Discovering Great Sports and Great Places to Do Them

YOU'RE bored with your sedentary lifestyle and have decided to take up bicycling. Interested in getting a simple bike that can ease you out of your languor, you talk to your cyclist friends. But the conversation - like the bike magazines you've consulted - revolves around gear ratios, new tube alloys, and upcoming races. Where do you turn?

A new group of sports books may be the answer.

Fodor's/Sports, in a leap from the publisher's traditional tourist tomes, has come out with books introducing sports: Running, by John Schubert (216 pp.), Hiking, by Cindy Ross (184 pp.), Cycling, by Arlene Plevin (184 pp.), and Sailing, by Michael B. McPhee (212 pp.).

Published by Richard Ballantine/Byron Press Books, a Fodor's subsidiary, under the subtitle "A Celebration of the Sport and the World's Best Places to Enjoy It," each book is illustrated and costs $12. In the works are other books on climbing, cross-country and downhill skiing, and scuba diving.

Like the sports they describe, each of the first four books moves along at a different pace determined by the style of the writer. The bicycling book is lyrical, the running book technical, the hiking book philosophical, and the sailing book straightforward and informative.

But whatever the style, each book manages to convey a sense of the "celebration" of the sport and the details needed to get involved, from chartering a yacht to hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The cycling book is written by a poet who bicycles - or a bicyclist who writes poetry. Either way, the connection is obvious, with the lyrical opening passages describing two-wheeled escapes to the countryside to entice the aspiring cyclist.

At times, cycling even reaches a meditative zenith, according to Plevin: "While cycling, I am part energy, part road. I am part of the dirt paths and I am in the meadows I slip by, the red poppies and bright daisies."

The novice may find the running and hiking books less soothing and more daunting. Each of these two books begins with a discourse on the author's particular experiences with his sports, but the authors seem more intent on major accomplishments, like hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail or running a 2:30 marathon, than with waxing poetic.

The running book - which is liberally sprinkled with drawings of legs and feet - is quite technical in its descriptions of Schubert's journey from high school 100-yard dashes to marathons. A pinnacle of obfuscation comes, perhaps, in a section on avoiding running injuries. Speaking of muscle fibers, he writes: "Their contractile efficiency is diminished by the accumulated metabolic slag heap." Good to know, perhaps, but what beginner would be enticed by the promise of "metabolic slag heap" in the legs?

Schubert does acknowledge, however, that not every aspiring runner will have high ambitions. What the book is really about is "being at peace with a great sport." In fact, he says, running can be "almost hedonistic."

While that might not convince dedicated couch potatoes to go do wind sprints, the book does provide plenty of information for anyone willing to give running a try. There are suggested running schedules, lists of additional books, and even one section entitled "The True Oppressors of Women." (They're "the cretins who make high-heeled shoes fashionable," if you're curious.)

The hiking book offers a short confrontation with consumption and accumulation. "Hiking has made me want to consume less and be less wasteful," writes Ross. "When I live with so few material things on the trail, I realize that I actually need very little to survive. Not only are many material goods unnecessary to be happy but they can indeed rob us of that happiness we're hoping they'll provide."

Even in the face of such a Thoreauvian plea for simplicity, Fodor's can't resist making a pitch for the consumption known as travel. Each book includes a list of 25 of the best places in the world for the particular sport. (Actually "Cycling" has only 23 best places. Maybe the author got a flat.)

And don't sing to McPhee, the author of the sailing book, a paean to simplicity. The brief explanation of equipment runs to 10 pages and includes thousands of dollars for communication and navigation equipment. Even short cruises can cost $1,000. And while regular folks can presumably find a vessel for less than the $45 million spent on one recent America's Cup sloop, this is not a sport for the penny-pinching.

But Fodor's, which in the past has seemed most at home catering to the crowd looking for the best bargains in Singapore, is to be commended for dipping a toe in the waters of sport - even if this move was necessitated by a baby-boomer shift to more active vacations. These highly individualistic books will be a refreshing aid to those seeking a new sporting experience. And you might even learn enough new vocabulary to talk bicycles with your velomaniacal friends.

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