Bike road racing is an expensive sport typically associated with prep schools. But, on a May afternoon, a North Country school is challenging that tradition as bike racers from around the state wheel away from Profile School in Bethlehem.
Soon they are huffing and puffing with youthful grit up Route 117 into Sugar Hill.
It is a long climb.
And it is only going to get worse.
At Blake Road they take a sharp right. Then, as the corner unfolds they see another hill so steep it looks like somebody painted a road on a wall.
“There will probably be some colorful words being said on that corner,” said Bill Keiler, the coach of the team from Profile, which has students from Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia and Sugar Hill.
When the racers reach the turn any colorful words are impossible to hear over the heavy breathing as they pump up the hill, a parade of jerseys bearing the names of expensive boarding schools.
Phillips Academy Andover
The White Mountain School
The Killington Mountain School.
Having such schools compete is not a surprise since road racing is an expensive sport. A good racing bike could cost $3,000 or more.
What is surprising is that there is a team from Profile. It is the only public school in the New England Road Cycling League’s prep school competition.
And racers like Trevor Blampied, a 10th grader at Bethlehem, love that.
“We’re the only public school in this league. So, they are on nicer equipment, they’ve got nicer bikes, they have nicer buses and nicer trailers. And, to know that we can compete against them and be successful in the competition and often beat them is really nice,” he said.
The team was formed about thirteen years ago as an alternative to traditional sports.
“I think that this program appeals to a different kind of athlete, a different kind of kid and part of what we are trying to do is get as many kids as possible connected to something bigger than themselves,” says Courtney Vashaw, the school’s principal.
“I would never have expected that a bike team would be the thing to capture twenty random kids who might not do a spring sport otherwise.”
The Profile team depends on goodwill dollars. The school pays for the gas needed to get to races. Other expenses are covered by donations and fundraisers. That includes some loaner bikes.
Ed Shanshala is a biking enthusiast, a former racer and a strong supporter of the Profile team. He sees a long-term, healthy benefit for the students.
“When they get to my age at fifty they will still be riding,” he said.
Coach Keiler said the 22-mile course is plenty tough.
“The hills are extreme to climb. There is some dirt on it and we’re talking road bikes here, so dirt is a foreign medium to ride on for a lot of these kids,” he said.
With no small amount of satisfaction he says some competitors call it “the hell of the north.”
That’s a nod to a famous race in France called Paris-Roubaix.
What goes up does come down and racers could hit 40 mph on long descents. There are some worrisome turns but volunteers and fire departments are blocking traffic and Keiler says the kids aren’t crazy.
“There is some self-preservation in a teen-age mind. Not much. But there is some.”
From time to time, around the state, there have been crashes.
A few years ago a newly arrived student from Japan hit a moose, which he initially figured was a horse with horns.
And Trevor Blampied remembers a crash as a rookie. He was riding in a pack, touched wheels with another racer…
“So, I fell over and got run over by a teammate, Jack Green, and another rider. That put me out for nearly the rest of the season,” he said.
But Blampied may be understating things.
“Oh, it was just an awful pile up of kids. Trevor got ran over a few times. We thought he possibly broke his femur. He ground his teeth through his lip on the road. Oh, that poor guy. It brought me to tears seeing him on the ground.”
There are no such mishaps for this race although at one point a moose does come out on the course, slowing some riders from below the notches.
The racers, who are split into groups by ability, knock off the miles.
And, winning over those miles means using mind and muscle, says Profile’s Raven Larcom. “I think it is very much a complicated and strategic sport,” she said.
Larcom says early in the race she was challenged by rider.
“And, I noticed that she was a really, really strong climber. So, I stuck with her and we dropped most of the pack on the first hill. And, then she really pushed me going up the hills. And, then we got to the top of a road and I think she pushed herself too hard trying to beat me and I passed her,” she said.
More than 150 racers are racing and it turns out to be a good day for Profile: the team lands five riders on the podiums in various categories.
Logan Brown is first in his group. Blampied takes third in the most competitive race. And, Raven Larcom takes first in hers.
“It feels so great to finally accomplish something you have been working on for so long and training for so long,” she said.
There’s a long tradition of underdog heroes in cycling.
Before starting to bike race in the 1960s, Polish world champ Jean Stablinski worked as a coal miner from the age of 14.
Belgian Ludo Dierckxens won a Tour de France stage in 1999, having been a semi-truck painter for most of his twenties.
So, maybe the team at Profile School will be another page in that history.