Words and Images by Daniel Walker
Durango, Colo.—Every sport has its legends, the faces and personalities that capture our hearts and minds. We track a star's rise to success, an underdog pulling through against the odds, the talented hero's unstoppable dominance. These stories exist in every sport, in every competition. But what separates collegiate sports from the rest is just how short these stories usually are.
Unlike professionals, collegiate athletes start their run with an expiration date. You get four years (okay, maybe 5 or 6 for some) and you're done. And while many of the athletes lined up at the start line of the Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships this year in Angel Fire, New Mexico, harbor dreams of going pro after graduation —they know that it's a slim shot. Some will undoubtedly go on to the big leagues, but for most, this is it. Collegiate racing is their one shot at glory on a national stage.
What this also means is that collegiate cycling is a constantly changing sport. Unlike in professional sports, where you can have a team of experienced professionals dominate the scene for years and years, the top collegiate riders in each discipline can change every couple years.
Now, this doesn't mean that there aren't individual stars in the scene—there were some exceptionally talented athletes competing on the dusty battlegrounds of Angel Fire this year. One rider, Joey Schusler of CU Boulder, took the win in the individual omniumn (overall best rider) after racing in every single event—downhill, dual slalom, cross country, and short track—all on the same bike, a 6-inch travel Yeti SB-66.
But however brightly any one star may shine, they will be but a distant memory by the time that the class of 2016 is lining up at the start line four years from now. All of which makes the continued success of the Fort Lewis College (FLC) cycling team that much more impressive.
2012 marked the 7th consecutive year that FLC has won the overall Division 1 Team Omnium competition. While having seven consecutive national titles is impressive for any team, it is particularly noteworthy as none of the riders who won that first national title are still on the team. Most likely, none of the riders that won the second or third are still competing either. Those battle-hardened veterans are continually replaced year after year with fresh, inexperienced riders—many of whom have little to no experience racing bikes.
The dual slalom was undoubtably the most spectator-friendly event of the week -- with nearly everyone turning out to cheer on their teammates in fierce, head-to-head competition.
How does the college consistently mold these young riders into national champions?
"The answer is simple. Durango has the allure of real bike culture and passion for cycling,” says coach Elke Brutsaert—herself a winner of multiple National and World Cup titles. “The passion transcends through the community, through the coaches and director of the team and is passed on to the new riders, who show up from all across the country every year to be a part of the passion. The allure of being involved with FLCC is great and stems from this passion."
Cycling team director Dave Hagan also credits the larger community of Durango, CO with much of the team’s success. “The community gives us the wide range of talented coaches, many of which are alumni of the program, that bring the passion that Elke speaks of and also knowledge of how the program works at FLC Cycling.”
Both Hagan and Brutsaert are also quick to cite the program’s emphasis on balance as a vital ingredient as well, “[We] keep it fun—training can be serious business but once it is not fun, the passion and energy fade,” says Hagan. “I feel like teaching the students to keep it in perspective, that it’s just bike racing and balance is more important in life [than winning], and balance that includes becoming a lifelong cyclist is even better!”
It’s a strategy that seems to be working, as evidenced by the large wall of trophies in the FLC Cycling Team’s office. Still, the scene is always changing and no one knows what superstars next year’s field could bring. But that’s all part of the fun of collegiate racing—and no one would have it any other way.