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September 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Noon riders of the Loop Noon riders of the Loop (September 08, 2004)

by Alex Doniach

Former Olympic runner Tom Laris joined the noon riders six years ago. After reading about the unofficial group of cyclists who rode a daily 22-mile loop through the hilly countryside of Palo Alto, Portola Valley and Woodside, he decided to pick up a bike and give it a try. He wasn't particularly nervous. At 58, he still exercised regularly, and his body was primed for physical challenges. The former track star had run the10,000 meters in the 1968 Olympic games, after all.

But, Laris hadn't anticipated the rigor of the ride.

"I couldn't even stay with them for the first mile," he said. "It took me six months to a year to finish the loop because it was so tough and I don't come from a cycling background." Today Laris, 64, usually doesn't finish all 22 miles with the pack, but still goes out almost every day.

"I don't do it for the high, I do it for the pain," he said. "I like the intensity and the challenge. I feel the pain the whole way through and I like going hard and testing my limits."

Laris isn't alone. Five days a week for the past 35 years, anywhere from 15-50 riders of all ages have regularly gathered on Old Page Mill Road, under the shade of the oak trees that pepper the surrounding brown hills. In a group with no monthly dues, weekly newsletter or even e-mail listerv, something about the course continues to draw participants.

"This is just a self-perpetuating group," said Rick Huff, a member for 22 years. "There's no organization and no one leading it. People just keep showing up."

Beginners beware: With a membership of more than 50 riders, and a roster that currently includes five former Olympians -- including Dylan Casey who rode with Lance Armstrong and cycled in the 2000 Olympic games -- the group defines "hardcore."

Although men make up a majority of the group, two women do come out for the ride. Two former Olympic athletes, that is. Both Linda Jackson, who competed for the Canadian team in the 1996 Olympic games and Karen Kurreck, who competed for the U.S. team in 2000, join the pack regularly.

Although the group's faces have changed in the past 35 years, the 22-mile "core route" has stayed the same. The ride begins on Old Page Mill, winds down to Arastradero, up to Canada and loops back to Page Mill. There's slight variation in the course and modifications have been made since the 1970s -- but not many.

The only thing that changes on a daily basis is the intensity. The pace hovers around 22mph, but depending on the zeal of "hammerheads" or front-runners of the group, the pace will crank up to 39 mph -- an explosive speed for all but the best riders.

Stewart Calhoon made the noon ride part of his daily routine 21 years ago. The local engineer, who counts Tour de France champion Armstrong as his inspiration, said he never tires of the route.

"I have this favorite strip on Manuela," he said. "Just before we get to Canada, there's a little winding area and we speed up to little sprints and I've enjoyed that part. If I were by myself, the ride would probably be more boring. But in a group, the little interactions and interchanges keep it interesting."

Calhoon, like Laris, began his cycling career with the noon riders as a novice. Today the 54-year-old rides about three days a week during his lunch break.

"At first there was no way I could keep up," he said. "One summer I made it my goal to finish the course with the group. By the end I could do it."

Calhoon, like many of his fellow riders, eventually started riding in local weekend races. With a number of opportunities for sprinting and counterattacking, the "core route" is well known in the racing circuit as a solid practice run for professional and non-professional cyclists alike. Famous riders such as Casey, Eric Hayden, and Roberto Gaggioli have all joined the pack at some time or other.

But, the group's popularity really doesn't extend beyond biking enthusiasts. Local drivers caught helplessly behind the pack have complained to the police for years. Not much, beyond issuing tickets to the riders, has been done though to deter the group's daily meetings.

"There have been complaints in the past," said Sergeant Jerry Quinlan of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department. "Large groups of bicyclists are dangerous when they start to impede the dividing line in the road."

Quinlan credits a dip in recent complaints to a "meeting of the minds," he said. Cooperation from both riders and drivers has curtailed the number of calls he's received and moving violations he's had to issue to riders blocking the roads.

"I've always thought people should think of us as a big, slow moving vehicle," Calhoon said. "But unfortunately when you get a large group of riders on narrow roads, people get angry."

Calhoon and Huff agree that self-policing is part of what makes the group strong, though. No one wants a ticket; they just want the opportunity to ride.

"I crave that endorphin high," Calhoon said. "I just started this for fun, but then it got pretty serious. Once you start putting in a lot of miles, you get in good shape and you don't want to lose it."

Victor Askew, a cyclist for the past 20 years, agrees that once you start, it's hard not to get hooked. The first time he came out, he had on a pair of shorts and tennis shoes. It didn't take long for him to convert and sport the spandex suit.

"There is definitely form behind the fashion," he said. "It took me about three weeks before I went out and bought some cycling gear."

Today Askew, 47, rides about 300 miles a week and admits that life would be hard without cycling.

"I guess it's the feeling of satisfaction that draws me," he said. "It's a good feeling to know that at my age, I can still do it."

Whatever reason entices them to an hour of pain, riders will continue to show up at about five to noon. When the clock strikes 12, they're off.

"I wouldn't say it's a race," Laris said. "It's a lot of testosterone out there and it does get very competitive, but it's not exactly a race. It's intense and it's painful, but it's also enjoyable."

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