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The United States’s largest grassroots cycling program is the U.S. collegiate racing scene, which now supports more than 300 varsity and club programs across the U.S. Every year throngs of new racers take their first pedal strokes toward amateur glory in a collegiate race, where the low-pressure environment builds camaraderie and a love of the sport.
Elite riders also race in college, and every few years the collegiate system helps a talented youngster bridge the gap between amateur racing and the professional ranks.
Some of these graduates even reach the Tour de France. Current WorldTour riders Andrew Talansky and Brent Bookwalter both attended Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and Kiel Riejnen went to the University of Colorado in Boulder. We recently caught up with the three men to discuss their time in the collegiate ranks.
VeloNews: What role did collegiate cycling play in your development as a rider?
Brent Bookwalter: I think it was the bridge from being an aspiring junior to being a pro. It’s hard to make that jump, and I don’t think I was physically, mentally, or emotionally ready to make that jump. I grew a lot as a person and met a lot of awesome people and developed as a person more than even as a rider.
And there was some pressure. My college career was the start of this varsity collegiate cycling movement. Schools were throwing money behind some racers. We’d go to some races and guys would be partying and drinking beer and hanging out in the sun, and our coach is like, ‘Hey guys, we’re paying for you to be here. You gotta deliver.’ Myself and Aaron Bradford were brought in as aces to kick-start the program and put it on the map. There was some pressure. We got some heckles from other teams: ‘Oh you guys are the racers, you aren’t really out here doing what collegiate cycling is all about.’
We struck that nice balance: less pressure than being on a pro team but still some accountability.
Kiel Reijnen: That first year we won a lot because we didn’t take cycling crazy seriously. It was the warm-up for the elite racing season and we were there for fun. Lifting that burden of being so performance-oriented makes a big difference in the results. I think that was a good lesson for my career in the long-term. I made some great friends, friends I still have today.
Andrew Talansky: Collegiate racing is one of the few places where you can see how much of a team sport cycling is. Nobody is getting paid. Nobody is trying to get a contract. Everybody is there because they want to be. People will wholeheartedly help each other — and not for money or anything else — but because they truly want to do that. You’re friends and you feel like family and a close-knit group of people. As you move into the professional ranks, people’s individual ambitions often outweigh team goals. It’s hard to get everybody on a team — eight guys, nine guys, let alone 30 people — on the same page. In collegiate racing it’s everything good about the sport.
VN: What’s the story behind your best result in college?
BB: My real breakthrough was my first collegiate mountain bike nationals in Angel Fire, New Mexico. I won the short track and it wasn’t without incident. With one lap to go I got tangled with some guys and crashed really bad and hit my leg on a chain ring. It splayed my calf open pretty bad. There’s blood just going everywhere, we’re trying to untangle our bikes, and it was a mess. I was able to sprint away for the win. That was confirmation that I was on on the right path.
My most gratifying win was the cyclocross national championships. That was the last collegiate title I won. I was battling with Matt Shriver from Fort Lewis College up in Providence, Rhode Island. It was snowy conditions and brought me back to my roots in Michigan. I pulled it off.
KR: We won every race in our conference one year with the team. And then at collegiate nationals I got second in the road race, second in the team time trial, and I got held up in the crit because of a crash. In the road race there was a break up the road so I bridged across. In the final 10 kilometers the field finally got motivated and chased us down. Alex Boyd was just in front of me, so I let his wheel go, because I thought we were pretty much caught. Then the field just stopped chasing and he sat out in front of us for 20 meters until the finish. He won and I won the sprint for second. It was such a college racing moment.
AT: It was the  national championships and Lees-McRae had undoubtedly the best team. We won the men and women’s road races. We won the crit and the men and women’s omnium. Everybody was having fun. Everybody was there because they loved riding their bike. It’s the true heart and soul of the sport. When I look back, it’s fond memories and good times.
VN: Do you have a story that best describes the fun of collegiate cycling?
BB: I still have this image burned into my brain from one of these guys who raced in our conference. He had a big thumbs-up tattoo on his ass cheek. He did every race with his shorts pulled down below his butt, just riding through the pack. He’d pop up around the corner and there would be his thumbs-up tattoo.
KR: I spent a lot of miles on the road. And I slept in some closets and had a lot of fun. It definitely made me grateful for what I have later on in life.
AT: I don’t really have any out-there stories. I only have fond memories.