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Planet Ultra organizes seven of the 18 one-day double-century bike rides held throughout the state that count toward something called the California Triple Crown. Those who complete three of these rides during the year earn nothing more than bragging rights and a T-shirt or cycling jersey. But they come by the thousands - more than 2,000 paying participants for Planet Ultra's double centuries alone, Bowling said.

Paul Kopit might well be a poster boy for this phenomenon. At 64, he's a strapping 195 pounds and boasts a resting heart rate of 42 beats a minute and body fat of 10 or 11 per cent. He has more than 100 double centuries under his belt - including 12 he did in 2001 alone - and this year is going for his 15th consecutive California Triple Crown.

"If you can do 100 miles on Saturday, then turn around and do 100 miles on Sunday, chances are you can do a double," said the Los Angeles area resident, who is retired from the nutritional supplement business.

Kopit added that when he has his yearly physical, "they take my chart and they show it to a 35-year-old and say: 'This is what you should look like.' "

But he wasn't on the Solvang tour for the conditioning - "I do it because I like it." Part of that is the camaraderie cyclists enjoy out on a quiet road.

Each morning, our group set out from a motor inn in Solvang for fast-paced rides of up to 100, 130, even 160 kilometres through the vineyards, spring flowers, cattle and horse country, vast fields of broccoli, to the Pacific Ocean, and down and up the canyon roads, often cheered on by yellow-billed magpies among the blue oaks.

There were optional shorter routes for those less hardy or more inclined to indulge in other activities in the area: There are more vineyards offering wine tastings than you can shake an air pump at; there's a casino in Santa Ynez; and Santa Barbara is a scenic, 40-minute drive down the San Marcos Pass, offering whale, dolphin and people watching.

The scenery was a good excuse to stop and rest - many times - on Figueroa, a chance to take in awesome vistas on this formerly mined mountain. But even that became tedious after a time. With one water bottle empty and just a couple of mouthfuls left in the second, the situation was becoming dire. There were no homes to beg a drink from, no other riders for moral support. Spirit and body were aching.

Then, along came Jim.

An electrical contractor from Los Angeles who was passing by in his big, black Chevy SUV, I flagged him down for water. He apologized for having no fresh water to offer and continued down the road, but returned minutes later, saying he had found an unopened bottle in the back seat. It was warm, but it hit the spot.

We chatted a while, about crime in Los Angeles, about the scenery, how this was a great escape from the hurly-burly; then we shook hands and went our separate ways. Figueroa's summit, as it turned out, was just 100 metres away.

It had taken about three hours to ascend the mountain, but what followed made it all worthwhile: The descent lasted about 45 minutes. It was tricky, the road was rough in places, there were pine cones the size of footballs to avoid, and some hairpins had no guard rails to protect against steep drops. But for 45 minutes, in stark contrast to the painful ascent, it was pure exhilaration - like a leaf gently floating to the ground.

At the bottom, there was a long, smooth straightaway that went past the entrance to Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch. It was a good road for some fast spinning to flush the lactic acid from my legs that had built up on the long climb.

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