Introducing Rapha Racing NW

*WORDS: Otis Rubottom*

At this point, the majority of us are racing in a class called Masters. What exactly we are masters of is not clear, but it has a nice ring to it. There are several other things however, that have become clear: We’ve been riding together for long enough now to know each other’s quirks and foibles – how to pick each other out of the bunch based on position and cadence, who does better when it’s hot, and who can be counted on to have extra food. Like all the best ideas, the origins of our team are a little hazy, but while the facts may blur, the personalities stay sharp. Memories made on the road tend to burn themselves a little deeper, and after a certain amount of miles, the stories matter more than the results, but you still chase both. Racing now means something different than it once did, though at its core it’s exactly the same – a test of self, a burning away of the distractions and the haze of the everyday. Racing isn’t how we define ourselves, but it helps the process, just as the ride to the race and the beer afterwards does.

I spent a little time talking to some of our riders who have turned pedals with some of the fastest of their time about what stands about races from the past, and what it means to race bikes with a group you’re connected to.

Todd Littlehales came by his nickname of “Nightvision” the old fashioned way: someone just made it up on the spot. Over six years with as a pro with Navigators, Todd racked up numerous wins, especially when the sun went down, including such prestigious races as the Athens’ Twilight Criterium, the Redland’s prologue and stages in the Cascade Classic and McClane Pacific Classic. These days, Todd spends a little more time working with his hands than his legs, though he’s not letting his fitness lag too much, as anyone who heads out on a Sunday exploration will tell you.

So, now that you don’t race your bike for money any more, what do you do to stay busy?
I have a steel fabrication business that keeps me crazy busy. I’m passionate about my work, and I love it, so that’s a good thing. It also seems like part of my focus is to make sure my job affords me plenty of bike-riding vacations.

Do you see any parallels in the way you create things to the way you approached your racing? What about with the way you like to ride now?
The relationship I have with the tools of my trade is the same in steel fabrication as it was in bicycle racing: I have a need to be connected to, or “at one” with, my equipment. Bicycles and tools—they will both always be an extension of myself, and a means for me to express myself.

You have a reputation for leading the unsuspecting (and sometimes fully suspecting) into rides of excessive duration and difficulty, sometimes resulting in the need for emergency measures—taking mass transit, calls to significant others for help. How would you describe the type of riding you like to do most?
In my defense, I always give warning of what we might be getting into. I love to explore, and I’m also an optimist; I always have a good feeling about what might be right around the next corner. Not everyone feels the same way, though—some of those guys must really loathe what could be around the next corner. I have a tendency to over-do things sometimes, but it really doesn’t get much better than road-dirt on my new Tonic Fab Crusher.

What’s on tap for the Crusher in the Tushar this year?
Crusher in the Tushar is a unique road-dirt event in the Tushar Mountains of southern Utah, put on one of my best buddies, and ex-teammate, Burke Swindlehurst. It’s one of the best-run events I’ve been to. The course and scenery are great, and are exactly they kind of riding that I love. The volunteer support is unrivaled; it’s amazing to feel how much the local volunteers appreciate your ability to tackle their mountains. Six of us Rapha Racing NW guys are road-tripping out there to Crush, or get Crushed, and it’s going to be a blast of epic proportions.

Even though it’s a ways in the past at this point, what’s the best thing about not being a professional bike racer any more?
The travel involved with bike racing is awesome, but it also ruins it. Basically the team management gets to pocket any funds they don’t spend on the team, so they cut corners as often as possible. Which means you spend time sleeping on couches, or displacing some child out of their race-car bed. Although I enjoyed getting to see the world, there was always an element that made me want to go home.

Is there anything you find yourself missing about it?
There is nothing that will replace the exhilarating feeling of racing full-speed, on the last lap, knowing you are going to win, or crash.

White socks or black?
Black is good contrast for a guy who is only a shade off albino. White socks might be good for tennis though.

Espresso or press?
Depends on the situation.

Embrocation or knee warmers?
I’m a fan of the Embro, but remember about the albino part, so it depends.

John Leonard spent his youth in California dreaming of racing bikes with the best. So after racing on the collegiate scene in Colorado (with teammate Tyler Hamilton) he made the pilgrimage to Europe. And everyone knows that if you’re trying to make it in Europe, you go to Belgium. There, he encountered what every American bike racer encounters: brutal conditions, challenging language barriers and a lot of self-examination. And that’s just off the bike. If you’ve ever ridden with John, you quickly learn how he earned his nickname, stomping away from the field at the hardest moments, pushing some enormous gear and causing hard, hard men to simply shake their head and concede defeat. He’s the nicest guy who’s ever crushed your will.

