Friday, May 31, 2013

Runners race around threatening weather at Big River Festival of Miles

Threat averted.

The runners raced around the weather that threatened the sixth annual Big River Festival of Miles and managed to thrill the crowd of about 1,300 with some exciting races and raise money in the process Thursday at St. Louis University High.

For statistical proof, check the results. But the biggest winner of the evening was Brad Eastman, who underwent surgery for a brain tumor and has begun the long road to recovery. Proceeds from the event went to Eastman, and as he thanked the crowd, a rainbow appeared over his shoulder. You sensed that it was going to be a good night.

Heather Kampf (left) edges Shannon Leinert and Jessica Smith
 in the 800. Kathleen Nelson photo. 

Race photos

The damp weather put a damper on the chances of breaking two minutes in the women's 800, and defending champion Heather Kampf faced a tougher field this time around. Yet, she managed to defend her title, setting a meet record of 2 minutes 1.96 seconds. Also breaking Kampf's meet record was hometowner Shannon Leinert (2:02.14) and Canadian Olympian Jessica Smith (2:02.22).

Kampf earned $1,000 for the win and a $1,000 bonus for the record.

Pacers Ericka Charles and Nevada Morrison  stormed away, "a little quicker than we could go. But it turned out better than I thought. It was a great temperature to run fast."

Turning to the crowd, she said, "I owe this to you guys."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Festival of Miles: simultaneously inclusive and exclusive

Since its inception in 2008, the Big River Festival of Miles has mushroomed into an event worth your time because it works on so many levels. This year's series of races, scheduled for Thursday at St. Louis University High School's track, features a kindergarten novice rubbing shoulders, or shoulder-to-knee, with sub-4-minute milers.

Seriously, how often does that happen?

So, first, the event is inclusive. The evening begins at 6:30 p.m. with the GO! St. Louis Healthy Kids Mile, open to anyone in grades kindergarten through eighth grade. The schedule also includes a masters' men's mile and a corporate relay.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Helmets off to new national champions, Tom Zirbel and Fred Rodriguez

Big Tom Zirbel. Photo: © Jonathan Devich
Chattanooga proved a city of redemption for Freddie Rodriguez and Big Tom Zirbel.

Rodriguez captured a record fourth U.S. road championship, just months after desperately searching for a team. Rodriguez took the sprint after reeling in Phil Gaimon and edged Brent Bookwalter and Kiel Reijnen.

"I knew exactly what I had to do and just hung with the leaders," Rodriguez told the breathless Robbie Ventura after the race.

Zirbel won the time trial on Saturday and animated the road race on Monday, hanging with the lead group.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Wide-open fields at US Professional road, time trial championships

Feeling sorry for Chattanooga, site of this weekend's USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships. After wresting the event from the stranglehold of Greenville, S.C., there's not a lot of stars to hitch one's wagon, or choo-choo, to.

First, five-time winner Dave Zabriskie dropped out of the time time, following an accident while warming up for the time trial at the Tour of California. Then, 2010 champ Taylor Phinney was forced to forgo the event because illness forced him to drop out of the Giro d'Italia on Tuesday. Phinney finished second in last year's world championship and fourth in the Olympic event.

And no Tejay van Garderen, who was second at the national championship last year. He's taking the high road in a brewing controversy at BMC over who will lead the squad at the Tour de France. Van Garderen was the leader in the clubhouse, until 2011 Tour champ Cadel Evans turned in a surprising second-place in the overall standings at the Giro d'Italia.

So, who to watch?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Giro jumps on the bandwagon, announces route change on Twitter

Grumpy, old men - and women - bemoan the intrusion of social media into their lives, its lack of depth, its disposable nature. Tough beans, as my mom would say.

When you want to blast out the news, nothing seems to spread the word faster  among sports fans than Twitter. The organizers of the Giro d'Italia reaffirmed that notion, announcing that two climbs would be removed from Friday's stage because of snow and cold.

