Duke cyclists claim national title in Utah

Club team overcame depleted numbers, built the program and won team time trial in Utah

CorrespondentMay 24, 2012 

Four Duke cyclists crossed the finish line in Ogden, Utah, on May 4 unsure of how they did at the team time trials at the National Collegiate Cycling Championships.

The team time trial is a 20-mile race where four cyclists pack together and pedal against the clock, and they were worried a headwind had slowed their progress. Other than the occasional antelope that dotted the course, located on an island in the Great Salt Lake, there was no one around and no way for the Blue Devils riders to gauge progress.

Instead, the cyclists had to draft off each other and help their teammates – the team’s time is measured by the third racer to cross the finish line – while trusting they were going fast. It turned out their headwind concerns were misplaced.

When the last of the other teams competing in their division finished, the time of Duke’s Matt Rinehart, Gael Hagan, Matt Howe and Baard Haugen still was fastest, allowing the Blue Devils to claim the Division II team time trial national championship.

“It made us really nervous crossing the line – like, ‘Wow, that felt like we were slow,’ ” said Rinehart, a Ph.D student in biomedical engineering.

As they waited for the other teams to finish, Rinehart said he and his three teammates grew more optimistic, telling themselves that maybe their ride was good enough.

“That, to me, is big news,” Rinehart said. “It would be great if more people knew about it.”

Racing against varsity favorites

College cycling is split into two divisions, with Division I consisting of schools with enrollments larger than 15,000. While cycling is only a club sport at Duke, many of the schools the Blue Devils competed against at nationals – small schools such as Mars Hill and Cumberland College – fielded varsity teams with recruited riders.

Before nationals, Duke beat more conventional foes such as Wake Forest to win the smaller division at the Atlantic Collegiate Cycling Championship.

The success represents a dramatic turnaround for the Duke program. Four years ago, the team was down to two riders. This season, the team had 15 riders, and those students tried to spend five-10 hours per week training. Anyone is welcome to join the team and there are no tryouts.

The university’s club sports program provides some funding, and cycling club president Jeff Reid said the team also has sponsorship. The cyclists did not have to use their own money to travel to Utah for nationals.

Rusty Miller, a former professional cyclist who then worked at Duke for seven years before concentrating on coaching cycling full-time, serves as the team’s coach. While he is not yet full-time in that role – “I don’t yet have a parking space next to Coach K,” he joked – his team credited his mentorship as being one of the reasons it won the national championship.

In turn, Miller lauds the dedication of his riders.

Reid, a sophomore in engineering, ultimately decided to attend Duke over Georgia Tech in part because of the Blue Devils’ cycling team. While he had to take the year off from cycling because of academic demands, he has structured his final two years so he will have the requisite time available to train and compete.

Jostling for position

To help get the word out about Duke cycling, the team sometimes demonstrates what’s known as “knockdown drills” in front of students who were camping out for home basketball games.

The idea is that cyclists bump into each other in order to get comfortable with the idea of jostling with others during races.

In theory, it is just the sort of preparation that can help riders avoid the sort of calamity that befell the Blue Devils at the start of the road race at nationals.

The road race was the final event and took place over a demanding 75-mile course in the mountains north and east of Salt Lake City. Early in the race, a pair of racers crossed handlebars while the field still was bunched up, causing a massive pileup that knocked out three of the Blue Devils cyclists.

After being nudged from behind, Rinehart flew over his handlebars and separated a shoulder.

“All of our guys that went down in the race – it wasn’t any of their faults,” Reid said. “We just got stuck, and a bunch of guys went down in front of us. It was just an unlucky day.”

Howe managed to avoid the wreckage and finished seventh overall in the race.

Duke also ended up bloodied in the third discipline of collegiate cycling, criterium, which Miller called “the NASCAR of cycling.” Riders sprint around a half-mile to 1-mile loop on a city course with tight turns and short straightaways.

Two of the Blue Devils cyclists crashed in the national criterium this year, although Miller said Rinehart still had a chance to win the event on the final lap.

Despite the mishaps and the shuffling to and from the hospital – Rinehart said his shoulder is a couple of weeks away from being healed – Duke’s riders feel the national title on the first day alleviates any frustration from the way the weekend turned out.

“It was a good painkiller,” Reid said.

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