BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/National champ takes final spins at 2018 Velodrome Challenge

COURTESY: TIM YARNELL - Riders are off and racing at Alpenrose Dairy during a recent Velodrome Challenge. The 2018 Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge will be a farewell event of sorts for one successful Portland track racer.

Zak Kovalcik, a five-time national champion, is relocating to Los Angeles this month. Before he leaves, the 35-year-old hopes he can win a few more races on the track where he learned the sport.

Scheduling conflicts — this week the USA Cycling Masters Nationals take place in Pennsylvania — have impacted participation at Alpenrose in recent years. But the event remains the biggest at the Southwest Portland track. And, after missing the last two Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge weekends to race elsewhere, Kovalcik made it a priority to enter this year.

"It's our big race of the year," he says. "And it's always nice to be able to race on your home track and win in front of a home crowd."

A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native who has lived in Portland since 2005 and been racing at Alpenrose since 2006, Kovalcik has had international success and is eyeing a spot on the Olympic team in 2020.

In 2017, he placed seventh in the scratch race at the Union Cycliste Internationale world championships at Hong Kong.

Kovalcik was a bike messenger beginning at age 19. In 2006, at 23, he began racing on the track. Learning the sport at Alpenrose, which he considers one of the most challenging tracks in the world, helped him as he progressed to high-level competition.

"People that come from other tracks might not be used to the very unique shape of our track. It's got very steep banking and a tight transition from the straightaways to the banking. It's just a hard track to ride," Kovalcik says. "That said, it's also a really fun track to ride. The racing is always really good on it. While it's not as fast as some of the other tracks, it's always a lot of fun."

One of Kovalcik's goals this weekend is to break his track record of 4 minutes, 52.9 seconds in the 4-kilometer pursuit. If conditions are right, he hopes to go faster than 4:50.

In recent years, Kovalcik has split time between working as a bike-fitter and salesman at the Bike Gallery with racing professionally. He says the money from cycling pays for his racing but isn't enough to live off of.

After he represents Alpenrose at the Marymoor Grand Prix in Redmond, Washington, July 20-22, Kovalcik will move to L.A. to become a coach for a youth cycling team. 

The job and climate should provide time to train for his Olympics push, the next step of that being the USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships Aug. 4-7 at Carson, California.

He will be a bit old in 2020 for an Olympic-level cyclist, but hopes that because he started later than most he might have a few more miles in front of him.

In road racing this spring, Kovalcik won four events and had seven top-three finishes, an indication he is in good form heading into the heart of the velodrome season.

"I don't seem to be slowing down," he says.

USA Cycling is focusing on the team pursuit event in the run-up to the 2010 Games, so making that team is his best chance of competing at Tokyo. He has regularly attended training camps for that team since last year. He also could qualify in the Madison, a two-rider event that he and Zach Carlson won at the 2017 Pan-Am Cycling Championships.

After racing at Alpenrose, Kovalcik will be in Redmond one week later for the Marymoor Grand Prix. It is the second half of a Cascadia Cup; the riders earning the most points over two weekends at Alpenrose and Marymoor earn a little extra prize and the track whose riders score the most points at the two events gets a trophy.

While Kovalcik looks to make a lasting impression during his final races as a local at Alpenrose, local junior rider McKenna McKee will be try to build upon her strong 2018 results.

Another junior standout, Lauren Zeihnert of Portland, who also recently competed in girls races at the U.S. Junior Nationals, is out with a broken collarbone.

McKee and Zeihnert traveled to the national meet in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, with grant money from the Portland Velodrome Committee. Zeihnert suffered her injury while racing there.

Among the more successful riders expected to compete at this AVC is Rachel McKinnon of South Carolina, the 200-meter record holder at Giordana Velodrome in South Carolina and at Dick Lane Velodrome in Georgia.

Also slated to be on hand is Tela Crane, a Washington native who lives in Cypress, California, and has won national titles in six disciplines on the track.

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