Thursday Night At The Races

Instead of racing around the track with dreams of being Bobby Labonte or Jeff Gordon, it’s more like Lance Armstrong or Greg LeMond.

Forget about Winston Cup chatter. The Tour de France would be better. Their machines? Some may be modified, but they’re not in Chevys, Fords or Pontiacs. When they ride, they’re on rigs such as Merlin, Bianchi and Eddy Merckx.

It’s Thursday night at the races, and on those nights, the pavement at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon belongs to bicycles.

Bicycling and the oval have been together before New Hampshire International Speedway was born 13 years ago. In the late 70s, Loudon was home to Bryar Motorsports Park, the predecessor to NHIS. A Sunapee area bicycling club approached the track and asked to use it. The answer was yes, and the relationship grew.

“It became a place they could play,” said NHIS director of operations Ted Goddard.

Sharing The Track
NASCAR, truck, motorcycle, go-kart and bicycles all share the track, albeit at different times. During the season, it’s not uncommon to see a college or high school bicycle race in the stadium.

Bicycles take over the track at New Hampshire International Speedway on Thursday nights. (Photo by Marty Basch)

The New Hampshire Cycling Club (www.nhcyclingclub.com) holds its weekly training rides, which can attract nearly 100 riders of varying abilities. Doctors, lawyers, linemen, chimney sweeps, foresters and others ages 12 to 70 turn out.

For the most part, they’re serious amateurs. Lightweight composite, titanium and aluminum machines — weighing in around 17 to 21 pounds each — show up on the roof racks in the parking area. These are bicycles that are priced to start at $1,000. Leave the Huffy in the basement.

But that’s not to say less experienced riders aren’t welcome. Not only is the competition fierce, but it’s also a chance to learn the sport, its techniques and tactics. Cyclists are grouped according to ability — ABC – with A’s being the better ones. Each group rides together.

“You get packs of 35 or 40 bikers riding very close to each other,” says Leslie Ludtke, New Hampshire Cycling Club president. “That requires a lot of fitness and concentration.”

Course, Mileage Varies
The course and race mileage varies. One night it could be the 1.1-mile oval, or the 1.6-mile road course, or the one-mile long frontier course. One recent night, bikers competed in 29-, 24- and 19-mile races.

“Bikers love it,” says Ken McAdams, NHCC founder. “It’s a safe place. There are no cars. They race on flats, but also have all sorts of climbing and sprinting.”

It’s still a head-turning event and not without danger. Twice that night, the trackside Emergency Medical Services squad is called out for spills. Though not traveling 100 miles per hour like the cars, the pack can go by at a dizzying pace. Inches from each other, at ground level, spectators can feel the breeze as the colors buzz by. There’s bumping, select words of warning and phrases of encouragement.

Riding the track for the first time was Rae Crowell, a Nashua, N.H., software engineer. A triathlete, she said riding in a pack was a bit intimidating, but she would do it again.

“You don’t want to take anyone down with you,” she said. “People were friendly, giving advice along the way.”

Variety Of Riders
The New Hampshire Junior Cycling Academy — NHJCA — brings its teen-age riders there to train. Team riders from University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth are there, and so are members of the NHCC team. Former elite amateur athletes ride alongside Masters racers such as Derry’s Tom Cormier, an NHJCA coach who will dispense hints while riding.

“You try to teach some of the newer riders how to ride in a pack,” he said. “It’s not that dangerous. Just because somebody bumps you, you don’t have to fall down. Bike handling skills are very important.”

Another familiar face at the oval is Bob St. Hilare, Bradford, N.H. Active in both the NHCC and NHJCA, he’s also a Granite State Wheelman member. Racing isn’t his only passion. He used to bike tour and goes on recreational tandem rides with his wife.

“On the tandem, we get to go 30 miles per hour by ourselves because it’s easy to go fast with two people. Here, I get to go 30 miles per hour 6 inches from somebody else’s wheel with guys all around. It’s a rush … it’s addictive,” he said.

It’s also something that not everyone can do. Like the NASCAR drivers. Some show up early for their weekend races, arriving when the cyclists are there.

“They’ll ask if the bikers are here tonight,” says Goddard. “They don’t bring their bicycles with them. Most take a look and realize they’re not in shape.”

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