Familiar columnist along for the ride

Cycling

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JACK CROWE

What the heck am I doing on the sports page? I am supposed to be that columnist in the Viewpoints section who rants about all the goofy goings-on in Oak Park. I am supposed to complain loudly when public money is misspent or a Village trustee displays a character flaw of Napoleonic proportions.

The sports page? And what about the banner at the top? Cycling?

It's time we started talking about a sport that doesn't get much publicity unless Lance Armstrong is involved. I'd like to explain my journey to becoming an avid?#34;my wife might call it obsessed?#34;cyclist.

By the time I was 40 years old, I was putting on lots of weight. I had that soft fleshy look that I had seen in all the old photos of my ancestors.

I ran every year in the Wright run but a funny thing was happening. With every pound I gained, my mile became one minute slower.

Then my body started to breakdown from all the weight. I could not run more than five miles without knee pain and faced a bleak future. I either had to embrace my genetically imprinted sedentary future or find a sport where I could get the heart rate up without the pounding.

That is where the cycling came in. My Oak Park friend Mark Jolicoeur encouraged me to try the bike. He warned that he and Dirk Danker then cycled at what I thought was a blistering 16 miles per hour average, and I would have to ride on my own a bit before I could keep up.

I took the old Schwinn girls 10-speed from the garage and started riding out by St. Charles Road, huffing and puffing to climb the I-290 overpass near Elmhurst.

I liked riding and bought a new entry level road bike, an Italian-made Bianchi. I started riding with Mark and Dirk, and was dropping weight when the next big thing happened.

We discovered the Lake and Harlem group. They are the road cyclists?#34;sometimes numbering up to 40?#34;you can see massing at the corner of Lake and Harlem at 6 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

The Lake & Harlem group rides pretty fast. They average 18 to 20 miles per hour or more, with sprints up to 30. They wear cycling jerseys with European team names like Domina Vacanza and ride bikes with obscure names like Fondriest or Orbea. It is a group and not a club. No meetings; just show up and ride.

On my first Lake & Harlem ride, I arrived in tee-shirt and gym shorts. I suffered for 50 miles but hung on.

Five years later, I wear spandex. Like many local cyclists, I ride roughly 5,000 miles per year, and I now ride a nearly vintage 1999 Trek carbon frame.

We take road trips to places like the Horribly Hilly Hundreds 100K and 200K rides west of Madison, Wis., where 20 Oak Parkers recently completed a 125-mile ride with 10,000 feet of climbing in one day. Whew.

But enough about me. If you are a cyclist or want to be one, this will be your column. I will write about local riders and groups. Did you know that weekday mornings at 5:30 and 6 a.m. there are cyclists riding from Oak Park to Western Springs? Did you know that there are a dozen or so commuters riding through the Westside every workday? If you have ideas or upcoming cycling events, you can email me at jaccrowe@winston.com. Now get out there and ride.

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