La Jolla Grand Prix Bicycle Race : Pierce Will Attempt to Retain His Title Today

Jeff Pierce averages 700 miles a week of training on his 12-speed bicycle over some of San Diego County's roughest terrain.

His journeys regularly take him through the pines of the Palomar Mountain area, the dry Anza Borrego Desert and rustic Ramona.

But today, Pierce will be powering his Huffy past trendy shops and quaint cafes as he attempts to defend his title in the Bud Light La Jolla Grand Prix bicycle race.

Pierce, who finished 80th out of 210 riders in the 1986 Tour de France, is a road racer by heart but seems to have more success in the shorter races, or criteriums, such as the La Jolla Grand Prix. He won the race in 1986 and finished second in 1985.

"I've always been fairly good at criteriums, but my training and real strength has been in road racing and stage racing, the longer-day and multi-day events," said Pierce, 28. "I've had a little more success with the criteriums if they are really hard events, with a talented field and big prizes and big crowds."

Criteriums are multi-lap events run on courses usually a mile or less in length.

Today's competition begins at 11 a.m. The men's event, starting at 1:45 p.m., will be a 40-mile, 66-lap race through the streets of downtown La Jolla. The start-finish line is at the corner of Girard and Silverado streets.

"I really enjoy the criteriums," Pierce said. "They're intense and short. It's a big thrill when you do well in front of a big crowd. Road races are more subdued. It's rewarding in a different way when you win a long road race because it's such a commitment and effort over a long time.

"But it's great whenever you get to throw your arms up in the air as you cross the finish line first."

Pierce said the tactics and moves involved with long-distance racing can be applied to the criteriums. But in the shorter races, the rider's reaction time must be increased dramatically.

"In the longer races, you can let a breakaway go for one or two minutes," he said. "But in criteriums, you have to worry when anyone gets a whole straightaway gap on the field. It becomes a serious threat. If you don't react immediately when you see someone attacking, and they open up even a few seconds gap, it will be harder to catch up."

Pierce was named as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic cycling team in 1984. As part of the Olympic Opportunity Program, which allows Olympic athletes to pursue their sport and a career, Pierce moved to San Diego to work for General Dynamics. He has a degree in business management from Michigan State.

After the Olympics, he decided to remain in San Diego because of the ideal training climate.

"It's really nice to go out anytime you want in the winter and ride," he said. "Usually in the winter, a cyclist will take some time off the bike to concentrate on the weights, but in San Diego you don't have to take the time off the bike. You can keep a certain level of fitness."

Pierce turned professional last summer when he signed with the 7-Eleven racing team. His first race as a professional: the Tour de France, a grueling, multi-day race over steep terrain.

"That's definitely not the optimum way to break into professional cycling because that race is so incredibly hard," Pierce said. "But I survived.

"You really learn something about yourself doing that race. You think that if you can endure that, and go the distance, you know you have really done something. Just to be there is quite an accomplishment, it is so hard, so fast and so competitive.

"There isn't a moment to even take your hands off the bars long enough to reach in your pack to eat or drink something because people in the pack are so intense and so wired that something could happen in front of you and, bam, there is a crash."

That same kind of swift reaction time is also needed for the criteriums. Often in the early laps, packs of 25 or more riders may be pedaling dangerously close to one another, struggling to negotiate a hairpin turn.

Pierce said he often uses the criteriums for training because they are faster and provide a different style of racing.

He doesn't underestimate the challenge of repeating as winner this year. In fact, he doesn't really expect to win.

"The odds are against any one individual winning a race like this because there are so many things involved," he said. "It's not just two teams with either a winner or loser. There are 20 guys out of a 100-man field who could have good chance to win the race.

"With different breakaways and teams, it's very hard to win. I will try to repeat. I have had good luck here and I hope to be on the podium again . . . hopefully, in the middle."

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