By Bec “Wombat” Werner
This Saturday, the 5th of May, heralds the 39th edition of the Cat’s Hill Classic. With a winner’s list boasting names such as Greg LeMond, and a handful of national champions and international stars, plus an atmosphere that is unrivalled in the NorCal cycling scene. Cat’s Hill is one race that truly deserves to be titled a classic.
“The race is a criterium that requires a combination of skill, speed, strength, and stamina: The hill on the Cat’s Hill course favours the toughness of the road racer, while the finishing stretch on Tait Avenue favours the raw speed of the sprinter.” ~ Race Flyer
What they fail to mention is that the 23% climb (yes 23%!), that is covered every lap is a spectacle and race in itself. One that requires luck, positioning, and legs of steel, and brings the feel of a Euro classic as you wrench your bike with all your might through the beer stenched breath and spit of screaming fans leaning into the path of your weaving front wheel.
There is one notable woman who possesses all the aforementioned qualities in truckloads, and she’s won it eight times just to prove it. With a race resume highlighted by a world championship, a national championship, a trip to the Sydney Olympics, plus many other notable results the rest of us can only dream of, NorCal local Karen Brems is legendary. Add to her already impressive palmares 8 victories at Cat’s Hill, and it is hard to understand why the race hasn’t been renamed Karen’s Hill. (A name change which I, Wombat, will facilitate right after finishing this article).
We caught up with the legend herself in the lead up to this weekend’s race.
Many people dream of winning Cat’s Hill just once, yet you won it an amazing 8 times! How many times have you actually raced it?
I got 2nd twice and 3rd twice, so I guess I have done it 12 times!
Why do you think you have such an affiliation with this race?
I have always been good at short, steep climbs, so I guess the course really suits me. It is always a good hard race and so close to home too!
Out of your eight victories, which is your favourite?
That is hard to say…None of them were easy! I guess the first time I won in ’94 was special because it was the first and I beat another pro at the time, Shari Kain who was really strong. Outsprinting Laura Charameda literally by a bike throw (neither of us knew who won until the officials announced it) in 2004 after we were both retired was fun. The last time I won (2007) I beat Shelley Olds and her whole Proman team, so that was meaningful too.
You’re first win was in 1994, the same year you won the inaugural women’s Time Trial World Championship. Which had the better atmosphere, Cat’s Hill or the world champs? Be honest now…
Well Worlds is Worlds…And if you are going to win Worlds, doing it in Italy is pretty nice – they are pretty into bike racing there!!
In 2004 you became the manager of the Webcor Builder’s Professional Women’s’ Cycling Team. You also won Cat’s Hill that year too. Did you race against members of your team?
I think Lisa Norris was there, but most of the team was out of town at an NRC race, I think. I did race KCM (Katheryn Curi Mattis) though as she was riding for RONA that year!
What advice can you give to all the racers slogging it up the hill this year?
Make sure you are not over geared and don’t rest until you are over the false flat section at the top of the hill – that can actually be harder than the hill! And you can take the last corner a lot faster than you think you can!
Finally, your last win came in 2007, yet you’re still bombing on the bike, earning yourself some more rainbow stripes at this year’s Master’s Cyclocross World Champs. Any chance you can be convinced to return to Los Gatos and teach the current generation a thing or two?
I think I need to quit while I am ahead! This is my off season now that I am racing CX!
Racing in Los Gatos goes all day, with the women pros kicking off at 3:55pm, and their male counterparts starting their 75 minute slog at 5. If you’re racing, keep the Queen of Cat’s Hill’s advice in mind, otherwise join the rest of those crazy spitting fans on the sidelines, place your bets, and enjoy the atmosphere at a true Californian classic.
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