Wheelmen getting bigger, stronger, faster

There are a number of questions, and a few exclamations, circulating in local competitive bicycle racing circles.

“Who were those guys at Mason Lake?”

“Did you see who was in the black and white jerseys?”

“Those guys own the Seward Park series!”

“Oh no, not them again!”

The Rolling Bay Wheelmen have earned the accolades, and are providing the answers. And competitors are getting used to seeing the black-and-white jerseys on race days.

Rather, they’re getting used to seeing the backs of them.

A mere two years after their inception, the island cycling team has grown from two riders to nine.

Citing a lack of organization for racing on the island, team founders Jason Elhardt and Paul Johnson started out small, but with a solid vision.

Looking to to get juniors riders together with older and more experienced cyclists, they mentored Justin “Lumpy” Morgan, who was then 18, and working at Classic Cycle in the Village.

Morgan’s first year with the Wheelmen yielded amazing rookie results -- first place in the Seward Park summer-long criterium, along with a flurry of top-five finishes, and fourth in the state juniors road race event.

Apparently, Morgan took the teaching, and subsequent success, to heart.

“I’ve dedicated my entire being to becoming a pro cyclist on the Jelly Belly squad,” said Morgan.

“And he’s got the talent and dedication to do that,” said Elhardt.

Johnson and Elhardt didn’t have to do much recruiting to bring new cyclists onboard -- the buzz was already getting around.

“It’s a small island. Everyone else has found us,” said Elhardt.

And newer team members have already reaped the rewards of the established, experienced cycling foundation laid down by Johnson and Elhardt.

First-year racer Kiel Reijnen has dominated the Junior B class races, made up of riders age 15-16.

Reijnen started out the season by stringing together an impressive run of first place finishes, including wins at the Icebreaker Time Trials in Auburn, the April 13 Volunteer Park criterium, and stage 1 and stage 3 wins at the late-April Tour of Walla Walla.

Thursday night, Reijnen took home another first place at Seward.

“My dad raced when he was younger, and I’m used to being out on the road with my mountain bike. But when I found these guys, I really started racing,” said Reijnen.

Teammate Francis Toglia finished right behind Reijnen in the April 13 criterium, and Peter Nowadnick and Toglia took fourth and fifth in the Icebreaker TT.

So with the blue ribbons piling up, what’s next for the fledgling team?

“This is just a starting point, it’s definitely not an end result,” said Johnson.

Most members of the team are already looking at launching into the next stage of competitive cycling.

At the international level, there are 16 medal opportunities for track racing in the Olympics and World Championships,

whereas there are only two chances at medaling for road and time trials.

“The intensity level in track racing is bumped up a bit,” said Elhardt.

So, according to Elhardt, the more the Wheelmen there are on the track, the more attractive junior members become to to national level coaches.

Not that it will take much to be noticed if the team continues its winning ways.

“The juniors have won almost everything they’ve entered,” said Elhardt.

“Both Kiel and Justin have qualified for National Championships, and there’s always the possibility of others.”

Train and travel

The Wheelmen team trains for racing year-round, rain or shine. Though there are days where riders will utilize stationary apparatus for indoor mileage, occasional inclement weather doesn’t seem to deter them from hitting the island roads.

“When it’s drizzling and cold outside, it just feels like training,” said Reijnen.

And while not putting in road miles in the saddle, their regimen consists of weightlifting and cardio-work at the gym.

The team has racked up a few miles of windshield time as well, traveling to places like Walla Walla, Missoula, Mont., Portland, Enumclaw and Tacoma for races. But travel, maintenance and other competition necessities are costly.

And the community has stepped up to offer a helping hand.

“We’ve drummed up enough interest to offset racing costs, which include tires and jerseys,” said Elhardt.

Colorful logos from local sponsors Classic Cycle, The Kirkpatrick Architects, The Reijnen Company, Gym at The Pavilion, Jim Kennedy, Bainbridge Island Realty, Deschamps Realty and others stand out on the front of the Wheelmen togs.

“It really makes it feel like a team, and it makes the overall financial commitment less.”

So where do the Rolling Bay Wheelmen go from here?

If the first two years are any indication, their prospects for continued growth and success are certainly better than average.

“I would like to use give back to the cycling community that’s been such a part of our lives,” said Elhardt.

“Yeah,” Reijnen adds with a grin. “If torturing us is giving back.”

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