Just how fast can a Texan pedal a bike?
Here in Austin, home of perhaps the most powerful pair of quads in the world, plenty of bicyclists are trying to find out.
They gather for weekly hammerhead training rides that depart area coffeehouses and bike shops. They line up for a 33-week bike race series staged on a track in East Austin. They drop $3,000 to $5,000 on road racing bikes that weigh considerably less than the tricycle you had as a kid.
Austin's warm climate, varied terrain and obsession with fitness make it a great place for budding bike racers. And yes, there's the Lance Armstrong effect. The seven-time winner of the Tour de France is regularly spotted training on the hills around town. Talk about motivation!
'It's definitely the hottest scene in Texas,' says Andrew Willis, president of the Texas Bicycle Racing Association, the governing body of bike racing in the state, and the head of Holland Racing, every Thursday from March to October.
The Driveway Series isn't exactly the Tour de France, but it does epitomize local bike racing.
Announcers call the action as cyclists zoom past on a privately owned, twisty paved loop usually reserved for race cars and motorized go-carts. Sponsors names hang from temporary fencing. Cyclists and fans dissect the action while munching burgers grilled under a tent. Riders throw their hands high as they blow across the finish line.
'Anybody who races bikes in Austin does the Crit Series - it's the perfect balance of racing and community,' says John Trujillo, 27, a local racer who competes nearly every week in the series, which started March 18.
The races at the Driveway are staged on a 2.2-mile course that is partly shaded and partly exposed. Depending on how it is configured - eight variations can be set up, and they rotate each week - the route can be completely flat or include up to 90 feet of elevation gain. Sometimes the course is technical; other times it's almost straight.
'Other places will have group rides, but to have mock races on a closed course where the pavement is really smooth and there are officials and responsible parties should anything go wrong, and skills clinics available - that's really unique,' says Kate Sherwin, 30, a former professional racer who still rides in the Driveway Series.
The weekly event draws about 300 racers and spectators from as far away as Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The races are divided into skill-based levels from beginners to elite. (In bike racing terminology, categories range from category 5 for entry-level riders to category 1, the top level in amateur racing.) There's even a Kids Fun Lap, a special master's series in June and July, and Ladies Night once a month hosted by the Austin Flyers cycling club.
For several years, Austin also hosted a downtown bike criterium, staged on urban roads around City Hall. Because of a lack of sponsors this year, that race has been canceled.
But bike racing isn't for folks with light wallets.
Nearly 90 percent of bike racers are men, between the ages of 35 and 45 years old, with a healthy amount of disposable income. According to the National Association of Sporting Goods, the average household income of a bike racer is $75,000. The average racing bike costs about $3,500, but that number can easily climb to $5,000 or more. In Texas, 30 percent of racers earn between $100,000 and $150,000, and about half have bachelor's degrees, according to a 2007 survey by Racing Post, a Dallas-based cycling magazine.
According to USA Cycling, the governing body of bike racing in the United States, Texas trails only California in the number of licensed bike racers.
The fastest-growing segment of racers is 50-years-and-older males who have retired from impact sports like running and triathlon. Cycling isn't as hard on the knees.
But it is fierce, which might partly explain why it's more popular among men than women.
'Racing is really competitive, it's ego-driven, and it doesn't have the feel of a multi-sport event. People show up, they race, they check results and go home,' Willis says.
Willis, a former professional racer himself, is now more involved in the business side of the sport. Last year he took over the Driveway Series from Barry Lee, who had started it in 2006.
'It's an incredibly rewarding sport,' Willis says. 'It forces you to stay focused, set goals and work toward them in a way just (recreational) cycling doesn't.'
Last August, 40-year-old cyclist Kevin Underhill died a few days after he crashed in his first race at the Driveway Series.
It was the first and only fatality in the history of the race series, but accidents are not uncommon. Crashing, says race director Andrew Willis, is a part of the sport. At the elite level, bike racing becomes incredibly physical, with cyclists pushing and throwing elbows.
'If you're going to race your bike, it's not a matter of if you're going to crash, it's when,' he says.
