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Hitting the trail with nation's cyclist in chief

Even the leader of the free world needs to get away sometimes. But how? At about 25 mph with almost a dozen companions.

By BILL ADAIR
Published August 14, 2005


[White House photo: Eric Draper]
"There's something exhilarating about heading down a hill at 25 mph on a mountain bike," a mud-spattered Bush says after a ride at his ranch.
TRANSCRIPT: a chat from the bike

CRAWFORD, Texas - Standing on the driveway outside his home, President Bush explains the rules for people who go mountain biking with him.

It will be a vigorous workout. It is not a race. And no one, the president says with a smile, is allowed to pass him.

"This is a chance," he says, "for me to show you a little slice of heaven."

The president's clothes show his favorite sport can be dangerous. His mountain biking shorts have holes on the front from last month's high-speed wipeout on a slick road in Scotland.

For two hours Saturday, Bush leads his guests on a 17-mile ride through the canyons and woods of his 1,600-acre ranch. By the time he coasts back up his driveway, he'll be a little bloody and a lot muddy.

He loves it, a hot Texas morning and an exhausting ride. Life doesn't get much better.

Bush took up mountain biking last year after knee injuries made running too painful. He found that he could get as good a workout on the bike as he did running, but he also got to go fast.

"I like speed," he says. He has gotten to 32 mph on a hill at Camp David, lightning-fast when you're riding knobby tires on a paved road.

"It brings out the child in you," he says. "I think it's okay for a 59-year-old guy to still seek that youth, chase that fountain of youth. And I hope to be mountain biking for a long time."

Bush is not interested in road biking, a long-distance endurance test in which the riders wear tight Lycra pants and often shave their legs. Bush says he won't wear Lycra or shave his legs.

Even surrounded by security, biking gives him solitude, he says. It's "a chance for me to feel like I'm outside the bubble. Whether it be here in Crawford, or at Quantico where we ride, or at Camp David or Beltsville, Md. I get this sense of freedom."

Today's riders include seven journalists, a woman from the State Department and her husband - a D.C. bike messenger Bush calls "Mailman" - and two Secret Service agents.

"All right," Bush says. "Let's go have fun."

Picking up speed

To warm up, he climbs aboard his $3,100 Trek (a gift from the bike company) and leads the group along asphalt roads. He points out trees and grass that he and first lady Laura Bush planted, and the helipad for Marine One.

He takes pride in his ranch, showing a lake he built and stocked with fish, and recounting how he cuts down invasive trees with his chain saw. He likes being able to drive his pickup truck out here.

Scattered through the fields, Secret Service agents in military-style uniforms eye the horizon with binoculars. Trailing the president and Peleton One, as he calls his riding group, are agents and a medical team in trucks and SUVs.

Bush turns onto a gravel road and checks the heart monitor on his wrist: 150 beats per minute.

The group nears the steep hill where his media consultant, Mark McKinnon, took a nasty fall last year. Bush shouts out, "Single file!"

He tries to work out six days a week, if not on the mountain bike, then on a bike Lance Armstrong gave him that hooks to a stationary trainer. Bush takes it on long flights aboard Air Force One.

He has taken heat for his devotion to his bike. Twice, in the middle of the day, he was exercising when a crisis erupted: in 2001, a man wielding a gun was shot outside the White House, and in May, a plane strayed into restricted airspace above Washington. As the White House and Capitol were evacuated, Bush was riding his bike, as a Washington Post columnist put it, "blissfully unaware."

Bush is well aware of the perception and makes no apology.

"I think you can do your job better if you're fit. People think more clearly if you're fit."

He has lost 8 pounds since December, his body fat is 15.8 percent, his resting heart rate is a Lance-like 47 beats per minute.

No iPod on this ride

He likes to bike with an iPod Shuffle and let the beat of country music pace him. He jokes that he can be alone even when he rides with someone: "I just crank up the Shuffle."

At one time or another Saturday, most of the journalists and Secret Service agents fall in the mud or hit big holes and take a tumble, the kind of minor falls that are common in mountain biking. Bush, the subject of jokes by late-night comics because of his falls, manages to avoid trouble.

About halfway into the ride, he hops off his bike and leads the group over a footbridge and up a rocky path to a waterfall recharged by recent rains. "You are about to see a part of the world that you won't believe."

The falls are spectacular, and several riders pose for pictures with the president. The place has the feel of a secret hideaway.

USA Today writer Sal Ruibal stops at a tree and urinates. Bush tells him, "Ruibal, don't worry. The last one that peed there was a cow."

Bush says he likes to ride at the front because he can set the pace. Besides, he says, he's never been much of a follower.

He chides a reporter for wearing ordinary sneakers instead of biking shoes that clip into the pedals. "It makes a huge difference. No kidding - 15 percent," he says of the improvement in pedaling efficiency.

The hills, like all things Bush, have nicknames. The one where he fell and cut the back of his leg is Achilles Hill. Another is Morse Code, after his riding partner Paul Morse, who finally made it to the top.

Bush leads the group back and forth across a creek, tearing through the water like a kid on a Schwinn.

The end of the ride is especially muddy and difficult. Several of the journalists struggle to keep up; Bush glides down the driveway and hops off his bike.

The stats, according to his heart monitor: average rate 139, maximum 177. In two hours he burned 1,493 calories.

Sweat drips from his chin. There's blood on his hand and the back of his leg from scrapes with branches and his pedals, but nothing serious. He high-fives everybody and declares it a "fantastic way to start a Saturday."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.

[Last modified August 13, 2005, 23:04:22]


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