Published: Thursday, August 22, 1996
Section: Venture
Page: 12D

By JASON L. ABLES, Special to Venture
LAURA STEC loves to ride a bicycle, enough so that she gave up her car to ride full-time. Whether commuting to work or heading out on vacation, she goes on two wheels, pedaling along.

So it was not out of character for the 33-year-old Stec, a special-projects coordinator with the environmental group Bay Area Action, to find herself out one night enjoying the environs of Humboldt County.

Unfortunately, it was also not out of character for her to be without the gear to fix a flat tire.

''In Arcata, I got a flat and I did not have anything to fix it, and it was night and I did not feel like walking. I was pretty far away (from town) and I tried to hitch-hike,'' said Stec. ''Nobody even stopped to ask me what was wrong.''

The experience of having been caught off-guard and unprepared is certainly not one unique to Stec - many cyclists, including seasoned riders, have been in similar situations, especially if they ride off-road.

It is learning from those events, as well as heeding the tales of others, that they say is the difference between being a safe cyclist prepared to deal with the unforeseen and being one at the mercy of the trail.

''Unpreparedness is probably my No. 2 concern in my class. (No. 1 is trail etiquette - if mountain bikers don't learn that then there won't be any trails to ride),'' said Mike Fuhrer, who teaches a mountain bike basics class for the Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay. ''The International Mountain Biking Association has six rules of the trail, one of which is 'be prepared,' which is good advice in any sport.''

With a laugh, Stec admitted that back when she ended up walking in Arcata, she never carried a pump with her, or tools, not even on solo tours.

''I have this anti-technology thing or anti-mechanical streak about me where I'm not very mechanical at all, and it doesn't even interest me unless someone is there to kind of help me out,'' said Stec.

''See, so that is what happens if you do not have the the appropriate tools, you get stuck outside like that.''

For Stec that all changed in July when she bought her first mountain bike. Wanting to be able to ride it off-road, she decided it was time to become self-sufficient, to be prepared. So on the floor of her office, a tire tool and the front tire of her new bike in hand, she worked her way through the process of changing a bicycle tire - and she succeeded.

In the last decade the number of cyclists like Stec wanting to venture off-road has risen dramatically. IMBA, the mountain bike group, estimates that in 1983 there were only 200,000 mountain bikes in the country. That figure has exploded to 8 million in sales annually, and IMBA estimates that 5.7 million people now regularly ride bicycles off-road.

Fuhrer and other members of the local cycling community said they welcomed new riders, but they also cautioned that newcomers should realize the sport can be much riskier than riding on the road (encounters with cars notwithstanding), and that the penalties of mistakes or accidents, even for veteran riders, can be much stiffer than Stec's dark walk back to Arcata.

Had the gear, lacked skills

Bernie Silveria is a 35-year-old road and off-road racer who works for Willow Glen Bicycles in San Jose. Last summer he and a group of friends set out on what should have been a fun 20-mile ride through the biking mecca of Moab, Utah. They were as prepared as any, with plenty of food and water, a compass and a map.

''What I did not find out until about 20 miles into it was that the guy who brought the compass had it on a steel zipper on a chain on his backpack, which will alter the reading of the compass,'' said Silveria. ''And also, they were not lining up the compass with the map.''

What should have been a ride lasting a couple of hours turned into an 11-hour survival-fest as he and his companions got repeatedly lost in the steep, canyon-like trails. ''When it was all over, it was about 9 o'clock in the evening, it was almost dark, and nobody had any water left,'' said Silveria.

If it had not been for being prepared, he said, the day could have ended much more tragically than just being dehydrated and lost.

While popular nearby riding areas, like the Santa Clara County Parks or the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Preserves, may seem far removed from the outback of Utah, Glen Wegner, a member of the Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers (ROMP), suggested that it is wise to treat local areas as wilderness.

''I think a lot of people, especially beginners, get here in the nice open country and maybe do not realize what kind of natural hazards they can run into. Like for now, we have got a massive outcropping of the giant thorns, poison oak, rattlesnakes,'' said Wegner. ''It is still a wild place. Treat it as a wild place.''

Wegner, a 42-year-old electrical engineer with Exar Corp., leads ROMP's regular Tuesday evening ride in the Fremont Older Open Space Preserve near Cupertino. ''The other thing (about) mountain biking is you tend to be a lot harder on the bike and the equipment (than riding on the road),'' he said. ''It is a good idea to come prepared.''

Besides food and water, that means bringing the appropriate tools, he said. Since the vast majority of mechanical failures on the trail seem to be either flat tires or broken chains, ''the minimum would be a pump, spare tube, patch kit, a chain tool, and the knowledge to use them,'' he said.

No. 1 problem: no water

Rich Bender, a Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation ranger, echoed Wegner's advice. He and fellow rangers patrol the popular Lexington Resevoir/Kennedy Road trail system by mountain bike.''It is a different world,'' he said. ''You are a long way from help.''

While he considers 90 percent of the riders he meets on the trails to be well-prepared, Bender said that during the summer, it is common for the rangers to give some kind of assistance to 100 people (including hikers and joggers) a week. The most common problem he comes across is people who run out of water. The more severe, but rarer, problems he encounters those who have crashed and injured themselves and those who have gotten lost.

Because of those kinds of situations, Bender said that he believes strongly in the buddy system - that if at all possible, people should not ride alone.

Not that Silveria, Wegner or Bender want to scare new riders from experiencing the outdoors by bicycle. Instead, they said that knowing what could happen, and then taking precautions, could help make the experience safer and more fun.

As for Laura Stec, she planned to be back out on a tour this month, riding from Gilroy to Yosemite, and then on to Lake Tahoe where she planned on trying out some of the lake's famous off-road trails. This time with pump and tools on board. Prepared.


Many bike shops offer instruction for new riders, and so does ROMP - contact Peter Donohue, (415) 367-9327. Riders can also contact the Bicycle Trails Council of Marin, (415) 456-7512, or Mike Fuhrer with the Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay, (415) 864-5484.

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