by Bob Schultz
Imagine a pickup game of hoops played on the same court at the same time for more than 25 years. Put that dedicated group of athletes on bikes, and you're looking at the "Noon Ride." These cyclists are serious. Every weekday of every month, a group ranging in size from just a handful on rainy winter days to nearly 75 riders at the peak of the summer race season congregates in the Palo Alto foothills and heads out--at 12 o'clock sharp--for a 25- to 35-mile ride.
Keeping top speeds throughout the ride, the pack of riders generally sheds from a third to a half of its numbers as it races down back roads. The final sprint seldom pits more than a dozen riders against one another. The rest come straggling over the impromptu finish line gasping for air.
So what motivates these people? Why are they out in the rain chasing each other to the tops of hills as if there were trophies and ribbons at each summit? When the rest of the Peninsula is enjoying their lunch and taking a break, why are these riders out on the roads subjecting themselves to the wrath of impatient drivers and the onslaught of the elements?
"Have you heard of the runner's high?" asks Jim Walton, a veteran cyclist from Palo Alto. There's the same thing in cycling, he says. "Once you've had it, you always strive for that feel." Walton, a model maker at Molecular Devices in Sunnyvale, has done the ride regularly for more than 10 years, working 80 minutes of cycling into his work schedule.
The Noon Ride, which starts in Palo Alto and winds through Portola Valley, Woodside, Menlo Park and Stanford, is one of the highest-caliber group rides in the Bay Area. It isn't sponsored by a specific club; anyone and everyone is welcome to ride along. Just go to the corner of Foothill Expressway and Page Mill Road on a weekday and look for the folks wearing lycra.
Though the course route changes on a daily basis, most of the regulars are more than willing to brief a newcomer on the details of that day's route. Especially in winter, riders are there for the camaraderie and the chance to socialize, says Walton. Additionally, it's safer when everyone knows where and when to turn.
Traditionally, the course followed the popular loop out along Alpine Road to Portola Road and back to Sand Hill Road, but the routine has since been altered to avoid run-ins with traffic. The added variety of changing routes, however, just seems to have made an already scenic ride a little bit better. Towering redwoods have been added to the old route's sprawling oaks, meadows with horses grazing and the historic mills and trading posts of Woodside.
"When you bike through the foothills, you see that there's a reason for the area being so expensive: The scenery is gorgeous," says Mike Murray, a regular to the ride.
While riders enjoy the scenery and friendship, the main point of the ride is training. It goes as fast as the leaders want to spin their pedals. Those with their noses in the flowers may find themselves riding home on their own; no one's keeping track of who's behind.
"It's entirely challenging," said Stacey Farmer, an aerobics instructor at the Almaden Valley Athletic Club who does the ride twice a week. When she first did the ride, other riders helped her out by making space for her in the pace line, but once enough people caught a glimpse of her leading the pack down a straight section of road, she was on her own to keep the pace.
She's definitely not alone, however, in being challenged to keep up with this group. Even the professional riders who often make the loop part of their training routine may be pitted against superior rivals.
Walton says the challenge is one of the things that has kept him a regular for so many years. "To improve, I discovered that I had to ride with people who are better than me," he said. "Within four months of starting this ride, I won my first race."
What's more, big-name cyclists show up from time to time. "You can go out there and ride with your boyhood heroes," quips Brett Hanson, sales manager at the Wheelsmith bike shop in Palo Alto.
Walton equates doing the Noon Ride when the pros show up to "going down to the park and playing football with the 49ers."
Though the presence of highly ranked cyclists and the prestige of riding with them are flashy attractions particular to this ride, cyclists are quick to note that bike racing is really a group sport. Like runners and cross-country skiers, road cyclists vie for positions in the pack--also known by the French term "peloton"--adjusting their line to get maximum shielding from the wind while at the same time being close enough to the front so they won't miss any potential breakaways.
Riding on level ground, most of the resistance a cyclist faces is from the wind. Air drag created as a cyclist pushes through the atmosphere grows as a rider accelerates. Thus, by riding behind one, or better, several cyclists, a rider dramatically reduces the total resistance that he or she must work against. So, a group can sustain far greater speeds than an individual rider could ever dream of reaching.
Out of this situation comes strategizing and maneuvering akin to chess in complexity, but more like racquetball in speed. And the faster the group whizzes over the pavement, the more important position becomes. "You must train with a group to develop the tactics of sprinting," says Murray, who has become a top U.S. cyclist, using the Noon Ride as part of his training schedule.
Murray also notes that training with the group has made him a safer rider. "It helped me to get used to bumping elbows and riding in close proximity to others," he says.
If all of this is starting to make sense, but you still can't fathom taking a couple of hours in the middle of the day to exercise, Bruce Matheson has the answer. He works more than eight hours a day running his Woodside construction firm, Foundation Technologies Inc. but has done the ride three times a week for the last eight years. For cycling, "I make time," he says.
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