Tweeting in English and Italian, the organizers announced:  "For the bad conditions of the weather and to preserve the safety of the riders, this will be the new stage 19 route:"

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One Musial honoree inspires another

Our favorite assignment of the year: profiling winners of what used to be known as the National Sportsmanship Awards, redubbed The Musial Awards by the St. Louis Sports Commission. I had the honor last year of meeting Meghan Vogel and telling her story. 

Here's the long version. The condensed version: After winning the 1,600 meters at last year's Ohio High School Division III meet, Vogel entered the 3,200. Trailing the field after the final turn, she saw the runner in front of her, Arden McMath, stumble, then fall. Vogel helped McMath to her feet, put her arm around McMath, then made sure McMath crossed the finish line in front of her. The crowd rose to its feet. The video went viral, and the pair made the talk show circuit for a week or so. Vogel traveled to St. Louis last November to receive her sportsmanship award.

Lost in the sportsmanship angle was the fact that Vogel won the 1,500 meters. She intends to defend her title. The problem: she was diagnosed with mononucleosis earlier this spring.

Monday, May 20, 2013

GO! St. Louis doubles field size for All-American 5K on Father's Day

More than half the Father's Day cards we've bought in the last half-century have extolled the virtues of Dear Ol' Dad putting up his feet and relaxing and doing nothing more strenuous than taking a good, long snooze on His Day.

GO! St. Louis has other ideas. Some would say a better idea. The All-American 5K and Fun Run is an alternative for getting Dad's Day off to a rousing start. Last year, GO! took a once-popular race and revived it with a field of 1,500. The event sold out, so the organizers doubled the size of this year's race, scheduled for 7:30 a.m. June 16.

Part of the appeal of the race is the course, which begins at the Kirkwood YMCA and travels downhill to downtown Webster Groves, ideal for setting a PR, even in the middle of summer. There's ice cream for all, and pies to the top three in each age group in the 5K. The organizers also offer a free shuttle from the finishing line back to the start.

Neither of last year's winners, Jackie Pirtle-Hall and Matt O'Connor, is scheduled to compete, so new champs are sure to be crowned. The 5K will be followed by a one-mile fun run, which starts and ends near the 5K finishing area in Webster. Registration is $30 for the 5K until June 13. The fun run is $25 for adults, $15 for ages 12 and under until June 13.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Withdrawals of Wiggins, Hesjedal from Giro seemed inevitable

Happy Bike to Work Day!

OK, we didn't bike to work. We work from home.

But, then neither did Ryder Hesjedal or Sir Bradley Wiggins. The pair of erstwhile favourites didn't start today's stage of the Giro d'Italia. Each cited illness for their poor performance and DNS.

It would be easy to pick on them as quitters, to diss Hesjedal for failing to honor the jersey as last year's leader, to pile on Sir Wiggins for boasting about the best shape of his life only to quit midstream.

So, what do you do if you're in it to win it but it becomes obvious that you can't win it?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

An overdue ode to Big Jens

Vanity plates are for vain people.

So imagine my horror a couple months ago, when my husband revealed the license above as a surprise to me. Not only did the plates make the two of us look vain, they made Big Jens Voigt look vain as well. Guilt by association.

In Voigt's case, nothing is further from the truth. Big Jens rides ugly. He wasn't afraid to ride a little girls bike when his own was demolished and a team car was nowhere in sight a couple years ago at the Tour de France. His personal mantra: Shut up, legs.

Three events of this week forced me to reconsider my stance on the Vanity Plates:

Big Jens on the attack.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Women's field in Festival of Miles features Canadian Olympians

Missouri native Shannon Leinert will face
a challenge from northern invaders in the
Festival of Miles elite women's race.
Seems as if we just can't get enough news of our Neighbors to the North. After a couple days of updates regarding Canadian cyclists and adopted St. Louisan Ryder Hesjedal, we turn our attention to a pair of Canada's Olympians, Melissa Bishop and Jessica Smith, who are scheduled to compete in the elite women's race at the Festival of Miles, May 30 at St. Louis University High School. 

