Wheelmen racing to head of pack

(L-R) Jason Elhardt, Justin Morgan and Paul Johnson are the Rolling Bay Wheelmen. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
(L-R) Jason Elhardt, Justin Morgan and Paul Johnson are the Rolling Bay Wheelmen.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

There are certain advantages to bicycling with others.

Motivation, for one – the drive to get out on the road, to do more miles, to push a little bit harder on days when body or mind might be less than willing.

For those serious about competition and training, there is also the wisdom to be had from those who’ve been at the sport longer.

And, as Paul Johnson notes, “Let’s not forget the all-important, splitting-the-car-fees” on the ferry en route to off-island races.

“It’s not a very easy sport to break into, on an island where you’re cut off from where they’re racing,” said Johnson, founding member of a team calling themselves the Rolling Bay Wheelmen. “Even the roads aren’t very conducive to riding.”

But the Wheelmen have picked up surprising speed in little time, cutting a swath through the regional racing circuit during the just-completed summer season.

In his first round of serious competition, 18-year-old islander Justin “Lumpy” Morgan earned first place in a summer-long criterium series held at Seattle’s Seward Park.

He also took blue ribbons and top-5 finishes in several other events, including fourth place in the state juniors road race event.

Teammate and mentor Jason Elhardt, 32, focused on circular track “velodrome” events, taking first place in his age group in the 1K time trials at the state championships.

He then ventured to the United States Cycling Federation’s national championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., early last month, taking 15th overall.

“I made my goals,” Elhardt said, “and I was pleased with that.”

Only Morgan, 31, who trained as seriously as the others, stayed away from the track come race day.

“I have a girlfriend this year,” Johnson said, “so I haven’t been racing at all.”

“I get to be called the coach,” he added. “I tell Justin to do whatever Jason says, and I get the credit.”

The Wheelmen were formed over the past year by Johnson and Elhardt, college roommates who grew up in Minnesota in the shadow of racing great Greg Lamond.

Both had enjoyed earlier stints in the racing world. Elhardt wanted to get back into competition after an eight-year layoff; Morgan had more recently worked with the U.S.A. Cycling organization in Colorado.

Their goal was to pair masters-class riders – those over age 30 – with younger riders looking to break in to the sport.

They hooked up with Morgan, whom Johnson knew from work at Classic Cycle in the Village.

A lifelong bicyclist, Morgan had been making a daily commute from his Baker Hill home to the West Sound Academy near Suquamish, where he was a student.

“I always had sort of a plan about bike racing, but never had a chance,” Morgan said.

Informal time trials last year on Crystal Springs were followed by a winter of serious workouts – many of them on stationary apparatus with heart-rate monitoring, to better understand and optimize the body’s performance. Lengthy road rides allowed the team to practice race tactics.

And while island living did put them at some remove from competition, what it did offer is terrain the Wheelmen say proved excellent for training. The island’s many hills simulate the “speed up-slow down” conditions the body encounters in an actual road race.

“Moving here from Colorado Springs, I thought this would be a much easier place to ride,” Johnson said. “It’s not.”

“I think the comment (he) made was, ‘I’ve never shifted gears so much,’” Elhardt said.

The racing season began in early spring, and competition took them all over the map – Thursday evening criterium events at Seward Park, weekend events in Enumclaw, Leavenworth, Yakima and Elma.

The team – Morgan in particular – wasted no time establishing themselves on a circuit choked with dozens of teams.

“(His success) happened so quickly, that was what was surprising,” Elhardt said.

Morgan has his own take:

“Knowing these guys, it was like, ‘If I don’t go to this race, Paul’s going to beat me up the next day.’”

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