Yale Cycling Team: Competition, collegiality, and lots of fun

Aside from the fact that they all like to ride a bike, one would be hard-pressed to identify a “typical” rider on the Yale Cycling Team.

Not only do the 60-odd members of the team reflect all levels of cycling experience, they also represent all the schools of Yale. Because cycling is not a National Collegiate Athletic Association sport, graduate and professional students may compete alongside undergraduates.

“The team is representative of Yale,” notes men’s captain Matthew Lloyd-Thomas. “It brings people from different parts of the university together.”

Lloyd-Thomas, a Yale College sophomore, came to New Haven an experienced racer, having competed in a prep school conference in New England. At the other end of the spectrum are the casual riders. ”We get a huge range of experience and abilities,” Lloyd-Thomas says. “We have people who have never raced a bike before, or are just getting on their road bike for the first time.”

The collegiate road-racing season is in the spring. Autumn is the season when returning Yale team members welcome new riders and would-be racers.

“We try to organize introductory rides for people,” says Lloyd-Thomas. “We’ll meet at The Women’s Table [on High Street in front of Sterling Memorial Library] and take a group of six or seven new riders out for some short rides. One of the most important things we do at the beginning of the year is to show people where you can ride. People are surprised to find out that that there is beautiful bike riding around New Haven.”

A popular riders’ email list allows teammates to find partners for training rides. Molly Oakley, a first-year nursing student who races mountain bikes in the fall for Yale as well as competing on the road, says the list brings Yale riders in touch with scores of local cyclists.

Women cyclists race hard, but members also find that the 55 to 75 mile Saturday rides can roll away the stress school sometimes brings.

“The New Haven biking community is intertwined with the Yale team,” she notes.

For experienced riders, a Saturday morning group ride may cover between 55 or 75 miles and bring the cyclists east through Connecticut shoreline towns and as far as the Connecticut River. Lloyd-Thomas says a long ride away from campus and back, through neighboring towns and countryside that many Yale students never see, can roll away the stress school sometimes brings.

A number of Yale faculty members may well be along for the ride. Professor Jacob Hacker, the director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Professor James Levinsohn, director for the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and Guido Wollmann, a research scientist at the School of Medicine, are avid riders.

Hacker is an accomplished racer, having won the Collegiate Road National Championship twice, once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate student, when he was a member of the Yale team. Hacker now shares training and racing techniques with the team.

“He rides with us a lot, and rides away from us a lot because he is so fast,” says Lloyd-Thomas. “He is an invaluable source of advice for us.”

Lloyd-Thomas met Hacker through riding, and Hacker is now his faculty adviser. Lloyd-Thomas says that his academic advising sessions sometimes take place on the bike, which he feels safe to assume is uncommon.

One regular evening group ride that Lloyd-Thomas has found himself on with Hacker is the Sleeping Giant ride, dubbed “the race without an entry fee” because it attracts a field of highly competitive and skilled riders who zoom along at 25 miles per hour.

“Jacob Hacker is a legend in that ride,” says Lloyd-Thomas, who recalled one ride where a group of cyclists had broken away ahead of the main group, which included Hacker. Hacker turned to Lloyd-Thomas and joked that, as his advisee, Lloyd-Thomas should take the lead of the trailing group and pull the breakaway back. Lloyd-Thomas pedaled to the front and did just that.

Not all training occurs on the road. The realities of studying at Yale and the short winter days of the Northeast can make it difficult to find blocks of daylight hours for the long training rides racers prefer. Riders will sometimes spend time riding indoors on a trainer; a sturdy, portable stand that turns a road bike into a stationary bike that cyclists can set to varying degrees of pedaling resistance. Lloyd-Thomas will multi-task on his trainer, sometimes writing emails on his iPhone related to his work as a Yale Daily News reporter while pedaling in his room.

Team member Erik Levinsohn, the son of Professor James Levinsohn and a first-year medical student at Yale who raced at Williams as an undergraduate, has not been able to ride this year as much as he would like.

Medical student Erik Levinsohn says riding with the team is “a great opportunity to meet people I would otherwise not have gotten a chance to meet.”

“You find as much time as you can to ride and hope that some residual fitness will carry you the rest of the way,” he says. When reached by phone to discuss the team, he noted, “I’m in my room now setting up my trainer bike as we speak.”

The spring road racing season covers 9 or 10 weekends beginning in early March. Yale races in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference with scores of other schools, including the Ivy League. This year’s races, organized by the member schools, are in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Teams from the various schools head Friday night to the race location and race all weekend in three or four events.

The Yale team travels in a caravan of cars with their race bikes on racks and crams into cheap motels near the racecourses. The team’s camaraderie is especially apparent during race weekends, Lloyd-Thomas says.

“In collegiate cycling you always wait until your last teammate has crossed the finish line, which is one of the great things about the team,” he says.

Erik Levinsohn says he has been focusing this year on enjoying the team experience.

