Uphill Racer : Mountain Cyclist Endures Grueling Pace in Quest for State Title

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Mark Easter lets his legs do the talking.

The 20-year-old criminal justice student is so quiet that he seems shy, a born-again Christian who moonlights as a church janitor and has the close-cropped appearance of a choirboy.

But most Sundays, Easter dons a vivid yellow jersey, mounts a fiery red, $1,800 bicycle and assumes his alter ego as one of the top amateur mountain bikers in the country.

The 1993 Buena High School graduate, now a student at Ventura College, is ranked second in his class in the western United States. In 13 races during his first full season of competition, Easter has placed first or second nine times. Come Oct. 1, in the season's last race at Lake Castaic, it would take a disaster to keep him from being crowned state champion in the 19-24 age category of the expert cross-country class--the level just below professional racers.

"That's very unusual," Ashton Johnson, Easter's coach and owner of the Ventura-based K&A; Cyclery/Pro Flex mountain bike team, said of his protege's rapidly achieved status. "Probably one of the most common questions you heard from people at the beginning of the year was: 'Who is this kid?' "

"This kid" is someone who embraces the chest-pounding pain of pedaling up the ferocious slopes that snow skiers have a hard time going down. This kid is someone who seems to relish discussing the sordid details of his occasional crashes. Frankly, this kid is a little nuts.

"I get an adrenaline rush--go crazy," Easter said. "You're going hard and your legs burn. . . . But once you ride through that pain, you get addicted to it."

You must, when you are riding up to 400 road-miles weekly and then face weekend treks of 20 miles over some of the state's most challenging terrain.

Easter didn't plan on what has become a lifestyle. After years of casual riding, Easter entered a few races in 1994, mostly downhills, because he lacked the physical conditioning to compete in the grueling cross-country races.

Encouraged by a few top-five finishes, he decided to train in an attempt to improve his performance.

"I thought I'd like to finish in the top 20 or top 15," he said. "Then I won a race. I was like, wow!"

He also made a highly visible splash--or splat--at this year's season-opening Cactus Cup in Arizona.

Preparing to sprint for the finish line in the road race, he found himself embarking upon an unexpected semi-somersault over his handlebars.

"He bounced once and essentially landed on his feet and sprinted across the [finish] line dragging his bike behind him," Johnson said. "He finished eighth. . . . That's all the other racers talked about all weekend."

The severe case of "road rash" left Easter dripping blood from an arm. Yet his gutsy display made as much of an impression as his two top-10 finishes in four races.

"The kid has desire," said Johnson, himself a former alternate on the U.S. national cycling team. "Obviously, Mike is a gifted athlete. But there are plenty of gifted athletes who never became champions."

Case in point: At the Jeep Nationals at Big Bear in July, Easter collided with a metal course marker and came up spitting blood.

"I tore a cartilage in the sternum. I still finished. I had two-thirds of the race still to go," he said. "I got a big ol' hickey across my chest from the pole. It kissed me. It was cool."

Next season, the three-man K&A; Cyclery/Pro Flex team will tackle the national circuit if sponsors are willing to bankroll the $15,000 budget.

A state championship would help. Because of the high number of points he's accumulated for the season, Easter needs simply to finish the last race next month.

That's not going to mean playing it safe, though.

"I want to go out with a win," he said. If necessary, to make it across the finish line, he added, "I can crawl."

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