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Zank, a.k.a. Mike Zanconato, president of the UMass Bicycle Racing Club, scratches the word in big, block letters on the chalkboard in a basement room of the Campus Center. "You've got to take a rest day," stresses Zanconato, raising his voice over the friendly chatter among the two dozen or so wholesome, well-pierced bicyclists seated before him. "Or you'll be fried by Easterns": the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference competition at Penn State, which on this early April evening looms just about a month away.
It's a testament to the dedication and love of the sport among UMass bike club members that Zank begins the weekly meeting with a warning against training too hard. He continues to outline a schedule sprints on Tuesday, intervals on Wednesday, distance on Thursday, and so on until nearly every day includes a workout. "Our training goals are threefold," asserts Zank, who with his square jaw and cropped hair closely resembles American bicycle racing star Lance Armstrong. "We want to build strength, speed, and endurance."
You're probably not aware of it, but UMass has one of the fastest, strongest and most fun-loving bicycle clubs in the Northeast. Open to anyone with a bicycle and an interest in the sport, the club nay, team has no paid coach, offers no scholarships, gets very little funding from the university, and yet is a perennial contender in the ECCC, where it races wheel-to-wheel with such powerful and well-financed teams as Penn State, Yale and arch-rival New Hampshire.
In addition to $1,200 received from the athletic department this year, the club raised about $2,000 from sponsors to help foot the travel bill to regional and national championship races. Weekly races held at host schools throughout the Northeast usually cost each cyclist about fifty dollars for transportation, lodging and entry fees, according to club vice president Erik Miller. In deference to its shoestring budget, the team sleeps four or five to a hotel room. "We're one of the least-supported schools, but we're a rough-and-tumble bunch," Miller proclaims.
In addition to near-daily group training rides, the club meets every Thursday evening to discuss matters ranging from sprockets to sprints. Since there is no coach, racing knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. Zank owes much, he says, to Adam Myerson '98, who often brings his wisdom and experience to club meetings and training rides. In addition to winning the 1997 collegiate cyclocross championship, Myerson raced professionally during college, taking semesters off from school to travel around the world to compete. He's now president of the Northampton Cycling Club and a representative for VOmax, a bicycle clothing company and a sponsor of the UMass team. He's also a valuable resource for the younger UMass riders who pepper him with questions during meetings.
"It's like playing chess," says Myerson tonight, as heads swivel toward the center of the room, where he's seated. "You have to calculate every possible outcome and you have to evaluate your opponent before you make a move. You should attack when the race is hard because if you're hurting, your opponent is probably hurting, too."
CAR BACK!" The warning is passed forward through the peleton like a baton as a large sedan, still covered in winter grime, swings wide to the left, whizzing past in a cloud of dust and white smoke. A compact group of twenty bicyclists rides double-file at an easy pace through the flatlands of North Amherst, pedaling in unison and exchanging tales of UMass cycle racing lore.
Today is Tuesday and the planned workout is a two-hour, thirty-mile spin, highlighted by ten 100-yard sprints, along the famed Dead Man's Curve route. Reverentially referred to as "DMC" by club members, the course is a black snake of asphalt slithering through rolling Leverett hills to the white clapboard village of Montague. The circuit owes its name to an infamous training ride a few years ago when the entire peleton crashed on an icy curve.
Icy curves are just one of the hazards of springtime bicycle training in New England. Roads are pockmarked with potholes and frost-heaves, covered in sand, salt and melting snow, and sometimes strewn with fallen debris. Lead riders are responsible for alerting the pack to road conditions, but it's a good idea to stay on your toes, anyway. Punctures are common and spare tubes circulate among teammates like play money.
Especially at the collegiate level, bicycle racing is a team sport. Riders band together in a pace line, alternately pedaling hard "working" at the front of the pack, or peleton, and dropping back to follow in the leader's draft. The technique allows a group of riders to maintain a much higher speed than a lone cyclist. Strategies involve when to attack, or break away from the peleton, and whether to chase down a breakaway by another team or rider. And scores are tallied according to the performance of the entire team in all categories of skill level not which individual wins each race. "Of course everybody wants to win, but the goal should be to flood the top slots with as many riders as possible," says Myerson.
The thirty men and five women in the club compete in any of three cycling disciplines: road racing, mountain biking, or cyclocross, which is staged on cross-country obstacle courses. Some, like Kelly Finn (pictured in action on our back cover), compete in all three. Finn, runner-up in the dual slalom event in the collegiate mountain-bike nationals in 1997 her first season of competitive cycling narrowly survived the qualifying round and overcame a crash in a later heat for her surprising silver medal finish.
"I really just kind of lucked out," says Finn, her native California bronze belied by a self-effacing blush. Although reluctant to take credit for her own success, she is an athlete whose dedication is undeniable: the club's senior member at twenty-nine, she's completing work on a masters in fisheries and wildlife, yet commits fifteen to twenty hours a week to training. A study "break" for Finn is a pulse-raising two-hour ride. Asked why she willingly sacrifices so much time to cycling, she answers quickly: "It keeps me sane."
FIRST SPRINT COMING UP!" yells Zank from the front of the group, as the pace slows and everyone selects the proper gear. "GO!"
The tight pack of riders stretches out like a long strand of spandex, legs pumping hard, brightly colored Italian shoes whirling like psychedelic dynamos. In a few seconds the lead group crosses an imaginary finish line, predetermined at a distant road sign or tobacco barn, and the pace slows again as cyclists gasp for breath, slurp water, and work the lactic acid from their burning legs.
The club's training regimen originated with bicycling great Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France three times in the 1980s. His workout schedule became popular throughout Europe where it was discovered by Myerson's coach, Paul Curley, and Myerson, in turn, passed it on to Zank and the UMass team. "Sprints are good training for `crits,'" Zank explains as the group reclaims an easy speed and smooth cadence. Crits, or criteriums, are street courses of a mile or less that riders circle as many as fifty times, and most of the spring racing schedule is devoted to them. "The courses usually have lots of corners and you need to sprint out of each one to regain your speed," says Zank. "If you've got six corners and you race thirty-five laps, that's 210 short sprints per race," he adds.
Having safely negotiated DMC, the peleton heads south along the Connecticut River, returning to campus as the March sun dips low and a cold dusk blows into the valley. The ride home is scenic more fun than work and the beauty of land and sky is intensified by sweet endorphins surging through the bloodstream. At workout's end a happy banter spreads among the cyclists; Kelly Finn's sanity seems contagious.
- Ben Barnhart