O’Keefe Takes Cycling National Crown

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O’Keefe Takes Cycling National Crown

A very muddy Sam O’Keefe ’16.5 celebrates his victory in the collegiate Division-II Cyclocross National Championships, held in Zilker Park in Austin, TX on Friday, Jan. 10. (Courtesy Sam O'Keefe)

A very muddy Sam O’Keefe ’16.5 celebrates his victory in the collegiate Division-II Cyclocross National Championships, held in Zilker Park in Austin, TX on Friday, Jan. 10. (Courtesy Sam O'Keefe)

A very muddy Sam O’Keefe ’16.5 celebrates his victory in the collegiate Division-II Cyclocross National Championships, held in Zilker Park in Austin, TX on Friday, Jan. 10. (Courtesy Sam O'Keefe)

A very muddy Sam O’Keefe ’16.5 celebrates his victory in the collegiate Division-II Cyclocross National Championships, held in Zilker Park in Austin, TX on Friday, Jan. 10. (Courtesy Sam O'Keefe)

By Fritz Parker

On Saturday, Jan. 10, Middlebury cycling club member Sam O’Keefe ’16.5 raced to a national championship in cyclocross, taking home the Division-II collegiate championship at the USA Cycling National Championships, which took place at Zilker Park in Austin, TX. O’Keefe returned to the course two days later to finish sixth in the USA Under-23 championship, earning a spot on the national team for the 2015 UCI Cyclocross World Championships, to be held in Tabor, Czech Republic later in January.

Cyclocross is a form of bicycle racing in which competitors must navigate tight turns and other obstacles – including iconic portions during which they must carry their bicycles up steep slopes – as they complete a series of short laps. Cyclocross races are typically held in the fall, when racers have time off from road racing.

O’Keefe came to cyclocross from mountain biking, in which he started competing at the age of 12. While he continues to compete in road racing competitions during the summer, he has dedicated his fall season to competing in cyclocross races, with the ultimate goal of finishing highly at the national championship.

“The national championship is really everyone’s goal,” O’Keefe said.

Saturday’s race divided collegiate competitors into two divisions representing large and small colleges and universities. Representing Middlebury, O’Keefe was placed in Division II against competition from familiar schools like Tufts and M.I.T., as well as racers from cycling powerhouses Brevard College and Milligan College.

Rain in advance of the race meant that the racers were forced to contend with muddy conditions throughout the race.

“From the beginning I just went as hard as I could and tried to ride smoothly,” O’Keefe said. “If the race conditions are really physically uncomfortable, you’re forced to just do it, to finish at all costs. I didn’t want to get caught up in a really tactical race, or get messed up by other people’s errors.”

The tactic paid off, as O’Keefe was able to separate himself from the field and hold on to win in a time of 59:27 – nearly two minutes ahead of the second-place finisher.

Back on the same course for Monday’s U23 national championship, O’Keefe finished in a remarkably similar time of 59:23, good for the sixth and final qualifying spot on the national squad.

As a member of Team USA, O’Keefe will travel to the Netherlands later this month to compete in a tune-up race before moving on to the Czech Republic for the U23 World Championship on Jan. 31. That race will pit O’Keefe and his teammates against the top young cyclocross talent from cycling hotbeds like Belgium and the Netherlands. Americans have not historically been competitive in the World Championships, but O’Keefe will be aided by his experience racing in Europe over winter break.

In the meantime, O’Keefe will be training on campus as he prepares for the big race.

“Right now I’m working hard to catch up on schoolwork this week and getting ahead for the week of the race,” he said. “I’ll also be training up until the race with a combination of riding my bike on a stationary mount and running.”

After he returns from Europe, O’Keefe says that he’ll enjoy some down time before road racing picks up during the summer months.
“I’m looking to chill out, do some cross country skiing and eat a ton of chocolate before the road racing season,” he said.

As for his overall goals in the sport of cyclocross, O’Keefe cites his involvement with the Middlebury cycling club as one of his primary motivators.

“I’m super happy to bring one home for Middlebury,” he said. “No one within the sport really knew about the school. I’m hoping that this national championship win will help build support for the cycling club here at Middlebury.”

Remo Plunkett contributed reporting to this article.

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