On the Fourth of July, Mike Orr of Seattle, Wash., finished the Casper (Wyo.) Classic, a seven-day stage race. Finished , not won, not even placed among the top 10.
Big deal, right? After all, there were more than 80 other cyclists who also managed to finish the thing.
But for the 18-year old Orr, it was a big deal. He became only the second junior cyclist ever to complete the grueling race contested mainly by professionals and top senior riders, about half of whom drop out somewhere along the line.
By finishing, Orr gave notice that although he’s just a junior, he can ride with the pros.
On Saturday, one month to the day after completing the Casper Classic, Orr started another week-long event, the U.S. Cycling Federation Junior Nationals. There, he gave notice that he cannot ride with his fellow 17-18-year-old juniors.
No, Orr rides away from them.
At least he did in the first criterium qualifying heat, when he shot out to more than a 100-yard lead on only the second lap.
OK, so 100 yards isn’t exactly a big lead when there remains 19 of 21 laps around an undeveloped block in Sorrento Mesa, a circle that has been measured at 1.1 kilometers.
Nonetheless it was a surprise to see a rider create such a large gap between himself and the pack so early in a preliminary heat.
Why expend so much energy when the top 35 of 61 cyclists qualify for the final? Most cyclists want to hang back in the pack where they can draft off the leaders, a strategy that allows competitors to use only 70 to 80% of the energy they would have to exert if they took the lead and broke the wind.
But Orr had a different idea.
“I was just trying to see what the pack was like,” he said. “And trying to make it so they wouldn’t be able to chase me later.”
His lead was so large early on that the race announcer told the crowd that Orr’s teammates (he rides for Granny’s Gourmet Muffins) were helping him by blocking the rest of the pack.
A good theory. How else could one guy stretch out a lead that, by the fifth lap, was over 150 yards?
There was, however, one flaw in the theory. Orr had no teammates in the race.
He was beating back the pack himself.
After seven laps out front, Orr decided to save himself for later. He dropped back in the field, drafted and caught his breath.
There he stayed for 11 laps.
Then with three to go, the pack, which was at an equivalent of a slow jog up to that point, quickened its pace. Orr made like a slingshot and re-established his early lead.
This time, he had help. Byron Merade of Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Velodrome team also broke from the field. The two cyclists traded leads, allowing them to draft off each other and maintain their wide lead.
In the end, Orr’s early strategy worked. Most of the pack failed to give chase, and Orr won in 35 minutes, 52 seconds. Merade, who came in behind Orr, was also given a time of 35:52. The other 33 qualifiers from that first heat were all timed at 35:57.
Orr’s victory could mean nothing if he burned himself out for today’s final, a 42-lap, 50-kilometer race. But he doubts that will be the case.
“I just wanted to show what I could do today,” he said. “I have plenty left.”
And he’ll have some help, too. Two other riders from Granny’s Gourmet Muffins, Eric Harris of Colorado Springs and Erich Kaiter of Boxford, Mass., qualified for the final in the third qualifying heat.
Gerrick Latta of Salem, Ore. and Clayton Christopher of Beaumont, Tex., finished one-two in that third heat, at 36:12. Justin Meschler of Santa Barbara and Matt Gates of Burlington, Iowa came in first and second, respectively, in the second heat at 35:55.
Today’s competition begins at 8 a.m. with the girls’ 13-15 division. The boys’ 17-18 race is scheduled for 1 p.m. The course can be found by going North on Pacific Heights Road off of Mira Mesa Boulevard.