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For cycling enthusiast, it's all about the bike
By Don Norcross
Copley News Service
Brian Potter's cycling fascination began in earnest when he was 3. Pedaling a tricycle down a steep hill a block from his New Zealand home, Potter careened out of control rounding a corner, fell, bonked his head and spent the night in a hospital, nurses monitoring his concussion. He lost the race to a 4-year-old, but not his enthusiasm.
By 9, Potter collected discarded bikes, repairing and selling them for profit.
"It was like 'Sanford and Son,'" jokes Potter.
By 12, he was leading his three younger brothers on 43-mile summer rides to the family beach house.
Of his sibling rivalries, Potter says, "We were always racing, seeing who's the fastest off a stop sign, who's the fastest downhiller."
Today, Potter is 47, lives in El Cajon, Calif., and still is hell on two wheels. Recently, Potter led an eight-man corporate relay team to victory in the 23rd annual Race Across America. Representing Kaiser Permanente, the cyclists left San Diego on June 21 and six days, five hours and seven minutes later rolled onto the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J.
The cyclists weren't required to ride equal legs on the 2,959-mile odyssey. Consequently, the Kaiser employees leaned hard on Potter.
"He was the anchor of the team, without question," says teammate Tom Paluch. "He rode farther and faster than everyone else. He probably pulled 20 to 30 percent more than the rest of us. He was amazing, a complete animal."
Not wanting teammates to know how far he pedaled, Potter would click his odometer to zero after each leg.
"It was a team effort," he says. "It wasn't a solo effort."
A man who likes testing his physical limits, once teaming with friends to raft a New Zealand rapid that had never been conquered, Potter often started his legs riding as vigorously as possible, until he threw up.
"Then I backed off a little," he says. "I rode hard, and I rode fast."
Potter's modesty reflects a man who has set his ego aside the past four years, focusing his cycling on introducing newcomers to touring.
Four years ago, Paluch, a doctor, formed the cycling club Ride to Remember, the group training for the 100-mile High Sierra Fall Century. The ride would be a tribute to Mark Milford, Paluch's professional partner who died while driving to participate in the 1999 High Sierra Fall Century.
Fifty-seven cyclists of varying skill levels showed up to train for the club's first century, or 100 mile ride. Weeks into training for the 2000 ride, no one was consistently mentoring the beginning cyclists.
"We didn't want to lose the people," says Potter, who elected to take over the novices.
One nervous woman hadn't ridden in more than 20 years. On the first training session, she pedaled into sand and fell. Now she has ridden multiple centuries.
A 9-year-old girl wanted to ride a century with her father, so Potter loaned them his tandem bike, attaching wooden blocks to the pedals so the girl could ride.
Seventy miles into the ride and facing a seven-mile stretch of hills, the girl wanted to quit.
"If you want to quit, you need to give me your race jersey back," said Potter.
Not wanting to relinquish the jersey, the girl continued, this time with Potter riding the tandem and her father pedaling Potter's bike.
"I can go out and do a 4 1/2-hour century," says Potter. "But the thing is, if I go out and take somebody who's never ridden a century and do a 10-hour ride together, that's more satisfying for them and me. You've taken someone who isn't a cyclist and introduced them to real cycling. It becomes part of their life."
Many of Potter's Ride to Remember teammates branch out and sample triathlons. Annamarie Gonzalez was training for a triathlon, swimming regularly at La Jolla Cove in San Diego.
She would bring her son, Ryan, who sat and watched. Ryan, 18, suffers from a rare skin disease, harlequin ichthyosis, considered by many to be fatal. His physical activity limited because he cannot sweat, Ryan is one of the oldest living people with the disease.
As Ryan sat near the beach one day watching swimmers, Brian told him, "You can do this."
For months, Brian trained with Ryan and last October the teenager participated in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, swimming the 1.2-mile relay leg.
Ryan is now training to complete a November century ride. He'll pedal a tandem bike with Potter, carrying a spray bottle to keep him cool.
"It's amazing," says Annamarie, describing the impact Potter's involvement has had on her son. "There was something lacking in Ryan's life. To get past his disability, to spend that much time with him, training, hanging around, goofing around ... For Ryan, now he can do regular things, things his cousins do."
She pauses for a moment, before adding, "Brian is a remarkable man. He's very giving."
In more than 40 years of cycling, Brian Potter has not suffered a major injury riding on the road (he says a broken arm mountain biking doesn't count). Here are his tips on riding safe:
1. Always wear a helmet and bike gloves.
2. Check your tire pressure before every ride. "Most often they need more air," he said.
3. Stay hydrated. To stay stronger and alert, he suggests one bottle of water every hour or 20 miles.
4. Be most focused of the cars in front of you. He estimates 80 percent of accidents are caused by drivers who pull in front of or open doors in front of cyclists.
5. For better bike handling, keep your hands on the outside of the handlebars.
6. Ride within your limits. What's your limit? "It's your comfort level," said Potter.