Husky mountain bikers earn recognition on national stage

On a cold, rainy, weekend in late October in Banner Elk, North Carolina, Northeastern University’s mountain biking team navigated muddy trails and braved strong winds to solidify itself as a legitimate contender on the collegiate cycling scene.

The club finished in seventh place (out of 35) in the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Biking National Championship, an impressive feat considering the competition.

“We competed with a lot of schools that treat cycling as a varsity sport,” said Sam Mellen, a middler mechanical engineering student who finished second overall in points for the Men’s A division in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC). “Other teams saw that we are a force to be reckoned with.”

Two weeks prior to the Nationals, Northeastern hosted the ECCC Championships at Sunday River in Newry, Maine at which they finished in second place behind the University of Vermont.

The club also finished in second place in the ECCC behind UVM during its five-event regular season. The University of New Hampshire finished a distant third.

What the club lacks in quantity of riders and funding, it makes up for in sheer talent and camaraderie, its members said.

“Our team attracts some of the University’s best students,” said Pat Saunders, President of Northeastern Cycling and senior neuroscience major. “We all have a mutual love for the sport and we’ve made the best friends we ever will in college from being part of the team. We have really intelligent people and fast riders committed to racing their bikes.”

Case in point, in addition to Mellen’s successful season, Maggie Sullivan, the Road captain for Northeastern Cycling and a middler nursing major, finished first overall in points in the Women’s A division in the ECCC; Lauren King finished first in the Women’s B division and Ryan Conroy finished first in the Men’s C division.

Sullivan competed in all four events in the Nationals (dual slalom, downhill, cross country and short track) and finished 12th overall.

“This was the first year I went for overall omnium standings in the Nationals,” said Sullivan. “It affected all my races and hindered how I performed. I was running around trying to make all the races and I didn’t get to pre-ride the courses. I have to learn to focus on two races instead of four.”

But Sullivan, who works at a bike camp in the summer with her brother who races for UVM, finished second in the downhill race during the ECCC Championships at Sunday River. She credits her successful season to 4:30 a.m. summer training sessions and a commitment to racing more competitively.

And though the club’s inability to beat Vermont in the seasonal standings frustrated her, Sullivan said she and her brother cheer for each other during races.

“Northeastern and UVM are rivals, but we’re brother and sister first. Blood comes before biking.”

She was quick to add, however, “UVM has 10 times as much funding and has always been at the top. This is the first year we really gave them a run for their money. To come in second place just behind them is really saying something.

“But it’s frustrating because we were so close to beating them,” said Sullivan, who noted that UVM consistently brings 40 bikers to events while Northeastern brings anywhere from 15 to 20.

Over the past three seasons, Mellen, who grew up near a bike shop and has raced competitively in downhill events since he was 16-years-old, has seen a marked improvement in the club.

“We made it a goal to beat UVM,” said Mellen. “We’ve gotten a lot closer and beat a lot of their top racers and have a great feeling heading into next year.”

At Sunday River, Mellen finished first in the dual slalom and second in the downhill. He said conference racers voted the ECCC Championships as the best event of the year and that members of Northeastern’s club traveled to Sunday River six or seven times over the past several months to help the trail crew build courses.

“UVM shows up and all they have to worry about is riding bikes,” joked Mellen. “We were planning and organizing and riding our bikes, so it was a big accomplishment.”

Added Saunders: “The atmosphere was great and the racing was excellent. It was the best venue all season; the trails were awesome, the trail crew was great and we heard feedback from riders and organizers of the ECCC of how great a race it was.”

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Photo: NU mountain bikers on top of Whiteface Mountainin Lake Placid, NY.

By Jason Kornwitz