The duo should put in jeopardy the meet record of 2 minutes, 3.09 seconds for the 800-meter race, since each has a personal best of less than 2:00. They will be pushed by fellow Canadian Heather Kampf, a Division II All-American who has run 2:00.71 and hometowner Shannon Leinert, who has run 2:01. Leinert was a semefinalist at the 2012 Olympic Trials, as was meet recordholder Lea Wallace, who has signed on to run. Also schedule to compete are Lindsay Harper and Ashley Miller, who have run 2:03.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A sad farewell to the hopes of Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro

Ryder Hesjedal in happier times, riding with students from
Lindenwood University in St. Charles county.
Kathleen Nelson photo.
How much evidence do we need of the difficulty of catching lightning in a bottle twice? The Giro favourites we featured on the rest day learned yet again how rare it is to blend ideal form, good health, top-flight equipment and selfless teammates to rise to the top more than once.

Adopted St. Louisan Ryder Hesjedal followed what he called a "tough moment" Sunday and a rest day Monday with a performance that dashed his hopes of defending his crown in the Giro d'Italia. Hesjedal, married to McCluer grad Ashley Hofer, finished 71st Tuesday, on a stage that finished atop Altopiano del Montaslo. He was nearly 21 minutes behind the winner, Rigoberto Uran Uran (keys not stuck) of Team Sky. Uran took off on a diversionary flyer, hoping to break the rivals of his teammate, Sir Bradley Wiggins. Instead, no one could keep up and Uran soloed to victory.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Giro at the rest day: Favourites reassess but don't necessarily relax

Sir Wiggins appeared ready for battle
before the start of the Giro but has yet
to assume command.
The competitors in the three-week Giro d'Italia arrived at the first rest day today, which couldn't have been better-timed for a pair of the pre-race favourites.

Honorary, adopted St. Louisan and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal lost a minute to the other faves Sunday, on a final climb that should have caused him little or no trouble. He dropped to 11th from sixth and trails overall leader Vincenzo Nibali  by 3:11. Earlier in the week, Hesjedal, husband of McCluer grad Ashley Hofer, appeared in fighting form when he attacked his rivals on Stage 3. The attack showed the kind of panache often missing in the calculated, BORING tactics that most GC riders use.

"It wasn't even a bad day; it was a bad moment," Hesjedal told cyclingnews of the final climb Sunday. "I could already feel on the second-to-last climb that something was not right. I couldn't get the power out of my legs. The last one was even steeper, and the way the race was going I had to ride tempo and limit the damage."

Perhaps the damage was done the day before in the long time trial, when Hesjedal  worked hard for an 18th-place finish.

"Maybe I had a severe case of time trial butt as well, and the cold got through to my muscles," he told cyclingnews. How can you not respect a man who feels comfortable turning a phrase like "time trial butt?"

Friday, May 10, 2013

A last-minute invitation to celebrate Girls on the Run

No single achievement added more to my self-esteem than competing on the track team in high school. Seems silly now to say that we weren't allowed to compete in cross country; too grueling for our delicate constitutions,  I guess. So, the half-mile and mile runs had to suffice.

I was lousy, never finished higher than seventh in an eight-person race. But the training lifted my soul and my expectations: mile after mile through Wilmore and Francis parks, chatting, trotting, stretching. I had been known as one of a dozen or so faceless, doughy brainiacs, but I emerged from a spring of training lean and mean. I felt like an athlete. I learned that I could go beyond the boundaries of what others expected of me. More important, I broke through the bonds of what I expected of myself.

I blossomed intellectually, physically, artistically. I learned to play the guitar and piano. I earned scholarships, awards for writing, got the lead in the annual musical and even became a photographer: perhaps the biggest achievement of all for a girl that the nuns in grade school deemed inartistic because I couldn't color in the lines.

Thanks to running.

