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DU students win cycling national championships

One is a graduate student, a seasoned cyclist in her second decade of racing with experience and wisdom to pass on to younger members of the DU Cycling Club.

The other is an undergraduate — a racer for just two years — now eyeing a cycling future with more hope and confidence.

Differences notwithsanding, Rebecca Gross, 31, and Matt Lyons, 20, do share something very treasured. They are first-time national champions. Lyons was the men’s winner and Gross led the women in the Division II short track race at the 2011 USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships on Oct. 29 in Angel Fire, N.M.

“It was my first national-type event,” says Lyons, a sophomore from Portland, Ore., majoring in business management. “I knew I had a chance to win, but had never raced at that level before so didn’t really know how exactly I would stack up.”

The short track riders race a half-mile course for a time determined by race officials and do as many laps as possible within the time limit. At Angel Fire, there was one steep hill with a 120-foot vertical climb, two sharp right-hand turns and other challenges as the course conditions changed during the day.

“It was muddy, slimy at the bottom, and there was a snowy hill at the top,” says Gross, a master’s student in DU’s sport and performance psychology program from Ithaca, N.Y. “But it was minimal. The snow and the mud didn’t play a [big] factor.”

That’s because Gross’ race began at 9 a.m. It was the second of four races, right after the Division I women competed, and the course hadn’t thawed out from the overnight freeze. By the time Lyons’ group of about 40 cyclists started the fourth race, it was noon and the morning sunshine had softened the course.

“There was a lot of snow and mud, so it made it much more of a crap shoot,” Lyons says. “It was harder to have a game plan when conditions varied so much. So I was just kind of playing it by ear and just going to go out and see how the other guys were feeling and then decide from there.”

Lyons, who started in the second row, worked his way around a wreck that occurred right in front of him soon after the start. He was in third place during that initial lap and “going into the climb of the second lap, I attacked.”

After taking the lead, Lyons “was just kind of riding,” never bothering to look at the lap counter at the start-finish line until he felt awful well into the 10-lap race.

“With, like, four laps to go, I was pretty close to throwing up,” Lyons says. “But when I saw we only had three laps left, I was able to kind of put in a good effort and catch my breath a bit on that 45-second downhill portion and really just gut it out for three laps.”

Lyons and Gross each won by 28 seconds — Lyons finishing ahead of Matt Schiff of Humboldt State and Gross beating Alexis Skarda of Colorado Mesa University. Because Skarda won the cross-country race the previous day, Gross called her “the wild card” in the short track event.

Indeed, after cresting the hill during the second lap, Gross took the sharp right turn, glanced at the bikers riding up the hill and saw Skarda gaining ground.

“I was like, ‘So, I have to work for this,’” Gross says. “With three laps to go, I threw one really hard lap in, and I saw her drop back another like five feet. I knew I had her.”

Lyons’ national championship has allowed him to realize he “can kind of start pursuing my dreams in cycling, maybe chasing after a professional career” and knowing now “it’s not completely out of reach.”

Gross has been a professional for about six years. She graciously says Skarda, an accomplished cross country runner but relatively new to cycling, could benefit from her cycling championship in the cross country race. Gross was second in that event, nearly four minutes behind Skarda.

“I almost think it’s better that girl won the cross country, because it could do something for her career,” Gross says, “whereas my career as a cyclist is pretty much here and now. It’s not in the future; it is a little bit, but it’s not like I am up and coming.”

That said, Gross calls it “huge” personally to have won a national championship but put her title in perspective.

“It possibly could mean more to the school than it does to me,” Gross says. “DU, obviously, isn’t huge in mountain bike racing. But a championship is still a great thing to have. So I think as much of a sense of pride as I have from winning a national title, it has the potential to be more significant to the school. Hopefully it will help our cycling team grow.”


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