Road or trail, Owls’ cycling team takes flight

Tom Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

The Swannanoa Valley has an often-overlooked college varsity entry in the form of the Warren Wilson Owls’ cycling team.

Matt Williams is the head coach of the Owls, whose season entails the full school year with mountain biking in the fall, cyclo-cross events in winter and road competitions in the spring. Cyclo-cross can most readily be described as a hybrid of mountain biking and road racing.

“There are scholarships available, and the budget is funded by the team,” Williams said. “So when we take these guys to races, the team is covering travel, hotels, food, entry fees and taking care of all the logistics.”

Collegiate cycling operates under the auspices of USA Cycling, the same governing body that is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee for national and international cycling events.

In that regard, the sport follows the Olympic model. Athletes can hold pro contracts while competing at the collegiate level.

“You can get a paycheck for riding your bike and still race collegiately,” Williams said. “We have the U-23 (under 23 years of age) national champion in mountain biking in our conference; we have people that are going to world championships in every single discipline in our conference, men and women.”

Within the collegiate varsity ranks, the Owls compete at the Division II level. They are members of the Southeast Collegiate Cycling Conference, which will move to an all-varsity format in the upcoming academic year. Collegiate cycling on a national scale will be drawing a clearer delineation between varsity and club teams in the next two years.

“The way collegiate cycling is generally structured is there are varsity teams, which is what Warren Wilson is, and then there are club teams. The varsity teams essentially have more support,” said Williams. “The way things will be structured moving forward is that the varsity teams will race each other at the national level and the club teams will race each other at the national level,” he added.

While the men and women’s teams generally compete in separate races, there are exceptions.

“For mountain biking and cyclo-cross there is actually a team relay event that is co-ed. You have two men and two women racing in that. Similar format to a relay on the track, like a 4 by 400-meter relay,” said Williams. “There’s no baton obviously, but the same kind of structure. That’s the only time you have a co-ed race, but the fact that there is a combined team score is significant. That changes the team dynamic.”

The men and women’s teams also often ride the trails and roads around Warren Wilson in tandem. “We generally practice together, every day except Wednesdays, when work crews have meetings,” Owls’ team member Sam Morkal-Williams said. Warren Wilson is one of only seven members of the Work Colleges Consortium, whose members have a work component of their graduation requirements.

Morkal-Williams is a sophomore and a native of New York’s Westchester County. Fellow sophomore and team member Harris Wagner is another native New Yorker, where drivers often view the roads as their best opportunity for competition. Both riders found respite and beauty in the hills of the Swannanoa.

December 2015 graduate Allison Jones, from Raleigh, arrived at Warren Wilson with a “I don’t know how to race my bike” background, in her own words. That changed dramatically during her time with the Owls.

“She had a pretty phenomenal fall season,” Williams said. “She was second in the country at the mountain bike nationals, then on the podium at cyclo-cross, too. Jones is currently parlaying that into a spot on the grassroots, or start-up, Asheville Bike Company pro team.

Members arrive at Warren Wilson with a wide range of experience. Freshman Sterling Guy is a Fairfax, California product and competes in all three disciplines for the Owls. His opportunity for a cycling scholarship at WWC and the area’s mixture of cycling terrain were contributing factors in choosing the school.

“It was more laid back in some areas, and a lot harder in others,” said Guy, a standout in the classroom as well as on the roads for the Owls.

Each team member has a unique story of how they arrived, including coach Williams, a former undergraduate rider at the college. The Swannonoa Valley’s landscape is reminiscent of his native Vermont, as is the community that appreciates academics, as well as the environment surrounding the classrooms.

“Being in an intense academic environment and being able to just walk down past the barn and see the calves or lambs out in the spring is really relaxing and refreshing for me, so I like having that contrast and those elements in place,” said Williams. “There aren’t a whole lot of colleges out there that have that. Then having a mountain bike team and now a full-fledged team was sort of icing on the cake for me.”

Jones perhaps best summed up the unique combination of components that coalesce to form the college’s cycling squad.

“A lot of it has to do with being at Warren Wilson College,” she said. “It definitely has a dynamic that is unique to this place. A lot of friendships grow out of that, and you learn a lot from other perspectives, whether it’s on the road or in the mud.”