The girls from more than 200 schools in grades 3 though 8 competing in the Girls on the Run 5K on Saturday know what I'm talking about. They've spent the last 10 or so weeks training for the run, scheduled for 8 a.m. downtown at Soldiers Memorial. But they've also spent the time training their minds to accept no limits, to celebrate their accomplishments, to feel better about themselves and their potential, thanks to the help of their volunteer coaches, their parents and each other. The national organization works to formalize the lessons that I learned more or less through osmosis.

Honorary chair Shannon Leinert, one of the best runners the area has produced, went above and beyond in her prerace message to the girls. The best part:

"I have been running just like you since I was 8 years old.  Although Girls on the Run didn’t exist when I was growing up, I was surrounded by supportive coaches, teachers, family, and friends who inspired me to LEARN, DREAM, LIVE, and RUN!"

I thought that they deserved acknowledgement for their achievements and that I should issue a last-minute invitation to the area's runners to join them. Online registration remains available at $30, or you can sign up the morning of the race in person for $35.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

MOPRO hits St. Louis streets, albeit on Mother's Day weekend

Missouri native Brad Huff signs an autograph for a fan at the
 long-departed Tour of Missouri in 2009.  He is scheduled to
appear this weekend at MOPRO.
Kathleen Nelson photo.
If we had our druthers, the series of professional cycling races known as MOPRO would hit the streets of St. Louis sometime other than Mother's Day weekend. But, no one asked us.

Say this much: the weather could be ideal for riders and spectators at the three events:
The Midtown Grand Prix on Friday.
The Tour de Grove flagship events on Saturday.
And the smaller Dutchtown Classic on Sunday.

You could stay in your house and wait for the Tour of California on the NBC Sports Network or huddle around the computer to catch the online broadcast of the Giro d'Italia, which features the scintillating commentary of the man Paul Sherwen refers to as The Great Sean Kelly. But for cycling fans here, Saturday's pro races provide the best opportunity to see a slew of the nation's best riders in person. We can lament, wail and moan about the loss of the Tour of Missouri, but it does no good. The week-long race, which brought the best cyclists in the world to our state from 2007 to 2009, is gone, never to return. But, under the guidance of Big Shark's Mike Weiss, MOPRO has enjoyed slow but steady growth and is included on the top national pro circuit for closed courses.

A little history lesson:

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bits and pieces from the folks at GO! St. Louis

We've had a trio of announcements from GO! St. Louis recently. Taken together, they illustrate how the organization has spread from its signature weekend of events to a year-round organization devoted to a healthy St. Louis.

First, GO's All-American 5K and Fun Run, scheduled for 7:30 a.m. June 16, is on pace to sell out, as it did last year. The course, which starts in Kirkwood and runs downhill to Webster Groves, proved popular because it was tailor-made for PRs. The field is capped at 3,000. Registration makes a lovely Father's Day gift: $25 for the 5K, $20 for adults in the fun run and $10 for kids. And you can do it right here.

Second, its charity program, GO! for a Cause, helped 27 area charities raise more than $367,000 for their causes through the events of the family fitness weekend last month. The program began in 2010 and topped $1 million, all of which goes to local charities.

Third, it's new half-marathon in the rebranded GO! Great Halloween Race attracted 750 registrations in the first weeks. Registration is capped at 2,500. Among the features: the course for the half and 10K will traverse the Riverfront. Check out the course map and registration information. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Festival of Miles announces elite field of nine 4-minute milers

Aaron Braun, winner of the GO! St. Louis half-marathon, 
is scheduled to return to St. Louis for the elite race 
in the  Big River Festival of Miles.
We remember a time when witnessing a 4-minute mile in Missouri seemed about as likely as the Blues winning a Stanley Cup. That was until 2009, when Leo Manzano entered the elite field for the Big River Festival of Miles and ran the first sub-4 in the state since 1963.

Manzano went on to win the silver medal in the 1,500 in London. In the ensuing years, the Festival of Miles has become one of THE races for middle-distance runners. Eight other runners have followed Manzano in the ensuing years, and the race's reputation has attracted nine sub-4-minute (or its equivalent) performers for this year's festival, scheduled for May 30 at the St. Louis University High School track.

