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BLIND AMBITION LEADS TO BIKE CLUB.

Byline: Keith Lair Staff Writer

ORANGE - Bicyclists passed each other along the Irvine Park off-road trail, exchanging pleasantries.

Nothing unusual on a typical sunny Saturday in Southern California. Except this time, it definitely was uncommon. One of the groups was TeamBat, an informal blind mountain-bike club.

``We'll have eight riders and seven will be blind,'' said club founder Andy Griffin, a Pasadena native. ``People will have no idea that most of our group is blind.''

TeamBat is the nation's only blind mountain bicycling club. Griffin, who is sighted, and Dan Kish, who is blind and the executive director of World Access for the Blind, formed the club four years ago, when they began working together at the Blind Children's Center in Orange County.

The club meets twice a month at Irvine Regional Park, where trails can be both easy and difficult.

``This should not amaze anyone,'' Griffin, 36, said. ``But I think this is the best pure thing in athletics.''

Sighted riders lead blind riders single file down the trail. Another sighted rider trails.

``Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat,'' echoes from each bike.

Each cyclist has a plastic tie, used to seal plastic trash bags, sticking into the rear spoke, creating a sound much like when kids put baseball cards in their spokes.

``You develop a type of radar in which sounds become a visual preview,'' Griffin said. ``You listen to the bike in front of you.''

Hence the club name: TeamBat.

The leader tells the others what is ahead. He warns of streams, hills and drop-offs. Sand is met by a loud ``Brrrrrrrrrrr,'' like a motorcycle would do when spinning its wheels in the sand.

``Everyone else can ride a bike, so why can't you?'' said Brian Bushway, a Pepperdine student who has been called ``the best blind mountain-bike rider'' by a leading cycling magazine.

Bushway, 20, lost his sight six years ago after his optic nerve atrophied. But that hasn't kept him from being outdoors. He and Kish frequently take 25-mile, multihour rides where they try to outdo each other.

Bushway, who is studying nonprofit management, also takes numerous rides with sighted Pepperdine friends in the Santa Monica Mountains, located above the campus.

``My bike was sitting in my garage collecting dust,'' he said. ``I started from the get-go. It's definitely something I wanted to do. I've kept at it. It's fun.''

Crashes are not uncommon. Cyclists get too close and bump wheels. Uncambered terrain certainly can lead to harrowing experiences.

``It's no fun unless you fall at least once,'' Bushway said. ``I do not consider it a challenge unless I've fallen at least once.''

It took only an hour for Sam Garcia of Anaheim to decide the bimonthly rides would be a permanent fixture on his schedule. Although the program was established for the blind, limited-sight riders like Garcia are more than welcome, too.

Garcia said he can see only shadows, about 2 feet in front of him. He rides slowly with his children. But one time, when riding by himself, he ran into a tree.

``They moved the street,'' he joked.

Actually, a similar scenario about six years ago led Griffin to form the club. He was working at Montrose Cyclery in Glendale when a man losing his sight entered the store. The man explained he wanted to buy a bike to ride in the street at 2 a.m., when there was little chance he would be hurt.

But Griffin said the episode backfired when the Crescenta Valley division of the L.A. County Sheriff's office stopped the cyclist, thinking he was intoxicated. Griffin said the man was told never to ride again.

``It planted the seed,'' Griffin admitted.

Rain or shine, there is no shortage of riders.

``People find every excuse in the world not to exercise, and these people have the best excuse of all,'' volunteer Larry Wiersma said. ``But that's not stopping them. It almost makes you feel guilty when you don't go out there with them.''

Much of the club's gear is donated. So far, it means enough bikes and helmets for each rider.

The advanced riders made the trips look easy. But beginners have problems at first.

Armando Lira of Anaheim frequently went off course and fell in his first outing. But after having his gears readjusted, he finally got the hang of it.

``I woke up and I was nervous,'' admitted Lira, who had not ridden in three or four years, when he rode on a football field with relatives. ``But it was a lot of fun.''

Griffin continuously encouraged Lira, even when it appeared Lira might have given up on himself.

``I'm getting it!'' Lira said as he pedaled steadily behind Griffin.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 26, 2002
Words:780
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