April 29, 2008

Newly competitive velo club qualifies for D-II Nationals

In what has proven to be a breakout year, the University of Chicago Velo Club has raced out of obscurity, ahead of the competition, and into the top tiers of the nation.

Comprised of members from across the University community, the “Velo,” or cycling, club enjoyed its first big year in the spotlight. Taking first place in the 2008 Division II Midwest Conference, the team ended years of dominance by its archrival DePauw University. With the gold fresh in hand, the club has now set its sights higher, sending three of its top racers to the D-II National Championships May 9 to 11. In only a few weeks, these elite athletes will head out to Colorado to continue the group’s push for glory.

Broken down into two parts, the club’s season sees cyclists training for both road and off-road events. Before classes even begin, the group hits the trails from August to October. Taking a short break for the winter, cycling then picks up its competition schedule in February. During both seasons, the club takes on the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference (MWCCC), a collection of colleges vastly different from the normal UAA fare. With races held everywhre from the University of Wisconsin to the University of Missouri, the team faces a number of Big Ten schools including Michigan and Ohio State.

Leading off the competition is DePauw University, a fast club with an impressive record on the roads. Last year, DePauw took first in the 2006–2007 MWCCC Championships, beating out Chicago yet again to keep up a five-year running tradition. The team went on to take third place in the nation, with cyclists placing in the top ten across the board.

Despite its past dominance, DePauw was seeing different colors during this year’s finals, facing a decisive defeat that gave Chicago the title. This upset was mostly due to the performances by three Chicago racers, economics graduate students Devon Haskell and Aspen Gorry and anthropology student Carly Schuster. All three of these racers were integral to the victory over DePauw and will be representing the school at Nationals.

“I think the most important factor in beating DePauw were the improvements in Devon’s racing, who won every race she took part in,” club president Francisco Torralba said. “A teammate of mine once described her performance at one particular race as ‘like something out of a cartoon.’”

Always a strong racer, Haskell has leapt ahead of the pack this season. Back in 2005, former graduate student Todd Yezefski won the criterium race at Nationals, the first University cyclist to attain such an honor. Graduating at the end of that year, Yezefski went on to become a professional cyclist, leaving Chicago without any top notch athletes of its own to replicate his achievements. This was not to last. Beginning in 2007, Haskell filled in Yezefski’s spot. In one year, she went from being a simple competitor in the B category to dominating her opponents in the A. With her performances this year exceeding even those of last, it would be no surprise for her to grow out of Yezefksi’s shoes.

“This year Devon has been a racing machine. The races where she participated became boring, because there was no contest. It is likely that she makes the top three at Nationals. It would not be surprising at all if she wins,” Torralba said.

Joining Haskell at Nationals will be teammates Gorry and Schuster. These racers too have blasted out of their old categories, taking their races from the B to the A level in one short year. No matter how they do at Nationals, all three athletes will have another full year at Chicago to improve even more.

Team development has been a main theme this year, with the club growing substantially larger than in previous seasons. One of the team-building strategies has been its training program, a grueling 15-mile route from 57th Street down to 72nd. Practicing through the frigid Chicago winter has definitely helped the group improve, and its performance against DePauw showed this.

“We recruited a lot of new members in the fall, and we stuck together through the cold. Many of the guys are relatively new to cycling, but we hope they’ll stick around and grow as racers,” Torralba said.

Once Nationals are in the bag, Velo will be right back in the races at the Monsters of the Midway Criterium. Organized by the club since the early 1990s, the race sends cyclists on a 1.25-mile circuit around the Midway. Depending on the event and bracket, the competitors will race for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, with the first person across the finish line winning it all. The race attracts in excess of 400 participants of all levels from the Chicago area. In the past, the club has not placed well in its own event, although given the new heights Velo has reached, perhaps this will be its year.

No matter how Velo performs at Nationals or in the Monsters Criterium, this will certainly be a landmark year for cycling. With records set and expectations broken, the Velo Club has raised the bar for years to come. Given the group’s current path, no one will be surprised if it’s raised even more.