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Their life cycles

Since 1992, Crack O' Dawn Riders have mustered in Newton, waited for 5:45 to arrive, and started their days, as doctors or lawyers or businessmen, by pedaling 20 miles -- or so.

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By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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NEWTON - “It’s 5:46!’’ someone calls out.

Omigod. They’re a minute late leaving the parking lot. Clad in their club colors, the cyclists clip in and head out, a blur of jerseys, spandex, and testosterone.

It’s dawn one morning last week, specifically, the crack of dawn, which is what the bikers call their group. But the Crack O’ Dawn Riders aren’t just out for a Sunday ride; their Sunday rides are longer and involve more hill work. This is their Tuesday ride, so the route is a mere 20 miles, from Newton through Needham to Dover and back, mostly along curvy suburban roads with lovely views of the Charles River as it meanders its way through the western suburbs.

But there is no time for drinking in the landscape. It is, after all, a workday. The fastest of the 40 riders will return to the Jewish Community Center lot before 6:45, averaging 22 miles per hour. Some of them ride “fixers,’’ or fixed-gear bikes, much tougher on the legs and lungs, but it’s all about getting a better workout. They are a community as much as a bike group. And at a time when pop culture is full of male bonding movies - “The Hangover,’’ “Role Models,’’ “I Love You, Man,’’ - Crack O’ Dawn is real-life bonding, with high speeds and low humor, a rare guy fellowship that isn’t related to work or to family. Their bond is their bikes - and their loathing of motorists who think they own the road.

They hold parties. Some have ridden together in Israel and Italy. Next month, they’re doing a three-day ride through New England. They ride to the Berkshires, to Wachusett Mountain, up the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. They hop on their bikes and ride to Provincetown. They raise tons of money on charity rides. They e-mail each other obsessively, on everything from whether biking is bad for bone density (their consensus, it is) to bragging rights (“I beat you up Strawberry Hill on my old, beat-up fixer this morning.’’).

Like characters in a Woody Allen script, they are smart, successful, neurotic, and funny, and, like in a Woody Allen film, the only diversity you’ll find in the Crack O’ Dawn are a handful of women and WASPs.

“My stereotype is we’re a bunch of middle-aged Jewish guys from Newton with expensive bikes,’’ says Bruce Kalow (53, Jewish, of Newton, who has a Colnago titanium, a Specialized Sirrus and “a couple of other bikes.’’) Kalow, a pediatrician, joined the group 10 years ago. Initially appalled at the early start, he soon got hooked.

“We’re crazy,’’ he says. “It’s addicting.’’

So addicting that in 2007, Kalow put 13,000 miles on his bike, more than most people put on their car. Last year, he only did 11,000 because he went down hard, on ice, and broke his hand. “No matter what the weather - rain, snow, sleet, or ice - someone will show up,’’ he says. “I haven’t personally gotten frostbite. You warm up when you ride.’’

Once, Kalow was the only person to show: It was minus 10 degrees. “It’s a Crack O’ Dawn record,’’ he says proudly.

Kalow may also hold the group’s injury record, though there’s plenty of competition. Shortly after he joined, he broke his collarbone and a rib. In 2005, he was hit by a car and banged up his hip. Last year was the broken hand.

But it’s OK, because on any given ride, there are plenty of doctors pedaling along, too. And lawyers, CEOs, engineers, and computer geeks. Neil Leifer, 54, a lawyer, was on Martha’s Vineyard with the group when he crashed and suffered a broken rib, collapsed lung, and broken right arm. He got back on his bike and rode to the island hospital, where doctors took one look and helicoptered him to Boston. He was on his trainer in three weeks, on the road in eight.

The worst injury came five years ago, when a Crack O’ Dawn member was hit by a car head-on and left paralyzed from the neck down; fellow group members brought Barry Siegel meals for weeks, some arranged for his Newton house to be wheelchair-friendly and others visited him for Saturday night Havdalah services.

“If someone is in the hospital with a bike-related injury, people are there,’’ says Larry Alford, a founding member of Crack O’ Dawn, which started in 1992 as a training group for the Pan Mass Challenge. “If there is a death in someone’s family, people are there.’’ When he and his wife lost a baby at birth, members sat shiva with them, and delivered meals nightly for six weeks.

Alford, who does promotional marketing, is the guy who came up with the group’s logo: a clock, hands pointed to 5:45 with the motto: “Be There or Ride Alone.’’ He also designs their clothes. “Spandex,’’ he notes, “is the great equalizer.’’

There’s a website (www.crackodawn.com) with photos, maps, and cue sheets of routes, and blurbs on the awards ceremonies, which are really just potluck dinners with inside jokes. Awards include “the Silkiest Smoothest Shaven Legs,’’ and “Roof Racks for Dummies,’’ given to a rider who mis-assembled his bike rack, resulting in three bikes flying off his car roof onto the highway.

For its rides, Crack O’ Dawn has an “A’’ group for the insanely fast and a “B’’ group for the just plain fast. Some show up every day, others occasionally. Though more than 200 are on the e-mail list, a typical weekday ride attracts 30 or 40. Anyone is welcome, with a promise not to be dropped on the route. The only requirement is you have to hate bad drivers.

On that ride last week, a car passed the pack on a curvy hill, despite a double-yellow line. “Idiot,’’ mutters one rider.

“The drivers can be pretty bad,’’ says David Osler, a pediatrician from Cambridge who rides with the group on weekends. “People cut you off, they try to brush you, they honk their horns.’’

Osler rides a custom-built Seven. How much did he pay? “You’re not going to quote me on that; I can’t tell my wife.’’

Crack O’ Dawners are gear-heads. With apologies to Lance Armstrong, it is about the bike. Sevens, Treks, Specialized, Colnagos, Independents, Cervélos, all with the best components, not to mention the club clothes. Andrew Steinhouse paid $1,000 to have his Lynskey bike custom-painted in red and orange flames, with his helmet to match.

There are the die-hards who don’t like to talk on the ride, who couldn’t care less about the mist rising up over the Charles, the occasional fox or coyote. Then there are the chatty types who love the scenery. “These are hyper-achievers,’’ says Jon Marcus, a writer and journalism professor who both gabs and enjoys the scenery from his bike. “They’re Harvard doctors and cancer researchers. They’re the kind of people who get up at 4:30 in the morning when it’s cold and dark and raining and go riding.’’

At 29, Mark Vautour is one of the younger riders. A manager at Landry’s Bicycles in Boston, Vautour says newcomers appear, but many don’t show up again. “They say, I have to get up when to do what? But if you make it past the second time, you’re hooked,’’ says Vautour. He rides his bike five miles from his Brighton home to join them; he could find a closer riding group, but won’t.

“It’s their sense of community, how they look after each other,’’ says Vautour. “And I love their humor. Nobody’s safe from a wisecrack, but it’s all in good humor.’’

Last week, before heading on a family vacation in Vermont, Jeff Linder, an internist, sent out a group e-mail to Crack O’ Dawners: Did anyone have suggestions for a route he could bike before meeting up with his family on the highway? He was looking for a 70-to-80 mile ride. By day’s end, he had several responses, maps included.

At 65, Bruce Cohen is the group’s elder statesman. CEO of Auriga Measurement Systems and a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, he’s had both hips replaced but still rides like a cyclist half his age. He remembers once, as the group was heading out to Weston, three deer started across the road and were literally caught in the cyclists’ headlights. The animals escaped unscathed, but some bikers went down trying to avoid them.

Cohen chuckles at the memory. “You gotta believe the deer were thinking, what the hell was that?’’