By Caley Fretz
It’s 5:15 a.m. on Saturday in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the sun won’t be up for well over an hour. A light bobs through the darkness, honed in on a gaggle of students shivering beside their beat-up, bike-racked hatchbacks. Sam Starr, bike light owner and freshman at Colorado State University, is meeting up with a few like-minded souls.
It’s not the conclusion to a Friday-night party. It’s the prelude to a bike race. But not just any bike race — a collegiate bike race.
The world of collegiate racing is a mystery to many within the greater cycling community. VeloNews.com’s coverage of the scene has inspired questions about the structure, organization, leadership and purpose behind collegiate cycling.
With this piece, we aim to shed a little more light.
Behind the scenes
Collegiate cycling is governed by USA Cycling and led by Jeffrey Hansen, program manager for the High School and Collegiate Cycling Program. A conference director heads each of the 11 geographically divided conferences, which include more than 300 clubs comprising 4,700 licensed riders. The vast majority of these clubs are student run and funded; a few are professionally guided varsity programs.
Clubs are split into two divisions. Division I is for schools with 15,000 or more students; Division II is for schools with fewer than 15,000. A number of varsity programs are small enough to race Division II, but have successfully petitioned to race in the more prestigious Division I.
During the regular conference races, DI and DII race together but are awarded omnium points separately. At national championships, the two divisions race independently.
There are four separate disciplines within collegiate racing: road, mountain, track, and cyclocross. Each has a national championship at which points for the national team rankings are acquired.
Since collegiate cycling is a club sport, governed only by USA Cycling, there are fewer restrictions than in many other collegiate sports. Essentially, any full-time college student can race. There are no limits on professionals, no red shirts and no cap on the maximum numbers of years a student can race. Graduate students are welcomed with open arms.
More so than anywhere outside of the ProTour, collegiate racing is a team sport. The simple fact that riders compete for their schools adds a team element, which is further enforced by the structure USA Cycling has given to collegiate racing.
“The rules encourage (teamwork) through the points structure, where every place counts toward the team’s success,” explained Hansen via email.
The power of the team, the most vital part of collegiate cycling’s success, cannot be understated. When it comes to attracting young people to the sport, which is vital to its long-term health and growth, the social atmosphere a team provides is essential. This atmosphere, focused on collective rather than individual achievement, is the backbone of collegiate racing.
It’s why Sam and two dozen fellow CSU students are in a freezing parking lot an hour and a half before sunrise. Nowhere else will you find a group of Category 1 racers standing on the sidelines, four hours before their own race, cheering their brains out for a bunch of Cat 5’s.
The number of racing categories available depends upon the size of a given conference. The Eastern Conference, by far the largest in terms of attendance, has five letter-delineated categories for men and four for women. The much smaller Rocky Mountain conference has three and two.
Collegiate categories are designed to coincide with the standard Category 1-5 system where possible. A Pro/1/2 rider must race in the A’s, a Cat 3 can chose between A’s and B’s, a Cat 4 between B’s and C’s, and a Cat 5 between D’s and Intro. In smaller conferences, Category 5’s and are all stuck into the lowest category available.
Beyond the individual glory of winning a race, athletes work towards gaining points for individual and team omnium championships within their conference, as well as separate omnium competitions at each national championship. When Hansen speaks of rules that encourage a team atmosphere, he is referring to the omnium competitions.
Qualification for nationals can be achieved on an individual or team basis, based on each conference’s respective omnium competitions. This allows strong riders with small or weak teams to attend nationals on their own merit.
Points attained during conference races become irrelevant at nationals, with the exception being the individual omnium winners from each conference, who are given front-row call-ups.
Collegiate racing’s relationship to rider development can be summed up in a single word: accessibility. The lowest categories are the largest, by far. Costs are lower thanks to entry-fee caps and reduced-cost USAC licenses, and the team atmosphere encourages new cyclists to give racing a try. Nowhere else is bike racing as cheap, easy or fun to get into. Hundreds of cyclists use collegiate racing to try bike racing for the first time every year.
“While many of USA Cycling’s development programs focus on juniors and U23s that have been racing for quite some time and are already at a high level of ability, collegiate cycling helps ramp riders up to that level very rapidly,” says Hansen.
Unlike the typical Cat 5, new collegiate riders have experienced, tight-knit teams to help guide them. The hard lessons of bike racing are taught rather than learned through trial and error.
The list of top professionals who started cycling in college is a long one. Alison Dunlap and Mara Abbott are just two of the big names. Amanda Miller, who began her career racing with Colorado State University and now rides for Team TIBCO, credits her years as a collegiate racer for her recent success.
“I could not be where I am today without the collegiate cycling experience,” she said recently.
Back to Sam
Fifteen minutes before the first crit of his life, Sam is taking a few hot laps on the University of Denver course with his men’s C teammates. After a brief clinic they all line up on the front row. Visibly nervous, each hands over his jacket and gets a final high-five from an A-category teammate.
The official yells, “Go!” A few moments of panicked clipping-in ensues, and the field is on its way. Sam sits around 20th wheel. Through the first left hander, no problems. Past the tricky right-left chicane, still rolling along. At the third corner, an awkward 150-degree roundabout, a touch of wheels claims the first victims of this crit — among them Sam, shorts torn and bloody down his left side, grinning like he just won the race.
A teammate runs up. “You okay, Sam?”
“Yeah, yeah, skin grows back. How are the rest of the guys doing?”
That concern, not for self but for others, is why collegiate cycling is so powerful.