The young talent of the Middlebury Cycling Club was on display over Labor Day Weekend, as three underclassmen Panther bikers delivered impressive performances in the Green Mountain Stage Race, held from Friday, Aug. 30 through Monday, Sept. 2. Sam O’Keefe ’16.5, Kai Wiggins ’16 and Zachary Isaacs ’16 competed in the grueling, four-day affair that featured four separate race “stages” held on several courses all throughout the Green Mountains. The event most notably included a 67-mile endurance race through the “App Gap,” an arduous and heavily vertical trek crossing the spine of the mountain range near Mad River Glen ski area.
In particular, O’Keefe’s performance in the Class 4/5 category of the event headlined the successful weekend for the Middlebury riders. O’Keefe, after posting a 16th-place finish in the opening time trial leg, rode to a sixth-place finish in the second stage, finishing nearly even with the stage leaders. In day three and four, however, O’Keefe dominated the field. In the “App Gap” stage on day three he earned a second-place finish before winning the final, 16-mile “Burlington Criterium” stage that included a victorious jaunt through the city’s downtown.
Nate Beatty ’13.5, president of the Middlebury Cycling Club for two years, spoke to the impressive performance of the Club’s up-and-coming member.
“I am very impressed,” said Beatty. Sam is a terrific athlete and I’ve ridden with him for a while now. It’s really exciting to go out with these guys who are fresh and young on the team and see them perform, particularly in a race like [that.] Especially the ‘App gap” section, where you’ve been riding for 60 or 70 miles and then all of a sudden you have to do a brutal climb, it’s very encouraging to see that guys are doing well.”
More than his talent, however, Beatty appreciates the attitude O’Keefe has contributed to the Club.
“I think that there can be an attitude in cycling, particularly in road biking, that turns people off from the sport,” said Beatty. “[Sam] exhibits natural talent and has a drive to succeed, but also has a laid back attitude is very encouraging to others and has been trying to pull his friends into the sport.”
O’Keefe, who has been an avid “Cyclocross” and mountain bike competitor for seven years, is now looking towards establishing himself on the road bike circuit. Therefore, despite finishing eighth in last year’s Cyclocross under-23 national race, O’Keefe competed in the lowest class (4/5) within the road bike ranking system because he has yet to accrue the ten road race starts needed to advance. “On one hand it’s cool that I won, but on the other hand I can’t race where I think that I should be yet [because of the regulations],” said O’Keefe.
As he continues to climb in the rankings of road racing, O’Keefe also entertains the possibility of racing professionally one day. “In the back of my mind [going pro] is my goal,” said O’Keefe. “A lot of people say you can’t be really good if you go to school and a lot of people don’t go to school to be professional. I’m just trying to do the best I can and see what happens after I graduate.”
All three Middlebury underclassmen participants – O’Keefe, Wiggins and Isaacs (the latter two racing in the competition’s category three) – represent a surge of enthusiasm into the Cycling club from its younger members, a group that Beatty is quick to point out is nothing new on Middlebury’s campus.
“It’s been confirmed by a couple of people and we have it on our website that the cycling team has graduated more professional athletes than any other varsity team at Middlebury and we’re the oldest team, besides the baseball team, at Middlebury,” said Beatty. “Yet, we are not a varsity sport because the NCAA doesn’t have cycling.”
Instead of competing in the NCAA, Middlebury riders race in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Circuit. The club continues to build its base of riders and establish itself as a recognizable group at Middlebury, with Beatty imagining participation along the lines of the College’s successful Rugby clubs or Ultimate Frisbee program.
“We’d like to be able to provide the resources for students who want to come race at elite levels to do so,” he said.
For young racers such as O’Keefe, the terrain in Vermont is one of the biggest draws to the College’s cycling program as it continues to grow.
“For cycling, I think one of the big things about Middlebury is its location – it could not be more perfect for training and riding with friends,” said O’Keefe.