AMES, IA—Roller racing in bike shops, malls and seedy bars is picking up steam. Though it may not be as colorful as watching pigs race, for cyclists, it’s a close second.
“You have to be able to laugh at yourself because you’re going nowhere but you’re killing yourself getting there,” said Steve Lauber, store manager of Bike World in Ames, Iowa.
The shop’s race team participates in the Iowa Bike Racing Association roller series over the winter and sponsors a group roller ride at the shop once a week where riders can bring in a trainer or rollers and roll with a crowd.
“We’ve been involved in roller racing for over six years now and while I wouldn’t say the sport is exploding, we are seeing more interest in the weekly shop rides and the Iowa roller series,” Lauber said.
Greg Harper organizes Iowa’s USA Cycling sanctioned roller race series and has been involved in the sport since 1984. The Iowa series is raced over two miles on Kreitler rollers with the Killer Headwind doors ripped off for extra resistance.
“Every year we get a big group of new people in the series, though there is a fair amount of turnover. Since USA Cycling considers the events to qualify as races, that keeps new licensed riders interested in competing,” said Harper, who owns Harper’s Cycling & Fitness in Muscatine, Iowa.
Harper stages some of the roller events in shopping malls around the state, which he said intrigues shoppers. However, he’s not sure how many of them follow through to try racing themselves.
USA Cycling sanctions about 20 roller races, most in the East Coast and Midwest. The races are becoming popular even in warm-weather areas like California and Texas.
“There is quite a bit of potential for growth there as they are fun, challenging and cheap. The cost to license one of the roller races as a non-competitive training ride is only $15 and $25 as a competitive race,” said Andrea Smith, communications manager for USA Cycling.
Goldsprint roller racing, which consists of fork stands, 200- to 500-meter distances and lots of beer, is growing in popularity with messengers and urban cyclists. Not surprisingly, bars are a more common venue than malls or bike shops.
Unlike full rollers used in distance events, Goldsprints clamp the fork so sprinters can focus on turning circles as fast as possible.
London-based clothing company Rapha, which opened a U.S. subsidiary in Portland, Oregon last year, is promoting Rollapaluza-style races in the United States. The races are similar to Goldsprints except competitors are represented by hands on a giant clock face. Just like the roller races a century ago, the hand that gets around first wins.
“We sponsored our first race back in February, and then we sponsored a race at Mellow Johnny’s in Austin and at the Oregon Manifest bike show, and they are definitely getting bigger,” said Carey Schleicher-Haselhorst, customer service representative for Rapha.
Schleicher-Haselhorst said Rapha added a cyclocross segment to the Oregon Manifest bike show Goldsprint, staging the first Rapha ’cross roller race.
After completing their roller sprint, competitors grabbed a 16-inch Zoom-Bomb adapted kid’s bike and headed out on a short course of run-ups and barriers. The first one to ring the cowbell after completing the course won.
“OK, it was more of a show than a competition, but everyone had fun. We had quite a few race teams competing at the Manifest, some in full race kit, and others, well, they dressed how they wanted,” Schleicher-Haselhorst said.
The growing popularity of roller racing is not lost on Mountain Racing Products, manufacturer of Kreitler rollers. Kreitler’s bombproof designs make them a popular choice for Goldsprint and USA Cycling-style distance racing.
But retailers and promoters cite the lack of dedicated roller racing hardware and software as damping the activity’s popularity. A room full of riders riding rollers is not nearly as interesting as four riders racing against each other on a projected road course.
“Support for these races is a big part of our business now, and we are working toward offering a complete roller racing system,” said Paul Aieta, vice president of sales and marketing for Mountain Racing Products.
Harper uses an old system produced by Al Kreitler years ago. But he said it’s a DOS program that only works well because he has spent so many years fine-tuning it.
Race promoter Open Sprints developed a hardware and software solution for its own roller events based on an open source Arduino processor. The company offers circuit boards for sale and has sold about 11 to date.
“The system we came up with works with most rollers. And we are keeping it open source so everyone can refine what we have done,” said Luke Orland, hardware designer for Open Sprints.
Orland admits, however, that since his company only provides blank circuit boards and a bill of materials, it takes a nerd to put it together.