Mountain Bikers Will Scale Olympic Heights; Big Hits

MOUNTAIN bikes are the hottest-selling commodity on the cycling market. They represented 82 percent of all bicycle sales in the United States in 1993. This is before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where mountain biking will be rolled out as a new Olympic event. Sales could skyrocket. If they do, expect the sale of helmets to soar too, since off-road cycling raises safety questions.

Nine states now have mandatory bicycle-helmet laws, with California's the most age-inclusive. It applies to cyclists under 18. Pennsylvania's helmet law, by comparison, only covers those under age six.

Helmet designs are getting more sophisticated. This spring Bell Sports Inc., a leader in helmet technology, introduced the Bellistic, a full-face helmet with inflatable cheek and neck pads. Suggested retail price: $280. Helmets that meet national safety standards start at about $30.

Whatever helmet is purchased, storing it in a car trunk is not recommended. The heat saps a helmet's protective qualities.

Golf's tale of the tape

WHEN it comes to muscling a golf ball, the top women professionals are not that far behind their male counterparts. In the latest tour statistics, John Daly was the overall leader with a driving average of 283.9 yards. Britain's Laura Davies, the women's longest hitter, averages just 16 yards less (267.9). She leads a flock of Ladies Professional Golf Association members who regularly hit it 250 yards or more.

A footnote: Tiger Woods is poised to outdistance them all -- male or female -- when he eventually turns professional. The Stanford University freshman left the galleries in awe at the Masters tournament earlier this month, where he averaged 311.1 yards off the tee, 14 more than Long John Daly.

Woman's 'baseballiana' is great catch for college

JUST because the Baseball Hall of Fame is a natural repository for the game's artifacts doesn't mean that all the choice memorabilia winds up in there. In fact, a large collection of rare baseball books originally intended for the Cooperstown, N.Y., hall is now in the possession of the University of Dayton, Ohio. Miriam Jacobs, a longtime friend of the university, decided before her passing last year to bequeath a large number of 19th- and early 20th-century baseball guides, rule books, and biographies to the college, which houses them in its Roesch Library.

Miss Jacobs's brother, Victor, a retired Dayton attorney, now jokes about how his sister pursued her hobby while working as his secretary. ''She had the signatures of more than 10,000 big-league baseball players,'' he says. ''She'd write to them, 150 a year ... on my time. Eventually she found a fellow in Iowa who had autographs for sale that she could acquire less expensively than by writing individual letters and including return postage.''

Touching other bases

* Pop quiz: What Olympic team sport, first played in a Holyoke, Mass., YMCA, is celebrating its centennial year? (Answer at end.)

* Questions hang thick over the National Basketball Association's postseason, which begins Thursday, April 27. Can Michael Jordan's return to basketball bring the Chicago Bulls their fourth championship in five years? Can the Houston Rockets find last year's form in time to defend their title? Will Charles Barkley finally take the Phoenix Suns to the promised land, the New York Knicks settle their internal differences, or Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal begin to secure his place as a championship player?

* Unlike some athletes who seem ready to tout any product that comes their way, speed skater Bonnie Blair has cut an endorsement deal that makes sense. Blair, who retired last month, has signed on with York International, a York, Pa., company that has refrigerated many of the tracks Blair skated on, including those at the 1992 and '94 Winter Olympics, where she collected four gold medals.

* Members of the the Colorado Silver Bullets all-female baseball team are training in Florida in preparation for their second barnstorming season, which begins May 6 in Memphis, Tenn. Former major-league pitcher Phil Niekro has returned as manager. Some of the novelty factor that helped attract fans last year will be gone this time, but Niekro expects to field a better squad than the one that was 6-44 against male teams last year. During the past year he has looked at about 1,000 players in tryouts and now is making the final cuts at the Boston Red Sox minor league training facility in Fort Myers, Fla..

* Skyscraping National Basketball Association players are rarely seen in airports these days. The big guys sidestep gawking hordes by traveling on luxurious charter planes, some of which resemble ''flying living rooms,'' according to Basketball Digest's Barry Wilner. The Detroit Pistons got the ball rolling, Wilner reports, when they bought a BAC 1-11 airplane in 1987 and converted it from 78 passengers to 24. The Pistons then won two NBA titles traveling in ''Roundball One,'' revolutionizing travel around the league.

* Quiz answer: Volleyball. Some may have guessed basketball, a sport invented in Springfield, Mass., in 1891.

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