Bicycling is one thing that helped Jim Brady of Somerville
get his weight down to a healthy level. But at 6 feet tall and 205 pounds,
he's a Clydesdale.
That's the category in Eastern Fat Tire Association mountain bike races for riders who weigh over 200 pounds. While the other classes -- novice, sport and expert -- are based on experience and skill level and divided into age groups, the Clydesdale class is for heavyweights of all ages and abilities.
Brady, 31, new to off-road racing this year, didn't realize that he could have opted to race as a novice; he thought he would be automatically assigned to the Clydesdales. But he's staying in the category because as a beginner he has enough to work on -- climbing, endurance, bike handling -- without getting demoralized by waifs floating up the hills ahead of him.
"It's still competitive," said Brady, who works as a scheduler for the MBTA. "If you see someone up ahead of you, you try to push it. Everyone's trying to do the best they can."
"The Clydesdale class is not a bunch of overweight couch potatoes," said 30-year-old Mike Rowell of Bedford, who moved up to the expert class last year but still sometimes races as a Clydesdale.
"Most of the folks have a high school football lineman's build, vs. a cross-country runner's build," said Rowell, a software engineer for Iris Associates in Westford. "They are not slobs. They are not necessarily or inherently slow, and they are not necessarily any less fit. They are simply not designed to go as fast in a cross-country mountain bike race as a smaller, similarly fit person."
Rowell is 6-feet-2 and weighs "between 205 and 210 pounds, depending on the training for that week and how many beers I drank to wash down the BBQ ribs."
He likes "the opportunity to race against folks of similar stature. It's difficult competing in the expert class, against very fit athletes who also happen to weigh 50 pounds less than you. I found it a great change of pace to race in a more substantial category."
Moreover, he said, in the Clydesdales "the spirits are high and the emphasis is on fun." In contrast, expert races sometimes become "about seeing how much suffering you can endure on that specific day."
EFTA president Denis Laliberte of Deering, N.H., said he has been surprised at the growing number of Clydesdale riders, typically 15 to 20 per race.
Rowell won the Bear Brook Challenge last month in Allenstown, N.H., in the Clydesdale class "despite horrid conditions, an endo into a huge mud puddle and a broken chain."
"It was great to actually win a race, but I felt like a sandbagger," he said.
As an expert, his best performance came last Sunday in the Rhode Island Games in Cumberland, where he placed fifth out of 10 riders. "The third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes were about 15 seconds apart. I couldn't make up the gap, but I kept them in sight," Rowell said.
Mike Hamel of Southington, Conn., a regional solutions director for Pinkerton, said the Clydesdales sold him on competing. "I started racing because they have a class that doesn't put 200-pounders against 160-pound squirrels," said the 5-feet-11, 212-pound rider.
Hamel, 34, lifts weights and used to be on a karate team that competed internationally. He said his body fat percentage "is at the lower end of where it should be." But in a bike race, his size can be a handicap.
"Weight is a factor when you're climbing, no question," he said. "But in the downhill sections, gravity is our friend."
The Clydesdale class "creates an even playing field, as far as physical stature," he said. "I think it brought a lot of guys into racing because they don't have to worry about being too big to climb. There's hardly ever anyone who doesn't finish a race."
He also likes the "laid-back attitude" at EFTA races. "Winning is not the most important thing ... It's about riding, just enjoying the sport."
The MassBike tour rolls into Holden today, on the first day of a weeklong loop around the state. About 50 riders are arriving on today's leg from Arlington; tomorrow they leave for Northfield. Hosted tonight by Wachusett Greenways, the group will camp at Wachusett Regional High School. Area residents are invited to join them at a square dance at 7:30 p.m. at the school, with Mike PetitBon calling.
Watch for the riders heading into Rutland and Barre on Routes 122A, 68 and 62 tomorrow morning. Tuesday they'll bike to Northampton, with an optional ride to Williamsburg and back to Northampton on Wednesday. Thursday they'll ride to Shepherd Hill Regional High School in Dudley. Friday night's stop is in Taunton, and Saturday they'll return to Arlington.
"Bicycling the Pioneer Valley" (New England Cartographics, $10.95, 413 549-4124) is a new book describing 28 rides on some of the prettiest roads in western Massachusetts. Author Marion Gorham of Amherst is an experienced rider with the Franklin-Hampshire Freewheelers. The book contains detailed maps and turn-by-turn directions, on pages small enough to photocopy and keep handy on a bike ride. The rides range from 13 to 62 miles.
Two of the routes described are east of the Quabbin Reservoir, one starting in Brimfield, one in Petersham. Gorham will lead the Freewheelers on the Common to Common ride, a 40-miler starting in Petersham, on Aug. 30. For details call Gorham (413 548-3621).
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