A freak fire destroys the University of Vermont's bikes days before collegiate MTB nationals. Trek scrambles to send them bikes in time.

It isn’t easy for college kids to travel across the country for a national championship bike race. Most are on limited budgets, fitting in training rides around classes, and they have to negotiate all of the travel coordination from flights to rental cars to lodging.

This weekend’s collegiate mountain bike nationals took another unexpectedly difficult twist for the University of Vermont team when they arrived in Missoula, Montana, only to find their bikes were destroyed in a fire.

Something seemed wrong Thursday morning. The bikes were expected to arrive via FedEx Wednesday night, around the time their flight landed. The team had shipped most of their bikes across the country to avoid exorbitant airline fees. They did some errands Thursday, hoping to pick up their bikes in time to go pre-ride the race courses.

As they were unloading groceries at their VRBO, a fateful call came in from FedEx. The truck had caught on fire, and the bikes were likely destroyed.

“We were not sure if they existed anymore,” said UVM’s Nick Lando. “Then we start scrambling.”

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Lando and his teammate Mazie Hayden had flown with their bikes, so while the other UVM riders scoured Missoula for rental bikes and called every company they could think of, Lando drove Hayden up to the venue so she could practice on the downhill track. After all, UVM was the best team in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference this season, and Hayden was the top downhiller.

While they were up at Marshall Mountain, another teammate retrieved the bikes from the burned-out FedEx truck on the side of a road near town. The bikes were in pretty bad shape.

“The conditions of bikes varied from totally turned to ash and not salvageable to the carbon in the frames had unraveled themselves,” said Lando. “We put our heads together, building bikes as quick as we could, taking parts and making Frankenstein bikes so we could get XC riders on bikes.”

Fortunately, as they pulled apart their burnt bikes, a better option came up when Sarah Spencer made a phone call to Trek Bicycles. She spoke to Jed Gunn in e-commerce, who passed her along to Gary Whitebird in customer care. Whitebird had raced collegiate as both an undergrad and a graduate student and jumped at the chance to help save the weekend for the “Catamounts.”

“They called in, kind of in a tough spot,” said Whitebird. “A lot of us here have ridden, raced, we all know that situation, especially in collegiate.”

Late on Thursday, Whitebird and his team scrambled to find an option. They realized their California warehouse was the only option to get bikes shipped this late in the day.

“They only had a matter of minutes to pick the bikes off the shelf to get them on a UPS trailer to hit that deadline,” Whitebird added.

Trek reached out to one of their dealers in Missoula, Open Road Bicycle and Nordic, to see if they could build the bikes on short notice. “They didn’t even question it. They just said hey there’s a team that needs help, absolutely,” Whitebird said.

Although the eight bikes were shipped overnight, the cross-country races started at 8:30 a.m. Friday, so the UVM team had to source a few spare bikes from other teams — Fort Lewis College and University of Montana at Bozeman. Riding his own bike that he brought on the plane, Lando ended up second in the club division. The rest of the UVM riders were just happy to be toeing the line after a crazy 24 hours.

“Everyone had fun; everyone party-biked it,” said Lando. “There’s some character-building when people showing up on the start with scorched jerseys that smell like smoke.”

Racing continues Saturday with the short track and dual slalom races and Sunday with the downhill and team relay.

UVM’s riders will be aboard new bikes, and back in Wisconsin at Trek HQ, the Catamounts will probably have a few new fans following the action from afar.

“We’re really excited that we could help these group of kids,” said Whitebird. “With a team effort, everything was able to come together.”