Lees-McRae: On the road to collegiate success

Tales from the Peloton, March 18, 2008

Lees-McRae can boast one of the most successful collegiate cycling programs in the US. The squad has earned two consecutive cyclo-cross national championship titles in 2006 and 2007 and it finished second to Fort Lewis College at the 2007 collegiate mountain bike national championships. An amazing almost 10% of its small student body of about 600 are members of the college's cycling team. Cyclingnews' Sue George talked to Coach Doug Owen about the Lees-McRae cycling program.

The Lees-McRae team is in its seventh year, making it one of the newer collegiate programs in the country. Despite its small school population, the team has been competing as a Division I school since the 2006-2007 school year.

"We started out strong and we made the leap to Division I," said Coach Doug Owen. "We are probably the smallest school competing in Division I. However, some of the stronger schools in the country do not draw from gigantic campuses - like Fort William and Lindsey Wilson. Some of the best schools are smaller ones without football teams."

In fact, at Lees-McRae, cycling is the largest sports team and probably the only the one with four competitive seasons: track, mountain bike, cyclo-cross and road. "This year, we have 52 active riders, including 14 women," said Owen. "To be able to participate in all of the programs, we need a large number of riders. It's not like volleyball or soccer where you have just one season."

"A majority of our riders do multiple disciplines. Most have one on which they focus, but they love competing and being part of the program," said Owen who mentioned one of the team's riders - a national championship level mountain biker who will also race on the road this spring.

Not everyone on the team is concerned about racing. "We have some riders who want to come ride with us and don't want to race," said Owen. "For example, we have one woman who's not racing because she's a senior who is focusing on graduating."

The team hopes some of its riders will become interested in racing and endeavours to create a supportive environment for those willing to make the transition. "We want to create an environment where anyone can come out and try racing."

"This year we are really promoting an intro to racing program. This will appeal to those who like to ride with the team but aren't so sure about the racing part," said Owen. "During the first half of races in the intro program, experienced riders will pair with others, and then they'll bow out and let the newbie racers compete on their own for the rest of the race."

But in the end, it doesn't matter if the school's riders don't stick to racing. Underlying all of Owen's work is his goal of "creating cyclists for life". "I'm 50 and I still race, so I can tell them they can race the rest of their life."

When it comes to cycling, Owen doesn't ask his riders to sacrifice their studies. "The mindset of our program is we want you to get the most you can out of cycling, but we also want you to walk the aisle and be a college graduate."

Still growing

The Lees-McRae program has grown thanks to not only the involvement of Owen, but also others in the administration.

"The school's president who started at the same time as me was also a cyclist and he supported me doubling the program," said Owen. "Now we are bringing in 25 riders per year."

Administrators see value in the school's largest athletic program, which is seeing regular success nationally. "Our cycling program is a recruiting asset for our school. Our program has gotten to be so well known that we draw people from all over the country."

Technically, the team is considered a club sport as it is at most colleges and universities in the US. "In reality, every school looks at cycling as a club sport, and from an insurance standpoint, we are officially considered a club," said Owen, "but in the eyes of a cycling world, we consider ourselves a varsity sport because we give scholarships and get money from the school [to support the team]."

The team has built enough momentum and a successful record that recruiting comes more easily now. "We have riders who just hear about us," said Owen, who still does plenty of active recruiting. "I go to all the junior national events around the country. My assistant coach races pro and travels to many events. I still race actively and talk to juniors all over."

Not being part of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) makes recruiting cyclists a less complicated task. "Since we're not [in the] NCAA, we don't have restrictions on how to recruit riders. So I can talk to kids who are 12, 13, and 14 years-old. I always tell them I want them to come to school here, but if they go to college anywhere that's more important."

Lees-McRae cycling team has been around just long enough that some of its alumni are making themselves knowing in the professional cycling world. Taylor Tolleson first rode for Team Slipstream, but has transferred to Team BMC for 2008.

Perhaps the school's best known cyclist is former Tour of Virginia winner Brent Brookwalter, also racing for BMC. "He had a bad crash last March, and all his plans were put on hold for a year," said Owen. "Over the five years he was in college, he was maybe the most decorated cyclist. He won mountain bike, road, and cross national individual and team titles." Brookwalter graduated with a pre-medicine honors degree in biology.

2008 will be the first time that Tolleson and Brookwalter will be team-mates again since their collegiate days.

All about strategy

Collegiate cycling is truly a team event, with both the men's and the women's racers scoring points in various categories that are ultimately combined for a team omnium score. Because the points of riders of both genders and all levels count, more experienced riders are encouraged to teach and nurture those with less experience in the greater interest of the team's results.

Owen is starting his fourth year as a coach and last year was the school's first graduating class. "We had seven riders graduate. This year we'll have 11 graduates, then 18 next year," said Owen. "We're just at the cusp when we're starting to put people out there."

New for the 2008 season is a rule change to encourage more strategy within collegiate races. "In the past, we scored four of four riders. This year, we will race six and score three," said Owen who helps nationally with the leadership of collegiate cycling. "We think this will help collegiate road cycling at a national level. We're carrying forward what we do in the conference level, in which the top four of however many you put in score."

Competing in the Southeast Collegiate Conference, Lees-McRae started racing on March 1. Its season builds in importance and culminates in the conference finals, which the school will host on April 19-20, and the national championship in Fort Collins, Colorado, on May 9-11.

Lees-McRae is going into this road season as its conference's powerhouse. "We're the top team in our conference. The University of Georgia and Auburn will be our challengers.

"It's tough on the other teams out there because we're so deep. We'll go into the season with 14 or 15 A-level riders. We have enough variety in our riders that we can put four or five high level riders out there regardless of the course type."

Thanks to large numbers, the team benefits from a diverse collection of riders - many of whom play specific roles. "We have power riders, climbers, sprinters and we focus on the team approach. We protect our sprinters like a pro team would. In climbing races, we help those riders."

Being at the top of the conference doesn't mean Lees-McRae can slack off. Owen knows his top racers will need to be ready for nationals. "When you go to nationals, you see other teams like you. We know we'll go up against teams with same strength and depth." He considers schools like Fort Lewis and Stanford as top competition.

When the mountain biking season rolls around in the fall, the school will enjoy the advantage of competing on home turf for the second consecutive year when it again hosts the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships.

Lees-McRae Team Roster: Mike Anderson, Preston Anderson, Aaron Bradford, Ed Burress, Thomas Cockerton, Sean Condron, Rebbecca Conklin, Chris Consorto, Ben Corbalis, Nick Dale, John Doyle, Gonzalo Escobar, Dane Garvik, Katie Getchell, Robert Hancock, Jesse Hayes, Kristi Henne, Kaylie Henne, Will Hoffarth, Kevin Holldber, Ben Hulse, Chloe Jackson, Scott Jackson, Sam Keesler, Wentworth Knipe, Kristine Koch, Randy Laprairie, Kacey Mandefield, Kristin Markham, Vincent Massey, Olivia Maurey, Sean Ross McCoy, PJ Noto, Matthew Owen, Brad Perley, Chris Pickerell, Diego Rameriz, Michael Rozelle, James Schaffernoth, Austin Simmons, Stephen Solt, Ally Stacher, Carla Swart, Andrew Talansky, Michael Talley, Eric Thompson, Hannah Trimble, Jacob Vigneault, Carson Worts, Christian White.

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for upcoming diary entries from members of the Lees-McRae Collegiate Cycling Team. In the meantime, for more information, visit www.bobcatsports.lmc.edu.

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