Lees-McWho? Small schools rule college cycling


BLUE MOUNDS, Wis.(AP)—When Carla Swart shook off miserable cold and wet conditions to win at the USA Cycling collegiate road nationals, she wasn’t racing for her professional team or her native South Africa. She did it for her school, mighty Lees-McRae.


Welcome to college cycling, where small schools rule.

“It’s not a mainstream ball sport, so you get a lot of schools that aren’t major players in basketball or football, and they have an opportunity to get their name out there,” said Jeffrey Hansen, USA Cycling’s collegiate program manager. “And that’s how they see it, as a recruiting tool and kind of an advertising tool. Because how often have you heard of Mars Hill or Lees-McRae or Fort Lewis outside of the world of cycling?”

Lees-McRae, in Banner Elk, N.C., has an enrollment of 700.

Another college cycling powerhouse, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., has just under 3,700 students. A school with an emerging cycling program, Marian University in Indianapolis, has about 2,000 full-time and part-time students.

Swart’s school might be small, but her effort to win the women’s road race on May 7 was huge.

Taking on the top college cyclists in the country over a series of leg-shredding hills on the rural roads outside Madison was plenty challenging. Had Chicago landed the 2016 Olympics, the world’s top cyclists would have been racing for a gold medal on some of the same roads.

Throw in driving rain and temperatures in the low 40s, and it was misery on wheels.

About an hour into the race, Swart was so cold and soaked that she lost feeling in her left hand. So when she needed to work the left shift lever, she had to reach across the handlebars and click it with her right hand.

“I was pretty happy to get it over with,” said Swart, who also races professionally and hopes to compete in the 2012 Olympics for South Africa.

While the bright lights await, her victory this month reflected the current landscape in college cycling.

Even though Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France exploits have exposed more Americans to the sport, it has yet to catch on at big-time colleges; it isn’t run by the NCAA and is mostly ignored by major college athletic departments.

Hansen says, however, that college cycling is adding about 5 percent more riders and 10 new teams each year.

He estimates that 300 schools now have teams and about 20 offer at least partial scholarships, though most contribute no more than a few thousand dollars per year to their cycling programs - barely enough to cover race entry fees. In most cases, the rest of the money comes from sponsorships, fundraisers and the riders’ pockets.

But with few big-time schools getting serious about cycling, smaller schools have a better chance to stand out.

“The amount of money that it costs to run an amazing cycling team that can be super-competitive is a fraction of what it costs to run a basketball team or a football team,” says Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s managing director of events.

Aside from salaries and benefits for staff members coaching and running the team - having two full-time staffers is considered a luxury in college cycling - Rice said the annual budget for a top team can be less than six figures.

“If you had 75 grand, you could really do a lot with it,” Rice said.

Lees-McRae head coach Luke Winger said his program gets strong support from the school and is able to provide partial scholarships. The school gets a recruiting tool in return - a story about Swart’s victory was featured on the front page of the school’s website this week.

“You can pump more money into it and get more of a return on it,” Winger said.

Fort Lewis, another well-supported program, is No. 1 in the rankings, which encompass all four disciplines of collegiate cycling - road, mountain, track and cyclocross.

“We just kind of found our niche,” said Matt Shriver, Fort Lewis’ interim coach. “That’s one area where a smaller school can compete.”

Shriver said cycling is considered a club sport at Fort Lewis, not a varsity sport. Still, the team gets extensive financial support from the school.

Add in their own fundraising and sponsorship programs - they have a deal with bicycle and equipment manufacturer Specialized - and Shriver said Fort Lewis is able to provide one full ride and some partial scholarships each year.

They draw considerable support from the community, including an annual “fall blaze” bike tour fundraiser.

“We just have a rich history of cycling,” Shriver said. “The community’s just really into mountain biking and cycling.”

Fort Lewis’ program has produced professionals, helping launch the careers of several men and women - including current Garmin-Transitions team rider Tom Danielson.

And because college cycling isn’t run by the NCAA, riders are allowed to sign professional contracts while they’re still racing in college.

Swart was scheduled to fly to Europe this week to compete in a professional race, and she’s confident that the Olympics are in her future. But in some respects, she says those more high-profile races aren’t as enjoyable as college cycling, where the atmosphere is more relaxed and team-oriented.

Plus, she adds, “It’s more coed, so you have a lot of goofy boys around.”

For most riders at last week’s championships, getting to the next level wasn’t the main goal.

“You’re always looking for the adventure as a college student, right?” said Rice, a former college cyclist who had a brief professional career. “So this is kind of their chance to maybe say, ‘I can go to the national championships, jump in. And yeah, I’m going to get clobbered, but who cares? This is going to be great.”’

Updated Saturday, May 15, 2010