"We have a lot of talented riders who may have at one time been a pro, and who now race masters," says Bart Bowen, the owner of Rebound Sports Performance Lab - Powered by Bowen. "They are quality riders, some who have some cycling history. They're strong. There are no easy pickings anymore to get a national title in most of the age groups."
Bowen should know. As a former pro and elite level national champion, he has competed all over the world at the highest echelon of competitive cycling, and now finds himself - a business owner and father of two - competing in Masters Nationals for the first time.
"I raced pro, and it's not easy to win a masters race," says Bowen, who competes in the 40-44 age group. "There are some really fast guys for sure."
USA Cycling defines a master as over the age of 30, and a category 3 or better in many of the age groups. It's the promise of parity that lures riders, many of whom routinely compete with younger and less-encumbered competitors, to Masters National events.
"Masters Nationals is about racing your peers," explains Bowen. "People in your age group who are probably in the same situation as you - a job, kids, and not as much time to train."
Bowen, who coaches a number of local masters cyclists, says many of his clients are focused on Masters Nationals being held in Bend this year and in 2012. Next week's races begin Wed. August 31 and run through September 4.
"This is a priority race for a lot of them," says Bowen. "And for others, it's just an experience to race at a national championship level."
In 1982, when my father won his first Masters National Championship at the age of 37, the racers were grouped into one 35-plus class. As the sport gained traction in this country, larger fields allowed organizers to divide the fields into five-year age groups. Even with races for everyone from 30 to 99 - overly fragmented, according to my old school father - Masters Nationals fields more than 100 competitors in multiple age groups.
As the races loom, Bowen - like any other masters racer - nervously contemplates his fitness.
"I don't know if I'm really prepared," says Bowen, who is planning on racing both the criterium and road races in his age group. "Life has been getting in the way of the pure cycling."
I hear the same refrain on training rides. How do we balance the passion for an incredibly demanding and time-consuming sport with work and parenting? We are conflicted with feelings of guilt, but also the awareness that such dedication requires discipline, hard work and humility, principles we want our children to absorb and make their own.
"It's cool to participate, and yeah, I'd love to win, but the reality is I had my time," says Bowen, whose children were unborn when he was in his prime. "Winning Masters Nats would be cool so my boys could see it."
If you've raced your mountain bike, you probably realized one of the most challenging aspects of crosscountry racing is passing other riders on single track. Getting around "traffic" can be frustrating, costing you precious seconds in your race. And it can be damaging to trails since the faster rider is often forced to take an offline route to get around the rider in front.
Self-described "course monkey" Mike Ripley says while there's a general perception that racing can damage trails, a properly staged race will preserve the trail, and maybe even improve it by "riding it in." Ripley, who promotes races and designs courses under the name Mudslinger Events, including the Test of Endurance and the High Cascades 100, has lent his expertise to USA Cycling for the upcoming Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals in Bend on September 17. Although he contends the course he designed is "amazing," he's aware of some grumbling among racers that the route includes long stretches of pavement to get out of, and back into, the Old Mill District where the race starts and finishes.
Ripley says without the opportunity for competitors to sort themselves out, the racing wouldn't be as fast, and they'd be like cattle trying to merge onto dusty single track.
"Some courses don't allow for enough time climbing on a road or double track to split up the groups," explains Ripley. "Do you really want to get bottlenecked behind somebody?"
"I like to be able to breathe, and I like to make people hurt up front," says Ripley, who has a reputation for creating challenging courses. "The quality of the racing goes up that way. I want to keep the racing top-notch, spaced out, safe and fun."
After leaving the Old Mill, racers will hammer up Century Drive to Conklin Road where they'll get into the "meat and potatoes" of the course, a combination of fire roads and newer single track near Wanoga Sno Park. The endurance race will cover more than 50 miles with 4,100 feet of climbing before finishing in the Old Mill.
Ripley is also aware that local racers have their perfect-world ideas of the trails they'd like to see used for the championship race. Ripley attributes the angst over the route to having too many good choices.
"It's like having a bunch of Mercedes-Benzes in your garage. Which one do you want to drive that day?" says Ripley with a laugh. "We're spoiled brats."
Not to mention that Ripley has had to consider the wishers of many stakeholders, including the Forest Service and Central Oregon Trail Alliance.
"There aren't many places with this kind of square mileage that have this many user groups," says Ripley, who credits the Forest Service for being open to new ideas. He added that COTA is the "most progressive and best trail group on the West Coast," and that the bottom line is "everybody really cares about the trails."
As far as logistics go, competitors in the Marathon Mountain Bike Nationals must hold a current USA Cycling Mountain Bike annual license. There are age-graded categories in addition to elite races, but everyone will experience the same course.
Masters Nationals Road Cycling Championships
Wednesday, August 31
Time trials from Summit High School to Skyliners Road, 8 a.m.*
Thursday, September 1
NWX Criterium, 9 a.m.
Friday, September 2
Downtown Criterium racing, 8 a.m.
Saturday, September 3
Archie Briggs road racing, 8 a.m.
Sunday, September 4
Archie Briggs road racing, 8 a.m.
Info: usacycling.org, or visitbend.org
*Times indicate scheduled start for first group. All events continue through the day.
Mountain Bike Marathon Bike Nationals
Friday, September 16
Registration at Pine Mountain Sports from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Course open for practice from 1 p.m. to sunset.
Saturday, September 17
Championship races start at the Old Mill beginning at 9 a.m. with the Pro and Elite Men. Last category rolls off at 10 a.m. Awards at 4 p.m. in the Old Mill.