by David Kirkpatrick, Features Editor
JR Petsko is the man behind the curtain at the Appalachian Bike Racing Association, promoter of many of the hardest, most fun races you’ll ever do. He’s also one of the driving forces behind a really healthy racing scene in an area where you might not expect to find one.
GJ: Morgantown and the greater WV/SW PA area has a surprisingly vibrant bike racing scene. How did that develop and what keeps it going?
JRP: This area really has a great base of racers who love to come out every weekend to race and support the other racers at the same time. Plus great events and organizations keep it exciting. Of course there is my baby the Appalachian Bicycle Racing Association and all of our events, but there is also so some much more. The Allegheny Cycling Association hold weekly crit events in Pittsburgh that draw sell out crowds every week, plus race promoters like Gary Dugovich and Fred Baldassare set the bar pretty high for the rest of us. Lets not forget about the Month of Mud series that been going on for 25 years now started by Gary Bywaters.
GJ: You promote a heck of a lot of races. How did you get into bike racing in general and race promotion in particular?
JRP: I started racing and riding back in 1992 when the big mountain biking boom was going on. I was 16 and hung out at the local shop with folks like Gunnar Shogren, Robbie Acciavatti, Bob Vernon and Steve Haroff. I am sure they didn't pay much attention to me the little high school kid but a would sit on the shop couch day after day and take in what was going on around me. Now racing promoting that took me a while to fall into. Around 2008/2009 Betsy and Gunnar Shogren start draning me with them to events in the Mid Atlantic area like Iron Cross an some of the big MABRA cross races. The drives were long and I wished someone was doing these events closer to our area. That was the start of ABRA. Now we have 23 events on our 2011 calendar.
GJ: One of the unique things about many of your road races is that they're run over WAY longer courses than we typically see in MABRA. How do you get away with that?
JRP: It is all about great volunteers. Somehow we get folks to come out and stand on corners that could be 5 to 30 miles away from the start/finish area just so the pack can go past them safely for a few minutes. These folks are what make the events possible, I just pick a route. Thanks to everyone who has ever volunteered.
GJ: You promote road, mtb and cross races. Is a bike race a bike race a bike race or are there pretty specific demands for promoting races in each discipline?
JRP: Road races give me nightmares. You have officials and volunteers out on the road but if you can't see what is going on you worry. Once every rider is in and safe I finally relax. Mountain biking and cross have their moments also but you don't have to deal with 2,000 lb cars and coal trucks on the course..
GJ: What makes a race great?
JRP:Got to be the racers. You could have the best location, route and swag on the planet at your race, but if you don't have the atmosphere of great people there to take part in it you’ve got nothing. I am one of those promoters who love to hang out afterwards, chat and have a beer or two with the participants.
GJ: Your reputation is as perhaps something of a sadist (Tour of Tucker County, Appalachia Re/Visited, etc). Which of your races would you recommend to someone who maybe isn't so keen on spending most of the day going up large hills?
JRP: None of them?! Honestly if someone is looking for a challenge that is what ABRA events are about. 45 to 50 miles with climbs is what we ride around here on normal days. When people say that was to hard I always have the same reply. I am a 210 fat boy and if I can do it you can to. I like to give people their money’s worth. $25 to race an epic course at almost every race keeps people coming back for more.
GJ: What do you do when you aren't promoting bike races?
JRP: Believe it or not this is all I am doing right now. Can't say I am making a living at it yet but my wife (who you will find working registration at every event) is very supportive and believes in what we’re trying to do here. Thanks Gina.
GJ: Events like Battenkill, Bear Mountain and others seem to be constantly in danger of becoming victims of their own success, yet the Tour of Tucker County shows up every year on some list of "hard races that you simply must do" and chugs along without jumping the shark year after year. What's the secret there?
JRP: We are still small enough to be under the radar. I think races like the ToT could never handle more than 350 people on that course at once so we cap it. Some folks get burnt on how hard these races are but someone new is always waiting to take their place.
GJ: Have you ever thought of trying to put together a big pro race?
JRP: I still have a lot to learn about promoting before that would happen but the idea has crossed my mind. I grow up in with the Kmart Classic here in West Virginia and that was huge. We definitely have a lot to offer when it comes to putting on a pro level event. Someday…
GJ: Which of your races would you most like to win?
JRP: Hilly Billy Roubaix hands down. I think that is the coolest event on earth, course I am very biased. 70 miles of gravel, paved and dirt "roads." People don't believe that 100% of the course is state roads, but it is. Have you ever seen the promo video of the race?