This past summer, my husband and I attended a friend's 50th birthday party on the Central Coast, the highlights of which were two supported rides, one 41 miles, then 58 the following day. If you were a serious cyclist, it was nirvana. If you were not, it still was lovely to be included.

As we considered the ride, we could see the allure of touring the back roads of San Simeon's scenic countryside. The possibility of wheeling along with the Pacific in view almost helped us past the hair-raising thought of navigating traffic along Highway 1. But the prospect of all it would take to participate -- the bikes that cost more than my first car, the funny shoes you hobble around on when not riding, the training we'd need to keep up, the spandex wardrobe -- were too much to face. In fact, we didn't even have operating bikes. Instead, we happily entertained ourselves with an ambitious meander around Hearst Castle.

It was a great party, a wonderful group of friends old and new. Still, while some of my best friends are serious cyclists, I cannot for the life of me imagine what possesses anyone to embark on something called "the Death Ride." And as much as I enjoy their company, I'm not a fan of the omnipresent racing culture. Even though I respect anyone with that much hustle, my bias is based on what that culture can feel like to the rest of us.

For example, our house in Walnut Creek is off Castle Hill Road, a major cycling thoroughfare that on weekend mornings swarms with packs of riders, sometimes three abreast, oblivious to the residents just trying to get to Trader Joe's or running late for a soccer game. Once I gave up getting coffee because I couldn't navigate the carbon jungle that had formed in front of Peet's.


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I know I'm not alone.

Last weekend at Lunardi's, the shopper in front of me informed the checker that one of the stalls in the women's room was plastered with wet paper towels. "Cyclists," the checker responded, clearly frustrated as he explained that every weekend it's the same: riders taking spit baths (presumably after a sweaty ride) to clean up before breakfast (probably at Peet's).

I'm sure cyclists reading this are saying "I never do that!" And I know that for 99 percent of them, that's absolutely true.

That's because, as I said, some of my favorite people are cyclists. But I hardly recognize them behind their sinister-looking shades. Which is why I'm so intrigued by the book "Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike," by Grant Petersen.

A former racer and designer for Bridgestone in Japan, Petersen now designs Rivendell bikes, which aren't necessarily low-cost but are aesthetically stunning and versatile. Though he happens to be based in Walnut Creek, he has developed a devoted following of people across the country who love riding bikes but don't like that the racing culture has, in Petersen's words, "sucked the fun out of it."

With cover blurbs from everyone from novelist Dave Eggers to Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, it lays out such provocative ideas and chapter titles as, "Racing ruins the breed," "You have way too many gears," and "Fenders, not muddy stripes up your butt."

And it's served its intended purpose: It's gotten at least two readers back in the saddle.

Last month, my husband found a used bike for $100 on Craigslist, using guidelines supplied by a Rivendell employee, and I unearthed from the garage the barely used 10-speed he'd given me for a birthday so long ago I can't even remember. Since then, we've gotten tires pumped, tune-ups, a seat replacement and, yes, pointy helmets.

The last time I spent much time on a bike was in college in Tucson, Ariz., and I still have vague, unhappy memories of navigating unfriendly city streets, juggling bags and backpacks of groceries across asphalt that practically melted my tires. So what a revelation to feel the exhilaration of peddling along the Iron Horse Trail on a beautiful spring day.

The other surprise was how many other people I noticed who are also nonracers, on 3-speeds and 10-speeds, in jeans and street shoes, like me.

Now, instead of dreading the parking issue in downtown Walnut Creek, I happily anticipate the chance to hop on my bike to do my errands. In fact, it's the best way to get to Rivendell Bikes, Books and Hatchets (why hatchets? I have no idea), Petersen's store on Main Street.

As I pedal along, I smile at fellow cyclists, even racers, including the kids on their way to school and the restaurant workers for whom bikes are not toys but necessary transportation.

So, yes, I finally get it. As for the racing culture, I've come to accept that it just comes down to different definitions of fun.

Because while I'll never say never, I still can't imagine my definition ever including the Death Ride. But next time we're down on the Central Coast, we're bringing our wheels.

Contact Lisa Wrenn at lwrenn@bayareanewsgroup.com.