By Karen Kefauver
January 17, 2013
Following Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he finally publicly confessed that doping propelled him to his astonishing victories, it’s natural to feel disgust and distrust for professional athletes who cheat, lie and then try to cover it up. This disheartening behavior also pollutes other sports, but Armstrong’s decision to talk now has redirected the international spotlight to the pervasiveness of doping in professional cycling. It has yet again called into question cycling’s top athletes and the sport itself.
I was not alone in clinging to the hope that perhaps Armstrong was
wrongly accused, even after compelling evidence said otherwise. I admit I wanted Armstrong to maintain his heroic status not just in the cycling community, but also in the world of cancer survivors. He was an idol to so many — how could he fail so spectacularly? Since I’ve finally accepted that the man I had admired has lied for so many years, I’m seeking cycling inspiration elsewhere.
Luckily, I don’t have to look far. Santa Cruz County is packed with talented cyclists. From novices to professionals, they ride and race in a variety of cycling disciplines, including BMX, trials, dirt jumping, cyclocross, mountain biking and road biking. Dozens of girls and
boys and men and women in this community give me hope for cycling’s future.
One athlete who stands out for his discipline, perseverance and positive attitude, in addition to his impressive race results, is Ron Riley of Aptos. He started mountain bike racing when he was 65, making his debut at the notoriously challenging Downieville Classic. Now 77, Riley is headed to Louisville, Ky., where he will defend his age group world title Jan. 31 at the UCI Masters Cyclo-cross World Championships.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing cyclocross even more than cross country mountain bike racing,” said Riley, a retired teacher who rides for the Bike Station Aptos team. “Just because every lap I can make it around and say hello to my wife, Harriet.”
Cyclocross is considered one of the most demanding styles of bike racing because it requires the rider to leap on and off the bike at high speeds in order to navigate wooden barriers, mud pits and steep hills. The rider who completes the most laps in a set time period wins. Typically, races are an hour or less and the course lap measures between 1.5 and two miles. This style of riding necessitates superior bike handling skills, agility and aerobic conditioning, not to mention tolerance for bad weather, since the races are traditionally held in the fall and winter.
“It was 17 degrees the morning I left the hotel in Wisconsin for my race,” Riley said of his most recent event, where he won his age group while racing unopposed at the Cyclo-cross National Championships, held earlier this month near Madison.
“For my race, the course was completely frozen, but it wasn’t all ice,” Riley said. “There was also dirt and bit of grass and some pavement and a lot of ruts from the day before. Each day, the course changed to mud layered over ice and that was even more treacherous.”
Luckily, the San Diego native is undeterred by the frigid temperatures.
“I have my routine set,” said Riley, who attends 30-40 cyclocross and cross country mountain bike races a year. “Over 12 years, it adds up.”
The Aptos resident biked unopposed in his Masters 75-79 age group. However, there were two other competitors in the 80+ group — friends Fred Schmid of Texas and Walter Axthelm of Colorado — on the course. He plans to compete against both in two weeks in Kentucky.
“I rode more conservatively than if I had competition,” Riley said. “It was kind of relaxing knowing I don’t have to beat anybody and don’t have to take chances. It wasn’t a course to take chances on if you didn’t have to.”
Paul Sadoff of Santa Cruz, a cyclocross veteran who volunteered to help, agreed about the challenging course.
“It was a hard race with adverse conditions,” Sadoff said. “There was snow all over the ground…. There were surprisingly few broken bones but plenty of inability to keep bikes upright.”
Sadoff, the owner of Rock Lobster Cycles, said what impresses him most about Riley is that he’s able to be “riding at such a high level at his age. He’s still going out there and competing. How many 77-year-olds are out there? He races every chance he gets.
“I would love to be able to ride my bike at 77, let alone race,” Sadoff continued. “I’m 57. I’m 20 years younger than him and I feel my body not wanting to do this stuff readily. There are so few people doing what he does. I admire him.”
Riley brushes off praise about his racing.
“That’s who I am,” he said. “I’ve competed in lots of different sports: I was a diver in high school, I’ve raced sail boats, raced speed boats, motorcycles. I’m a competitive person. I’ll be there if I enjoy it and I’ve really enjoyed doing cyclocross even more than cross country mountain bike racing.”
Riley stays calm before the big races, but his wife Harriet admits to being nervous and excited.
“I’m real proud of him when he makes the podium,” she said. “And when he doesn’t, that’s OK, too. He enjoys it very much, so I like supporting him whatever the outcome.”
Riley will have plenty of support from the home front when he goes to Kentucky, especially from his teammates at Bike Station Aptos.
Joanne Thompson, the owner, sums up how I feel about Riley and the many other cyclists whom I admire in this community who can race and ride honestly and make us proud.
“Ron is the ultimate inspiration,” Thompson said. “His attitude and work ethic are amazing. He races hard. He’s encouraging to everyone and his wife is there by his side helping everybody out, too. They are part of the culture, part of the scene that makes cycling so special. He’s always there to lend a hand, give advice and he’s always got a smile on his face because he’s doing what he loves.”