September 19, 2007

Velo newcomer moves into fast lane

In the world of sports, there’s beginner’s luck and then there’s proven talent. This summer, economics grad student and rookie cyclist Devon Haskell followed up on a breakthrough spring to solidify her place among the tried-and-true.

After two high-ranking finishes at the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference Regional Championships last April, Haskell earned a shot to burn rubber at the next level. Her racing caught the attention of USA Cycling, who offered her a spot on the newly formed Ryan Collegiate All-Star Team, the first squad of its kind in the history of collegiate cycling.

Sponsored by the Ryan Companies construction group and a brainchild of USA Cycling in collaboration with organizers of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, the All-Star Team grouped eight amateur riders from eight different college velo clubs. The squad had all of its costs covered in attending June’s high-profile Grand Prix. Held in Minnesota, the five-day event draws global competition, including national champions and Olympians.

“Nature Valley is one of the biggest and most competitive races in America for women’s cycling,” Haskell said. “All the big pro teams are there. This is my first year bike racing so it was a pretty cool experience to be racing with the best.”

Opening the Grand Prix with a criterium stage in St. Paul, Ryan Collegiate set its focus on working together to stay in the game against top teams such as Lipton, which included Olympian and eventual Grand Prix winner Kristin Armstrong. After being pulled from track along with the majority of riders in order to clear the field for the leaders, Haskell finished 69th out of 98 cyclists.

In the following day’s action at the Cannon Falls Road Race, Haskell leapt ahead to 59th while teammate Erica Allar established herself as a dark horse and pulled into second place. Haskell and the rest of Ryan Collegiate backed up Allar’s silver with mid-pack finishes that gave the squad a low enough seed time to take fifth in the day’s standings. Just two days into the competition, the amateur All-Stars had already landed on everyone’s radar.

Returning for day three with the St. Paul time trial, both Haskell and the team faced a setback. Haskell got pushed back to an 80th-place finish and the team slipped from 13th to 14th in the overall rankings. However, in the streets of downtown Minneapolis the next day, Ryan Collegiate found some redemption. Two of Haskell’s teammates eked out top-10 finishes, while Haskell pitched in and came in 87th to clinch the squad’s runner-up spot, their highest standing of the trip.

Race organizers called day four “another Cinderella day” for Ryan Collegiate, as the unsigned greenhorns proved they could hang with the pros, advancing as a group yet again.

Unfortunately, this would be the Grand Prix’s last high point for the group. On the final day, the longest road race of the competition wreaked havoc on Ryan’s riders and Haskell found herself down for the count after taking a nasty spill with 10 miles to go in the 80-mile circuit. She was sent to the hospital with a concussion, and the All-Stars suffered further as two other members were time cut following yet another crash.

With just three riders starting the sixth and final stage, Ryan Collegiate wound up 14th on the day, taking the same place in the final rankings out of a field of 16.

Yet this low standing may be deceptive. Formed as a venue for the best young riders to gain experience and exposure, Ryan Collegiate entered the Grand Prix as a group of freshmen with a steep learning curve to conquer. Surprising the field with high finishes and, more importantly, complete team advancement through all but the final stage, the quickly scouted squad achieved more than what they came for.

“This is the first year that they put a collegiate all-star team together, and I think nobody really knew what to expect,” said Haskell. “I think we came out of the event feeling like the team was a success.”