Tuesday, March 3, 2009

2009 Northwest Racing Preview

Below is the Extended-Play version of my northwest race preview on VeloNews.com

With a grassroots movement that continues to flourish, a handful of pro races to show off and national championships in two separate disciplines being fought out on its turf, the Pacific Northwest looks to be a hotbed of cycling again in 2009.

The local peleton shifted into high gear March 1 when the nearly 30-year-old Banana Belt Series hit the roads around Henry Hagg Lake about a half hour west of Portland. Banana Belt promoter Jeff Mitchem said he expects anywhere from 350-500 participants for each of the three series races, depending on the weather. The first race of the series lived up to expectations, bringing in nearly 500 riders despite being what Mitchem described as the “grimiest Banana Belt on record.” The cooler temps and constant drizzle didn’t tamp down enthusiasm among local racers to lift the pace.

“(Sublime Sublimity) was a small bunch and everyone was pretty relaxed, even glad to see each other,” Portland racer Ian Leitheiser (Cyclepath) said of a February road race near the small town of Sublimity. “Banana Belt time is different, though. Bigger field, less attrition and 50 guys thinking they can win the bunch charge to the line. Less warm and fuzzy.”

Although economic belt-tightening at the corporate level has taken its toll on top-tier events, racing at the grassroots level continues to thrive, as was recently noted in a story on VeloNews.com by associate editor Patrick O’Grady. The Oregon Bicycle Racing Association membership is up more than 15 percent over this time last year, according to OBRA Executive Director Kenji Sugahara. That’s up from the 12.4 percent increase from 2007 to 2008, which saw OBRA issue 3,900 season licenses and 3,898 one-day licenses. David Visintainer, President of the Washington State Bicycle Association, said his state has registered nearly 200 more riders than at this point last year.

Increasing membership also seems to have driven up impatience to roll out the new season, and promoters in Oregon are happy to oblige. The Cherry Pie Road Race near Corvallis kicked off the Oregon season Feb. 15 and lured a record-breaking 532 riders in more than 12 age- and skill-graded categories onto the roads. The Sublime Sublimity Road Race followed the next weekend on Saturday, Feb. 21. The purists got a chance to show off their winter legs at the Jack Frost Time Trial the very next day on a 12.4-mile out-and-back course between Vancouver Lake and the Columbia River; while the knobby-tired crowd hit the singletrack at the inaugural Echo Red to Red mountain bike race in the northeastern corner of the state.

Washington kicked off its road season with the Frost Bite Time Trial Feb. 22. The Mountain bike season starts March 1 at Soaring Eagle Park.

The Echo Red to Red is just one of several news races on the calendar this year, and it marks the beginning of the Oregon Mountain Bike Series, a points competition involving 13 races from now until July 4. Back on the road, the Oregon Cup, a points-scored series of seven road events for Senior 1/2 men and Senior 1/2/3 women, begins with the Banana Belt #3 March 15 and wraps up July 12 at the High Desert Omnium Road Race. The series awards leaders’ and champions’ jerseys, with final prizes handed out at OBRA’s year-end banquet.

With their focus on the grassroots, both Washington and Oregon offer season-long series competitions for beginning and intermediate women. In Washington, the Garmin Women’s Cat 3 and Cat 4 competitions include 10 races that begin in March and end in August. The lucky winners of OBRA’s 2009 Veloforma Norman Babcock Cat 4 Women’s Series presented by Garmin will receive prizes including a Garmin Edge 705 GPS-enabled bike computer. Sara McCarthy, last year’s cat 4 series winner, won a sparkling new Veloforma frameset and fork.

Both state’s will also feature their annual best-rider competitions, including categories for best senior men and senior women overall. Oregon’s Ironman competition “is a 'just for fun' record of the number of events riders do,” according to the OBRA website. “There is no prize, just identification of riders who need to get a life.”

The Ironman contenders will have a few more chances to pad their resumes this year, as Oregon’s 2009 schedule also includes a few new road races. Chad Sperry, promoter of the popular Mt. Hood Cycling Classic and the Cascade Classic, is presenting the Cherry Blossom Cycling Classic April 3-5 in The Dalles, located in the Columbia River Gorge about 1 ½ hours from Portland. This three-day, four-stage race, advertised as being on the “dry” side of Oregon, will feature some of the same roads as the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic – with a twist.

