captures national title
By David Hunter
Special to the Democrat
BANNER ELK — And you thought Appalachian State’s football team was the only national champ in town.
Scratch that. They now have competition from their own cycling team, which beat rain, fog, mud, and, incidentally, more than 30 teams from every region of the country to claim the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike Division 2 National Championship, hosted by Lees-McRae College.
Led by Rebecca Tomaszewski’s improbable, storybook finish in women’s cross-country and Michael Thomas’ daring Sugar Mountain downhill win, Appalachian State — 10th last year — held off defending champ Colorado School of Mines 585-575. Asheville’s Warren Wilson College and nearby Brevard added to Western North Carolina’s growing dominance with third and fourth place finishes, 533-532. Points were awarded from three top team finishers in four events. Kentucky’s Union College finished fifth.
ASU’s Scott Phillips competes in the dual slalom at Banner Elk Sunday. Photo by Rob Moore
In Division I, Fort Lewis College of Durango, Colo. came from behind in the three-day competition’s final event, the dual slalom, to ease past Lees-McRae by 20 points. Also close behind were Colorado, Kentucky’s Lindsey Wilson, and Vermont.
A three-time mountain biking champ in its Division 2 days, Lees-McRae has yet to win Division I. The Bobcats have won multiple national titles in other biking events.
“We keep closing the gap,” Lees-McRae coach Brian Sheedy said. “That last event, and the downhill, are a weakness of ours.”
Lees-McRae champions were South African Carla Swart in both women’s short track and cross-country, and Chloe Jackson in women’s dual slalom.
Closing the gap no longer is Appalachian State, a club program without scholarships. Emotionally exhausted first-year coach Doug Owen, who previously built Lees-McRae into a Division I power, said “I can’t honestly say I thought we could win it when I first got here, being my first year. But we started working and recruiting anyone who would come out.”
Looking for a new challenge at Appalachian, he instigated training and nutrition methods, preparation, and “lots of little things.” Tomaszewski said, “He has been an amazing facilitator of this whole project.”
An early-season goal of reaching the top five was quickly revised when the Mountaineers jumped out front on day one, allowing Owen to think the impossible. But no one had that thought more than Tomaszewski in her cross-country final.
Distracted by race preparation a quarter-mile away, and still changing clothes, Tomaszewski started out two minutes behind the back of the pack on an unconventional bike with one gear.
“Definitely a slower bike,” Fort Lewis coach Rick Crawford, a premier cycling coach who gave a 14-year old youth named Lance Armstrong his start years ago, said. “She just powered her way over that hilly terrain, with no gear to change. She's just strong.”
Lees-McRae’s Hannah Trimble finished sixth in the dual slalom race in Banner Elk Sunday. Photo by Rob Moore
And the story got better. Unaware of a shortened course length to around 16 miles — info given at race time during her absence — Tomaszewski slowed down after reaching second place, thinking she had plenty of time. She had nearly rung her newly-installed bell off its hook when told she was beginning to catch the leader anyway. So she sped up to pass, then was flagged to stop after three laps. Wondering why, she was told she had won.
“I was riding all over getting ready,” she said. ”I came back to our van and with changing weather, I changed clothes. But then I heard everybody yelling at me. I thought, all this preparation. I got a lot work to do.”
Tomaszewski placed second in women's short track and fifth in downhill. She tied for first in individual standings with Johanna Tuttle of Brevard, but awarded second in a tiebreaker.
Her teammate, Thomas, was right on time atop Sugar Mountain, but staring straight downhill at a seeming abyss.
“You only get one chance to get it right,” he said. “There’s a lot of nerves, but you focus everything on the race. Its comparable to alpine skiing.” At speeds over 30 miles per hour, Thomas completed a one and a half mile course with a 1200-foot drop in elevation in 3 minutes, 49 seconds for his victory.
Lees-McRae hosted the event for the second straight year in the mud. Last year's competitors saw rain stop prior to competition. Not so this year. Bikers were caked in mud both Friday and Saturday.
“These conditions. That’s exactly why we do this,” said professional race commentator Chad Andrews.
“Cycling is a hardy sport,” his partner, David Matheny, affiliated with USA and National Collegiate Cycling, said. “And conditions are different here. The terrain and climate are different from what the Rocky Mountain schools face. That, and the emphasis schools like Lees-McRae give to their program probably give them an edge.”
Scott Stewart and Brad Perley of host Lees-McRae could have won national titles of their own if not for a change of policy at the International Olympic Committee, of all places.
The IOC decided against inclusion of Europe’s winter triathlon (running, biking, skiing) in upcoming Olympics, meaning 2-time world champ Ben Sonntag of Germany left the sport to pursue and win an NCAA cross-country skiing championship at Alaska-Anchorage. But turning to cycling after enjoyable summer training, he transferred to Crawford’s Fort Lewis, and won both the short track and cross country titles in Banner Elk.
Perley was closing on Sonntag in short track, but not enough, and when pressing near the end, he slid into a tree, still finishing second. ”I had no expectations coming in here. So this is awesome.” Perley finished third in cross country behind teammate Stewart's second.
Other top finishes for area cyclists included Lees-McRae's Niki Daillaire, Jo Markham, and Ally Stacher, who finished, in order, seventh, ninth, and 10th in women’s cross country, and fourth, ninth, and 10th in short track; also for Lees-McRae, Hannah Trimble, Swart, and Jackson were fourth, eighth, and ninth in downhill.
Crawford had glowing remarks for Swart. “Right now, Carla is THE girl in collegiate cycling,” he said. ”She has a range of talents. She’s won at every medium. She’s frustrating. We can’t beat her.”
Swart’s teammate, Jackson, endured one-on-one elimination heats to outlast Emma Millar of Fort Lewis in the finals. Millar’s slimmest victory en route came against Swart.
For the men, Appalachian's Steve Trottier and Scott Phillips finished second and 13th in Division II downhill.
Mountaineer Alex Hannah finished fifth in Division 2 cross country, and fifth overall. Lees-McRae’s Ben Hulse placed fourth in dual slalom.