The Tour de Juneau gave cycling fans a reason to cheer this weekend. The Juneau Freewheelers Bicycle Club season finale provided no scandalous blood doping allegations, no one tested positive for synthetic testosterone, and no cyclists were disqualified for attempting to solicit kisses in the wee hours of night.
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Instead the Freewheelers rewrote the record books on the Eaglecrest Hill Climb. The only thing that may have gone wrong is that the new friendships and good camaraderie may not have lasted as long as some of the riders and fans may have wanted.
In a hard-fought three day event, John Bursell took first place overall with a time of 2:58:32.
Matt Novakovich placed second, finishing exactly one minute behind the winner. Doug Carlton knocked down a third place finish in 3:00:01.
Janice Scheufelt won the women's expert division with a combined time of 3:05:43, and Tiffanie Novakovich placed second in 3:14:45.
It started on Friday evening as 33 people showed for a race up to the ski area. The group start on the long straightaway and quickly turned into a lung-and-leg burn as the road immediately launched the riders into the steepest section of the route.
Anchorage resident Matt Novakovich had an immediate impact on the scene. Novakovich made his first attack on the initial steep section and was then accepted by Bursell, and Carlton in the lead group. Near the top of hill, Novakovich seamed to sense that the end of the race was near and out-sprinted the others for the win and more impressive, a new course record of 16:49.
After the race, Novakovich said how impressive the course is and went on to say, "About four months ago, Bicycle Magazine ranked the Eaglecrest Hill Climb of the best climbs in America, and I agree."
Saturday's Time Trial portion of the race is not a race where people can ride along with other racers. The course was cut down to 20 kilometers this year rather than the 40 kilometers of the previous races. The competitors agreed that the shorter course is still painful and the difference in length does not lessen the mental challenge associated with the ride.
"No, that doesn't change," said David Walker. "In fact, when it's shorter, you feel pressured to go harder the whole way, rather then getting in a groove and pacing yourself over a distance."
When asked how the time trial went, the tour winner answered, "It was painful, as usual." Bursell claimed luck as his ally in winning the time trial due to the fact that several of the front-runners rode different equipment in the race. Bursell noted, "The main opponents did not have time trial bikes, so I had a time advantage there. I was just hoping that my opponents would not come past me because they started behind me. I was watching my teammates ahead of me, trying to catch them as best I could. It helps to have them ahead because if you're catching up with them at all, then you know you are riding well because they are fast."
The last race of the weekend was a circuit race that started along the forested shores of the Auke Bay Recreation area, meandered about the residential area of Lena Loop Road, and then circled back past the Auke Rec. baseball fields before turning back down along the waterfront between Indian Point and Point Louisa. Novakovich made a breakaway move on lap two, hoping to make a miraculous comeback on race leader Bursell, but a solo rider has to work to very hard to stay ahead of a team of riders who are working together to reel in a runaway.
"I was working super hard up there to stay alone, and then I looked back and saw a big clump of the Yellow Jersey team coming up at the front of the lead group," Novakovich said. "I knew I was going to have a lot of trouble staying out in front of them. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't done it because I paid for it throughout the rest of the race, but it is kind of fun to just lay it on the line to just see what happens instead of just being happy to place second or whatever."
Amid the pack, Novakovich took advantage of the pack's group efforts by capturing the precious time bonuses on the end of the third, sixth, and final eighth lap. But Bursell's first place victory in Saturday's Time Trial, which included bonus seconds, proved too much for Novakovich to overcome. As the cyclists continued to knock off lap after lap, the lead pack proved that it was too strong to ride away from.
A racer from Whitehorse named Mike McCann concurred.
"It was hard for anybody to get away, and a few people tried it at different times and ah, they got pulled back in," McCann said. "I somewhat expected things to break up, but they didn't. I think that the group was just too close in ability for anybody to get away. It made it exciting, especially on the last lap as everybody was still there."
To understand just how strong the riders raced, one can look at the finishing time of 2:13:49 and see that 12 of the 20 racers in the expert division finished within one second of winning time when the race ended.
The competition level continues to rise in the Freewheeler club sponsored races.
"It is getting a lot tougher to race these days, because everybody is training and getting stronger," Sorenson said. "Everybody across the board was fast this weekend."
The high level of competition in road racing is opening the door for the sportsman division and newcomers who are interested in getting out and feeling excitement of racing road bikes. Ryan Siverly was the overall winner of the sport division and talked about the close finish in today's four-lap race.
"Well, the three of us were fairly evenly matched, and I kind of set up on (Matthew Rule's) rear wheel for a sprint finish," Siverly said. "Dennis (Travis) caught up to us on the bypass road and pretty much saved my life because he gave me a last ditch pull through the last turn. At the bottom of the hill, I thanked him for the pulls and took off and beat them right here at the end. It was a good strong race."
Dennis Travis, the owner of Glacier Cycles, said, "The Freewheelers are doing a great job by bringing in new people from out of town, changing things up a bit, and keeping the courses fresh."
Of the 33 participants in this year's Tour de Juneau, 11 riders visited from Sitka Anchorage and Whitehorse. Race Director Joe Sorenson noted that the race is growing in popularity and that is just fine with the other riders.
Janice Scheufelt said, "It's really great to have out-of-town riders in for the race. It really ups the level of competition."
The visitors from out of town liked coming to Juneau to compete as well.
"The reason we come back here every year is because of the good friends we have made here in Juneau," McCann said.