Roller racing has a following — in Europe

Maybe it’s why British riders have won the past two Tour de France races or, more likely, why they have so many great track racers. There’s a roller racing business out of England called Rollapaluza.

They hold 250 events annually in Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium. Sir Chris Hoy even showed up to take a spin on the rollers.

But wait, let’s not forget Pacific Bicycle in San Francisco. They held roller races in the late 1980s using traditional rollers. I was there and filed this report:

It’s part game show, part bike racing and definitely part insanity. I’m talking about roller racing. No not Rollerball, roller racing.

While the 49ers were sending the Bears into hibernation last Monday night, San Francisco bike racing dueled head to head at Pacific Bicycle.

Reaching speeds in excess of 45 mph, they were going nowhere fast while mounted on rollers, a platform of three steel free-turning drums on which wheels spin in place. Rollers are popular among bike racers for winter training.

Two competitors faced a big square board with a face like a clock. The clock had a large blue hand and a large red hand. Each hand was connected by cable to the rollers. The cable transmitted each rider’s crank revolutions to the clock hand, so the faster a rider went, the faster the clock hand moved.

The winner was the first rider to make his hand turn twice around the clock. That double revolution indicated the equivalent of about one kilometer of frantic pedaling: the record stands at 47.6 seconds.

So fast and furious was the racing, “spotters” (willing victims…I mean volunteers from the audience) were used to keep contestants from bouncing off the rollers and being launched through the nearest brick wall.

After six races the championship came down to a match between two teammates on the Golden Gate Cycling Club, Jeff Clark and John Suarez. Preliminary race times indicated the contest would be close.

Suarez, 31, a San Francisco architect who races in his spare time, said he got involved in roller racing to get Clark to stay in shape over the winter. “The guy’s lazy you know.”

But Clark looked like the type that can take a lot of pain. The 27-year-old biologist fell off his bike after winning his first heat, gasped for breath and staggered out of the building like he had just swallowed a hot pepper.

Race official Colin Powers started the event with stop watches in hand. Then both riders began spinning for their lives. The showroom filled with the rumble of ancient steel drums turning on worn out bearings.

Clark took the early lead, his blue clock hand barely ahead of Suarez’s red hand. At one turn of the clock, 500 meters, Clark still had a 25-meter lead. A small crowd, sensing a close race, started cheering wildly over the defeaning roar of the rollers.

At 800 meters the lead was down to 10 meters. Suarez gave it everything he had. The red hand crept closer, closer. He nipped Clark’s blue hand at the line. The time was 50.75 seconds.

Roller racing hasn’t caught on in the Bay Area, what with all the great winter weather, but maybe there’s a roller race tournament in our future. Stay tuned…

Roller racing in San Francisco was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 17, 1987

Roller racing in San Francisco was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 21, 1987

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2 Responses to “Roller racing has a following — in Europe”

  1. ted pauly Says:

    ray i think that this event should have been filmed and posted on youtube. the rolling footage would enhance your report. cheers!

  2. jkeehan Says:

    Ha, I used to read your columns in the Sporting Green along with Cohn and Dickey. I’m straining to remember if I saw this one. Probably did. Those were good times waaaaay before the internet.

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