MSU Cycling Team 3rd at D1 National Championships
The 2015 USA Cycling Collegiate Track National Championships are officially concluded, and what a championship it was! I have been around collegiate cycling since 2008, and the level of competition is exponentially higher than ever. American cycling stars have frequently passed through the collegiate ranks before moving on to the world tour—Brent Bookwalter, Ben King, Ted King, Chad Haga, e.g.—but when they did, their star shone so bright it eclipsed those around them. Nowadays, the future world tour talents square off against a host of future-domestic pros, future-domestic elite team members, and future-accountants-who-put-a-stable-long-term-career-utilzing-their-talents-learned-in-college-ahead-of-their-bike-racing-but-who-could-have-been-pro that belong in the same race. Winning a bike race can be as much about luck and timing than it can about raw strength when the talent pool is deep and the possible winners aplenty, and on display at this year’s track collegiate championships was how now collegiate cycling truly fits that mold.
Into this deeper than ever pool waded a host of 7 freshman, 2 sophomores, and a grad student from different backgrounds and walks of life, far off exotic locations like Africa, New Zealand, and Idaho. Idle time was filled with chatter about things called the “springboks,” the “All-Blacks,” and “potatoes.” This host was called the Midwestern State University Cycling Team, and they began the trip to Colorado Springs hoping to gain experience, but soon after arrival it became clear that experience wasn’t enough: they wanted to win every time they took to the line.
And win they did: that grad student from Pocatello, ID Hannah Ross, a swimmer-turned triathlete who has been racing bikes for less than two years, raced an aggressive points spending more time off the front attacking the race ahead of the sprints than mixing it up in the bunch to score 19 points, just enough to get a 1 point edge over her more explosive competition, getting the final point she needed with a 4th place final sprint finish. Hannah became our 35th national champion, and her name will be added to the illustrious list of national champions that adorn the MSU Cycling Trailer.
Our success is not just measured in wins though, as even though following Hannah’s points race was the only time an MSU rider stood atop the podium and received the coveted stars and bars jersey, there were many near misses where MSU riders’ guts, tenacity, and aggression made them moral victors, crowd favorites, and riders to watch in the coming years:
Freshman Bill Ash from Philadelphia, PA, a non-traditional student whose life was turned around and given new direction discovered through a passion for bicycle racing, became the crowd favorite through an aggressive race style. He lapped the field in all of his qualifiers and the points race final, and kept plowing forth, knowing he too had the best shot of taking max points by simply riding harder & longer than any of the faster sprinters. In the end, he came up half a wheel short of a national title, finishing fifth in the final sprint, just shy of the 4th he needed to take a one point win, ending tied for first on points at 48 but losing the tie-breaker. His points race was his second 2nd place of the weekend, as he also set a blistering pursuit time of 4:43 in blustery conditions early in the event. As the wind died down the times improved, but no one was able to knock Bill down until the defending champion on the final heat turned in a 4:34, breaking the collegiate 4km individual pursuit record that Bill had only just set.
Of course Bill’s ride was set up by the dedicated chasing and teamwork—allowable collusion in collegiate track racing—of Honduran road national champion, Pablo Cruz and South Africa’s junior Madison champion, Joshua Buchel. The pair of them exemplified MSU’s all for one, one for all mentality. Rather than trying to rack up three moderately high placings to secure team points, we opted to go for the national title, and put our two other racers on the front to drive the pace when it suited. Josh in particular was a tireless workhorse and certainly Bill could not have done it without him.
In fact, Josh emerged as a bright shining star—the consummate teammate with loads of talent. To call him a superdomestique would not do him justice, for he can lead just as well. Josh became the first MSU sprinter to go under 11 seconds, beating the team record set by Danny Robertson—who, coincidentally, nearly broke the national record in a flying 200 on site with a 9.9, now 3 years beyond his graduation—by two tenths of a second. Josh’s PR earned him a high ranking that allowed him to cruise to the quarterfinals in match sprinting, even though he had never match-sprinted in his life. He proved an adept learned, and ultimately placed 8th, even after having his shoulder dislocated by his opponent in the quarters. Match sprinting is rough!
