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Following a successful regular season of cyclocross racing in the New England area, the MIT Cycling team traveled to Kansas City, Missouri on Friday, December 12th to compete in the 2008 Cyclocross National Championships. Strong performances from both the men’s and women’s sides paced the Engineers to third place in the Division II overall standings, upholding MIT’s reputation as a national cycling power. The week before Nationals the team, led by captain William Palm G, had won the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference Division II title for the second consecutive year and third of the last four, with 152 total points, well ahead of the runner-up US Military Academy with 121.

In contrast to the better-known disciplines of road racing or mountain biking, cyclocross is comparatively new in this country. The sport is very popular in Europe, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands, and consists of racing many laps of a short course (under 2 miles) in a set period of time (less than an hour). Cyclocross courses typically feature varied terrain and obstacles including pavement, wooded trails, sand and steep hills that require competitors to draw on both mountain and road biking skills. The sport has been described as ‘steeplechase with bikes’ since many courses include barriers that require racers to dismount, carry their bikes over the obstruction, and then remount on the fly.

In order to accommodate all of the 37 different racing categories, from single speed bikes all the way through to the Elite/Professional men and women, on the same course, Cyclocross Nationals took place over four days of competition with the collegiate races held on the final day. The weather conditions at Nationals were downright balmy, especially compared to the frigid temperatures and snowbound conditions of the last few New England-area races that the team had competed in, with temperatures in the 60s at race time. The course itself, which had several steep climbs and fast straightforward descents, favored power over technical ability. By the final day the lines of the course were well worn and the mud had taken on a sticky quality that enabled riders to navigate more confidently — again favoring strength over handling skills.

For the collegiate action, the men’s race led off the morning with a fast and furious start. The race itself lasted 45 minutes, but many competitors started as if the day would be won on the first lap, making the tempo at the outset extremely fast. As a result, many racers ended up growing fatigued before the final lap. On the men’s side, MIT was anchored by solid performances from all four members of the squad, with Palm leading the Engineers by finishing 18th overall. Jose H. Soltren G followed in hot pursuit, finishing 21st. Timothy J. Humpton ’10 and Cimarron J. Wortham G rounded out the scoring by finishing 23rd and 26th respectively. The race was won by Colorado College who impressively placed two riders in the top 5. However, because the school lacked a women’s team they did not factor into the final omnium standings.

The women’s race immediately followed the men’s and again, the action was fast and furious. Coinciding with the start of the race, a cold front arrived, dropping the temperature by 20 degrees in minutes. Undeterred, Katherine Harris G warmed up quickly and within half a lap she and a rider from the University of Chicago had distanced themselves from the rest of the Division II field. Harris maintained her second-place position for the remainder of the race, opening up an impressive six-minute gap on the third place rider from Army by the end of the race. Although MIT fielded a diminished women’s side of one racer, Harris provided plenty of fireworks and enough points to help propel the team to a third place finish in the Division II overall standings behind Appalachian State and the US Military Academy.

All told, the MIT Cycling team had an excellent cyclocross season that was marked by many individual achievements and the ultimate team accomplishments of winning the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference season omnium as well as the strong result at nationals. Currently, the team is training hard for the road-racing season in the spring when they will look to defend both the ECCC and National Championship titles that they won last year.