For 14 straight years, the Warren Wilson College mountain biking team finished with a spot on the podium in the Division II Omnium of the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships.
And now, after braving some wicked elements at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia Oct. 23, the team has clinched its first national championship.
Over the course of the three-day event, the mild weather turned to rain, which turned to snow. Because of formatting changes, the Owls were competing in the newly established varsity division.
“We were bumped up in a way,” fourth-year coach Matt Williams said. “That just means our individual riders were racing people from the top Division I schools as well.”
The Owls lost seven of the 10 riders from the 2015 team, which placed third in the championship. Williams expected to rebuild this season, but a senior and two juniors provided a boost to the program this year.
“India Waller, Miron Golfman and Harris Wagner really stepped up in a big way,” Williams said. “They were returning riders from last year. Those three provided a tremendous amount of leadership.”
Freshmen Paul Wright and Sophie Allen, riders with contrasting backgrounds, were key contributors as well, according to Williams.
“Paul, who came over from New Zealand, finished fifth in the short track and second in the cross country. He’s a world-class rider for sure,” Williams said. “And on the other end of the spectrum we have Sophia Allen, who had never ridden a mountain bike before she joined the team in August. She got herself to a place where she could race for a national team just two and a half months later.”
Allen, who placed 21st in the individual omnium for Division II female riders, possesses the tools for success, even thought she's a newcomer to the sport, Williams believes.
“She’s got some pretty good innate talent in terms of handling a bike,” he said. “And her desire and willingness to get better are a part of it too. Plus, she’s the most positive bike racer I’ve worked with.”
Waller represented the Owls in the individual omnium as well, finishing third. On the men’s side, Golfman and Wagner finished 15th and 16th respectively. Williams said it was during nationals when the overall capabilities of his team became clear.
“I think for the first time we had the right combination of riders in the right year,” he said. “In my experience with the team a lot of years we’ve had either a really good men’s team or a really good women’s team. But this year we had really good riders who performed well in both women’s and men’s races.”
The national title is the crowning achievement for a program that has been a consistent presence on the national championship podium for the better part of two decades, according to Williams. He said the future looks bright for the young team.
"We only have one senior on the team," he said. "Obviously it depends on recruiting, but the future of mountain biking for us is really positive. We’ll have good leadership next year and good incoming recruits as well.”