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The need for different speeds

There is synergy in the pack as clouds cover the sun and the temperature sinks to 33 degrees.

Zipping along, five cyclists are a Day-Glo blur against a backdrop of spinach-green hillsides and brown, puddled pastures. Grit and raindrops spray off 10 flashing wheels as the pack streaks ahead and out of sight.

It's just another day of winter riding in the Rogue Valley, and Glen Gann of Medford has a schedule to keep — and maybe a fellow rider or two to beat.

He's the ride leader this day, setting the pace as gear-clicking cyclists pound their legs into the pedals. It's a nearly 20-mile "race pace" ride, and no one is stopping to admire the scenery.

"We'll be going along and we might go up a slight rise in the road, and you can tell when someone wants to up the ante," says Gann, 42, president of the Siskiyou Velo Bicycle Club and a racer for 23 years. "The egos do come into play. It adds a little bit of fun to it."

Ride leaders all share a common goal: safety. After that, their philosophies about leading the pack can vary wildly.

For Gann, when he's in race-pace mode, it's all about putting in the miles at speeds up to 25 mph or more.

"You've got to get the physical workout and the mental workout, too," Gann says. "It's testing how far can you go. A lot of times you can be dog-tired and hurting, but there's no way you want to get dropped. You ask yourself, 'Can I push a little bit harder to get to the top of the hill or get down that stretch of road.' By the end of it, you're pretty wiped."

For other ride leaders, such as 76-year-old Phil Gagnon of Ashland, a slower pace is more appealing.

Gagnon leads the club's "mellow" ride (12 to 15 mph) every Saturday, a 20-plus mile trip that starts at 10 a.m. at varying locations.

"A lot of people on some rides were left behind and they got frustrated," he says. "I prefer the mellow pace. It's a social affair with us. We're not racing. We're taking time to see the territory we're in. We go through neighborhoods. We go through open spaces."

Gagnon, who's been riding for about five years, says with hundreds of members in the club, there's a need for different speeds.

"Not everyone's going to be able to ride at the same pace," he says.

Ride leader Rick Berlet, 61, of Ashland, has been in the saddle for 25 years. He moved to the Rogue Valley from Chicago six years ago. His rides are akin to a pick-up game of basketball, he says: make some calls, see who wants to ride and then decide that morning or afternoon what the pace will be.

For Berlet, his ride-leading philosophy hooks on making sure everyone has a good time.

"The most important thing for me is to set the tone, and say it's not going to be a race and if people lag behind, we're going to stop and wait for them. It's really not fun to go on a ride and get dropped," he says.

While ride leaders control the "pace line," Berlet says he's not a taskmaster at the front of the pack.

"It isn't a figurehead position," he says. "You have to offer some sort of structure to the ride, but it's not, by any means, an authoritative position on a ride. It's making sure people have fun."

Keeping riders in line — literally and figuratively — is sometimes a challenge for Dan Wooton, a 56-year-old from Medford who took up riding seriously five years ago.

"It's like herding cats at times," he says.

"There are times when guys are doing stuff that is dangerous — riding out into traffic, not staying in the line, running stop signs; just kind of being an idiot. That very seldom happens with club rides, but anytime you're riding with group in tight quarters, if a guy is riding squirrelly, it's dangerous for everyone. You touch wheels and people go down. You break bones."

As the leader of his group, Wooton owns the pace line and is in charge of the tempo of the ride, surging ahead and forcing the others to follow.

"Everyone's wheel-to-wheel, and everybody is drafting off the guy in front of them. The leader is working harder than anyone else, and that's why you usually have the stronger riders out front."

When his strength flags, Wooton will fall back as another rider takes over. When he recovers, he's back out front.

"In club rides, you don't ride in pace lines all of the time," Wooton says. "There will be long stretches of road, flat roads where we stay together, but when you get to the hills, everyone works to the top at their own speed until they get to the top and regroup there."

During a ride, if troubles arises, messages can be sent to the ride leader up the line. "Sometimes we'll send someone up to the front to say there's a flat tire, and the whole group will stop and make sure the problem is taken care of," he says.

Wooton, who leads race-pace rides as well, says in some instances there is little sympathy for those who fall behind.

"Guys that go on (race pace) rides are better riders. They're more accustomed to riding in a faster pace line. It's a different mind-set for the riders to begin with — they're usually younger, faster and in better shape, and they're all there for the same reason."

In most other rides, particularly those with maybe 20 to 30 cyclists, Wooton says he's willing to slow the pace to help all riders keep up. He'll also send a rider to the back to "ride drag" and keep tabs on the tail end of the line.

"A group of 30 riders can get strung out pretty good, from stop signs and traffic, so we'll regroup as often as needed," he says.

Ride leader Jerry Rhoads, 68, of Phoenix, conveniently lives next to Colver Park in Phoenix, a major starting point for all levels of the club's pace riding.

A former ultra-marathoner in bicycling, he used to put in 14,000 to 15,000 miles per year on his two-wheeler.

"I still do, but now I can go slower and longer" on his recumbent bike.

His wife, Barbara, 72, says Jerry would be lost without his often-daily rides.

"He's got a lot of energy and he gets terribly bored if he can't go out and do the things he wants to do," she says. "If he doesn't get to ride and it's really bad weather and the streets are slick, he'll put on his rain gear and get out there and walk in the rain. He tried to join a gym and it was too confining. He really loves to ride."

On the Net: www.siskiyouvelo.org

Dan Wooton of Medford, front, leads Steve Levesque of Jacksonville and other cyclists on a recent Sunday ride from Medford to Gold Hill.