COVER STORY

Have mountain bike, will travel - far


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 2:30 p.m.

When the harried intellectual pursuit of a UF school year ends, Russ Bowers keeps moving. A cyclist since his childhood, he abandoned his bike travels for the pursuit of "getting tenure: polishing papers, writing research grants and mentoring students at UF."

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Russ Bowers competes in off-road cycling in the expert class.

Bowers, now an associate professor of chemistry at UF, rediscovered his passion on two wheels in the lush green undergrowth of North Central Florida's nationally respected bike trails, where he's sailed past deer, snakes and pigs, and also at the Razorback Mountain Bike Park, built around a limestone mine quarry in Reddick. His skills re-honed, Bowers began entering the Southeast Regional Championship series, consisting of 10 races held during the summer in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

"I rose through the ranks from beginning to expert level, and last year, I was ranked 16th in the country in my age group out of hundreds and hundreds," says Bowers, who rides a Trek Fuel full-carbon fiber mountain bike, which weighs about 24 pounds and retails at approximately $5,000. He rides it on the eight-mile commute to and from work everyday.

Bowers says his rivals on the track have become some of his best friends off it.

In 2003, Bowers' team placed first overall in the Southeast Regional Championships and in so doing won a biking trip through the rainforest along the southwest coast of Costa Rica. To reach a trail that traveled through the rainforest, the bikers went up the mountainous coast on the steep and narrow Pan Am Highway ("a horrendous road," Bowers says), stopping once to watch a motorist pull onto the shoulder in an effort to hunt down a wild iguana that had been sunning itself on the road. The lizard got away, and the bikers pushed on and up the mountain until, at the end of what Bowers calls "one of the hardest days of riding I've ever had," the bikers stayed at a little cabin on top of the mountain. They slept in outdoor hammocks. At daybreak, screeching howler monkeys in the trees above woke them. Bowers remembers seeing the whole coast from the top of the mountain that morning. They rode back down through the rainforest, past waterfalls, toucans, monkeys and mountains. They reached "the beautiful seashore, with a huge surf."

"We'd sit there and drink margaritas and daiquiris every afternoon after riding," Bowers says, underneath "beautiful, perfect sunsets."

Bowers has ridden his bike all over the world. While working in Italy, he did some recreational riding through the Dolomite Mountains. "The mountains are steep. Amazing. It's like Yosemite Valley repeated 50 times; the climbs are forever, and the downhills are the same," Bowers recalls. "You climb for two hours and you're down in 10 minutes."

This summer, Bowers is headed to Brazil and France. While he might not take his bike with him to Brazil, he definitely will take it to France, where biking is an athletic religion, especially during the summer, when the Tour de France is held. He hopes to enter a mountain bike competition while he's there.

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