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By Fred Dreier
Tiny Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, can finally say it owns the best collegiate road cycling team in the United States. After a series of near misses at collegiate cycling’s biggest race, the Bobcats finally grabbed the coveted Division I team omnium, squeaking by Fort Lewis College, 473-424.
The Bobcats’ Andrew Talansky and Carla Swart also took home the Division I individual omnium titles — another first for the school of 900 students.
“We’ve always been so close in both the Division I and II titles, and I think this shows we were able to come together as a team,” said Doug Owen, Lees-McRae’s director of cycling. “Yesterday we won as individuals and today we were smart. We put our stamp on this as a team.”
The final day of the 2008 USA Cycling collegiate championships saw riders battle it out in the streets of old town Fort Collins on an eight-turn criterium course. The route started and finished beneath the Bank One building and the Larimer County courthouse, just miles north of the race’s host school, Colorado State University. Schools compete in either Division I or Division II, with D-I schools generally having student bodies above 15,000 students.
Lees-McRae and Fort Lewis College are both exceptions to that rule, having requested and been granted upgrades to Division I.
The Bobcats came into the criterium riding high after victories by Swart and Talansky in Saturday’s road races. Still, Lees-McRae trailed the tied Fort Lewis and the University of California-Davis by 10 points in the team standings. The team organized its battle plan for the criterium around winning valuable mid-race point primes, then marking riders from Fort Lewis and Davis.
The plan went off without a hitch in the Division I women’s race. The primes awarded seven points to the first rider to cross the line, and paid out points five deep. Lees-McRae’s Kacey Manderfield, the 2007-08 collegiate cyclocross champion, patrolled the front of the group gobbling up points. When a two-woman breakaway went free, Manderfield took the field sprint for third with Swart in fourth.
The result put Lees-McRae into the omnium lead. The men’s squad spent the day chasing down attacks from Fort Lewis’ Joey Thompson and Ben Sonntag. Sonntag, the reigning collegiate mountain bike national champ, admitted his form was lacking after suffering a nasty crash during the final day of the Tour of the Gila. The pileup gouged a chunk out of Sonntag’s left hand and badly bruised his tailbone.
“It hurts pretty bad to be in the saddle,” said Sonntag, who is a native of Germany. “It is too bad, I am still looking for a really good result on the road.”
The national road title comes not a moment too soon for Lees-McRae. The Bobcats finished a close second to Whitman College in the Division II team road omnium in 2005 and 2006. After upgrading to Division I in 2007, the Bobcats were runner up to Fort Lewis at the 2007 mountain bike collegiate championships, held on Lees-McRae’s campus.
Unlike most collegiate road programs, which operate strictly as club programs, Lees-McRae’s team is a school-funded varsity sport. The team recruits and awards scholarships to many of its riders. Talansky, just 19, was recruited after winning Florida’s junior road and criterium championships.
“I saw what kind of a high-end program they had and wanted to go,” said Talansky, who also rides with the Toshiba-Herbalife pro team. “It’s run like a professional team.”
Div. II women
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology came into the final day of the championships nursing a slim 272-239 lead in the team omnium over Western Washington University. The MIT team, which affectionately labels its mascot as the slide rule, took the lead after winning the women’s team time trial on Friday and placing Martha Buckley in third in Saturday’s road race.
Buckley stayed with the pack in Sunday’s criterium as the women’s peloton gradually shrunk during the 60-minute race. Jumping free on the final straightaway was Jen Stebbins of Dartmouth College, with her teammate Eve McNeill sprinting to third. The finish bumped Dartmouth into second place in the Division II omnium, but it wasn’t enough to catch the slide rules.
“I knew Martha was really strong and wasn’t going to let me pass her, so I jumped on the final corner,” said Stebbins, a junior Psychology major. “I looked back and saw I had a gap.”
Div. I women:
Julie Bellerose and Anna McLoon broke away from the peloton at the race’s midpoint, then held on to finish 1-2. Bellerose, who hails from Montreal, just finished her Ph.D in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan. She came into cycling after racing triathlon four years ago, and finished third at the 2007 Tour de Leelenau.
“We went because we wanted to win,” Bellerose said. “I looked back and did not see anyone chasing so I thought it could have a chance.”
