Back in the ninth grade, Chris Hoven was a bicycle fanatic who delighted in dismantling the vehicles, then putting them back together.

In the afternoons, he often went on long bike rides with friends from his neighborhood. When most others were dragging, ready to eat supper or relax at home, he wanted to go out again.

Now Hoven, 19, a sophomore at the College of William and Mary, is one of the top cyclists in the country.

This summer he finished second at the Senior National Championships in Lancaster, Pa. The event was a criterium, a race usually of 50 miles broken down into one-mile laps around city blocks. He lost by inches.

In his parents' town house a few blocks from the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria, Hoven displayed the medal he won in Lancaster. "This is my claim to fame," he said proudly. "It was my first year as a senior and I was supposed to get blown away by all the older people."

Hoven learned how to race criteriums in his junior year of high school when he started competing in open races. His coach, Jim Montgomery, a national champion in the 35-and-older category, helped him improve his technique.

"He said, 'Yeah, come out with these guys, we're doing a sprint workout Saturday, and we'll see what you've got,' " said Hoven. "So I went out there and did one sprint so he could watch me. It was terrible. I did everything wrong and he said: 'You wasted so much energy, you wouldn't believe it.' "

Said Montgomery: "He's got a fair amount of natural ability, but he's come a long, long way. He's normally a very fit rider and willing to make the breaks work for him."

While Hoven was attending high school at St. Albans, he finished second in the Virginia State Championships and was invited to the junior nationals in San Diego. He crashed halfway through the race, but a high placement earned him an invitation to the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs his senior year. He also trained there a few weeks during the summer.

Six were chosen from the group in Colorado to go to the Junior World Championships in France. Hoven figured the first four places were pretty much locked up, but he thought his chances were good for one of the other two.

But at the Tour of Somerville (N.J.) race three weeks before the trials, he injured his shoulder and leg. He had a difficult time recovering.

"They had a stage race out there Colorado . For the first couple of days my knee just wouldn't work," he said. "The first 50 miles I would be hanging in there, and then it would get so sore and I was out of shape. I ended up 16th, and my knee was just screaming at me. So I came home and took the rest of the summer off, sat around the pool and got my knee rested up."

As a senior cyclist, Hoven estimated that his earnings are close to $1,200, plus equipment prizes. Eventually, he would like to get full sponsorship to cover his bikes, clothes, equipment and traveling expenses.

"It's a real expensive sport to stay in because there are traveling expenses and equipment, and training takes a lot of time," he said. "It's not a real money sport. There's just enough to keep you traveling. You're not going to make big money unless you go to Europe."

Although Hoven isn't sure if he will turn professional, he does have one definite goal: the 1988 Olympics.

" Traveling is not what I want to do eventually," he said. "I would just like to stick with it until the Olympics come around. And then if I make the team, it will be a decision whether to drop it and get on with the business world. Or, if I don't make it and go for another four years. At this point I don't think I want to turn pro."

Montgomery, who admits he can be a pessimist at times, thinks Hoven could be better if he would dedicate himself more.

"He still doesn't take the sport seriously," Montgomery said. "He could make himself a better rider. He's normally a pretty laid-back fellow. He's not one of those guys who gets real hyperactive, but gets intense when he wants to do well. It's got to come from inside. He's at the age where he will have to make a decision."