Freewheeling at 50 M.P.H.

Swooping left, then right, now cruising straight ahead at the speed of a fresh gale, then suddenly diving into a hollow and rising up together...

Swooping left, then right, now cruising straight ahead at the speed of a fresh gale, then suddenly diving into a hollow and rising up together, the flight of cyclists skims the road, a dense flock of birds atop spinning wheels. After 20 miles of this on a spring morning, the bicycle race has come down to its final kilometer.

Harvard's endgame strategy has law student Nathan Drake leading a "pace-line" of three cyclists riding in single file, their wheels almost touching. Out in front, he breaks the oncoming wind, creating a slipstream for dental student Dane St. John and Brent Plater of the Kennedy School of Government; riding on his aerodynamic coattails, they go as fast as he while working only about 70 percent as hard. Drake is pulling them along at a lung-searing 35-mile-per-hour pace that no one can sustain for more than a couple hundred meters. He is breathing raggedly and his legs feel ready to explode; St. John and Plater are pedaling furiously but enduring no such hellish torments. Eventually Drake "blows up," utterly spent, and peels off to coast out the race, where he will finish about thirtieth. St. John takes over and does the same thing, pulling Plater along on his rear wheel until he collapses and pulls aside. Then it's Plater's job to hold off the rest of the field in a mad sprint to the finish line. Rising from his saddle, he manhandles his bike and handily wins the race. