Rapha Roller Races in Portland

Words: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Date:

February 9th, Portland Oregon and there’s a sold-out crowd packed inside the annex of the Lizard Lounge. It’s loud, sweaty and jungle hot as nearly 300 people witness for maybe the first time ever, the combination of competitive cycling theater and stationary bike racing. A lot like the roller racing of London 1950 and the Goldsprints of today, this crowd took part in the first Rapha Roller Race on US soil.

A roller race reformation has slowly and quietly been underway the last few years in major cities around the world. Last month inside Portland’s Crane Building, the ‘Teams of Portland’ took shape in a roller race.

Inspired by the W+K installation of the ‘Teams of Portland’, Rapha Roller Racing took the form of a team race featuring men and women across all cycling disciplines. Roadies, crossers, MTB’rs and messengers took to the stage to compete for “only 20 seconds”, with the winner getting a semi-custom Ira Ryan frame.

The night unofficially started off around 7pm with teams showing up early to familiarize themselves with the equipment, measuring up the fitness and style of their competition. Racers proudly wore their official team kit which apparently meant kit PLUS favorite hats, shiny tight shorts, underwear, bathrobes, glasses, ball gowns, codpieces, tattoos, ceremonial robes, tear-away suits and rainy day sneakers. Right from the start, the smell of fine brew and tamales helped waft the smell of nervous excitement and Lycra. It was clear that winning for some would happen in presentation alone.

“I just wanted to let everyone here know, you’re racing for second place. If you want to feel good about yourself why don’t you just go on down to REI and take a spin on the climbing wall where they always clap for you, even if you don’t make it to the top” – Chris Destefano, Super Relax, the concept not the team.

8:00pm. Doors open and the arena was full to capacity ten minutes later. Those left outside and not willing to queue gathered in front of two large windows on either side of the front door looking through the crowd the same way kids watch baseball through the fence in PGE Park’s left field.

Back inside, four bikes sit on a raised 12×12 stage surrounded by teammates, fans and onlookers – all within spitting range and they are cheering or jeering, depending on their affiliation. With SF-legend Murphy Mack manning the bikes and Oregon’s most famous MC duo in Brian Witty and Jon Walrod, the night was set to deliver a good humored and frequently off-color amalgamation of antagonism, sarcasm and hero worship. Which they deftly dealt to racers and crowd alike. Meanwhile DJ Dan Sharp was designing a tastefully frenetic mood with his proprietary selection of eclectic European electronic music. Moving between stage and crowd as advocate and provocateur the score-card girl wore a hand-made gold bikini, evening gloves and period-correct hairstyle.

8:30pm. It was time for the talking to stop and the racing to begin. Over the next three hours 48 riders will become 24, 24 becoming 12, 12 to 6, 6 to 2—then there can be only one champion. Racers adjust their seats, get into their pedals and start wooing the crowd for support as they quickly warm up. If they thought it was tough during practice before the crowds, 300 cheering fans has just made it that much more real. GO! Screaming, camera flashes and the crowd scanning between the clock and the sweaty and throbbing racers only inches away. Only twenty-seconds for some, though a lifetime for others, each round delivered the strongest. Men, women, Cat 1, Cat 5—every rider poured their all into their legs for 500m. At night’s end it came down to two racers with very different backgrounds. Dean Tracy, a National-program track racer and coach from Team Luarelwood and Chas C., a Portland messenger who qualified for the wildcard team known all night as Track Cocaine.

But the final had a surprise for the racers—they would race 1000m, not 500m. Looks of pleasurable distaste took the form of smiles from Dean and Chas as they adjusted their saddles one last time. At this point $20s were being passed all around as wagers between fans heightened the excitement of the last race of the night. As if the promise of an Ira Ryan frame wasn’t enough, Tim Fry from Kreitler yelled from the crowd that they would sweeten the pot with a set of rollers for the night’s champion. Everyone knew Dean, the track racer with a spot on the US National team, but nobody knew Chas (aka. Captain Underpants, because his “kit” was simply a pair of pink briefs.) The lore of Chas, the messenger kid who stayed the entire night before to be sure nobody beat his qualifying time had built and the crowd loved their relatively unknown could-be champion. For the longest forty-two seconds of everybody’s life we watched Dean’s blue arrow pace Chas’s green arrow the whole way around the clock to the microsecond. It stayed dead even until the final two hundred yards, when Dean pushed it for the win. It was huge, it was wonderful, it was beautiful. It was wrong. While prosseco was being sprayed into the crowd it became clear that the weights that helped hold Chas’ bike down to the roller had been thrown off sometime during the race. The night couldn’t end this way for anyone. The passion and racing had been to strong to have it end with an ounce of question—cycling knows too many shadows already.

Looking green and spent Dean and Chas agreed to race once more after a lot of pleading and a few minutes rest. The crowd cheered as they re-mounted the bikes they had just poured their every last watt into. A rematch. 500 meters this time. Winner take all. 18-something seconds later Chas’ arm was raised as the champion. Before the cheering crowd changed to mutterings of controversy it was decided that there were two winners that night—one at 500m and one at 1000m.

The arena cleared as fast as it had filled. The sold-out crowd back onto the streets of Portland, exhausted, energized and seemingly fulfilled 500m at a time.

[Many thanks to the racers of Portland, the ‘Teams of Portland’, the Lizard Lounge, Embrocation Mag, and DWP. Look for more Rapha Roller Racing across the USA in 2008.]

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