As cyclists with the South Bay Mountain Biking Club traverse the dirt trails of Topanga Canyon, they pedal into a wilderness that's minutes from Los Angeles, but worlds away.
Horses trot along the rocky trail. Birds chirp. A snake slithers across the winding path. Mosquitoes buzz. And at the top, purple and yellow wildflowers dot a green hillside that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
It's a tough ride up, but it's all downhill from there.
Mountain biking combines the serenity of a walk in the woods with the adrenaline rush of, say, white-water rafting. That explains why so many people are hitting the trails in places like the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains each weekend.
"You get the same thrill as skiing, but you don't have to bundle up," says Susan Gordon, 38, the club's point person for female cyclists. "Besides, you can do it a half-hour away from home."
Indeed, mountain biking can be done almost anywhere and with only a bike and a helmet. Even so, there are dozens of clubs across Southern California with men and women riders. Clubs provide a safety-in-numbers approach to riding, and the motivation that's sometimes needed to keep moving.
Riding in the mountains presents different challenges from those of road cycling. Mountain bikes are sturdier than road bikes and give cyclists the ability to go where a narrow-wheel cycle can't. Still, riding on dirt can be difficult, and so can navigating the different off-road terrains.
"It's much more challenging than riding on the road," says Steve Handshaw of Culver City. "You have to learn gearing and how to maneuver the bike. It's very technical."
And the aerobic benefits of the sport are phenomenal. Along with building endurance, mountain biking burns about 10 to 20 calories per minute--up to 1,200 per hour--depending on the terrain that a biker climbs and the amount of energy being exerted.
Mountain biking requires strong quadriceps and provides a great workout for the lower body. It also strengthens the stomach, hip flexers and back muscles, which are all used to maneuver and balance the bike. And unlike running, mountain biking provides a low-impact workout that doesn't put pressure on the joints.
The South Bay Mountain Biking Club, founded by Mansoor Sabbagh and Nilson Vasconcellos 1 1/2 years ago, is one of the biggest in the Southland with about 40 members. The group has three levels of cyclists, from beginner to advanced, and rides are offered for each level.
Members lead rides all over Southern California each weekend and rate the level of difficulty of each trek so no one is in for any surprises. During the summer, they sometimes hit the advanced ski trails at Mammoth and Big Bear lakes.
The South Bay club has a Web site, http://www.usinter.net/SBMBC, which displays a monthly newsletter and a calendar of its rides in addition to special events. The club also promotes biking seminars, including a free monthly workshop for beginners sponsored by the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn., which teaches the fundamentals of the sport.
Mountain biking originated in Northern California in 1974 when a group of road racers fixed up some large-frame bikes and rode them down a 2,600-foot peak on Mt. Tamalpais. Interest in the sport picked up steam in the 1980s, and by 1993 the number of mountain bikers had increased by 170%, according to the National Off Road Bike Assn.
Officials at NORBA say interest in the sport is as strong as ever but has leveled off. Spokeswoman B.J. Hoeptner says that's because most people who are interested in mountain biking are already doing it.
Though mountain biking brings to mind the image of reckless, callow youths, 70% of bikers are college-educated professionals who range in age from 20 to 40, according to NORBA. And they earn an average of $42,200 annually, which explains why they can afford a sport in which a bike can cost anywhere from $200 to $5,000.
Alan Stoddard, 43, took up road cycling after falling off a ladder and shattering his tibia six years ago. The former 10K runner discovered mountain biking about two years ago and was hooked immediately, he says, because the low-impact workout provided great exercise and a lot of fun.
"I still have to be real careful about putting too much stress on my knees when we're climbing a steep grade," says Stoddard, of Hawthorne. "But, overall, mountain biking has really helped strengthen my legs and my knees."
The risk of injury in mountain biking is pretty high, and even experienced mountain bikers are known to take a spill. But that never seems to stop those who truly love the sport from getting back on a bike.
"I don't think I'll ever stop, because it's the best fun I've ever had," says Franni Filzen, 38, who took up the sport three years ago. "When you get outside and get up that mountain, it's really empowering. . . . It's the cheapest form of therapy."
On the Move is published on the fourth Monday of the month. Tracy Johnson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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Want to Hit the Trails?
For more information, contact an area mountain biking club. Some local clubs include:
* The South Bay Mountain Biking Club
(310) 379-7058 or (310) 937-1893
* Team Bones Mountain Bike Club
(Santa Monica Mountains)
* Team Chupacabra
* Fullerton Loop Weekly Mountain Bike Ride
* Peninsula Cycle Club
(Palos Verdes Peninsula)
* Conejo Valley Cyclists
* L.A. F.O.R.C.E. (L.A. Female Off Road Cycling Enthusiasts)
* Over the Bars Mountain Bike Club
* SHARE Mountain Bike Club of Orange County