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Group turns to cycling to stay in shape during pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in mid-March, it hit Chris Clayton like a slap in the face.

The former East High basketball star, who helped lead the Blades to the 1994 CIF State championship, was at a bit of a loss. The 44-year-old had remained active, continuing to spend several hours a week at the gym playing hoops and working out.

But with gyms and basketball courts shut down all across Kern County, Clayton was struggling to find a new way to stay in shape.

The answer came in the form of a mountain bike he purchased 10 years prior, but was now collecting dust in his garage.

As it turns out, Clayton’s solution has turned into a passion. And he’s not alone.

Now nearly six months later, Clayton’s bike rides — now with a borrowed road bike — have attracted a following, featuring several like-minded friends and casual acquaintances, who have started riding together on the weekends.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Clayton said. “Being out there you see the same people every week, and it’s like a family because there’s so many people that ride bikes. It’s amazing.”

But make no mistake about it, these are not your average rides in the park. These guys are serious, or at least as much as they can be considering many just started riding regularly the past few months.

Mountain bikes and 10-speeds have been replaced by road bikes, often with expensive lock-in pedals and shoes. T-shirts and basketball shorts have given way to bike shorts, sometimes hidden, but there to provide extra comfort for the more than 50 miles the group grinds out each weekend along a bike path that starts at The Park at River Park to the base of the bluffs near China Grade Loop.

But it's a slow progression, with each rider buying in at their speed.

"At first, I told myself that I’m never wearing a helmet,” said Andre Rowell, a 1993 East High graduate who considers Clayton as much a brother as a friend. “I never wore a helmet when I was a kid. I’m not wearing a helmet. I’m not wearing those biker shorts … so, ya, I’m a guy that converted. I have a helmet now, and I do wear it. I wear the shorts, I wear basketball shorts on top of them, but I do wear the biker shorts with pads.”

And then there’s the added technology. All have some sort of an app on their phone or bike that calculates their speed, distance and even how many calories they’ve burned along the route. The group shares their daily accomplishments with each other with group texts and social media, something that has garnered interest from out-of-town riders.

“I figured it might be me and Chris and maybe one or two other guys, if that, and that would probably be it,” said Damarius Akins, 40, one of the first to join Clayton on the bike trail. “But I never saw it growing into what it has now … Just kind of opening up and seeing the biking community, meeting people on the trail that we’ve never seen before, all of a sudden they’re Instagram friends and they know who you are and having photos taken with us on the trail. It’s been fun.”

Just as on the basketball court, where many of the riding group first met each other, it’s become somewhat of a competition, but not necessarily with each other.

“We’re all competitive, don’t get me wrong, but the cool thing is, we really encourage each other,” said Anthony Massey, a 1992 Bakersfield High graduate, who never owned a bike until joining the riding group about six weeks ago. “We tell each other, ‘you can make it or ‘we just have another mile to go.’ Or when we post on Instagram how many miles we went, everybody’s giving each other a thumbs up and kudos and man, we did it again. It’s never like, ‘oh man, we have to wait for you,’ or ‘man what took you so long?’ We’re just out there having a good time.”

The group started out small, with Clayton and Akins hitting the bike trail. Others soon followed, with regulars now including Rowell, Massey, Shawndel “Zig” Ziegler, Kris “SPILLA” Phillips, Albert Diaz-Conti and the newest member, Brandon Shelton.

Others show up occasionally, as Chante Stuart did on Saturday, but the core group has been set for several weeks. All are between 40 and 50 years old, joining forces to not only get in shape, but partake of an opportunity for social interaction, something that has been missing with the closures of so many businesses during the pandemic.

“The social aspect is really good because with COVID going on we weren’t able to get to the gym to play basketball and we weren’t able to go and sit down and watch a basketball game,” Shelton said. "And then even after sports started back, it wasn’t like we can go to any of the local restaurants or bars to watch games together, so we’re like come on, we have to have some sort of camaraderie or something going on and it’s been great.”

Akins, who played basketball at Cal State Bakersfield from 2000-2003, agrees.

“Being an ex-athlete, you always look for that camaraderie, an opportunity to get together with the guys, and talk about life things,” said Akins, a CHP officer who raced in two triathlons before being slowed by several knee surgeries. “It’s not always about the bikes. We have our little breaks in between, just that male camaraderie and having a moment just to get together with the guys, and everybody has the same notion of staying physically fit, as we get older, and just enjoying that guy time.”

In addition to the friendships, Albert Diaz-Conti and the others have seen positive results physically.

“Your legs get a lot stronger, your stamina is a little bit better, your pants fit a little better, plus you’re outside,” said Diaz-Conti, 44, who has been a Spanish teacher at Centennial the past 18 years. “I’m not sure how good the air is, but it’s in the morning, so it’s cooler, and on top of that, you feel a lot better, your endorphins kind of going. Your blood pressure is up, your heart rate goes up. It feels good. Especially when you’re done, That was great. That was a great workout.”

No matter what the benefit, it appears riding bikes is here to stay for this group, even when the gyms and basketball courts eventually reopen. In addition to the hundreds of dollars the group has spent individually to get prepared, each has invested hours of time learning about the sport by watching YouTube videos, cycling races on TV and reading anything about cycling they can get their hands on.

“I’ve gone deep into it,” Massey said. “And it’s only been maybe a little over a month. I find myself watching how the (pro riders) pedal, how you stay close to the person in front of you, using the wind drag … It’s crazy. I had no idea.

“Every Saturday, I don’t even need an alarm. I make up about 6:30 and I’m already prepping. Like I’m getting my water bottle and a vitamin B-12 bottle so I can keep my energy and stay hydrated. I literally clear a day or a half a day to ride my bike. I’m pushing everything back until noon or one o’clock, just to go ride my bike. This is something that I never would have thought in a million years that I’d be doing.”

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,009

  • Deaths: 1,814

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,579 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.61