When I arrive at the Lizard Lounge at 7:50 pm, there's a line outside the Crane Building that runs along Northwest 14th Avenue and turns down Irving. It's a young crowd, disproportionately pierced and tattooed, pretty good looking, but they're not waiting to get into a club. They've gathered to witness—for the first time on US soil—the phenomenon that is roller racing
The event, sponsored by British-based Rapha Racing and hosted by Portland's own Lizard Lounge, took place at 8 pm on Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Crane Building in the Pearl District. While DJ Dan Sharp dropped bass beats for a packed house, slightly drunk, cowbell-wielding fans
let the bikers know just how much was at stake. In a bizarre turn of events, the amped-up evening yielded not one champion, but two.
I talked to a couple of racers before the event. Erik Weeman of Team GrundleBruisers, who wore a white terry-cloth bathrobe, was a little anxious. “I feel the pain already," he said, “I'm not a fast bicyclist.” Did he have a special strategy? “You just keep your rear wheel on the rollers. No bouncing.”
But for Zac Paab, of HUP United, the secret to success lay in footwear. Pointing to the laces of his navy blue Adidas Sambas, he confided, “I'm keepin' it tight.”
For those who don't know, roller races are ferocious contests conducted on stationary bikes
. Four competitors, side-by-side, pedal for 500 meters while their progress is digitally tracked on an overhead monitor.
Don't let the cushy concept fool you: The 500-meter race is routinely biked in under 20 seconds. Saturday's fastest time was 18.27 seconds, which translates to a ground speed of over 70 miles per hour. Also, since RR bikes aren't affixed to the rolling mechanism, competitors must balance as they ride. Balancing might not sound all that difficult, but since most participants are at least slightly buzzed
when they saddle up, it adds an element of surprise to the sport.
The booze, it must be said, was high class. Spectators enjoyed microbrews from Bridgeport and fizzy Prosecco from Mt. Tabor wines, as well as tamales from La Bonita.
Perhaps that unusual combination accounts for the empty bucket
placed beside each bike. Although none of the participants took advantage of their barf buckets, it became apparent, from a sour smell that arose in the gallery, that the audience had more than made up for them.
Rounds one and two were more notable for spectacle than athleticism. Riders frequently removed their shirts, revealing all manner of body art, piercings, and, in one case, copious shoulder hair.
“There's grass on the field, Bryan,” observed MC John Wallrod.
“That's what I like to see,” replied MC Brian Witty.
Many of Portland's 16 teams coordinated unusual outfits for the event, including the Gentle Lovers
, a co-ed team who took the colors for their pink-red-and-white spandex suits from their mascot, a lovely plush unicorn. Despite the team name, the unicorn was not uniformly, or even gently, loved—an angry competitor loudly declaimed against “that narwhal, or whatever.”
With the apparent intention of intimidating her opponents, one woman wore a capacious green tutu—an innovation she soon regretted, as the silken folds of her garment rubbed against the back wheel of her bike, slowing it down.
By far the most compelling onstage presence was Caroline Piquette, a leggy hostess in a shimmering gold bikini and opera gloves, who generously helped competitors onto their bikes.
Although ostensibly neutral, in one instance Caroline seemed to affect the outcome of a race. At the MC's urging, she displayed herself in front of the youngest competitor—a 17-year-old named Walton—whispering private encouragement
into his ears while he biked. Unexpectedly, he reached the quarter-finals.
The final race was run by Dean
Tracy, of Team Vanilla
, and “Chas”, an unknown walk-on from the previous day's open qualifying round. Crowd sentiment was evenly divided. Dean seemed to be a favorite of the in-crowd, Portland's cyclo-crossers, but Chas
—who biked in only a pair of pink-and-white boxer-briefs, with the words “Track Cocaine” written in Sharpie across his stomach
—had underdog appeal.
Despite an increased race distance of 1,000 meters, the last round was over in a heartbeat. After a slow start, Chas was unable to catch his numbingly fast opponent. Caroline raised Dean's hand to signify victory and offered him a bottle of Prosecco, which he shook and sprayed all over everyone.
That's when the trouble started. From the pit crew came a shout: “Equipment malfunction!”
They insisted that the sandbags anchoring Chas's bike to the ground had come up, and the bike had shifted backward off its rollers. A rematch was required.
Was this possible? The champagne had already been splashed, the photographs taken! Half the crowd left immediately, in apparent disgust. Others began chanting, “Bull-shit, bull-shit!” Fellow biker Zak Kovalcik, who led the chant, thought the decision was “fucked up. When you give 100 percent, you give it for a reason
, you know?”
Neither of the racers wanted a rematch, but Rapha stood strong, and they reluctantly returned to the stage. In its second rendition, the bout went to Chas; an obviously exhausted and champagne-bloated Dean just couldn't keep up.
At first, Rapha was inclined to call Chas the winner. However, after much heckling from audience members, the organizers named both bikers champion, and announced that each would receive the grand prize, a custom-built bike frame from Portland's Ira Ryan
. Additionally, they announced, each finalist would receive a rolling mechanism from manufacturer Kreitler.
Their decision salvaged what was shaping up to be a major buzzkill. Assuaged, the audience returned to the drink table for more Prosecco, and I caught up with the finalists in their post-race revels.
Dean was reclined on a couch in Lizard Lounge, sipping a drink, surrounded by svelte bicycle chicks. To what did he attribute his success? “I've been racing on fixed gears for six years, so I'm used to it.”
When I ask Chas—a bike messenger by day, and the owner of reignpdx.com—what he's gonna do with his roller, he doesn't hesitate: “Ride it every fuckin' day.”