“We call it the anti-Mt. Hood Cycling Classic,” said Sperry, who’s been getting “slammed” with registrations for the stage race. “We boast temperate weather and courses that anyone from the fledgling Cat 4 racer to the seasoned veteran can do and enjoy. It’s also great early season prep for those brutal races later in the season like Mt. Hood, the Elkhorn Classic and Cascade Classic."

After the Cherry Blossom premieres, stage racing continues in Oregon with the Willamette Stage Race April 23-26 in Eugene. Although plans for May’s Oregon Pro Cycling Classic, an invitation-only pro race with NRC and UCI points, had to be postponed until 2010 after a title sponsor could not be found this year, the traditional Mt. Hood Cycling Classic will be back June 3-7, although it won't enjoy the National Race Calendar and UCI status that attracted so many pros last year. Other highlights: The Elkhorn Classic Stage Race, a three-day four-stage race in Baker City, Oregon, will run June 19-21. The race will feature equal prize money for the men’s and women’s fields, and the host town of Baker City is offering free host housing to any all-women teams. The downtown Portland Twilight Criterium will be back July 7. And, of course, the Cascade Classic, the granddaddy of Oregon stage races, will be back on tap July 22-25 with a full pro field expected.

Oregon’s road season peaks days later when Bend hosts the USA Cycling Junior, U23 & Elite Road National Championships July 28 - Aug 2.

In fact, USA Cycling will be handing out a lot of stars and stripes jerseys in the northwest this year. Bend will also host the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships Dec. 10-13, little more than three weeks after the finish of the eight-race Cross Crusade -- the nation’s most popular local cyclocross series that attracts more than 1,000 riders per race -- and just one week after the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross makes its annual weekend stop for the Portland Cup Dec. 5-6.

Washington also has its usual full schedule of racing on tap. The WSBA’s Visintainer highlighted the Frozen Flatlands in Spokane April 4-5, the Walla Walla Stage Race April 17-19, The Mutual of Enumclaw Omnium May 30-31 and the Kirkland Criterium Aug. 9.

The Washington road race state championship will be decided at the Glenwood Road Race May 2, part of a two-race weekend in the Nature Valley Qualifying Series. The Longbranch Road Race will follow the next day.

Redmond’s Star Crossed cyclocross race in the fall has become the traditional season opener for the national ‘cross scene. The course sends the country’s top pros in and around the Marymoore Velodrome under the lights.

“It’s a unique race because you have the lights, it’s at night and there’s a beer garden,” Visintainer said. “It’s more of an event as opposed to your typical ‘cross race. But under the night lights we get some pretty good crowds up there.”

And lest we forget our brakeless brethren, Oregon’s Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge will be back July 17-19. Racing at the steeply banked pint-sized outdoor bowl will begin May 1 and run through September, including the Eric Kautzky Memorial Track Race May 9 and the Alpenrose Six Day June 22-27. Washington’s Marymoore Velodrome will host the Grand Prix Northwest Velodrome Championship July 31-Aug. 2. (Those dates may change because of a potential conflict that weekend with the road championships in Bend).

In team news, several Oregon clubs have taken their games to higher levels. Veloforma/Zym professional women’s team is looking to branch out from the Pacific Northwest and has its sights set on the 2009 NRC races.

“We plan to be at bigger races this year in preparations for our future,” said team owner Mark Duff. “This has been our goal from the beginning. In 2010 our goal is to add a European sponsor in order to help us set our sights on becoming a UCI team and having Europe on our racing schedule.”

On the men’s side, the Portland-based Land Rover/Orbea Cycling Team was recently given UCI status and plans to hit a full schedule of NRC and Pro Tour races in the United States and Canada. In the juniors, the Hammer/CMG Racing Team features four members of the U.S. Junior National Team on its six-rider roster.

The Pacific Northwest cycling scene continues to thrive, bringing in new racers every year at the grassroots level and producing a steady crop of riders prepared to succeed on the national and international stage. And it’s no wonder. When you mix in the many weekly series events on the track, road and mountain bike, there are almost too many racing days in the Pacific Northwest to count -- although with the enthusiastic organization and support that propels the cycling community here, you can bet somebody somewhere has that data on his or her spreadsheet.