The Road Less Traveled 

Just a few years after learning how to ride a bike, Oakland's Beth Newell is quickly turning into one of the new stars of the cycling world.

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Getting to the Testarossa Challenge is not as challenging as getting to the infield once you're there. San Jose's Hellyer Park Velodrome, the home of Northern California track racing, is one of about twenty banked bicycle racing surfaces in the country.

Newell got her start in track racing, but it's no longer where she spends most of her competitive time; it isn't, in fact, for most American cyclists. The bulk of bicycle competition these days is in road races, winding through the great outdoors. Track racing is done around an oval and is popular in Great Britain. It had its moment here in the States as well, but that moment passed some time ago. However, it was a logical starting point for Newell because the Bay Area has a track and her club members had an interest.

During a competition earlier this summer, the only problem for this reporter was getting to the media section of the track. It could only be done by crossing over the track itself, which was filled with terrifyingly fast two-wheelers.

The first event of the day was women's Keirin. There is a motorcycle (!) that goes around the track four times, followed by the bicyclists. If they pass the motorcycle at any point, the cyclists are disqualified. After the fourth lap, the motorcycle peels off the track, whereupon the cyclists then have two laps to race to the finish by themselves. It's very big in Japan.

Newell was in the first heat and finished fifth out of eight, meaning that the only way she can earn her way back into the semifinal round was by qualifying as a top-two finisher in the repechage rounds, which are the loser brackets for those who don't earn automatic qualification in the opening rounds.

There was about half an hour of other racing before Newell would be back on the bike, trying to scramble back to the playoff rounds. She spent most of this down time on her bike. In the middle of the infield, past the media, the cyclists had created a mini-tent city. They were sprawled on folding chairs, amid water bottles, shoes, and burritos. There were many bike stands set up as well, allowing cyclists to warm up in a stationary position. Newell looked intense on a bike going nowhere.

While Newell awaited her last chance to get back in the running for the Keirin playoffs, the men's masters' level riders competed in something called the Missin' Out race. It consisted of 25 cyclists circling the track, getting eliminated a lap at a time, with the last-place racer ordered off the track until only three remained. The trio then had a lap to wrap things up.

Newell's boyfriend and coach, former competitive cyclist Michael Hernandez, dominated the first 24 laps. On the final sprint, with Van Morrison's "Wild Night" playing on the track's PA system, Hernandez ran out of steam and lost every bit of his considerable lead. With a hundred yards to the finish line, he lost his grip on first place. If the tortoise and hare were on bicycles, it would have looked like this race. He waved off congratulations for his second-place finish with a grin and said, "That was nice of you to not say, 'Hey, didn't I just see you completely die out there?'"

These days Hernandez only rides for fun. Everyone at the track knows him; after the race, many shook hands with him as they walked by, some adding witticisms about his having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hernandez had brought Katheryn Mattis with him. Mattis, the 2005 US national road racing champion, was eating from the hospitality table and raising a glass of wine when asked if she was enjoying her retirement. "I'm fully embracing it," she said, biting into something barbecued while reflecting on a career that began at age 25.

Both Hernandez and Mattis agreed that the opportunities for women cyclists have expanded since the turn of the millennium. "When I started," Mattis said, "the top prize for an elite men's race was $100,000, while the same race for women was paying out at $16,000." Hernandez nodded. "It's a generational thing. It's become more of an equity issue, and look now," he said, sweeping his hand around the infield. "The bicycling community is getting it."

Half the races that night were women's events, and though Northern California has apparently always been a leader in gender balance, the two retired riders agreed that conditions for female riders are getting better everywhere.

In the consolation Keirin race, Newell needed to finish in the top two in order to get back into contention. This time around, she was right on the motorcycle's muffler. She stayed there for every one of the four laps, and when the chopper finally exited, Newell extended her lead through lap five. On the last lap, she buried the rest of the field.

Nobody seemed to be watching this quasi-consolation race, but during the last two circuits around the oval, Hernandez was transfixed. "That was an attack," he declared with another grin.

In the semi-final round, Newell was back in the running for Keirin glory. A top-three finish would get her into the final round. Her competition this time included all of the cyclists who knocked her out in round one. She started in last place and sometimes swapped slots with the woman who was second-to-last. Four laps into the race, Newell was no closer to the top three than she was when the race began. Then, when the motorcycle moved off the track, Newell started her move.

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