The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, August 25, 1996               TAG: 9608210028
DATELINE: VIRGINIA BEACH                    LENGTH:  147 lines


Scott Leopold has arrived. Hung over.

``Big'' Jim Dunham is here, too, chomping at the bit to get started. And so is Connie Maxwell, who's stretching her calf muscles behind her car.

Chris ``The Jet Boy'' Brooks is slumped on his drop bars, yawning. His brother, Timothy, is showing off his $400 candy apple red disc wheel.

And Walt Gardner is . . . has anyone seen Walt yet?

It's 7:58 a.m. Saturday.

The parking lot of Conte's Bike & Fitness is jammed. Spandex and health foods with ingredients you can't pronounce are everywhere. People are rushing to use the bathroom and Hootie & The Blowfish music is blaring.

This can mean you're only in one place, and it's not The Twilight Zone - but pretty darn close:

It's the Saturday bike ride and the Conte's gang is ready to take off on another 20-mile trek through the commuter-mean streets of Virginia Beach.

``It's just a rolling Saturday morning party,'' says Gardner, 37, who's just pulled up and is hurriedly trying to piece his bike together.

It began over 15,000 miles and four years ago, when Tim Woolford, a bike mechanic at Conte's, decided to start a training ride on Saturday.

There were only three of them on that first ride last fall - Woolford, co-worker Gardner and friend Dan Ryan.

But a month later Woolford looked back to find Pat Quinn on his wheel. And then Big Jim joined the paceline. And then Wild Bill Concetti. And soon there was Maxwell trying to get in on the sprint. And Drew Dennis and . . .

One day late last summer 52 showed.

Yeah, 52. For a bike ride.

Says Gardner, who's finally ready to lead the Dawn Patrol out: ``The ride has taken on a life of its own.''

The sun's just now starting to make its way over the treetops on this summer morning. Along with the singing of the birds and the honk of an occasional passing motorist is the low whirr of tires on asphalt as 43 cyclists cruise down First Colonial Road at a comfortable 19 mph.

It's only a couple of miles into the ride when human infomercial Mike Nixon starts pitching one of his company's health food products to anyone that will listen.

Wayne Champigny, a 35-year-old service manager at Hall Honda, says he and his navy blue Cannondale are ``lucky to put in 25 miles a week.''

They always come on Saturday.

``I make sure to go to bed early on Friday night so I can feel good on Saturday,'' he said. ``Saturday morning, that's my bar.''

It's also a coffee shop. A hangout. A home away from home. A clean, well-lighted place.

It's become a brotherhood. A religion. And, in some ways, a secret society.

The doors are always open to the Saturday ride. No one is turned away.

``I start looking forward to it on Thursday or Friday,'' says Jimmy Bruce, a 28-year-old auto mechanic holding his place near the back. ``It's one of the highlights of the weekend.''

Everyone does the Saturday ride. Men. Women. Children.

Doctors. Navy SEALS. Secretaries. Mailmen. Mechanics. Even a millionaire.

Black. White. European.

But none of that matters once you clip into your pedals and make the first left onto First Colonial.

``I think that's what makes it special,'' says Eve Lane, 26, a secretary for Norfolk Southern. ``We all have one thing in common and that's pretty much it.''

Aside from the one-hour weekly ride, the cyclists rarely see each other.

Says Timothy Brooks, 15, of Va. Beach: ``You have something in common with them that's kind of unique. A bond because you both know what it takes to be a cyclist.''

Wind. Rain. Snow on the ground. Hurricane. Nuclear bomb blast.

It doesn't matter what The Weather Channel is forecasting on Saturdays. The Saturday morning ride is more reliable than the U.S. Mail.

``Jimmy (Bruce) had this idea,'' remembers Champigny about one ride this past winter ``of wearing surgical gloves when we rode. My hands - literally - became blocks of ice. The sweat inside the gloves had frozen.''

Five miles into the ride. The group makes a sweeping right onto Great Neck for the attack on the bridge.

Infomercial Mike is still selling.

Then . . .

A yell. More like a whoop. It comes from Wild Bill. It's his way of telling everyone what they knew but didn't want to hear: the warm-up is over.

The group begins to string out.

If you want to go hard, you go with Big Jim.

In Jim's draft comes sprinter Joe Phillips. ``I always try to hook on the guy that dominates the ride,'' says Phillips, 50, the ding-ding of the small yellow bells he has mounted under his seat swaying in time with his pedal strokes. ``I might not always beat them, but I'll give them everything I've got.''

But if you want to be able to go to work Monday morning, drop back. Shoot the breeze.

``I think for some people it's a group therapy session,'' Gardner says. ``Sometimes, it's (about) work. Sometimes, it's bikes. Sometimes, it's the girl in the car passing us.''

Says Bruce, behind Gardner: ``I spend more time with these guys than I do my family. After six, eight, 10 months you get to know somebody.''

Says Maxwell, 38, a triathlete from Gloucester who completed her first Ironman Triathlon last year: ``Everyone looks out for each other. Even though there's a little bit of competitiveness, there's still that camaraderie.''

If you get a flat, someone will help you fix it. Or be there if you get hurt. And make sure you won't be left behind.

Woolford, who recently moved to Columbia, S.C., where there's no Saturday ride, says: ``There's not one Saturday I haven't woken up and said `Man, it would be cool to be on that Saturday ride.' ''

The group, with Big Jim leading, has woven its way through Fort Story and is preparing for its assault down Atlantic Avenue, where on a good day and a tailwind, the peleton (Translation from Cyclespeak: a big bunch of riders) will easily break 30 mph before heading onto 47th Street and into Bay Colony.

On a bad day with a headwind, it'll just be Big Jim at 30 mph.


And, hey, there are plenty of bad days.

``You can feel like you never want to see a bike again,'' says Drew Dennis, a 36-year-old UPS employee wearing his trademark Skittles jersey and red bandana. ``There've been days where my legs felt like lead, where my lungs felt like someone poured gasoline down them.''

Where you feel, says Liz Schleeper, 30, from Virginia Beach, ``like hell.''

They're on Laskin Road now, heading back to the shop.

Today, as Saturdays go, is pretty uneventful: two flat tires, one minor altercation with a motorist, about 68 empty water bottles and 43 smiles of satisfaction.

They're all in now, gulping water, stretching and changing clothes.

Some laughing and conversation lingers, but most of it is fading fast into the morning.

Big Jim is already gone, off to do another loop. That guy never stops.

``When the ride is over, everyone has their day to go on with,'' Maxwell explains. And with that said, she's gone.

So's Champigny. Same for Wild Bill. Today's his wife's birthday. Dennis has to cut the grass. Lane needs groceries.

And Gardner? Well, he's late for work as usual.

The parking lot is empty.

See you next Saturday. ILLUSTRATION: MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN Color Photos/The Virginian-Pilot

When the ride is over, the cyclists, including Jacarna Schuler of

Virginia Beach, gather briefly back at Conte's. The one-hour ride is

usually the only time the cyclists will see each other during the


The Saturday morning cyclists head down Laskin Road toward Conte's

Bicycle & Fitness, riding the last leg of a 20-mile trek through

Virginia Beach.



After the ride, the cyclists exchange a few words at Conte's Bicycle

& Fitness. by CNB