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Drop and give me 34(km): Military cycling championships on deck at nats

The U.S. Military National Cycling Championships are under way in Pennsylvania - but with America’s armed forces otherwise occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, is anyone wearing Lycra instead of desert camo’? The 2002 road-race champ, Mike Easter, isn’t defending his crown this year, according to Debra Ponzio, the U.S. armed forces liaison to USA Cycling. Happily, it’s not because he’s somewhere getting shot at - it’s just because the Marine lieutenant separated from the Corps last fall. One of last year’s medalists is overseas, Ponzio says. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Sharp, who took

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By Patrick O’Grady

The U.S. Military National Cycling Championships are under way in Pennsylvania – but with America’s armed forces otherwise occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, is anyone wearing Lycra instead of desert camo’?

The 2002 road-race champ, Mike Easter, isn’t defending his crown this year, according to Debra Ponzio, the U.S. armed forces liaison to USA Cycling. Happily, it’s not because he’s somewhere getting shot at – it’s just because the Marine lieutenant separated from the Corps last fall.

One of last year’s medalists is overseas, Ponzio says. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Sharp, who took the bronze in last year’s time trial and criterium, is in the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And two other soldier-cyclists from the 2002 Armed Forces Team will be unable to race at nationals – Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steve Ryan is transferring to Korea, and 2nd Lt. Brian Weightman is participating in a military exercise in Germany.

“Our military cyclists are a very dedicated group,” Ponzio said. “They are all military professionals first, but still maintain their fitness and skills as elite cyclists.”

And despite the increased demands on the armed services this year, Ponzio expects this year’s championships “to be the best showcase of military cyclists ever.”

“We currently have eight Category 1 men, up from two last year,” she said. “We also have a few Category 2 athletes who are constantly improving and moving up, so we are expecting great things from them as well.”

Before the military championships kicked off Wednesday in conjunction with the U.S. elite national time-trial and road-race championships at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion, Pennsylvania, Ponzio had predicted that this year’s strongman might be Petty Officer 2 Steve Mlujeak of the Coast Guard, defending champ in the time trial and criterium, and runner-up to Easter in the 2002 road race.

Mlujeak would not defend his time-trial title, however – he scored the silver in Wednesday’s opening time trial, finishing in 52:41.550, behind winner George Ganoung, who cranked out a 51:50.200. Navy Ensign Peter Penzell was third in 52:42.280.

Another guy to watch is Marine Maj. Kent Wheeler, one of Mlujeak’s teammates on a new USA Cycling club, U.S. Armed Forces. Wheeler raced with the 2002 U.S. Armed Forces Team at the Somerville Cycling Series and Clarendon Cup events last year, but duty commitments prevented him from competing at nationals and in the International Military Championship.

Previous U.S. Armed Forces Teams have been something of a composite arrangement, Ponzio explained. “In the past, athletes have ridden for their local clubs and we’d pull an Armed Forces Team together once or twice a year,” she said. “This year, we started a program to provide more support to our top performers. We registered as a USA Cycling club and selected Mlujeak and Wheeler as our first two athletes in the program.”

This year’s team – which at nats includes Air Force SA Trent Hornus, Marine Major John T. Law, Air Force Capt. Eric Obergfell, Navy Ensigns Penzell and Garrett Wonders, and Air Force Master Sgt. Lee Slater – draws support at local and NRC events throughout the season through sponsorship from AT&T, Verge Sport and Psycho Lube.

With such small numbers of athletes, some might wonder why the military bothers with a national cycling championship. Seems they do it for the same reason USA Cycling holds nationals for civilians – to decide who gets to wear the stars and stripes at world’s.

“The week of events in May will help us to sort out our talent for this year,” said Ponzio. “Performance here will be one factor in team selection for our military world championship team.”

This year’s military world’s will be held in September 11-23 in Catania, Italy, and the U.S. goal is a simple one – “to win a medal, either individual or team,” said Ponzio. “Our first and only medal in international military cycling was a bronze in the team category in 2000 in Warsaw, Poland.”

But first, they have nats to get through. Once the time-trial and road-racing championships wrap up in Pennsylvania, the servicemen move on to the criterium championships, which will be held during the Tour of Somerville Cycling Series May 23-26 in New Jersey, as a part of the Bound Brook Criterium on May 25.

The Somerville series culminates on Memorial Day with the Kugler-Anderson Memorial Tour, named after the first two Tour of Somerville winners – Furman Kugler, son of founder Fred “Pops” Kugler, and Carl Anderson – who were killed in World War II.

For more information about military nats, Armed Forces Cycling or program sponsorship – like civilian teams, Ponzio says, “we are always looking for additional corporate sponsors!” – write to her at debra.ponzio@sembach.af.mil.