Secrets of their success

Last month, under the coaching expertise of Art Shuster, the Warren Wilson College mountain-bike team scored its fifth consecutive second-place team finish in Division II of the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships. The team was a close runner-up to Colorado School of Mines in the competition, held Oct. 26 to 28 at Lees-McRae College and Sugar Mountain Resort in Banner Elk.

Look out below: Gold medalist Ashlee Robinson’s downhill performance helped propel Warren Wilson College to a second place finish in this year’s mountain bike nationals. Photos Courtesy Warren Wilson College

As a former professional cyclist, Shuster is well acquainted with the physical training necessary to become a top athlete. He also knows the mental aspect involved in winning, and borrows some tricks of the trade from his day job as a counselor at the Swannanoa college to give riders a positive edge. To top it off, Shuster is a self-described “riding coach,” meaning he actually takes to the trails with his team. He isn’t perched on the sidelines with a pipe in his mouth, broadcasting insults and criticisms to his athletes like the coaches of old.

Kylie Krauss, a gold medalist in the cross-country event at this year’s nationals, calls Shuster “a riot.” “He’s also an amazing rider,” Krauss says. “I enjoy riding with him even during the off-season because I still have a lot to learn from his technical skills. Plus, he knows a lot of epic routes that invariably wind up with us doing a hike-a-bike, looking for a trail that may or may not even exist.”

Shuster prides himself on how well he knows his team and its individual personalities. “Some tend to work on their own better, and others need more motivation,” he says. “The trick is engaging the majority into buying into the mission of pursuing excellence as a team.” Through mental affirmations and visualization, Shuster makes it a point for team members to picture themselves not just achieving success, but expecting it.

The team’s training grounds rotate between campus trails and those at local recreation areas, including DuPont State Forest and Bent Creek. For instance, the Green’s Lick trail at Bent Creek offers riders a grueling 35-minute climb followed by a death-defying 10-minute descent. The team’s “intensity days” are done on the half-mile-long gravel road that circles the campus farm. “It’s the closest thing we have to a track,” says Shuster. “We sprint the straight-aways and recover on the turns, along with doing some one-lap efforts and mass-start sprints.”

With 21 mountain bikers on the team, Shuster has a lot to think about. To make things more complicated, teammates compete in a variety of events—short track, cross country, dual slalom, downhill—each of which calls for different skills and riding experience. As the name suggests, the short track is a very short loop, taking about one to two minutes per lap. It’s a “full-out effort,” Shuster says, and one that favors the most powerful riders. It also attracts more spectators because they can sit in one place to see the entire half-hour event play out.

Good cheer: The Warren Wilson College Owls took a fifth consecutive second at this year’s collegiate mountain bike nationals.

Not so with the cross-country event, which is a 5- to 7-mile loop through the woods, hiding riders from sight for its 30- to 45-minute duration. Spectators or not, though, the training required for the event is outrageous. Gold medalist Krauss says—only partly joking—that “the best training is riding with guys that are faster, going for ridiculously long rides that make you feel tough and figuring out halfway through that you’re going to be late for class or work, so then you have to sprint the whole way back.”

In the dual slalom, two racers begin at a gate and run parallel downhill courses to the finish, at times reaching speeds of up to 40 mph.

The downhill presents even bigger obstacles. The Sugar Mountain course the WWC team tackled during the nationals is considered the country’s hardest course, according to Shuster. “One section is a big rock-face tilted at about 50 degrees, and another section includes a creek-crossing where riders clear a 25-foot gap, getting about 6 to 10 feet of height.” Preparation is intense, says Ashlee Robinson, this year’s downhill gold medalist. “The night before, I kept running the course through my head. I had the entire hill memorized. One thing goes wrong there, and your whole season goes down the drain.”

Thinking about race day makes everyone nervous. They grasp for magic bullets—for instance, this year’s team strategy was to gorge on Chinese buffet meals following the longer training efforts.

Worries play out differently on the big day. During her race, Krauss’ friend and fellow competitor from Colorado, Kate Chapman, was close behind her the entire race, a coincidence that helped her win. “I kept seeing her right there on all the switchbacks, and it made me so angry,” she says. “So then I just went nuts the final lap and it hurt pretty bad … so coming up the final climb to the finish line was amazing. I wanted the win so bad and had worked so hard for it, so it was all very exciting—and relieving—to cross the line in first place. The feeling of those final three seconds is going to be a strong motivator to me for a long time to come.”

And while this year’s second place was worthy of praise, Shuster has even bigger plans for next year’s team. Not only will they take the gold, he predicts, but they’ll have a lot more fun than their competitors while doing it.

[Jonathan Poston, a certified USATF endurance coach, can be reached at his Web site (www.prnut.com)]

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