Published: Thursday, February 1, 1996
Section: Venture
Page: 14D

Jason Ables, Special to Venture
IN THE early 1980s, Don and Geralynn Myrah's idea of a good vacation was to gather their two sons and go exploring by bicycle, visiting places like the Canadian Rockies, Washington and Arizona. It was during one of these two-wheeled trips that Don Jr., barely a teen-ager, saw the sight that would change his life - a young Greg LeMond racing and winning the Nevada City Criterium.

Watching the young man who would go on to become America's premier cyclist, Myrah decided that he, too, wanted to race bikes. A decade of competition later, the 30-year-old Saratoga resident is one of the best mountain bike racers in the world, and he is looking to compete in an arena that even the great LeMond missed: the Olympics.

When the 1996 Games begin this July in Atlanta, mountain biking will be included for the first time. Usually at least 30 miles of strenuous climbs and fast descents, with a winning time just shy of three hours, mountain bike races are run on the same kinds of fire roads and single-track trails that hikers use. For both the men and the women, six races out of the 1995 and 1996 national and international race seasons are being used to determine the Olympic team. The higher the racers finish, the more points they get; the top point holders, two men and two women, make the team.

With four of the six events run, Myrah, with 95 points, is a close third behind Colorado-based Ned Overend, with 113 points. Defending national champion Tinker Juarez of Sugarloaf (near Big Bear) is in first place with 165.

''(Juarez) is quite a ways ahead of everybody else,'' Myrah said. ''Ned is still within reach, and possibly I can overtake his points total. If he has one problem, and I am 'on,' that is all it would take. I can make the team.''

Since the addition of mountain biking was announced in late 1993 by the International Olympic Committee, making the team has become Myrah's primary goal. ''It definitely became the focus. It is something they have been talking about for quite a while, and once they finally did announce it, it was like, 'Wow, this is great.' If I can just focus in and really go for (the team), that would be great,'' Myrah said.

The next Olympic qualifying race will be May 19 in Conyers, Ga.; the last will be June 27-30 in Traverse City, Mich. Unlike LeMond and other cyclists of his day who had to choose between turning pro or being amateurs in the Olympics - LeMond chose to turn pro - today's pros are allowed to compete.

''In mountain cycling, I think the Olympics really are probably the biggest event, so it is definitely the focus of most everybody,'' said Myrah. Soft-spoken and apt to flash a huge smile, the blond Myrah does not necessarily fit the image of a professional mountain biker. A newlywed who lives in a modest contemporary home in Saratoga with his wife, Yvonne, and their cat, Inyaki, he is mellower than some the extremists found in the media, ala Mountain Dew ads or TV sports. One popular racer is known for wearing a dead piranha around her neck.

'Too much time in cars'

In conversation, a deep respect for nature and a real enjoyment of the outdoors becomes evident. For environmental and health reasons, he drives a car as little as possible, choosing to walk or ride a bike - an attitude he picked up from his father. A light-rail operator since the county's system began, the elder Myrah has been bicycle commuting to work for more than 20 years.

The younger Myrah talks as enthusiastically about recreational cycling, like riding to the store, as he does about his career. ''It's not that I am against automobiles - I think they are a great tool - but I think we spend too much time in our cars,'' he explained. ''It is such a great way to just get around on bicycle and breathe fresh air. And that little bit of exercise makes you feel so much better when you get home.''

Even if his demeanor is quiet, his determination to succeed is as strong as they come, according to his mom, Geralynn. ''Don has always been the leader of the pack,'' she said from her Sunnyvale home. And, she added with a laugh, he has always loved to play in mud. ''I could not think of a better profession for him,'' she said. Now he gets muddy for a living as the captain of Trek Bicycle Corp.'s mountain bike team.

Although his own salary is contractually secret, he said that a top-10 pro could expect to make upward of $50,000, with salaries peaking around $250,000.

To turn pro, let alone get paid six figures, is to overcome staggering odds. The National Off Road Bicycle Association currently reports more than 33,000 registered mountain bike racers in the country.

For Myrah, heading up Trek's off-road efforts is just one highlight from a career spanning 12 years.

When Alexi Grewal won the Olympic road race at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Myrah was watching it on television from the Olympic Training Center in Boulder, Colo. He had been invited to train there after winning the California junior road racing championship in his first year of racing. It was while trying to stay in shape for road racing that Myrah hit upon the path that would lead him to mountain bikes.

After reading how the European road racers trained in winter by racing cyclocross, Myrah decided to give it a try. On a cyclocross course, riders often must dismount and carry their bikes to overcome obstacles like logs, hills too steep to ride, creeks and mud bogs. ''I really liked it. It was a lot of fun and it was something I was pretty good at,'' said Myrah. ''Right away I had kind of a natural ability for it.''

His first year cyclocrossing he took a silver medal at the national championships. In succeeding years he won seven more medals, including four national titles.

A knack for it

Tom Ritchey, one of the founding fathers of the mountain bike industry, took notice, and in 1988 he asked Myrah if he would consider racing mountain bikes.

''I decided, sure, I will give it a try, and the same kind of thing (as cyclocross) happened. I found that I had a real knack for it,'' he said, ''and I did pretty well.''

Well enough that in 1989, after just two seasons, he won, what was at that time, the world championships of mountain biking.

Having ridden for Trek for the past three seasons, Myrah has built his career around the Grundig World Cup series, the most prestigious title in the sport. The 10 races that make up the series are spread through Europe, Canada, the United States and Australia. Typically, of the 150 competitors at the start line, only four or five are Americans. With a mixed look of humor and frustration, Myrah explained how even though he was as high as third in the standings last year before getting sick, for the last three seasons he has placed 13th overall in the series.

''I am stuck on that number; I have got to get past it,'' he said. If, during the 1996 season, he fails to make the Olympic team, contesting the world cup title will again become his primary goal.

But regardless of the Olympics or the world cup, Myrah said the best part of his career, still, is the fact that he gets paid to ride a bike. ''I am fortunate that I am able to do something that I enjoy doing, and I would ride my bike regardless of whether I raced or not,'' he said. ''It is just something I learned from my parents.''

Copyright 1996, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.