We're still waiting, Blues.

Race director Ben Rosario said he had commitments from the following athletes:

Stephen Pifer, a native of Edwardsville, who has run a 3:56 mile.
Aaron Braun, record holder of the GO! St. Louis half-marathon, and a 3:39 1,500.
Pablo Solares, a native of Mexico who has run 3:54.
Duncan Phillips of the Austin Track Club, 3:58.

Taylor Phinney's thinking pink on the eve of the Giro d'Italia

Wishful thinking? And what
is with those shoes?
Maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves. We previewed the overall favourites in the Giro d'Italia, which begins Saturday. The riders featured in that entry are the cream that rises to the top. Before one of the GC riders takes control of the race, though, the sprinters and their teams will try to grab a little glory. And Taylor Phinney isn't afraid to throw his name in the hat.

Or his legs in the jeans. Phinney was the first to wear the pink leader's jersey in last year's race, after he won the short opening time trial. He has a decent turn of speed and will hope to be among the top finishers in Saturday's opening road stage, 130 km around Naples. A good performance will set him up for Sunday's team time trial, his forte.

"There's this small dream of winning the team time trial and taking the pink jersey, but there's a lot of variables that go into that," he told

Like not getting too far ahead of yourself. He'll have to fight off the likes of Mark Cavendish, Matt Goss, John Degenkolb and a bevy of Italians looking for early glory Saturday. The winner gets a 20-second time bonus. Phinney's turn of speed at the end of a stage race is improving, as evidence by his fourth-place finish in the Olympic road race, seventh at Milan-San Remo and third at the Giro della Toscana. With a good performance in the team time trial, he could hold onto the leader's jersey for a week or so.

Let's hope he embarrassed himself for something more than wishful thinking. If not, he's well on the road to becoming EuroTrash with this look. We won't even begin to discuss the shoes.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Unassuming Giro starts throwing out pink jerseys on Saturday

The first of cycling’s grand tours, the Giro d’Italia, starts Saturday, unheralded in the States as usual. Which is a shame, because it’s often a tougher test for the riders than the more glam Tour de France.

The mountain passes in Italy tend to be steeper, and the unmelted winter snows often make conditions more challenging. Transfers between stages often are longer, so rest comes at a premium. The race, on paper, can present more challenges for riders. Yet, the winner is so spent that he’s a non-factor by the time the Tour rolls around in July.

Consider the case of last year’s winner, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin. He became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour yet dropped out of the Tour following a crash on the sixth stage.
Hesjedal is back to defend his pink jersey as winner in Italy last year and again is counted among the favorites.
I remember following Hesjedal’s progress through last year’s Giro with my mouth open. How did he do it? He didn't appear to be in the same category as Joachim Rodriguez and Michele Scarponi as a climber, and he isn’t as thought of as a time trialist . Yet he won last year, thanks to limiting his losses in the mountains and out time-trialing the climbers. The mountains aren’t so steep as last year, though riders can make them tough with aggressive riding. The same formula that worked last year could see Hesjedal at the top again: hang tough in the mountains, take back time on the climbers in the time trial.

Ryder and Ashley Hesjedal. Kathleen Nelson photo.
It's hard to root against Hesjedal, because he’s an honorary St. Louisan, married to McCluer grad Ashley Hofer. He’s spent time relaxing here. His Canadian roots bring a hockey sensibility and accent to cycling. He’s refreshingly honest and straightforward. He did it once. He can do it again. He turned in a strong performance at Liege-Bastogne-Liege recently, when he set up winner Dan Martin. But Hesjedal will be a marked man this year, not a surprise.

Here are some other riders to watch

Vincenzo Nibali: He enters as the bookmakers’ fave, after victories at Tirreno Adriatico and Giro del Trentino. Winning his home tour would mean as much -- maybe more -- to him and all of Italy than a victory at the more prestigious Tour de France. Though renown as a dynamite descender, the skill has yet to nab him a stage victory when he begins a descent with the pack.