ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Recreational sports usually fit the environmental opportunities Mother Nature provides.
But one Hillsboro athlete has bucked the flat lands of Kansas and transformed himself into a recreational and competitive mountain bike rider.
Lee Krich, an employee for the City of Hillsboro, spends many weekends away from the table-top landscape in Marion County to find solace in a rugged sport that often finds himself hurling downhill at speeds approaching 35 mph.
“I like it mainly for the stress-relieving aspect,” Krich said about mountain biking. “There are a lot of health benefits to mountain-bike riding, including a good cardiovascular workout.”
Krich said he’s enjoyed bicycling for as long as he can remember, but took up the sport of mountain-bike racing about 10 years ago.
“My son Tyler (now age 18) is the one who kind of got me into the racing end of biking,” Krich said. “I’ve always liked riding, so this just seemed like a natural thing to do.
“I found a trail and started riding it and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
As with most sports, skill levels separate riders into classes for competition.
“They have four levels,” Krich said. “The first level is beginners. Then you have sport, intermediate and pro.”
Krich said he recently made the jump into the sport class.
Opportunities to ride can be found in various locations.
“You can look up mountain biking (sites) on the Internet that list trails for your respective states, and you can find out about them from magazine articles and word of mouth,” Krich said. “There’s also a good site on the Net called ‘mtbreview’ that does not only trails, but gear and bikes.
“Another good source of information is your local bike shop.”
Most of the competitive rides Krich competes in require an entry fee of $15 to $25. But in the larger context of the sport, that’s the least of his expenses.
“I ride a GT I-drive bike, and they cost anywhere from $800 to $1,500,” he said. “Usually, I can get about two years of hard riding out of a bike before it’s worn out.”
Krich said the bikes are equipped differently than those found cruising the streets of Hillsboro.
“The tires we use are a lot bigger and they hold more volume and less pressure,” he said. “They’re really beefed up, strength-wise, from what you’ll see on the street.”
Krich chooses to purchase his bikes at McMinn Bicycle Service in Hillsboro.
Riding gear is required for competition, but-theoretically- is optional for recreation.
“I wear gloves and a helmet,” he said. “The gloves are for when I go over the bars and have to land on my hands.
“The helmet is self-explanatory,” he added. “You’re pretty stupid to be out there riding without a helmet.”
Krich spends many of his springtime weekends riding on trails found in Kansas and surrounding states.
His excursions have taken him to Wilson Reservoir, Clinton and Perry lakes and Coronado Heights in Kansas and numerous forays into Missouri.
“Coronado has a nice little beginners’ track that’s only about three miles long,” he said. “But it’s a really fun ride.”
Krich said he has become good friends with many of the participants with whom he rides.
“Around here, it’s kind of a loose-knit group that you see riding at a lot of runs,” he said. “Most of the people are from Great Bend and McPherson.”
Krich recently took his riding skills to new heights-literally.
“My son and I went out to Durango, Colo., and rode,” he said. “They built a bunch of single tracks in an open field on the side of a mountain.”
Adapting to the altitude was a definite challenge, Krich said.
“We were riding at about 7,800 feet above sea level compared to about 1,300 here in Hillsboro,” he said. “The first mile of the course we gained about 1,600 feet and the whole trail was almost 10 miles long.”
The altitude adjustment caught Krich by surprise.
“The first day I went out and rode, I just barely got done with the hill-climbing section of it and I kind of fell off my bike from a lack of oxygen,” Krich said with a smile. “It really does have an effect on you.”
Riding the trails consists of both uphill climbing and downhill assaults.
“On some of the steeper trails, I get going fast enough that my bike kind of passes me,” he said. “On a serious downhill ride, I’ve clocked myself doing 35 miles per hour.
“That was a little too fast for me.”
Taming a mountain ride is sometimes difficult, especially considering the challenges that riders face.
“Some of the grades in Colorado were about 35 degrees,” Krich said. “But I get such a rush out of flying down a steep grade on a bike. The rush and seeing the scenery of the countryside makes it all worth it.”
While he aspires to ride without incident, Krich has endured his share of spills.
“I’ve lost a lot of skin over the years,” he said. “I haven’t broken any bones, but I did get a pretty serious neck injury several years ago that still bothers me.
“I landed on my head and that’s never a good thing.”
Krich said he crashes about once every three outings.
“On the rides I don’t crash, my back is the part of my body that takes the most abuse,” he said.
Terrain is the most obvious difference between courses in Kansas and Colorado, Krich said.
“Colorado has much more intense hill climbs,” he said. “And you’re running at such an elevation that you’re not used to it and that makes a world of difference.
“In Colorado, they design their trails differently,” he said. “They’re not nearly as aggressive because they have so much more land they can play with without packing it into a small area.”
Most trails, Krich said, are designed to be ridden in single file.
“I don’t really know if I’d want to ride next to someone else, anyway,” Krich said. “Most of the trails are about the width of a good animal path.”
Simulating mountain bike riding is difficult, but conditioning in some form is a necessity.
“The only way a person can practice is to put in a lot of riding time,” he said. “The better shape you’re in, the easier it is.”
When Krich trains for upcoming events, daily rides of 35 to 65 miles are common, depending upon the difficulty of the course he’s anticipating.
Krich’s love for cycling has also led him to toy with the idea of pedaling along the path of the famous Route 66, an excursion that would cover just over 2,000 miles.
“I figured that would take about 45 days,” he said. “I don’t know if my boss would let me take that much vacation.”
For now, Krich is content to battle the elements on the trails of the central United States, without the company of wife Julie.
“She rode with me one time and swore she’d never do it again,” he said with a laugh. “She saw the way I ride down a hill and she didn’t think that was for her.
“So far she’s stuck to that pledge.”
The benefits of mountain-bike riding are numerous, Krich said.
“You can take it slow and enjoy the scenery, or you can take it at the speed of light and see how you’re able to handle it,” he said. “When I ride in parks, I get to see places most people don’t get to because they don’t venture off the beaten path.”
Meeting new friends is another benefit Krich enjoys.
“Getting to meet people with the same interests and who are riding for the pure enjoyment is great,” Krich said. “In Colorado, we met people from England and Australia riding on their vacations.
“It’s fun because there are so many different styles of biking you can do,” he added. “It’s not just riding up and down the street.”
An obvious difference between Kansas and Colorado, Krich said, is the respect afforded to riders in Colorado.
“Out there, bikers have their own personal lanes to ride in and the people are much more tolerant of riders,” he said. “I wish people would give bikers more respect around here.”
It doesn’t take a great athlete to have fun on the trails, Krich said.
“The main thing is you need to enjoy riding a bike and just get out and have fun,” he said. “I’m 38 and I hope I can do this until I die.
“Hopefully, that won’t be on my bike in the next year or two.”
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL