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Teen races toward a title

• Larssyn Staley wants a spot on U.S. team

On a typical Tuesday evening, teen-ager Larssyn Staley is surrounded by a pack of 60 grown men with shaved legs, brilliant multicolored jerseys and $2,000 carbon-fiber bicycles. They are hurtling around the local race track at 30 mph, and she's keeping up just fine.

This Beaverton cyclist, who turns 17 on Wednesday, is more than just one of the boys. She's the best female road rider under age 23 in the nation.

'I remember the first time I saw her,' says Mike Murray, who organizes local bike races and has watched Staley develop. 'She was at a clinic for cyclocross riding and was having trouble with mounting and dismounting the bike.

'She got so frustrated she started crying, and that's what makes her special. Even at that age, she had the drive to do well. Most kids wouldn't care that much.'

Staley started like most youngsters, riding her bike around the neighborhood when she had free time.

'It was just a plain old Huffy like you'd buy at Fred Meyer,' she recalls. Her family was looking for a sport she could try, and a friend suggested a cycling club. Before she knew it, she was going on training rides. At age 12, she competed in her first race, from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge. The route climbed 2,000 feet up a road that cars labor to master. Many kids would have quit on the spot. Instead, Staley was hooked.

When she was 14, she won her first Oregon state championship, beating women twice her age. The next year, she repeated the feat.

Soon, riding against men became her normal training regimen.

And what did the men think when they first found this girl in their midst?

'There was no middle ground,' Staley recalls. 'Some guys just would not let me in line, no matter what. Or if I would try to get away from the pack, they would chase me down. It was like they couldn't let a girl beat them.'

Other men were downright chivalrous.

'They'd see it was me and let me into the line,' she says, 'or if I took off up ahead, they'd say, 'Good for her,' and let me go.'

Racing with the men has paid off. Last year, Staley earned the coveted Stars-and-Stripes cycling jersey, winning the road race for under-23 riders at the U.S. National Championships.

Her accomplishments as a member of the Saturn Development team have taken their toll on normal teen activities.

'Racing takes a lot of energy out of you,' she concedes. 'On a Monday, I'll get really excited and look forward to doing something with friends on Friday, but by Friday I'll decide that I don't want to do anything. It sounds good, but I realize that I have other priorities.'

Busy schedule

Staley hasn't let schoolwork slide, despite her heavy training and racing schedule. A junior, she attends Beaverton High School part time and is home-schooled the rest of the time.

Her family supports her racing. Ten relatives often cheer her on at the local races. She also draws strength from her relationship with her older brother, Trent, a standout swimmer at the University of Southern California.

'He's helped me out a lot,' she says. 'I really look up to him and respect him, and he has high expectations for me.'

Staley hasn't missed out entirely on the rites of adolescence. 'I probably spend too much time talking on the phone to my friends,' she says with a laugh.

When it comes to racing, she continues to enjoy riding with the guys. But dating them is another story. 'It takes too much energy!' she says. After a pause, she adds: 'Besides, it would totally ruin my focus.'

That focus is aimed at earning the chance to represent the United States this fall at the Junior World Cycling Championships. If she wins her age group at the national championships, she'll be on her way to Belgium in October, wearing the Stars and Stripes.

Just how good can she be? Scary good. Maybe even Lance Armstrong good.

'She has the talent to be a world champion,' Murray says. 'She is potentially the best bike rider ever from the state of Oregon.'

Barely old enough to drive, Staley is certainly driven. Not surprisingly, she admires the late Steve Prefontaine, the runner from the University of Oregon known for his competitive passion. Her favorite Prefontaine quote says it all:

'To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.'