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At the Bud Harris track, the cycle begins anew

| Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chris Popovic laughed while explaining the first cycling race of the year.

"Watching boys come back to the bike track is like watching girls show up to the prom," said Popovic, president of the Allegheny Cycling Association -- the area's oldest and largest cycling club. "Everybody wants to see the new bikes, the new kits, who's been training hard, who's gained a few pounds.

"But it's a good time because everybody gets back to what they love to do."

The boys -- and girls -- officially got back to the Bud Harris Cycling Track on April 6, which marked the recurrence of one of Pittsburgh's greatest cycling traditions: the weekly criterium races at the 12-year-old oval off Washington Boulevard in Highland Park.

Whether young or old, cyclists gather in early April for 22 weeks of racing at the half-mile oval, named after a key figure who lobbied the city to convert the former driver testing center into a cycling venue.

The cycling association sponsors the races and uses them to promote bike safety.

Each Tuesday there are races for women and juniors, along with a "C" class race for both men and women. Wednesdays are the "A" and "B" classes -- more advanced -- men's races. And, starting the first week of May, races expand to Saturdays for new rider clinics, skills training and make-up dates.

While Pittsburgh-area cycling is hardly confined to this particular track, located next to the Zone 5 police barracks, the Bud Harris Cycling Track serves as a weekly gathering spot for cycling enthusiasts, a neighborhood bar without the beer and nuts.

"Racing at the Bud Harris track has become the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh racing community," said Mike Carroll, a local race promoter.

"A lot of people will go as far away as Oklahoma and South Carolina, but having that weekly competition to work with your friends and get faster really positions riders to do better at events on a national scale. They challenge each other every week to train, and that extra bit of motivation really helps."

On the right track

A night of racing costs $10 for adults, $5 for juniors, and all participants must be licensed through USA Cycling. Rider without a license can buy one on race night.

On a typical Tuesday after registration, the festivities begin with a short instructional segment -- touching on safety, nutrition or bike maintenance -- before riders take to the track for a few warm-up laps.

"Years ago, it was assumed that if you came down to race, you knew what you were doing," Popovic said. "But it can be a very intimidating experience to get out on a track, so we try to ensure the riders are educated."

Nathan Clair, a seventh-grader in the North Allegheny School District, has been a regular at Bud Harris for the past three years and finished first in the Junior Point Series last season.

The pack-style races have helped Clair improve on some technical aspects of the sport.

"Whenever I'm at Bud Harris, it helps me because it's not a huge, important state race," Clair said. "It helps me focus on drafting, keeping a steady line instead of swerving and getting used to being in a close paceline."

Tyler Mower agrees. An eighth-grader in the Plum School District, Mower has been racing since he was 12.

Recently, Mower added Wednesday night races -- a testament to his growing level of talent and bike control -- to his weekly training regimen and will travel to Augusta, Ga., for Junior Nationals this summer.

"The Bud Harris track got me used to the race environment," Mower said.

The city's most popular youth cycling club is one to which Clair belongs: Team Citius. Formed last year by Fred Gohh, Citius members -- especially those who aren't yet mature enough to ride with the adults -- use the weekly races as a way to get accustomed to competition.

"This year, I have five or six kids who are 10, 11 or 12 years old," said Gohh, whose group started with about 18 riders and now has 25. "They might not be strong enough to ride with the adults, but you can see that they're excited about going out."

A big part of cycling's growth here -- many high schools are incorporating the sport into physical education classes -- has been the Bud Harris Cycling Track.

According to Suzanne Atkinson, who owns her own cycling coaching company called Steel City Endurance, it's something that makes Pittsburgh special.

"It's a unique venue for a city to have," said Atkinson, who also runs Club Velo Femme, a women's cycling club. "In talking to friends around the country, there are not a lot of places that have a dedicated biking oval that's also traffic-free. It's really outstanding."

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