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Photo credit: Jeff Vander Stucken/contributedBryan Berry of Boulder Creek is fine-tuning his racing skills in a local series in preparation for his cross country mountain bike race coming up at the Sea Otter Classic, held April 20-23 near Monterey.

By Karen Kefauver, Spin City

Mike Urbina/contributedSanta Cruz’s Bryan Berry takes third place at a CCCX race in Toro Park in Monterey in December. He’ll tackle the men’s age 45-50 cross country mountain bike race in the Cat. 1 level at Sea Otter Classic, scheduled for April 20-23 at Laguna Seca Recreational Area in Monterey.

If I rode my bike as often as I took naps, I’d be in great shape. In fact, I’d probably be headed to the Olympics. But when I hit the sack instead of the trails, it’s harder for me to get back in the saddle. Of course, when I’m flying downhill on my fat tires, it’s so much fun that I want to ride all the time. But consistency has never been my strong point.

That’s why I admire cyclists like Bryan Berry of Boulder Creek. He somehow manages to squeeze in regular, high-powered workouts in addition to juggling family and work commitments. The busy dad and husband works full-time at Safeway and part-time as a certified fitness trainer.

“Mountain biking is my passion,” said Berry, 47, who grew up in the hills of Bonny Doon riding his BMX bike with his buddies. “I didn’t start racing until I was 32. I wanted to better myself and be more competitive. I do it for the love and fun of it, but family comes first.”

In two weeks, the Santa Cruz high graduate will find out if his workouts have been effective when he tackles the hilly, 22-mile cross country race at Sea Otter Classic in Monterey. One of the world’s biggest cycling events, the four-day festival, scheduled for April 20-23. features recreational bike rides as well as almost every form of bike racing — even electric mountain bike racing was introduced last year. Veteran cyclists and newbies, amateurs and cycling superstars alike participate in mountain bike events including cross country, downhill, dual slalom and short track racing. Road cyclists compete in circuit, criterium and street racing. An estimated 10,000 athletes and 71,000 visitors are expected to make the annual migration into the Laguna Seca Recreation Area for what’s considered North America’s official kickoff of the cycling season.

Berry’s cross country mountain bike course loops through green hills studded with flowers and draws more racers than any other event throughout the weekend. The hundreds of men and women start the race in waves according to age group and skill level. As a result of years of disciplined training, Berry steadily worked his way up to Cat 1, which means he races at the highest level of cycling for people who don’t turn pro. Forty or 50 racers will toe the starting line with him in the early morning sunlight on race day. He will have gotten up at 5 a.m., driven an hour, had coffee and warmed up on the course.

“The first two to three minutes are hell. I still have that nervous feeling at the start,” Berry admitted. “There are too many riders clustered together. The first five minutes are critical to the race. When you first hit the dirt, it’s super chaos. Then everything clams down and settles down and you can go to work.”

Since his first bike race bike race 15 years ago, Berry has charged full force into the sport. His secret to staying in top shape is to train at super-high intensity for 10 hours a week, mostly on an indoor bike at home for more efficiency and to be closer to his 13-year-old daughter and wife.

While he trains hard and savors standing on the podium, being part of the biking community is also rewarding.

“I’ve made more friends, a ton of friends, people I can relate to through cycling,” he said.

At Sea Otter Classic, where he’s raced for 12 years, Berry has raced against riders from all over Europe, Great Britain, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.

“The cultures may be different in these countries, but when we ride, it’s pretty much all the same,” he observed.

A highlight of last year’s event for Berry was spotting Swiss cycling celebrity Nino Schurter, the 2016 Olympic mountain bike race champion. Another year, Berry briefly rode next to American cyclist Tinker Juarez, a former professional BMX and cross-country mountain bike racer.

“It’s so inspiring to be with the best riders in the world. These are amazing athletes,” he said.

When Berry reflects on life’s big picture, he’s clear about his priorities: Family comes first. That means fitting his workout schedule around driving his teenager to dance class and spending time with his wife, who is a not a cyclist but often attends races to cheer him on.

“I compete to better myself. Racing keeps me motivated. I need to be driven to stay fit. I like seeing my progress climbing a hill. It’s a great thing. Once you climb and get over the top, your heart rate calms down a little bit and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.

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