only 40 to 50 are believed to be in that bracket.

“We don’t make what baseball players make,” Fortner said, “but it’s a pretty good living.”

While competing overseas, Fortner won races in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, England, and Japan. But his career was nearly cut short when he was sideswiped by a car on a country road south of Paris in 1991.

Fortner’s left elbow was shattered and he lost feeling in two fingers of his left hand for several weeks. A three-inch pin was placed in the elbow, and Fortner could not ride for three months.

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“I’ve lived (in Southern California) all my life and never got hit by a car on these busy roads,” Fortner said. “Then I’m out in the middle of nowhere in France, I don’t see a car for at least an hour, and that’s the one that hits me.”

Fortner recovered, returned to the United States and had his best professional season in 1992, winning 15 races. He has won only three races this season but has been concentrating on different goals.

“I’m more of a team rider, someone who sacrifices his chances and times for the benefit of the team,” Fortner said. “For a criterium race, where you go around a small circuit a number of times, it’s my job to break away and win or set up our sprinter. I would stay in front of him, let him follow my draft and then slingshot by me in the last 300 meters.

“On a longer race, I might try to bring a lead pack closer to the rest of the group by going to the front, riding hard and letting everyone sit in my draft.”

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Still, Fortner has showed he can ride with the best by placing fifth at the U.S. Pro Nationals, the premier road race in this country, June 5 at Philadelphia.

Fortner, who hopes to compete in the 1996 Olympics, was the second American to finish at the U.S. Pro, behind San Diego’s Steve Hegg, who was fourth.

“It’s an individual sport but it’s also a team sport,” Fortner said. “If you have the strength you can change the outcome of a race, but it’s also tactical. You can be the strongest rider but that won’t guarantee you the win.”

Those cut-throat tactics weren’t a part of Race Across America. Fortner remembers the camaraderie of that event--riders giving others water or food, helping with equipment or passing advice--and longs to experience it again.

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“I don’t know if it was because I was a teen-ager at the time, but the other riders seemed to look after me and give me encouragement,” Fortner said. “Now that I’m older, I think I should go back.”

And finish.


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