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Scared or crazy

Robert Ryan’s introduction to the Nevada City Classic bicycle race’s dark side came quick.

The San Francisco native can’t quite remember – or has successfully blocked out – the exact year of his Classic debut, but he narrowed it down to the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Ryan, 43, who picked up the sport in his late 20s, was a veteran of more cycling competitions than you could shake a sprocket at by the time he crossed the Bear River bridge.



Experienced?

Sure.




Fearless?

You betcha.

But how would he fare at what’s been considered one of the toughest races in the biz since, like, forever?

He found out a lot faster than he would have hoped.

“I wasn’t nervous at all. When I hit the first corner (of the first lap), I was totally comfortable,” the tattooed father of two boys said. “But what happened was they changed the apex of the second turn (from the practice run) before the race started.”

“I came really hot into the corner. I already had my line, but I couldn’t take it,” he added. “I made the mistake of hitting my brakes and I went down. “

Down, but not out, Ryan got right back into the saddle.

“I didn’t get too banged up, but it derailed my chain and ripped my shorts. So my butt was sticking out for a few laps,” he grinned. “I never went back. But I’ve always had a desire to win this race.”

More than a decade later, he’ll get his chance.

Ryan, who returned to Grass Valley from Hawaii last December, will duke it out with some of the nation’s best 35-and-over cyclists for one of the Classic’s two mens Masters division championships when the 44th edition of the race kicks off Sunday.

The youngsters will get things started with the Ron Miller Junior Grand Prix/Lance Armstrong Series at 1 p.m.

The Masters 35+/45+ division – both men and women – is scheduled to begin at 1:55 p.m.

“It’s so hard to figure out the size of the field before hand, but the Masters group is the biggest we’ve got as far as pre-registered riders,” Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop co-owner and a lead Classic organizer Duane Strawser said. “So many of the guys are ex pros. (That makes this) definitely one of the strongest events on the West Coast every year.”

The women pros take over the 1.1 mile loop through the tree-lined streets of Nevada City at 3 p.m., with the senior division men to follow an hour later.

The pro men will close the show at 5:05 p.m.

Blood on the asphalt

While Ryan walked away from his close encounter with Union Street’s hay bales with little more than a serious case of road rash, he’s well aware of the true dangers the course has in store for the ill-prepared.

“To be honest, it’s a scary course. If anyone says they’re not scared, they’re crazy,” said Ryan, who has won four-straight Masters time trial events this season and will compete in the national championships in Park City, Utah later this summer. “You’ve got to have a lot of balls to even get on that course with 100 other people elbow-to-elbow going into the that first turn at 45-50 mph. If one person makes a mistake, you’re going to have a huge pileup,”

“The thing a lot of people who watch the race don’t get is it’s not just you out there, it’s that you have to trust everybody around you. Any mistake, and you can die. That’s no joke,” he added. “I’ll get worked up about this race probably more than any other just because of the fear factor involved.”

Drop the sheer terror from the equation and you’re only halfway home.

The uphill portion – riders will climb 300 feet per lap to finish at 4,500 total feet over the course of the race- is something that makes the Classic so tough.

“This race is so difficult because it encompasses so many parts of cycling. It’s not for the pure climber, it’s not for the pure sprinter,” he said. “If you can’t recover enough on the descent to hit that hill hard again – you’re going to be hitting that hill 20 times – you’re going to get (left behind).

“You’ve got to keep your momentum coming out of the first turn because the hill just past Friar Tuck’s is super steep. It doesn’t go on for very long, but it’s enough to zap your legs,” Ryan added. “By the time you get to the top of the hill, you’ve barely got enough time to catch your breath. That’s when somebody will attack. You’re dying, but if you can’t counter, you’re going to get dropped.”


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