“The training and racing aspect is important, but this year I’ve put a much greater emphasis on spending time with the team and getting to know everyone on it,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people I would otherwise not have gotten a chance to meet. I’ve met a lot of the undergraduates. That’s been extremely fulfilling for me. I’ve made a lot of good friends. It’s a very supportive atmosphere.”

The team does not have a coach, and novice racers who have never pinned a race number to their jersey or know little about bike maintenance or how to train with a heart rate monitor are mentored by their teammates, who share racing strategy and knowledge on what to wear depending on the weather and what to eat, both on the bike and off.

During his time with the team, John Wen has improved from the Intro classification to a C racer.

“Riding in a group of 20 people where you’re bumping elbows with someone or riding just a few inches behind someone’s wheel is very different than just going on a bike ride by yourself,” Lloyd-Thomas says of the education new racers undergo.

“The more experienced riders have definitely helped me a ton. They’ve taught me how to train smart, rather than just training hard,” said sophomore John Wen, who began racing at Yale. “We’ve organized far more group rides to train hard together and to learn important techniques to skillfully and safely ride in groups.”

The race weekends usually include four events. There’s an individual time trial in which riders are sent off on a course one by one and race the clock over a distance of several miles, often uphill. There’s a team time trial in which three or four members of a team ride together, drafting behind one another and taking turns in the front. The team’s time is the time of the third rider across the finish line, so it’s critical that the teammates work and stay together on the course. There is also a criterium, a race of multiple loops on a short course that strongly tests riders’ bike-handling skills and ability to race in close quarters. The last event of the weekend is a road race that can range from 25 to 75 miles or more, which calls on all of a rider’s skill and endurance. Each of the races is conducted multiple times for different categories of riders. Collegiate racing categorizes racers as A, B, C, D, and Intro — with A being the designation of the strongest riders. Not all team members race each weekend, but all team members who are racing ride each race in their category.

“Usually after a day of racing on Saturday all you want to do is go back to the hotel and sleep,” Lloyd-Thomas says.

On a recent race weekend hosted by the U.S. Military Academy, Erik Levinsohn left New Haven at 4 a.m. on Saturday for West Point and went on to win the individual time trial, the criterium and the road race—which was conducted Sunday on his birthday — in the A category.

“It has never happened before and I don’t think it will ever happen again,” he said of his triple triumph. “It’s been a great season personally and for the team despite the not-so-nice weather.”

The Yale medical student did not begin riding seriously until he was a sophomore in college, after giving up running cross-country and track due to injuries. He had been resistant to becoming a cyclist despite his father’s love of riding — he figures his reluctance was a “rebellious phase” — but became a Category A rider by the time he left college, and raced for a semi-pro team. He also finished second in 2013 in the Mount Washington Hillclimb, considered one of the most challenging and steepest climbs on a bicycle in the world. His time over the road leading to the top of the New Hampshire mountain — the trip that prompts drivers to buy the “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers — was only four minutes off the course record set by a well-know professional racer. He considered racing for a pro team, but says, “Medical school seemed like a better career move.”

Whether team members are top riders like Erik Levinsohn or novices, Lloyd-Thomas said, the race weekends are enjoyed by all.

“More often than not, people who come out for those first weekends really love it and end up coming back,” he says.

Kelly Coplin of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies is cheered on during a race by women’s captain Elif Erez of Yale College.

“This year has been great in terms of team bonding and building,” says Wen, who has improved from the Intro classification to a C racer at Yale and recently won a race in his category. “We’ve held barbecues and dinners to build team cohesion. Cycling doesn’t have to be an individual sport, and it certainly helps to have others supporting you. One thing I love about our team is that when those of us are racing on the road, other teammates in different categories would cheer us on.”

The team’s members provide their own bicycles and racing is more expensive than many other club sports, but Lloyd-Thomas says the team is fortunate to have an extremely generous, long-time benefactor in Thomas L. Kempner, an alumnus of Yale and the team. The team is also sponsored by two local bike shops, The Devil’s Gear and College Street Cycles, which offer discounts to the racers. Café Romeo gives the team sandwiches every weekend.

The road-racing season culminates each year with the national championships that Hacker won twice. The competition is open only to A riders and Yale fielded full men’s and women’s teams the last two years. Lloyd-Thomas went to the national championships last year in Ogden, Utah, which required him and his teammates to take their bikes apart for packing and shipping and then reassemble them onsite. Erik Levinsohn went to the national championships as a senior in college and will race in this year’s event in Richmond, Virginia as a medical student.

The change from high-altitude Ogden to Richmond should be easier for Yale cyclists used to riding close to sea level.

 “I don’t think I’ve ever seen my heart rate get that high,” Lloyd-Thomas said of the effects of racing in Utah’s mountains.

You can learn about Yale Cycling on the web at http://www.yale.edu/cycling and find maps and cue sheets for local rides. You can also subscribe to the team’s email list, follow the team on Facebook and Twitter and donate to support Yale Cycling.

Media Contact

Tom Conroy: tom.conroy@yale.edu, 203-432-1345