Cyclists get ready, set, go
By Lou Fancher Oakland Tribune Correspondent
Three years ago, Oakland resident Mark Sneed was an amateur cyclist, learning a lesson in humility while riding an undersized road bike he purchased for $100 on Craigslist in the former "San Francisco Grand Prix" race.
Today, the 1986 UC Berkeley grad and former Bears running back is preparing to compete in his third Oakland Grand Prix on a $1,200 Giant TCR Advanced 2012 model.
Sneed is a member of the Major Motion cycling team sponsoring the ninth annual road race and the Grand Prix's race director. He's in charge of behind-the-scenes operations for the one-day competition that will bring everyone from local kids on tricycles to elite cyclists from Northern California and Nevada to city streets near Snow Park on Sept. 22.
"We're the last required criterium -- a closed-course race -- on the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association's professional tour," Sneed says, "so we draw about 400 racers every year."
The 0.85 mile, looping hourglass course is technical, with 90-degree turns and a quad-busting uphill push to the finish near 19th and Harrison streets, with nine race categories ranging from 15.3 miles to 34 miles. The Kids Challenge is one lap.
Sneed, who spends his nontraining hours teaching English at Montera Middle School, says the incline grade is no more than 6 percent, but by the time he hits the last lap, it's "masochism." At roughly 200 pounds, his football/rugby/athletic body is like a big car: tailing out on the turns and fighting a losing power-to-weight ratio on the final slope.
"Those pros? They weigh about 150 pounds, so this race is designed for them," he says.
Sneed grew up in a single-parent home in Chicago and even though his late mother never saw him play football at Cal, he felt her support every time he sprinted down the field at Memorial Stadium. "She taught me to aim high," he recalls.
His competitive spirit kept him off the streets then, and now, recognizing the irony of his cycling on downtown Oakland streets, he says. "If you want to get rid of violence, give these kids bikes. I come from a violent background and sports helped me."
The race encompasses a broad swath of cycling ability. Sneed is in the master's division, but one-block sprints for children on Big Wheels is part of the noontime fun. The pros start with the women's division at 2:15 p.m. and the men's at 3 p.m. Cash prizes and merchandise awards form a complex web of incentives for pros like Yahoo Cycling's Patrick Briggs and Mike's Bikes Dean LaBerge.
"The run to the final finish can get to 35 (miles per hour), which is pretty impressive, considering that sadistic uphill rise," Sneed says, laughing. "A top performer can win over $1,200, plus prizes and products."
The real winner, he suggests, is Oakland.
"The greatest thing about the Oakland Grand Prix is that the Oakland city government has been astounding," he says. "We had some road problems and they had people in the department of public works walk the course and patch the holes. They want it to be safe. It's the only USA cycling event in Oakland."