Loan proves she owns the bike championships in Colorado

NORBA: Eagle River 44-year-old not only stays competitive, she's winning.

By BETH BRAGG

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: August 16, 2003)

Guys in Alaska know what it's like to enter a bike race and get Loaned. Now, all around the country, women half the age of 44-year-old Sheryl Loan know the feeling too.

Loan is so fast, her main competition in Alaska is men, who frequently get "chicked" or "Loaned" in races -- meaning they get beaten by the Eagle River woman.

Friday in the cross-country race at the National Off Road Bicycle Association championships in Durango, Colo., Loan not only won her age group, she beat every expert-level woman in the race, a group of more than 50 mountain bikers who are among the best in the nation.

Cycling two laps on an eight-mile course featuring 1,000 feet of elevation gain, Loan finished in 1 hour, 41 minutes, a minute faster than the winner of the 19-24 age group and nine minutes faster than the second-place rider in Loan's 40-44 age group.

"The old person did OK,'' Loan said with a laugh from Durango.

The course was the same one used in the 1990 world mountain bike championships. Loan said it is a stern test of technical racing, particularly on downhills, and has so much vertical gain that it rivals a hill climb even though it is a cross-country course. For perspective, Loan said, consider that the Arctic Valley hill climb has about 1,800 feet of climb over 6.2 miles.

Before taking a practice run earlier in the week, Loan met a racer from North Carolina who had a flat tire and a broken shoe. He'd had a wreck on a nasty, technical downhill that requires racers to speed down two switchbacks followed by a sudden, six-foot dropoff followed by an immediate dogleg turn. When Loan successfully negotiated the terrain in her practice run, a spectator gave her an atta-girl.

"Well,'' she replied, "I lived.''

The Durango victory marked the first overall title for Loan at the national championships. Two years ago in California, she won an age-group national title.

A dental hygienist and mother of three, Loan may be on what is considered the wrong side of 40, but as she showed Friday, that doesn't impact her athletically.

She follows a regimented training program directed by Zenon Babraj, a former Anchorage sports trainer now living in California and coaching the USC rowing team. She races mountain bikes and road bikes, usually in Alaska but occasionally in the Lower 48.

Two weeks ago, Loan raced in a NORBA open pro-level race in Idaho -- against women who have raced at the Olympics and world championships -- and finished 41st out of 66 racers.

At the national championships in Durango, open racers are allowed to drop into the expert level and compete in their age groups. Loan said there were a few complaints from younger riders about her presence in Friday's expert race, but officials told them Loan was operating within the rules.

And besides, she said, it's not like she's really a pro.

First of all, "I don't imagine there are many pros that are my age,'' she said.

Beyond that, she doesn't make money racing, she doesn't have sponsors flying her to events and supplying her with equipment and travel costs and she doesn't have a team providing her with coaching. Loan said Rick Shaw, owner of the RTR bike shop in Anchorage, gets her equipment at wholesale prices, but that's about the extent of her "professional" status.

"These girls shouldn't begrudge the fact I have a pro license, because I'm not a real pro,'' Loan said. "My sponsors are Rick at RTR, my parents and my husband.''

Loan said she keeps her pro license because it allows her to race against the very best women in North America at races like the NORBA event in Idaho. Before she left for the Lower 48, she said, her dad wondered if maybe Idaho would mark her final pro race. But after finishing ahead of 25 others, Loan isn't ready to quit yet.

"If I finish last or second to last, maybe I don't belong there,'' she said. "But I'm ahead of 20 people, and I feel that when I'm racing, I'm in the race -- and these are girls who are Olympians and world championship racers -- the best in the world. These are, for me, household names, and I'm in the race with them. I'm not rubbing shoulders with the top girl, but I'm definitely going back and forth with the next tier.''

Had she been in the expert-level race in Idaho, she probably would have won her age division and probably would've been in the top three overall. But as long as she can remain competitive with a significant percentage of pro-level racers, she wants to keep testing herself.

"I'd rather feel I'm at the most competitive level,'' Loan said. "Yeah, sure, I could've stood on the podium in Idaho, but it's not enough. I can still (race pros) at my age. Who knows when that will stop?''

Daily News sports editor Beth Bragg can be reached at bbragg@adn.com.