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USA cycling coach praises sport as annual Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge rolls on

by:  JAMIE STAFF

American novelist Ernest Hemingway fearlessly tackled adrenaline-pounding activities such as bullfighting, deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting. The one subject Hemingway loved that he could never quite get right in words was the sport of bicycle racing.

'I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the road.' Hemingway wrote in 'A Moveable Feast.'

'French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write.'

So, if even Hemingway was unable to describe bicycle racing properly, you are unlikely to get a good feel for the thrill of the sport by reading a newspaper article about it.

Fortunately, Portland will be hosting a top-flight bicycle racing event in the Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge, which began Friday and runs through Sunday at Alpenrose Dairy.

The event features national and international champions, and world-class Olympians.

The biggest name in cycling coming to Portland in the 12th year of the event, is USA Cycling sprint coach Jamie Staff.

Staff, who hails from England, spent the first part of his cycling career riding BMX.

'I did BMX for 20 years,' Staff says. 'It was fun, it was exciting. You're jumping, you're getting big air, it was really cool. But as I got older, the crashes, they weren't as much fun.

'I've always been a really powerful rider. I wasn't always the smoothest. I wasn't always the most technical, meaning I couldn't get through the jumps the best. I was good, but not the best.'

Both because track racing suited Staff's abilities better and because it was an Olympic sport, he made the switch from BMX.

'I was a very strong rider, anyway, and I was able to express myself very easily on the track,' Staff says.

Staff competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the Keirin and the team sprint. He did not show well and it almost made him give up racing.

'I went to Athens and had a very negative experience,' Staff says. 'I made too much of it in my mind, basically. I had a really bad taste from it. I didn't ride for about six months.'

It was a good thing Staff started riding again. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he took home a gold medal as a member of the world-record-breaking British team sprint trio.

'It meant a lot,' Staff says. 'We all have our dreams and aspirations, and being a good athlete I knew I was physically capable of doing something like the Olympics.'

In 2010, after hanging up his pedaling shoes, Staff became the coach for the U.S. sprinters.

'As you get older, different things appeal to you,' Staff says. 'Not every successful athlete is going to make a good coach. But I've really enjoyed it. I never thought I'd ever be a teacher, essentially. But I actually get a lot out of it.

'I couldn't wish to do any other job. I spent 27 years gaining that knowledge. It would be kind of silly for me just to walk away from it.'

Staff, who married an American, is not a U.S. citizen. But because cycling is such a small community, it is not surprising that the Brit would be coaching the American team.

'It's quite a small world,' he says. 'You go to the world championships and you've got Germans coaching the British. You've got Australians coaching French. I could probably have a job with any country.'

Cyclists are some of the most notorious athletes in the world for doping. As someone who has been around the sport for a long time, Staff says he knows about the problems cheating creates. But he says cycling is starting to get cleaner.

'As early as back as the early '90s," he says, "it was kind of one of those things where everyone was like, 'Well, everyone else is doing it. To compete, I need to, too.'  But the sport is cleaning up, like other sports. You've basically got to be very clever to want to try it. Like all sports, it will get cleaner and cleaner. It's just going to take time.'

Cycling is wildly popular in Europe and Asia. One of the biggest challenges the sport faces in this country is getting young kids to forgo the major sports and hop on a bicycle track.

'A the end of the day, we need to create awareness,' Staff says. 'You're up against it. The mainstream sports get so much TV time it's hard to compete against it.

'The parents look at those sports as being potential avenues for their children. So to get a child to focus on track cycling, where there might not be any money in it, is hard. We're relying on finding those individuals that love cycling no matter what.'

There might not be a better place to create awareness for track racing than in the bicycle-friendly city of Portland. The Alpenrose Velodrome is a 1/6-mile track with 43-degree banking. That means that the cyclists must go a minimum of 12.5 miles per hour or they will fall off.

The races this weekend will see cyclists reach speeds of more than 40 mph, though. There will be a plethora of different events to watch - each unique.

'Being a rider that knows something about the sport, I find them all interesting,' Staff says. 'The guys are going close to 50 miles an hour, and they're riding literally within millimeters of each other. If you've ever done it, you realize how hard it is.'

Even if the Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge does not bring any new riders into the sport, who knows, maybe a spectator will be able to write about bicycle racing the way Hemingway never could.

'You'll see a still image of guys at the Olympic level doing it, and it's just perfection,' Staff says. 'I would even go as far as saying it's an art.'