She saw "Breaking Away" three times. But what really got 11-year-old Melinda James pumped up for bicycle racing was some sibling rivalry with her 15-year-old brother David. "He was a midget and he'd always come home with all these awards," said the freckled faced James. "I just couldn't stand it so I started doing it too."

James was the smallest of 125 bike freaks who spent last Sunday afternoon racing one another around a loop of asphalt and scraped skin at Greenbelt Park in Maryland.

The cyclists were as varied as their bikes. Students, race car mechanics, navy officers, computer scientists and shop clerks, they all shared a passion for a sport that has grown in the last few years from a private party for an elite group of ascetics into something of a national fad.

"Both bike sales and bike racing have mushroomed way out of proportion in the last couple of years," said Larry Black, promoter of the races and president of the National Capital Velo Club, one of the largest racing clubs in the area.

Of course the movie, "Breaking Away," has had a lot to do with the sport's new popularity. The spiraling gas prices and a national obsession for exercise have contributed to bring out both participants and something new for this sport, spectators. Nationally ranked cyclists who used to compete in total obscurity are now being shocked by autograph seekers. More crucial to their nomadic lifestyles, they are also being courted by commercial sponsors.

Cycling is suddenly more than just sweat-soaked jerseys and muscled thighs.

The cyclers competing Sunday were not of national caliber for the most part. The best from this area are still in Florida finishing their winter training in a more comfortable climate. But some who remained here, pedaling stationary bikes in basements all winter, have their own visions of greatness.

"Hopefully I'll make the nationals this year," said 16-year-old Scott Rodenhuis, a junior at Saint Anselm's in northeast Washington, who like many other racers rides 40 to 50 miles a day to train. Along with the obvious pedal-pushing training, most cyclists like Rodenhuis are engaged in a weight-lifting program or in other rigorous regimes including cross-country skiing.

The mood on the opening day of bicycle racing seemed more appropriate for a family picnic than serious training for potential national qualifiers.

With the trees still bare, the bikers, in black tights and a rainbow of colored jerseys presented a visual kaleidoscope. Spring, it seemed, had sprung from a paint factory.

But behind the color was a risk factor.

"I think I have road shock," said 27-year-old Reeves Taylor, who lay in a bank of dried leaves with two other bleeding bikers who were involved in a five-bike wreck. "That's what happens when you hit the road at 30 at 40 miles per hour." The five were part of a pack of advanced cyclists in a 19-mile race. Riding so close to each other that you could hear what sounded like suction from the sidelines, when one crashed the others could not avoid the crunch of bodies and mangled bikes.

Even without any scraped skin each of the riders in the advanced group seemed to be enduring their own personal pain. "There's a lot of suffering in this sport," said Jim Montgomery, a computer programmer from Reston and a two-time national champion in the veteran's division. Montgomery won the advanced race after another racer was disqualified for gearing his $1,200 ten-speed too high for the rules of the race.

Two messengers who travel by bike in their trade placed first and second in another race, despite the disadvantage of competing outside their natural environment of cars and carbon monoxide. "If there was a lot of traffic, I think we could really have wasted them," said 27-year-old John Mills, who finished first ahead of his friend Jerome Kuhn. Both admitted to some advantage, however, over their competitors as a result of their profession.

"The days it was too cold for these other guys to ride, I didn't miss a day," said Kuhn.

While the winners accepted congratulations, the losers sat on the side massaging their sore muscles, planning their attack for next week. among them was Melinda James, who finished fifth in a field of five, in a race for those 13 and under.

"I've got to get back in shape," said the 70-pound bicycle racer.