I cannot think of a single sporting event that is comparable to a one-day bicycle race. Many sports have their single, season defining event, win or go home—the Super Bowl, a game 7, the 100 meter final—but in football, you have one winner and one loser. 50% of the competitors win. In the 100 meter final, maybe it’s 1 out of 7 or 8. Even a cross country race, where dozens of people line up to vie for gold, there are only a handful ofcontenders: Either you can run 3-minute kilometers, or you can’t, and aside form the chance of a good day/bad day, it’s fairly easy to predict going into the event how things will pan out. A mountain-top finish, as one would see in the Tour de France, is similarly predictable: the folks climbing well on previous stages are more than likely to continue to do so. A one-day bicycle race, such as the road race that kicked off the 2016 USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, on the other hand, is pure chaos.
Approximately 160 riders representing some 60 schools lined up at the base of a hill to start the event. Each individual had a nominal winning chance of 0.6%. Certainly going in some folks knew they were among the strongest, but an untimely puncture, dropped chain, or a touch of wheels can doom even the strongest rider there. Pack dynamics are impossible to predict, and race tactics ever changing, such that the actual odds of any given rider taking a win are so small it’s a wonder one emerges at all!
And yet one did, one special rider from Midwestern State University: Stefan Rothe.
I was asked many times going into the event how I thought we’d do. I was cautiously optimistic. I knew it was among the most talented university squads I’d ever seen. It was certainly the most talented I’d ever coached. The abilities of the riders complimented each other, sprinters who can climb, climbers who can time trial, and all-rounders who do it all. But as we saw in the women’s race, having a pair of the strongest riders there is no guarantee. In the crit, both our ladies were caught behind a crash as the field was fracturing into several small groups, and in the road race, a crash took down Hannah Ross as she was joining the group of 6 on the road who would ultimately contest the finale—a group she no doubt would have been able to compete with in a sprint. Maxyna faced similarly bad luck, facing a pair of mechanicals in the road race at a similarly inopportune time. Such is racing bikes, and while those two ladies joined Nicole Coetzer, a soccer player first who can only train properly for cycling once the spring soccer season is over at the start of May, giving her just a handful of days to prepare, in an excellent team time trial, placing 6th in the nation, fate was rather cruel to our women’s squad all weekend. Fortunately, Hannah was able to deliver an excellent 4th place individual time trial to get her 8th medal at a national championship in just two years.
In the men’s race, Bill Ash, John Paul Blanton, Josh Buchel, Pablo Cruz, and Garrison Horton joined Stefan to form a diverse and multi-talented team: Garrison & John Paul both hail from Texas, while Bill came to MSU from Philadelphia. Josh lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Pablo was born in Siguatepeque, Honduras. Stefan was born in Dresden in then East Germany. The breadth of the reach to MSU the cycling team provides, needless to say, is vast.
Going in, we didn’t think an early breakaway hada great chance, but we didn’t want to miss it in case the chase was disorganized. Ideally we were to deliver our climber where he needed to be in the hills, or get our sprinter over the hills to be there for the final flat 15km. When reports that Bill & Stefan had made the main move of just four riders came in, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I still was skeptical a move of four could stay away for 110 kilometers. Yet I knew the pressure would be on others to chase, and with a man from Marian in the move, we knew their strongteam would not be actively chasing. I did not think another team could match our depth. Further, we had both a sprinter and a climber still riding in the main field, so if it came back, we still had options going into the final lap.
Bill & Stefan ensured we did not need to revert to plan B (or was it D at this point?). Between the two of them, it was clear Stefan had the better legs. It thus became Bill’s sole purpose to make that breakaway stick. Bill turned himself inside out taking huge pulls to put the pressure on the breakaway rivals,and as their breathing turned frenetic on the final major climb under the impetus of Bill’s tempo, Stefan launched his race-winning attack.
Such was Bill’s effort that he, as the team’s strongest time trialist, was left going backwards, cramping up as he joined and then unfortunately dropped behind multiple chase groups. Thankfully, Pablo was there in the front group that would sprint for second and thus able to ensure a second top-20 rider for MSU. We also managed to outscore all other men’s teams, giving us first place points for the men’s road race in the overall team competition, edging out 6-time defending champion Marian.
It would have been easy to rest on their laurels there, celebrate a tremendous win, MSU’s first road race national championships since Alex Boyd won in Kansas in 2004, but this group of guys had further goals.
The criterium was once again rather unlike most criteriums, featuring a 70 foot climb coming out of a hairpin turn each lap. Plan A had been setting up who we believed was the fastest man in the field, our own Josh Buchel, for a bunch sprint, but the course was so selective against traditional sprinters—and anyone who can’t do hill repeats at over 7 watts per kilogram—that just 13 men finished in the same time as the winner. It was no surprise to us that we were the only team with 3 of those 13, with Stefan, Bill, and Pablo finishing 3rd, 8th, and 10th, respectively. Unfortunately, we ended up tied with Marian in team points here, with the tiebreaker going to them for cyclocross national champion Andrew Dillman taking 2nd to Stefan’s 3rd, giving them the highest finisher between us. Nevertheless, with numbers in our favor the impetus was on us to control the race, with Bill & Pablo doing multiple laps on the front, chasing down or participating in attacks form the nation’s fastest guys, all to set up Stefan for a top result. It worked, as his 3rd was enough to secure him the individual omnium championship: MSU’s first road omnium national championship since Paul Reed back in the 1990s. He bestowed to me an autographed national champion’s jersey that I will frame and proudly hang in my office for years to come.
The team time trial is, in my opinion, the most exhausting event in cycling. You have to pull well above your threshold, sprint back onto the back, and maintain an incredibly fast pace even while sitting on. It was an event we practiced for, every week since February. Our men’s goal was to average 30mph, which would have given us a time of 38:30, 18 seconds faster than the winning time for the previous year. When our boys blasted through the finish line with a time of 37:31.1 over 31 kilometers, I was positively elated. As team after team rolled through finishing with times in the 39-minute range, my confidence grew, but there was no doubt mighty Marian would make it a nail biter. I set up my phone’s stopwatch and watched for them to come in site. “Unless they come into view in the next minute, we’ve got it” I told one of the guys standing with me. My confidence was dashed fifty seven seconds later. The announcer grew loud an animated. Marian was passing Lindenwood, the defending silver medalists. They must be flying. Hope that they would fade grew to resignation, and before they announced the time, I knew they had pipped us: 37:28.2, just 2.9 seconds separated us from the nation’s powerhouse team. 0.04 miles per hour. 40 meters apart over about 40 meters: had they ridden side by side at those speeds, it’d have been 10 minutes before there was any daylight between them. That was heartbreaking. The boys were gutted, as was I.
How a team acts when they’re on top can be telling, but what’s far more illuminating is how they respond to adversity and disappointment. Hannah’s and Stefan’s individual time trials—after riding a long, tremendously hard TTT—give huge insight into the character of this team and those riders. Hannah smashed the winning time from last year by 15 seconds en route to her fourth place—easily the fastest among riders who’d competed in the TTT, and Stefan demolished the course, storming to gold, his third national title for the weekend, seventeen seconds better than second place.
We had some bad luck and some very close calls, but what this proves to me that next year, we will be back and better than ever. All but two of our entire team bronze medal squad, Hannah & Stefan, will be returning for the next two years at least. Nicole will be done with soccer next year and able to train properly all spring. Bill, Pablo, JP, Josh, and Garrison will continue to improve, and the incoming class looks poised to make an immediate impact. I, for one, cannot wait ‘til Fall.
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