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Lees-McRae riders snap up wins in the Div. 1 men’s and women’s road races.

Carla Swart clung to the back of the elite seven-woman breakaway in the waning minutes of the 2008 Division I women’s road championship, held Saturday in Fort Collins, Colorado. Outnumbered and without teammates, the Lees-McRae sophomore didn’t appear to have the numbers or legs to win. Looks, however, can be deceiving.

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By Fred Dreier

2008 Collegiate Nationals Road Race: Carla Swart (Lees-McRae) outsprints her companions in the women's Div. 1 road race.

2008 Collegiate Nationals Road Race: Carla Swart (Lees-McRae) outsprints her companions in the women’s Div. 1 road race.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Carla Swart clung to the back of the elite seven-woman breakaway in the waning minutes of the 2008 Division I women’s road championship, held Saturday in Fort Collins, Colorado. Outnumbered and without teammates, the Lees-McRae sophomore didn’t appear to have the numbers or legs to win.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.

Swart sprung to the front of the group in the final meters to take a sprint victory ahead of Chloe Forsman (Arizona) and Amy Dombroski (Fort Lewis College). Breakaway companions Melanie Myers (Arizona), Amanda Miller (CSU Rams), Kristin McGrath (Fort Lewis) and Arwen Bradley (Stanford) rounded out the top seven.

“I just wanted to stay behind people today and see how strong they were,” a gasping Swart said at the finish line. “Why work as hard as the riders with teammates? If I’m tired I’m not going to waste myself if I’m the only one in there.”

The victory marked the first-ever women’s road championship for Lees-McRae, a cycling powerhouse located in Banner Elk, North Carolina. It also stirred the ire of Swart’s breakaway companions, who repeatedly asked the rider to do more work at the front. The seven separated themselves during the wind-blasted opening climb of the 50.1-mile race. They survived a day of 40mph wind gusts, and held off a charging 20-rider strong chase group by 1:30.

“Everyone was working really well except for the girl who won,” said Meyers after the race. “There was a tiny bit of yelling. Mostly we were pretty focused on keeping the gap open.”

Swart’s victory kicked off a full day of racing at USA Cycling’s premier collegiate event, which this year was held on a climber’s course in the foothills just west of Colorado State University. High winds blowing from the west blasted the collegiate pelotons, as nearly 400 riders from schools across the country battled for four individual road titles.

The gusty conditions and selective course proved a tougher challenge that the rolling course near Lawrence, Kansas, which hosted the collegiate road race from 2005-07. The course started at Hughes Stadium on the western edge of Fort Collins, climbed the switchback-filled road to Horsetooth Reservoir, then circled a loop around the nearby town of Masonville before returning to town. After circling Masonville twice, the women’s races spun the entire length of Horsetooth reservoir before returning to town. Traffic issues forced organizers to abandon the long way home for the men’s races, which descended straight from the reservoir back to the stadium.

“It was either headwind or tailwind today. It was tough, we were all in our little ring today,” said Colorado’s Taylor Kneuven, who finished fourth in the Division I men’s race. “It made getting away a challenge.”

A Cast of Champions

Swart’s victory stood as yet another example of the unpredictable nature of America’s collegiate road racing scene, where raw talent often trumps skill, science and teamwork. Swart is also a talented cross-country runner who first picked up a bike in 2005. She finished third at the 2007 mountain bike national short-track race and won the 2008 southeastern collegiate cycling conference road championships.

“Carla’s really gotten focused on cycling in the last two years and this has been her breakout year,” said Lees-McRae’s team manager Doug Owen. “She’s got talent. And she picked the right moment to go.”

Owen and his team found another reason to celebrate when Freshman rider Andrew Talansky took the Division I men’s road crown in a two-up sprint against Paul Mach (University of California-Davis). The two were members of a seven-man breakaway that established itself on the second of four loops around the Masonville circuit. The group worked to build a 1:30 gap on a slow moving peloton, but then shattered on the final climb back up to the reservoir.

2008 Collegiate Nationals Road Race: Andrew Talansky (Lees-McRae College) gets the men's Div. 1 win

2008 Collegiate Nationals Road Race: Andrew Talansky (Lees-McRae College) gets the men’s Div. 1 win

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“[Kneuven] went first and I managed to get on his wheel and then [Mach] went and he was much stronger,” said Talansky, who dropped the remaining five with Mach on his wheel. “I was pretty nervous whether I had the legs but in the straight I just knew I had it.”

Talansky is a communications major who hopes to pursue journalism after his cycling career. In just his third full year of road racing, the 19 year old rides on the Toshiba-Herbalife pro team. He is a former swimmer and runner, and finished 11th at the Gila Monster stage of the 2008 Tour of the Gila.

A similar battle played out in the men’s Division II race as 20-year-old Chris Butler (Furman University) attacked a breakaway on the course’s final climb to take the win ahead of Craig Luekens (Yale) and Zak Grabowski (Colorado School of Mines).

“I went up the climb and just gave everything I had. I knew I had to have a cushion coming down this descent into the wind,” Butler said. “I wasn’t too confident in my sprint so I just sprinted from 400 meters out.”

Butler’s win came after Ben Showman of the United States Military Academy spent the entire second half of the race riding solo. The Army rider attacked on the second of four circuits, and built up a two-minute cushion before being swarmed on the final climb. He still hung on to finish 4th.

“I was just praying that I’d have the strength to hold on to it, I thought I was going to have it,” Showman said. “Everything was hurting.”

The women’s Division II race was won by Devon Haskell of the University of Chicago, who finished third at the 2007 collegiate championships. Haskell dropped breakaway companions Kendi Thomas (Whitman), Martha Buckley (MIT) and Melissa Marts (Colorado School of Mines) with six miles remaining, and held on for the victory.

The 2008 USA Cycling national collegiate road championships finishes Sunday with a criterium in Old Town Fort Collins. The crit will provide the final opportunity for teams to move up in their respective divisions in order to claim overall team titles. UC-Davis and Fort Lewis College remain deadlocked at 295 in the Div. I team omnium, with Lees-McRae threatening at 285.

In Div. II, MIT has a commanding lead with 272 points over Western Washington University and the Colorado School of Mines with 239 and 233 points respectively.

Photo Gallery

Results

Division I Women’s Road Race

1. Carla Swart (Lees-McRae) 2:31:44

2. Chloe Forsman (University of Arizona) 2:31:45

3. Amy Dombrowski (Fort Lewis College) 2:31:46

4. Melanie Meyers (University of Arizona) 2:31:46

5. Amanda Miller (Colorado State University) 2:31:46

Division II Men’s Road Race

1. Chris Butler (Furman University) 2:35:52

2. Craig Luekens (Yale University) 2:35:54

3. Zak Grabowski (Colorado School of Mines) 2:36:04

4. Ben Showman (United States Military Academy) 2:36:10

5. Austin Roach (Princeton University) 2:36:52

Division II Women’s Road Race

1. Devon Haskell (University of Chicago) 2:32:53

2. Kendi Thomas (Whitman College) 2:33:17

3. Martha Buckley (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 2:33:50

4. Melissa Marts (Colorado School of Mines) 2:33:52

5. Kay Sherwood (Colorado College) 2:38:40

Division I Overall Standings

1. University of California – Davis 295

2. Fort Lewis College 295

3. Lees-McRae College 285

4. Stanford University 244

5. University of Arizona 221

Division II Overall Standings

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 272

2. Western Washington University 239

3. Colorado School of Mines 233

4. Dartmouth College 198

5. Furman University 188