But first, let’s go back in time for a moment.
The team has been in serious contention to win a national title for years now. When the USA Cycling Collegiate National Mountain Bike Championships were held at Beech Mountain, North Carolina in 2013 and 2014, Western came in second and third, respectively. Western continued to place second for the next two years in Snowshoe, West Virginia. There, in 2015, King University beat Western by a mere 12 points. The teams and fans were watching the final events with sticks in their hands, nervously breaking them and avoiding conversation; the final races were so close that the Mountaineers truly thought they pulled it off.
Within these efforts, Western athletes have racked up a serious amount of individual podiums as well. There are at least 12 in recent memory, including sophomore Daniel Fretzel’s 2015 dual slalom victory—the first individual national title won by a Western mountain biker in more than a decade.
Nationals is also notorious for having “Type II fun” conditions. Mud, snow and hail (sometimes all at once) is the standard, not the exception. Every year the courses change in nature, too. Downhill mass starts in the endurance events have happened more than once; and icy rock gardens, crazy hecklers and the unfortunate yet inevitable injury are all part of the usual mix. Booking a house with a proper washer-dryer situation has also become a must. Madness if you ask anyone foreign to the scene. Then again, this is what nationals is all about. Heck, this is what mountain biking is all about!
Now that you get a flavor of what collegiate nationals is all about, here is what the headline of this story promises: Western winning a national title.
Collegiate Nationals returned to the West after four years of being held out East. Marshall Mountain—a defunct ski area—in Missoula, Mont. was the venue. While lots of rain and potential snow was in the forecast, the team was pleased to see near ideal race courses—for cross country, short track, downhill and dual slalom—during the inspection day.
“All of the courses were to die for,” said Cam Smith, senior a cross-country rider. “Just really fun trails to race mountain bikes on.”
The races can be summed up like this:
Cross Country: Ultra steep climb and descent with low mileage. Muddy throughout, but the weather wasn’t the defining factor of the race. Smith would lead the day for Western with a 12th place finish.
Downhill: Course officials deliberated until the final moment whether or not the course would be run from the top or mid-mountain. The race would eventually be run from the top, but riders had to hike their hefty downhill bikes to the top of the mountain due to a lack of functioning lift or shuttle system (this is almost unheard of). Sophomore Ming Goetz would place in an impressive fifth, despite battling a back injury for most of the season. Out of all groups, Western’s downhill women garnered the most points for the team.
Short Track: Originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, this event was bumped to Sunday (the same day as the team relay) due to inefficient dual-slalom qualifiers (this is also unheard of). The race on Sunday was raved about. The course featured a mix of technical and smooth climbs and descents. Everyone cooperated with the decision and raced enthusiastically Sunday morning. Smith led the day yet again with a 9th place finish on a course that “should be the standard for all other short track races.”
Dual Slalom: Due to Saturday’s scheduling mishap, riders were informed that practice would start at 7:15 on Sunday morning—in a 1:30 a.m. email. Sunrise in Missoula wasn’t until after 8:00 am. “The stars were still bright,” said senior Grace Owen. Fretzel, now a senior, led the day for Western in 12th place.
Team Relay: Sufferfest for racers, pure excitement for spectators. (Think running an 800-meter relay but on bikes.) While Western came in 10th, their consistent performance across the weekend more than made up for it.
And with that, Western won the DII Varsity national title, 54 points ahead of runner-up King University.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team,” said endurance coach Ellie Atkins. “We’ve had better years in terms of individual performances, but we also have great depth and many strong, new female riders.”
The impressively large elk-skull trophy the team brought home is too big to fit in a trophy case, but will hang proudly on a large, open wall in a place yet to be determined. In the meantime—and for years to come—don’t expect to see the mountain bikers resting on their laurels. Each and every person on Western’s Mountain Bike Team is there not to win awards but to have the time of their lives travelling and racing bikes together.
Maybe, just maybe, there is a correlation between success and fun.
Story by Peter Noon. Photos by Finn Beidleman and Taylor Cull, Marketing Communications.