He came running back toward the start line of the time trial, where the older boys waited to take their turns, nervously rolling off in 10-second intervals. The leader’s jersey looked like a robe on his tiny frame, and the bottom of his shorts were baggy around his legs.
He’d just won the junior time trial on a too-big bike and ran back to the start to watch his teammate roll out onto the hot, heavy road in western Washington.
That’s the thing about young racers. They don’t know what they’re not supposed to do yet. They don’t know that on the first day of a stage race, one should kick back in the shade, legs up. No, they think you’re supposed to run back to where you began, in a leader’s jersey so big it may as well be a sail, and cheer.
Rapha is the original and title sponsor of the Rapha Junior Northwest Classic, a two-day stage race — time trial, criterium, and road race — for both boys and girls, held in Elma, Washington. This year, 150 juniors signed up and they came from the American Pacific Northwest, Canada, Montana and California. Below the truly elite junior level national team, there aren’t too many opportunities for kids like this to bump elbows with one another.
These races feel like first days of school all over again. Some kids show up with S-Works frames, carbon wheels, happy to show off their wares. Others show up on steel bikes passed down from who knows where, with downtube shifters relics of racers long gone. They race hard anyway.
The girls’ fields race cautiously, waiting for later moves to stick. In the criterium the field paid for its tepid pace, as a rider who took a cash prime midway through looked back over her shoulder and noted a space filled with long moments behind. She stayed in the drops the rest of the race, caught the field from behind, but sat up at the last moment so the rest of her competitors could finish on the same lap as her. All class from a 16-year-old rider.
The young riders had their moments in the sun amid the infrastructure of a nuclear power plant facility that never came to life, though the 46-story-tall cooling towers remain and cut ominous shadows into the horizon. And although the weekend belonged to the juniors, one man was celebrated at every chance. Jim Brown runs Rad Racing Northwest, a large junior program in the region, but also hosts the race each year.
Brown, a thick and steady man, was diagnosed with lung cancer in May this year, and has battled through two rounds of chemotherapy. On the final morning of the race he rode a 25-mile fondo with 130 other riders, including Rapha-sponsored US Cyclocross National Champion Jeremy Powers and elite cyclocross racer Ryan Trebon, in the woods around the cooling towers.
When Brown walked, riders walked. When he pedalled, they pedalled. Upon his knuckles the words HOLD FAST are tattooed, an inked reminder to his father’s struggle with the disease years before. Now, kids put ‘Hold Fast’ stickers on their bikes and helmets in a nod to Brown, and all that he’s done for the area’s cycling scene.