Josh also managed to go under 4:50 in the individual pursuit for another top 10, but it was his kilometer time trial where he really shined. Josh earned the bronze with a 1:05, and he too is one to watch for the future.
Maxyna Cottam of New Zealand, a junior national pursuit and scratch race champion herself, showed why the Cottams are a family to be feared in track racing all over Oceania, as she, in her first competition on American soil, was the women’s field’s most consistent placer, never going outside the top 12 in every single event she did. She also was instrumental in setting up Hannah’s points race win, including opening the door for Hannah to take 4th in the final sprint, when Max herself could have easily taken the points. She and Josh definitely were the teammates a captain could have!
Unfortunately we were not able to field a women’s pursuit team with just two women, but the men’s pursuit team of John Paul Blanton, Pablo Cruz, Bill Ash & Josh Buchel—3 freshman and a sophomore—were incredible. They gelled as if they’d been brought up doing pursuits weekly, when in fact, due to scheduling conflicts all summer & fall keeping them apart, they were riding full gas together for the first time: but full gas, with that talent, and a particularly gutsy performance from JP and Pablo to hang on the final two laps as the more experienced and explosive Josh & Bill lit it up—was enough for the bronze medal, and surely more medals are in their bright future.
What was most exciting for me, as coach of this young team, was not only the incredibly performances of a handful of stars, but the way even our new guys—Jake Lanoux, TC Porterfield, & Craig Abrahams–with just 4 days of track racing prior to their first national championships, whose bikes, provided by Specialized, ordered last minute assembled by the amazing mechanics at the brand new Endurance House of Wichita Falls, and paid for thanks to the generous contributions of the Hotter’N Hell 100 & First Bank of Wichita Falls—had something to contribute. We were still discovering their talents as they made mistakes; Craig, for example, started way, way too fast and spun way, way too small of a gear in his individual pursuit. But his second lap was well under 21 seconds—lightning fast! When one rider fell very ill on the final day and couldn’t compete in the team sprint, it was next rider up, Craig, and he positively flew around that track.
In fact, the team sprint, the final event, is done in a uniquely collegiate way. The race is 6 laps long—2 long kilometers on the Colorado Springs track—where a female has to complete at minimum 2 laps and males can do up to 4. The tricky transition between has to be executed precisely with no overlap in order to avoid disqualification. It is a test of strength, speed, and team mechanics, and we executed flawlessly. We received some advice from US national rider and MSU grad Danny Robertson before the event: “Try to drop the people behind you. And everyone else behind you: don’t get dropped!”
Maxyna had her fastest starting lap ever. Hannah, who often struggles with starts, got up to full speed and into the draft just at the right time to keep the speed up through the second lap. The aforementioned Craig took off when it was his turn, pulling the team into the top position through the first four rounds at the halfway point. The crucial fourth lap, pulled by Garrison Horton, who had struggled to match some of his times from last year, was incredible. In a carbon copy of the previous year, Garrison nearly dropped Bill riding second to last. In fact, Garrison had the fastest 4th lap of the entire event! Bill, exhausted having raced into 6th during an aggressive scratch race, where Josh, riding anchor, had also gone full out to chase a dangerous breakaway down for Bill, pulled Josh into the final lap, and Josh scorched around the 333 meter course in a shade over 18 seconds! It was the team’s fastest average speed for a team sprint of all time, and it was enough for a yet another silver medal.
While we fell just short in a number of events, from Hannah’s IP silver, the team sprint silver, Josh’s bronze, Bill’s pair of silvers—we are keenly aware that next year well could be our year. We will be bringing back every single rider from the 2015 track squad, and almost definitely with some new additions to make us one of the teams to beat in 2016. We are the MSU Cycling Team, and we have put everyone on notice. We believe that we will win.