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The obstacles in hill climbing, other than the mental ones, are problems of ratios—strength to weight, gearing to lung capacity. A moderately strong cyclist should be able to complete the Fargo Street Hill, say the experts, as long as his gear ratio is low enough. A low gear ratio, however, means that the climb takes longer and that the rider's legs will have to pump many more times to turn his wheels.
"The gear ratio can be made so low that one turn of the wheel requires two turns of the crank, but you'd need slow motion to see the feet go around," says Mike Leone. An engineer with a helicopter company and a purist in matters pertaining to hills, Leone has completed the climb twice, lowering the center of gravity of his 180 pounds by replacing the front wheel of his $1,200 Teledyne Titan with a smaller wheel from his son's Ideor Asso. Whereas Mike attacks the hill head on all the way, 10-year-old Chris starts out straight and then switches to a traverse, weaving from curb to curb as his momentum slows. Mike says, "I have to go straight up because I don't have the balance to tack. Chris tacks. He is one of only three people I've seen who can do it. If I make an error and the wheel points downhill for one second, I'm done for. I can't recover."
Leone immigrated to Southern California from Vineland, N.J. in 1968 and has not yet adjusted to the wonder of his good fortune. "I couldn't believe the hills," he says. "I became obsessed with them. I love hills."
He also loves being in shape. He says it is a form of cowardice, a fear of the pain of riding a hill when he is not in shape. He did that once and says of the experience, "I thought I was going to swallow my tongue." Leone stows five complete changes of street clothes in his office each Monday and rides 40 miles back and forth between his home in Torrance and Hughes Helicopters in Culver City. At lunchtime he lifts weights at a local health club. "Tell the people," he says, with the fervor of a missionary pointing out the One True Way, "that where there's a will there's a way. It takes a little bit of thinking, but it can be done."
When the Los Angeles Wheelmen reached the foot of the hill on Fargo Sunday, five Leones in matched shirts were with them, as usual. Mike, Chris and 12-year-old Virginia lined up with some 70 others to try the hill.
In the oral history of the Wheelmen the Leones are prominenti. Mike is one of the two heaviest men ever to make the ascent and Chris last year was the youngest. If Virginia had made it this year (she did not, though she came close) she would have been the first female.
First in line to test his lungs, legs and gear ratio was Ron Kriss, 19, one of a group from Fountain Valley, a town south of Los Angeles in Orange County, heretofore known primarily for having produced Shirley Babashoff. Kriss practices on the hills that rise out of the Pacific at Laguna Beach, and he had made a trial run on Fargo Street the previous Sunday.
"Before that I had never totally extended myself for one minute in my life," he said. "I've ridden 180-mile days and felt about the same." Kriss set off in a straight line. As the grade increased, his pace slowed, and occasionally his rear wheel would shudder as it lost and recovered its grip on the pavement. Only in the final 10 feet did Kriss begin to tack. His front wheel had run over a spectator's toe, and for an instant the bike came to a complete stop. Kriss managed to retain his balance long enough to force another rotation of the pedals, and as he cleared the crest he disappeared into a forest of waving arms.
It was an exhilarating beginning for a day on which the old hill took a bit of a beating. Seventy-three cyclists made 90 attempts, of which 21 were successful. Dennis Barrett, a 28-year-old Delta Air Lines reservations clerk who had been riding for less than a year, made it to the top twice on a Lambert 10-speed street bike. Ron Skarin, who has been on the last two U.S. Olympic cycling teams, made it, though at 165 he is 15 pounds over his racing weight. David Smith, an electrician and the finest road racer in the Los Angeles area, made it, and so did Tony Herdrich, a good junior racer from Fountain Valley.
Ralph Boethling II, a frail, blond 23-year-old with hill climbing in his genes, made it for the fourth year in a row. His father, Ralph Sr., president of the Wheelmen, is the club's best all-round hill specialist, but he suffers, says his wife Laverne, from a syndrome known locally as Fear of Fargo, and has never attempted the climb.