Photo Credit: Eszter Horanyi
CU MTB member Sam Morrison leads a group at nationals
By: Eszter Horanyi
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the University of Colorado mountain bike team dominated the collegiate scene winning several National Championships in a row. At the 2003 Mountain Bike National Championships, they suffered a heart-breaking loss in Angel Fire, NM., to Fort Lewis College and have only been able to bring home one mountain bike national title since then. The team has suffered from a series of years with single-year coaches, coaches who were unable to dedicate themselves fully to the team, or no coaches at all. As any student run organization, leadership changed frequently and continuity was lacking. This year, things changed when FasCat Coaching, based out of Boulder, came on board to help bring the CU team back to its powerhouse status.
FasCat joined forces with the CU team a few weeks into the fall mountain bike season with Jason Hilimire taking on mountain bike coaching responsibilities. He found a team that he describes as ‘a good group of kids who just needed a point-person. They didn’t have much organization or structure.’ Hilimire explains that while the A-riders were fairly self-sufficient, it was the beginners who benefited most from having a coach present to answer simple questions, such as ‘Where do we register?’ Meanwhile, more experienced riders could benefit from information on race strategy and training. Historically, the collegiate programs that succeed are those that have a strong coach turning ordinary athletes into strong leaders who then pass their knowledge down to the next generation of cyclists who will take over leadership positions. When this chain is broken, strong teams begin to falter.
After a successful nationals where the team finished a close second to Fort Lewis College, Hilimire is looking to the future, citing recruitment, team dedication, and structure as requirements to grow the team and defeat Fort Lewis.
Recruiting the next generation
With the Colorado High School Mountain Bike League exploding this year, nearly doubling in size, the future of collegiate cycling looks bright. With Boulder High School winning the DI high school state championships, Hilimire and his team have a large talent pool growing just down the hill from the CU campus. Hilimire has already started the ball rolling with recruiting riders from area high schools to race for CU with plans for a group ride with team members and local professional riders and CU Cycling alumni planned for the spring.
Hilimire hopes that the number gains seen in the high school teams will transfer to collegiate cycling. “It’s going to be a larger talent pool and it’s going to bring everyone’s game up,’ says Hilimire of the young crop of mountain bikers. “Kids are going to come in with experience and with a better understanding of training and race preparation.” When asked if he was worried that the colleges and universities with varsity cycling programs would immediate snap up all the top high school riders, further opening the gap between the varsity and club programs, Hilimire said he believed that there would be plenty of riders to go around for all the teams and that the increased number of people interested in mountain bike racing would spur the creation of cycling clubs at more schools around the country. “Right now there are four or five schools in both DI and DII who have legitimate teams,” says Hilimire. If the numbers of high school cyclists in leagues around the country are any indication, this is set to change in the next five years.
Varsity vs. Club Sport
Most cycling teams around the country have club status in their schools with a few notable exceptions, such as Fort Lewis College, Lees McRae, and Lindsey Wilson. These programs offer scholarships to their athletes and give high school riders a goal to strive for. While many top high school riders are expected to go to these programs, the club sports atmosphere can be seen as an extension of the high school programs for those who have found a love for mountain bike racing in the high school league but aren’t ready to dedicate a life to bicycle racing.
Hilimire believes that most of the CU team would be opposed to trying to turn the CU program into a varsity one, saying that the riders enjoy the club community atmosphere and subjecting teams to varsity sport eligibility rules would deter the large base of riders who are just racing for fun or are just learning about the sport. The inclusiveness of clubs sports, where anyone can join, is seen as the key to rebuilding a successful program at CU. Hilimire’s goals for the CU team are lofty, but after their performance in Angel Fire this fall, seem entirely attainable. His first goal is to fill the rosters of the team with riders: beginners, experts, professionals, men and women. From this base, he hopes, will come Rocky Mountain Collegiate Conference titles as well as national titles, both goals that have eluded CU Cycling for too long.
But with the right leadership, and with the newfound belief among the riders that the team can challenge for a national title, the future is brighter than it has been in years.