Velo sets sights on national glory

By Tim Murphy

In a year that has already seen three Maroons squads qualify for NCAA championship play, the most successful athletic program on campus might just be one you know absolutely nothing about.

Defying South Side tradition with their non-standard yellow jerseys and European moniker, the Velo Club of the University of Chicago has quietly established itself as a power in the sport of intercollegiate cycling.

They made the leap last season, as second-year graduate student Todd Yezefski finished his year with a historic national championship in the criterium. This spring, a record three racers qualified for nationals, raising hopes that greater things might be in store come May.

Joining Yezefski will be seventh-year grad student Jonathan Stenney and Megan Myrick, a third-year in the college who also runs for the cross country and track teams. Chicago took second in Division II at last weekend’s regional meet at the University of Illinois, setting up Yezefski for a shot at a triumphant repeat and giving the club a chance to make some noise in the standings.

“It’s sort of like if one of the school’s intramural basketball teams won the NCAA title,” said Stenney, who is the cycling club president.

“It’ll be pretty awesome to watch Todd. It’s my first season really racing so I just want to do my best and finish as high up as I can,” Myrick said. “We haven’t met to talk about anything specific, but it’s cool that we’re sending three riders. Just to have a group going is an accomplishment.”

It hasn’t always been this way. After a brief life in the early 90s, the club was resurrected just nine years ago by graduate students who recognized the recreational benefits of the sport. The team was relatively low-key in the early seasons of its existence, focusing on getting exercise rather than racing. The primary exception was the annual “Monsters of the Midway Criterium,” which the team has hosted every year.

By the new millennium, with its ranks and talent level swelling, the club was ready to switch gears. In 2003, Chicago officially joined the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference. Member schools compete for prize money in some events and race as many as 14 times during the conference season as part of the National Collegiate Cycling Association.

While the team’s success and enthusiasm has put the Maroons on the fast track to success, they still operate in relative anonymity.

“We get virtually no money from the school and pay a lot out of our own pockets,” Stenney said. “After we won the national championship, sports clubs reduced our budget by one-third. We’re a little bitter about that.”

For all its intricacies and benefits, competitive cycling (known as velo in Europe) has gone largely ignored by American audiences. While racers such as Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond have earned mainstream attention with their overseas feats and the sport scored a hit coming-of-age movie in 1979’s Breaking Away, cycling will never be much more than a niche sport to many.

“Most people don’t understand how serious and how old the sport is. It’s one of the oldest sports we have. It’s challenging, painful, and it takes strategy,” Stenney said. “Here people don’t understand that the way they understand, say, baseball, but in Europe it’s huge. They [Americans] aren’t very informed of what it takes, how to win, the intricacies, but it’s growing.

“The vast majority don’t start riding until they get to college. The sport is set up so that you can start as a beginner and learn and improve.”

On a fluctuating roster of around 40 cyclists, the team blends undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. While the diverse composition and age gap might seem to be a hindrance to the team concept, the variety serves to bring the team closer together.

“I had just ridden recreationally, not raced,” third-year law student Jon McFarland said. “I started picking up racing by talking to the guys. It’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of faculty members and they know all the things you’ll need to know from year to year. It gives the team a nice balance.”

A national championship would solidify velo’s status as one of the most successful members of the school’s sporting community. What began as a small-time operation built around a race around the Midway has morphed into a rapidly growing club that boasts over 200 addresses on its listhost. With more and more students and faculty getting acquainted with the sport, velo is here to stay.