I didn’t even know Lees-McRae College existed until I coincidently rode my bike by the campus. I was visiting Appalachian State and after touring their campus, I wanted to ride up the infamous Beach Mountain climb that I read about in Lance Armstrong’s book.
Despite some nasty rainy weather, I followed basic directions from a local bike shop with my mom following me in the car. It ended up being a life-defining, inspiring ride through those amazing mountain roads.
I was 18 and had very little experience riding on mountain roads like these but the demanding terrain immediately captivated me. I think my mom’s heart rate was as high as mine. The higher I climbed and as the visibility deteriorated, the more nervous she became. It’s almost as if out of a movie—I reached the base of Beach Mountain and rode through fog and mist when these beautiful historic-looking stone buildings and a sign saying “Lees McRae College” appeared out of nowhere.
I think my mom hoped all of this would distract me so I would abort my ride, but after a quick double take, I continued up the mountain and to the top where I jumped in the car. Immediately we drove back down to the small town of Banner Elk and onto campus to learn more. They could have sold me on the school by simply telling me there were more mountain roads just like the one I had ridden. Instead, I found out they had a growing cycling team and a solid academic structure. It was exactly what I was looking for.
Life at Lees-McRae
My college experience was deeply rooted and built around cycling, racing, and life with my collegiate teammates, but I also appreciated and dedicated myself to maximize the opportunity to learn and grow. LMC was really a perfect fit because I wasn’t simply racing a collegiate calendar; I also was doing my own races that had me missing a class or two as a competed across the country.
The small class sizes and cycling awareness throughout the campus made it manageable and allowed me to maximize academic opportunities while still pursuing my dreams as a cyclist.
This meant long days of pounding my body through the Appalachian Mountains followed by even longer, dreary-eyed nights studying in the library, but I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring and balanced environment. Banner Elk is a small town with only one stoplight. The living is simple, which allowed me to focus on what mattered most--grades, training, and teammates.
What makes LMC special is that ball sports don’t make up the meat of the athletic program; they also support less traditional sports. This allowed me to thrive in an environment with some amazing like-minded people.
Without hesitation, the collegiate team vibe is my favorite. I lived with my best buds on the team. We trained and traveled to races almost every weekend with road, mountain bike, and cyclo-cross. It was also during this time that I learned the beauty of road racing. The switch from MTB to road was frustrating in the beginning. I came in with the preconceived notion that all roadies were serious, no fun and kind of boring. Once I learned some of the deeper nuances and tactics of road racing, I really began to like it. I’m super lucky that I had patient teammates and mentors because in some of those early road race, I could be found chasing down my own teammates more than I’d like to admit.
I arrived at LMC as part of the first heavily recruited freshman classes; the previous year, the team only had eight riders. This meant we had pressure to deliver and take the team to the next level. Our conference was filled primarily with club teams—a mix of strong riders and some guys racing for fun. At LMC, many of us were on scholarship, so in addition to soaking up the collegiate fun, we were expected to perform. This was a tricky balance and at some of the early races, we were heckled as the “serious no fun team.” Eventually, we proved that not only could we apply the hurt during a race but that we could also hold our own at a post-race party.
Throughout all of this, I held myself to a very high academic standard and maintained a solid GPA while at the same time winning multiple national titles with the team, which cemented LMC’s place as a collegiate powerhouse.
Transitioning from a Collegiate Athlete to a Pro
In my last two summers at LMC, I spent time in Belgium racing with the USA National Team. This time was extremely eye-opening and influential in my development. I received a few pro team offers upon graduation but I decided to do a full season with the USA National Team. It was 2007 and the national team was partnered with VMG racing (Mark Holowesko, now sponsor of Hincapie/Citadel Pro team) and that support allowed me to race full time and also make a modest salary. Unfortunately, a few months into the season I crashed and severely broke my leg.
I spent the summer of 2007 on the couch. I had multiple surgeries and went through a lot of soul-searching on what to do next. It’s strange how life works out. Dr. Max Testa and Dr. Eric Heiden were helping the national team while also working with a newly formed American team—BMC Racing Team. Max and Eric played a huge role in my recovery and also provided me with a connection to BMC for the 2008 season.
BMC definitely took a chance on me for that first year. I like to think that was the beginning of a strong foundation that has served as a mutually beneficial relationship for nearly a decade.
Growing the Collegiate System
Awareness is the first step in growing America’s collegiate cycling program. I believe that young riders need to know that opportunities exist. Often the most promising juniors are less focused on school and become focused on finding a pro contract as soon as they graduate from high school. I think it's important for them to know that there are great collegiate programs out there and that they can continue developing both as a rider and a person for several more years with the opportunity of going pro after graduating.
I’d love to see more industry sponsors invest in the tremendous potential and atmosphere that makes up collegiate racing. The nation’s top collegiate athletes are just as promising as any junior or U23 out there and they deserve the same great support.
Also, I’d like to see USA Cycling step up and further foster development between collegiate and national team programs. I know it’s a tricky balance between public schools and private institutions but the bottom line is this is a place were some of the nation’s top cyclists are and they can be developed. It’s worth the investment.