Aside from the 12,000 screaming Germans, it looks like a remarkably well-behaved version of The Road Warrior. “You ride [your bicycle] behind a very large motorcycle,” says Portlander Zak Kovalcik, “and a man who’s standing up on the motorcycle to give you the biggest break from the wind possible.”
In 2012, Kovalcik became the first American in four decades to take part in Germany’s famed stayer bike races. The races go up to 50 miles an hour, and all the while Kovalcik was pedaling halfway to sideways, on a velodrome’s in-turned slant.
“It was a little crazy,” he says. “but a lot of fun.” Before his first stayer race, he’d trained with a motorcycle for only two or three days. He did well enough in Berlin’s six-day stayers that he got invited to the standard six-day races in Copenhagen, and to more stayer races in the next year.
The lanky Kovalcik, 31, looks a little like a well-behaved Road Warrior himself, with a ring piercing his lower lip and one side of his head shaved, while the rest of his hair floats into a bleached Flock of Seagulls side-hawk mullet. He says he figures he got the call to compete in the international races because he was the only one “crazy enough.”
He’s also fast. In 2012, Kovalcik became a double national champion at the USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships in Carson, Calif. He won as part of a two-man chase team and also in the omnium, a grueling multiday event that includes races as short as 250 meters and as long as 40 kilometers.
Thing is, he never intended to be a track racer.
When he moved to Portland in 2005, his only real idea was to start a band and get a job as a bike messenger—the same things he’d done in Pittsburgh, where he says the only people riding bikes in those days were “weirdos and punk kids and bike messengers.” He has “Pittsburgh” tattooed in cursive across the width of his back.
But he played only one rock show in Portland, in a punk cover band at a Halloween party. “Once I started bike racing,” says Kovalcik, “everything else took a back seat.” In Pittsburgh, he’d already run unsanctioned alley-cat races against other messengers, twice winning the national Cycle Courier Championship on courses that blitzkrieged through city streets. But in Portland in 2006, he took his fixie onto the Alpenrose Velodrome for the first time.
“It’s probably one of the most terrifying velodromes anywhere in the world,” Kovalcik says. “It’s got this long cigar shape with long flat straightaways, and then tight steep corners and kind of an abrupt transition between the two. But it was addicting.” He climbed to the elite racing levels within a year.
He caught the eye of coach Brian Abers, who runs a cycling program called BriHOP—Brian’s House of Pain. “He sort of tricked me into doing workouts with him,” Kovalcik says. Specifically, Abers told Kovalcik he’d help him with his plans to get fit for bike courier races. “But basically he was getting me to be a track racer.”
In 2008, Kovalcik’s third season, the goal was to qualify in the Elite Track National Championships. “It seemed insane,” Kovalcik says. But in the scratch race—where every racer starts on the same line—he almost achieved it. “But I sort of sat up at the end of the race,” he says. “Big lesson. Never, ever sit up.” He lost out on qualifying by the width of a bike tire.
He qualified for finals the next year, however, and since 2010 he’s never been off the awards podium when he’s raced in the nationals.
But still, he’s struggling for sponsorships—Sizzle Pie pizzeria backed out of funding his team this year, though he’s grateful to Veloforma for funding his bike—and says track cycling doesn’t get the same support from the USA Cycling organization as high-profile road racing.
“Track cycling—road racers think it’s the redheaded stepchild of road racing,” he says. “There are no full-time athletes. I work a full-time job [at Bike Gallery] and train and travel and race all on my own dime.
“It’s a white-collar, privileged sport here,” he laments.
But he has no intention of giving up on it. “Track is more exciting,” he says. “Road racing is a lot of boring riding before the fun part, the sprinting. On the track, you’re developing sheer speed, power. Tactics play a bigger role. On the road, you can beat people into submission just by being strong.”