Imagine a Northwestern team that aims at being a regular at national championships. A team that travels weekly across the Midwest to dominate some paltry university’s squad. A team full of individuals who are used to working their body so hard that half of competitors in the match have to hit the showers early because its too intense to finish.
I don’t know about you, but I never thought that was the cycling team.
Yes, cycling. The same sport your dad prepped you for when you were a toddler, using training wheels and a helmet the size of a Pontiac to make you feel safe. But Northwestern’s cyclists take the sport to a whole new level and this dedication landed them in the national championship earlier this month, something few sports across campus have achieved. And even though most of the riders had never attended a competition with this much at stake, it’s still a big step for the program.
“We went into Nationals as a learning experience for most of us,” Medill freshman Scott Rosenfield says. “It was a brutal day, a lot of rain, a lot of climbing. We had only one guy finish, but we will be racing again there next year… and I think we can improve considerably.”
But despite the tempered results and broken bikes for some riders, the cycling team is Northwestern’s own Cool Runnings, minus the Jamaicans and John Candy. The Wildcats were one of only two non-varsity teams to qualify for the national championship, a feat unheard of in many collegiate sports. Cycling team president William Nowak chalked their achievement up to a solid team effort and dedication throughout the three-month season.
“We stressed that our goal was to succeed in the conference, so by laying that out early in the year, it was something we were consistently shooting for,” Weinberg senior Nowak says. “One person can’t carry the team to nationals, so our A-team and everyone in general did it [together].”
The university does not financially support the cyclists because they are a club sport, so their resources are limited to what they can raise on their own. As the new sponsorship chair for the team, Rosenfield will work with companies like Turin Bicycle to even out the playing field against the varsity squads with new equipment. Judging by their appearance in the highest level of collegiate competition, the team has little to worry about.
“[Other teams] are recruiting riders who are national champions that are racing in Europe,” says Rosenfield. “They drive to races in coach buses, or team vehicles with trailers for their bikes. [But despite this] it was clear that not only can we compete against the varsity teams, but we can beat them.”
The cycling team has more than 20 riders come out for its weekly races, and the credit for this goes to recruitment chair and soon-to-be president Axie Navas. The Medill sophomore who finished in the top 30 of 120 riders at nationals organized rides in the fall for any and all takers, invited students on rides over their listserv, and talked to people at Wildcat Days booth to recruit new people to their expanding roster. However, Navas says it takes a certain type of killer instinct to be a successful cyclist.
“It’s a different mentality than all other sports,” Navas says. “There’s a lot of pain involved in cycling and it takes a very specific mentality to love this sport, but once you get it, you really do fall in love.”
But this necessary mindset isn’t the only thing that can deter some people from taking a ride. Nowak says the separation from campus is a major obstacle for recruiting and keeps the team’s success under the radar.
“It’s hard for people to watch what we do,” says Nowak. “The closest race we had this year was a little over 3 hours away… so it’s not easy for us to get friends come out and watch the game.”
But this distance masks the intensity of a sport many people take for granted. According to Rosenfield, the team tries to market this intensity to other athletes, because the high level of aerobic fitness involved is perfect for cross training. And for adrenaline junkies, cycling’s got something for you too.
“People don’t understand the dangers involved,” says Rosenfield. “You can be [going] 30 miles per hour, and most races, you will have quite a few crashes.”
Some would argue that these dangers could be avoided with some formal structure and regiment, but the cyclists seem to be enjoying their freedom without a coach. While Navas and Rosenfield admit that a coach could help them train and organize workouts, they agree with Nowak that the team’s freedom makes them stronger.
“Northwestern cycling would be ruined if we brought in some outsider who came in a dictated what we did and how we did it,” says Nowak. “Plenty of the riders on the team have plenty of advice to give, and we have access to other [...] coaches that we know and are friends with that work with members of the team individually.”
While the A-team (the one that went to Nationals) trains often with rides from 20 to 60 miles long, the cycling team encourages beginners to join in the fall on the recruitment rides. And according to Rosenfield, that’s all you need.
“Come out for one weekend, and your world will be changed,” says Rosenfield.
Maybe he’s a little overconfident, but you get the idea.