UNC-Chapel Hill students win national championships in cycling
Two UNC-Chapel Hill students won collegiate national championships in cycling this past weekend in New Mexico.
Katie Aman, a master’s student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, was first overall — winning what’s called the omnium — in women’s racing, with the best combined scores in three events.
Aman, a New Hampshire native, had competed twice before at the collegiate championships and not done well. Going into the event this time, she felt better-prepared. In fact, she wanted to win one of the races, but tried to be realistic by aiming for the omnium.
“I feel like it's really hard to set that as a goal because anything can happen in a race. So, my goal was to top five, basically in every race, and kind of use my strengths, so going into I was just kind of focused more on the process," Aman said. "But I knew I had a really good shot because my fitness was really good coming in.”
That showed in her results from the beginning. Aman placed second Friday in the time trial — a solo race against the clock — then had another second-place finish Saturday in the road race.
Aman feared she would end up second yet again Sunday in the third type of race, a hectic event called the criterium in which competitors do multiple laps around a circuit course.
There were intermediate sprints to get extra points toward the omnium, and she said when she went for those, she felt like her legs weren’t great, which worried her as the end of the race got closer.
“And I was thinking, 'Okay, I guess I'm just going to try and sprint, and if I get top five, I probably get the Omnium,'" Aman said. “And so that was my goal, top five and just get it up as far as I could.”
Near the end, though, she caught the other racers off-guard.
“Coming around the bend to the finish it’s probably about 300 meters… I just went pretty early... and started sprinting and I just held it like, all the way to the line,” Aman said. “And I saw my friend was on my wheel the whole time and she’s a great sprinter and I was really worried, because I saw her coming on the left and I just kept pushing harder and harder.”
And she won.
“I was just totally ecstatic,” Aman said.
And on Saturday, Owen Cole, a 19-year-old freshman from Chapel Hill, won the men’s road race.
He and Aman said the thin air of the high altitudes in New Mexico — the road racecourse was well over a mile high — put the UNC team at a disadvantage, especially against racers from places like Colorado and Montana who could live and train at high elevation year-round.
“We marked those people specifically in our races because we knew they had an advantage at altitude,” Aman said.
The road racecourse was two laps of about 32 miles each, with a harsh climb locally known as “Heartbreak Hill” each time around.
Cole said the UNC team believed the big tactical moment would come on the second run up the climb, with the strongest riders trying to get away from the pack then.
There was a zone near the base of the climb where riders could take hand-ups of food and water bottles, though, and troubles there before that final climb pushed Cole toward the rear of the pack, and he had to fight back.
“So, it took a really big effort up the climb to get back up to the front, but the race had completely shattered and blown up,” Cole said “So I knew that getting back to the front there would give me a good shot at a really good result. So, I was super motivated to do that.”
Cole said he had raced at altitude before and not done well but knew once he got over the climb a second time in decent position that he had a chance.
In the last couple of miles he was in a group of about six racers that kept trying to attack each other, and finally he and one other rider managed to get away. He beat the other man in a sprint at the finish line.
It was a payoff for training that sometimes exceeded 25 hours a week.
“We knew that the altitude was going to be tough and I really, really didn't feel all too well," Cole said. “And it wasn’t until I made it over the climb on the second lap that I knew I was going to contend the race… And knowing that was something we'd planned on and trained for so long, and then to come across the line in the sprint with the win was…I mean, it was...we knew it was possible, but I'm going to say it was still pretty unbelievable. It was a really awesome moment."
Cole had finished third in the men’s time trial, so that road race win put him in the lead for overall. But he had to fly home early for an exam and couldn’t race in the criterium.
“It’ll do, though,” Cole said. “That was a high-enough note to end on. I'm okay with that.”
Aman and Cole now get to wear coveted Stars and Stripes jerseys in races for the next year.
The UNC men also raced together against the clock in a team time trial Friday morning. The team — with Cole, John Paul Amalong, Thomas Dreps and Matteo Fulghieri — finished fifth.
There are two categories for collegiate teams. For some schools, it’s a full varsity sport, with a paid coach and substantial financial support from the school.
UNC-Chapel Hill, though, competes in the “club” category, which is for schools where cycling isn’t treated as a varsity sport. Instead, the teams are student clubs with an unpaid faculty advisor, and rely substantially on donors. Individual riders who can afford it pay for their private coaching.
“It's not the same as the varsity program, but it means we have some more flexibility in terms of things like who each of us individually has as a coach," Aman said.
In fact, her boyfriend is an accomplished coach, and she gets his help free.
It also helps, given their studies, that training hours can be flexible.
“We don't have to have required practices," Aman said. "We have more like optional rides, so of course there are cons to not being a varsity program, but I actually see it as mostly pros because it gives us more flexibility with our program.”
But it also means the students have to run the program themselves.
Aman is the co-president of the club with Amalong
"We put together the entire travel for Albuquerque, all of the logistics, so it means we do a lot more legwork,” Aman said. “And it means we do have less money and resources typically, but we have a really good alumni base and so we have gotten really good donations, which helps us a lot.”
Also, the university is giving it $6,500 this year to help with costs, Aman said.