Last year, 5,634 cyclists participated in the Driveway Series. During that time, seven accidents required a hospital visit, most for broken bones or stitches. Three of those accidents required an ambulance. Capitol Medical Service was on site each time.
Since Underhill's death, new safety precautions have been put in place at the venue.
This year, beginning cyclists who want to race at the Driveway will be required to wear a brightly colored bib that sets them apart from more experienced competitors. Before each race start, officials will recognize those rookies in front of their competitors.
'A lot of things can be avoided if people know they're here,' Willis says.
Newbies will be allowed to shed their bright-colored bibs only after attending a special safety clinic held on select Wednesday nights throughout the season. (They'll also get a discount on entrance fees for a month after completing the course.)
The clinics, sponsored by DLA Piper and taught by members of Team Super Squadra, will cost $20 and are scheduled for April 14, May 12, June 16, Aug. 4 and Sept. 1.
'It won't just be about racing, but also about riding more safely in general,' Willis says. 'We'll go over pack dynamics. Anybody who wants to do a group ride can benefit from it.'
Most accidents happen at the back of a racing pack, he says. That's because of speed variations between the front and back of a cycling peloton, especially on hills or at turns.
Besides hands-on skills and education from pro racers, a Capital Medical Service representative will talk about what to do if you have an accident or come upon one.
Newbies can also request that a mentor ride with them at the back of group during their first race.
Austin's biggest road races:
1. The Pure Austin Fitness Driveway Series by Kenny Hill Autowerks: Racing starts at 5 p.m. every Thursday at the Driveway, 8400 Delwau Lane. Race registration is $20; cyclists must have a current USA Cycling license ($10 for one day, $60 annual.) For more information go to www.drivewayseries.com .
2. Tour of Austin: Three days of road races over Labor Day weekend, including events at the Driveway, Austin State Hospital and the University of Texas' J.J. Pickle Research Campus, with prize money for top finishers. Details not yet set for 2010, but will be posted at www.raceaustin.com .
3. Pure Austin Pace Bend Road Race: One of the largest road races in Texas, the Pace Bend race draws more than 800 riders to Pace Bend Park on Lake Travis each February.
4. La Primavera: This two-day racing event marked its 37th year last month, making it one of the longest running road races in Texas. About 600 racers sped along a 4.5-mile loop, competing for prize money in distances of 22 to 80 miles.
Fast-paced, weekly rides for experienced cyclists
1. Austin Tri Cyclists Ride: Leaves at 8:30 a.m. Saturdays from Austin Tri-Cyclist, 923 Barton Springs Road, with 2-hour or 4-hour options.
2. Sumo Ride: Leaves at 9 a.m. Sundays from Austinbikes, 1213 W. Fifth Street, for an intense, 2.5 to 3-hour ride.
3. Tuesday Nighter: Leaves Mellow Johnny's, 400 Nueces St., at 5 p.m. Tuesdays to ride to the start. Or meet at the intersection of Turnersville Road at South Turnersville Road in Creedmoor at 6 p.m. for the 20-mile fast ride.
4. Bagel Ride: Leaves at 8:15 a.m. Saturdays from Einstein Brother's Bagels, 12400 N. Interstate 35, for a consistently moderate to hard 3-5 hour ride.
5. Gruppo VOP Ride: Meets at 7 a.m. Wednesdays at home of Brad Houston, 1813 Holly Hill Drive, north of Barton Creek Square Mall. Race-paced, 28-mile pre-work ride.
6. Mellow Johnny's Ride: Team Hotel San Jose leads a race-oriented group out of Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop, 400 Nueces St., at 8:30 a.m. on occasional Saturdays.
7. Northside Tuesday Nighter: Leaves 6 p.m. Tuesdays from Lake Travis Cyclery, 401 RR620, for 26-mile out-and-back ride.
8. Sunday Mellow Ride: Leaves 8:30 a.m. Sundays from Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop, 400 Nueces St., for a 2.5- to 3-hour intense ride.
9. Jack and Adam's: Leaves 8:30 a.m. Sundays from Jack and Adams Bike Shop, 1210 Barton Springs Road, for brisk 38-plus mile ride that often develops into a race.