Who’s your favorite pro rider (besides Eddy Mercx)?
Bernard Hinault, nobody was badder than “the badger,” though Vladimir Karpets does have the greatest name in the peloton.

If you could relive one bike race you competed in, which one would it be? Why?
The Tour of Normandy, France 1994. It was a 7-day stage race with an international field. Point to point racing. Epic windy, hilly stages. Staying in a new French hotel every day. Washing your kit in the sink every night. I took a serious beating at this race but I enjoyed every minute. Truly great bike racing.

If you could forever erase one bike race from your memory, which one would it be? Why?
Kermesse Zottegem, Belgium; April 1994. I wasn’t on good form and my team director would conveniently “forget” to give riders a ride to the race if they weren’t going well. It was raining, barely over 55 degrees and the start was 50km away. I rode to the start, got my number in a smoky cafe and suffered through the 130km race, which had a slippery cobblestone climb covered in cow manure, and a crew of Russian national team guys charging at the front. After the finish my team director thought I needed more miles so it was another 50km in the rain back to the apartment. It was definitely frites and Chimay for dinner that night. I could barely walk the next morning.

What does it mean to race your bike with a team?
Racing with a team means going into battle together, giving your best effort whether that means giving up a wheel to a teammate or riding at the front, and then having a beer and laughing about it after the race. And looking like the best kind of dork when you show up at the coffee shop with eight other guys wearing the same bike costume.

What is your favorite item left over from racing with the pros?
No items, just memories, some scars, and a few broken bones.

Tell me something about racing bikes that most people don’t know. No, really. Tell me.
Eating bacon makes you go faster.

Chris Hamilton’s smooth style and compact frame hide a wicked sprint, which he used with deadly effect at races around the country. A Bend native, the crowds would go nuts at the Cascade Classic, especially the year he was third in the prologue. I remember watching Chris be the only amateur rider to make the break with the pros in countless criteriums, lapping the field sometimes, and finishing with style.

What’s your best bike racing memory?
Great moments from junior days dreaming of being a Euro star w/ every waking moment either in shops looking at bikes, reading mags as if they were porn, and trying to “blow the field up” like my heroes only to be so tired by the end I’d miss out on the $5 “prize money” I needed to pay for gas to get home. 

Seeing the hole, knowing what to do and thinking I was gonna win so many races only to realize I was driving a Yugo against guys with Ferraris.  

What does it mean to race your bike with a team?
I love watching my teammates ride well. I never get tired of seeing John Leonard earn his “Stompy” nickname, soloing in at top speed at (you name the race) while I only marvel at the power that dude has. 

Same for Nightvision—which was what the announcer in Boise kept on booming over the loudspeaker one year while Todd Littlehales cleaned up on primes before winning the race. There’s nothing better than watching a great sprinter hit the gas when everyone else is already maxed out.  

To those who raced against him, Bob Grummel’s standout achievement was likely winning stages against the likes of Greg LeMond and Lennard Zinn in the early days of Colorado racing, or his tenacious climbing in the Cascade Classic. But if you Google him, what you find is that he’s a movie star—sort of. Bob had a small role in American Flyers—no, not Bellof—but if you look for him in the peloton, he’s there.

Favorite pro rider (besides Eddy Merckx)?
Davis Phinney was always the best to watch and compete with, as he was 100 percent ready to sprint for primes and win races, plus he showed the Americans how to be professional and win in Europe.

If you could relive one bike race you competed in, which one would it be? Why?
The first mountain stage of the 1983 Coors Classic: The Boulder Mountain Race. Cross winds across Rocky Flats split the field. I rode in the gravel along the shoulder to get to the front of the field at the start of the first climb, and then survived two mountain passes in the first 10-man group chasing the two Colombian mountain goats, only to learn the hard lesson of drinking and staying hydrated the painful way. I got dropped on the flats. If I had the chance to live this one over I would have drank more water and finished in good standing.

If you could forever erase one bike race from your memory, which one would it be? Why?
Fathers Day Criterium in Silverton, Oregon. I was trying to show my 3-year old daughter that I could still win races. I crashed twice on the same side. The pain of deep road rash and bruises was much more than I remembered from my younger racing days. Isabel was horrified to see her dad all banged up.

What is your favorite item left over from racing with the pros?
My hairnet helmet follows me around. It hangs in the garage over my bike work station and reminds me of the days of high risk descending mountain passes at 60mph with just a bit of foam and leather on my head.