I remember my college days at University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, with the fondest of memories.
It was a great time to be a Georgia Bulldog, perhaps the greatest. The football team was the best in the nation, with the phenomenal Herschel Walker routinely running over, around, and away from hapless defenses for touchdowns. Dominique Wilkins led the Dawgs to the final four in my senior year.
Our track and field team had Mel Latteny and Herschel Walker, both of which were a couple of the fastest 100-meter guys in the world at the time. I ran cross country and had the privilege of running with Mark Plaatjes in his first strides away from apartheid, fresh from his South African homeland. He went on to win the 1993 World Marathon Championship ten years later.
College was also where the bike and I established what would become a life-long partnership. There was a special combination of factors that made college and cycling a very compatible environment. Looking back there was a romantic aspect to it all. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when all this was going down, cycling wasn’t something you’d ever read about in the mainstream; it was much deeper in the depths of subculture than it is today.
Wool jerseys and shorts, hairnets (if we wore any head protection at all), steel bikes, Silca frame pumps and strap-in pedals were the state-of-the-art back then.
It was a hard-core bunch of us who did it. I remember taking so much crap from my non-cycling buddies about dressing up so funny and shaving my legs, and hanging out with other guys who did the same thing. I also remember thinking what a bunch of cretins those guys were who weren’t able to understand the subtleties of cycling, its European roots, its unique character, its raw functionality.
Leg-shaving in GeorgiaUGA, being a fine old institution in the Deep South, was entrenched in sports with balls and sticks, and cycling wasn’t commonly recognized as a real sport. At that time, there were maybe fifty people or less in Athens who knew that the Tour de France was a bike race. Those were some good times. It wasn’t easy or popular being a cyclist, but as far as I was concerned, that made it all the more attractive.
If there was a collegiate cycling club at UGA, I wasn’t aware of it. And I’m pretty sure that collegiate cycling didn’t exist then, and if it did, it was obscure even relative to cycling in those days. But in a way, my romance with the bike was the direct result of collegiate cycling. All of the cyclists I rode with in Athens were students, and even though we weren’t organized as a unit representing UGA, we were a club of cycling students, training together, racing together, hanging out together and enjoying cycling together.
The fact that we raced and trained and were pursuing higher education was part of the romance. We were fifteen or so committed to the task: undergrads in various pursuits of bachelor’s degrees and some graduate students studying everything from business to entomology, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine. It was a diverse group.
We had a couple of guys who would have probably been Olympians if not for the boycott in 1980, who mentored us younger guys. They were gods as far as I was concerned. I learned so much. The greatest thing I learned was to love cycling, to appreciate it. I learned the finer points of the culture, cycling etiquette, tactics, teamwork. It was a beautiful thing. It hooked me for life to cycling.
After I graduated and went into cycling full steam, it was never the same. The atmosphere changed. Not to say that it wasn’t fun… it was just different. The romance was not as fervent. The bike was more of an accessory than a dire necessity like it was at school, where it was my transportation as well as my racing steed.
Team playersAt college, we labored more for the sake of the team than ourselves, as if we were doing it for school pride, not as much to build our own race resumes. There seemed to always be laughter in the college days, and the post-ride meetings at the local coffee shop where bragging rights were cashed in were as sweet as the rides themselves. We weren’t assembled by a team manager chasing results for the team sponsor. We were drawn together by our common interest in racing the bike and for the pure spirit of team and competition.
It’s not that results weren’t important. We were very serious about cycling and we trained and raced with the same intensity as the pros. The fact that we were all students at UGA, and essentially all walk-ons, made our athletic endeavor naturally unified and thus more savory. It wasn’t a job, it was a passion. We fed off of our common love and we came together like we were magnetized.
It was only natural that I would be pulled back to collegiate cycling by that magnetism at some point, but this time as a coach. In 1993, I sat in on the very first meetings of a group of starry-eyed student cyclists at my local college as they conspired to organize and make an official racing club of themselves.
My role at that point was more of counselor as they attempted to organize. I met Todd Wells through that process, and soon he was on to a collegiate national championship and a contract with Specialized. I’ve been entwined with collegiate cycling ever since.
Having worked with some of the greatest cyclists in the world, I’ve been involved with the sport at its highest level, but it is collegiate cycling that captivates me. I love the atmosphere that surrounds the collegiate cycling scene. There’s all the mystical coolness that I already waxed nostalgic about, but from the coach’s perspective, there is the amazing opportunity to mold young people and catch them while they are developing their independent selves. That is nothing short of magical.
Hard work, big rewardsIt has to be magic because somehow I’ve managed to do it even though it may be the hardest I’ve ever worked for so little money. Collegiate cycling, as it was originally conceived, and how it mostly remains today, is not about the money. It’s not about bowl games, advertising kickbacks, and winning at all costs. It’s still about the warm and fuzzy subculture of cycling, school pride, naturally fermented camaraderie, development and just plain fun. There’s no pressure from pushy athletic departments, no NCAA constraints, no little-league parents. It’s as pure a medium as you’re going to find in sport today. As cycling has had its share of scandals and bad press the last few years, collegiate cycling is just the breath of fresh air cycling needs.
If you’re a college graduate, or ever went to college, or ever thought of going to college, or live near a college, or ever had a favorite college, or have kids who are in college or might ever go to college, or even the remotest connection to a college or university, you should get involved with collegiate cycling.
If you have time, but no money, donate time. If you have money and no time, donate money. If you have both, go for it! If you have neither, I’m really sorry and I hope your luck changes. Collegiate cycling is wonderful. It’s cycling the way cycling should be.
Editor’s note: Rick Crawford is C.O.O. and Premier Level Coach with Colorado Premier Training and coaches many top professional cyclists and triathletes.