Div. II men:
Breakaways also featured in the Division II men’s criterium, as a ten-man break separated itself early and nearly lapped the field. Danger man Zak Grabowski (Colorado School of Mines) looked to be the day’s primary animator until Spencer Beamer of Furman University threw down a daring attack with five laps remaining. The Furman rider appeared to have the race won, but a surging Craig Leukens (Yale) attacked and caught Beamer on the penultimate lap. Beamer slipped a pedal in the ensuing sprint, and the 6-foot-4 Leukens took home the win.
“[Beamer] was just hanging out there and nobody would do anything to bring him back,” said Leukens, who finished a close second in the previous day’s road race. “It was a lot like yesterday — I figured if I just hit it hard I could make it up to him.”
Leukens took home Indiana’s Little 500 race his senior year as an undergraduate in 2005 and races with the Targetraining pro squad. He is currently earning his master’s degree at Yale Divinity School.
Div. I men
The day’s biggest fanfare came at the finish of the Division I men’s race, which saw hometown favorite Phil Mann of Colorado State University repeat his criterium championship from 2007. In 2007 Mann took the victory by jumping clear of a breakaway. In 2008 he won the bunch kick at the line. He jumped free after his teammates brought back a surprise attack by Virginia Tech rider Ben King, also a rider on the Kelly Benefits-Medifast pro team.
“I really relied on my teammates. With two to go Dan Workman got on the front and brought [King] back,” said Mann, who just finished a master’s degree in nutrition. “I jumped before the final corner and just rode as hard as I could. My mom is here, and for the last two years I haven’t gotten her a Mother’s Day gift. So I brought one home this year.”
Division I Men’s Criterium
1. Phil Mann (Colorado State University) 1:26.55
2. Steve Scholzen (University of Wisconsin – Madison) s.t.
3. Alex Boyd (Midwestern State University) s.t.
4. Joshua Lipka (University of New Hampshire) s.t.
5. Rodney Santiago (Pennsylvania State University) s.t.
Division I Women’s Criterium
1. Julie Bellerose (University of Michigan) 57:06.5
2. Anna McLoon (Harvard University) s.t.
3. Kasey Manderfield (Lees-McRae College) +42.7
4. Carla Swart (Lees-McRae College) s.t.
5. Amanda Miller (Colorado State University) s.t.
Division II Men’s Criterium
1. Craig Leukens (Yale University) 1:14:37
2. Spencer Beamer (Furman University) s.t.
3. Thomas Brown (Emory University) s.t.
4. Jason Sears (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) s.t.
5. Zak Grabowski (Colorado School of Mines) s.t.
Division II Women’s Criterium
1. Jen Stebbins (Dartmouth College) 58:26.4
2. Kendi Thomas (Whitman) s.t.
3. Eve McNeill (Dartmouth) s.t.
4. Devon Haskell (University of Chicago) s.t.
5. Tela Crane (Western Washington University) s.t.
Division I Overall Results
1. Lees-McRae College 473
2. Fort Lewis College 424
3. Colorado State University 362
4. University of California – Davis 342
5. Stanford University 290
Division II Overall Results
1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 394
2. Dartmouth College 365
3. Western Washington University 341
4. Colorado School of Mines 320
5. Yale University 283
Division I Men’s Overall Results
1. Andrew Talansky (Lees McRae College) 244
2. Phillip Mann (Colorado State University) 223
3. Steve Scholzen (University of Wisconsin – Madison) 220
4. Joshua Lipka (University of New Hampshire) 208
5. Alex Boyd (Midwestern State University) 191
Division I Women’s Overall Results
1. Carla Swart (Lees-McRae College) 281
2. Anna McLoon (Harvard University) 226
3. Julie Bellerose (University of Michigan) 209
4. Amanda Miller (Colorado State University) 208
5. Amy Dombroski (Fort Lewis College) 205
Division II Men’s Overall Standings
1. Craig Leukens (Yale University) 310
2. Chris Butler (Furman University) 259
3. Zak Grabowski (Colorado School of Mines) 242
4. Ben Showman (United States Military Academy) 211
5. Spencer Beamer (Furman University) 202
DII Women’s Overall Results
1. Devon Haskell (University of Chicago) 304
2. Kendi Thomas (Whitman College) 304
3. Jen Stebbins (Dartmouth College) 254
4. Martha Buckley (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 217
5. Eve McNeill (Dartmouth College) 186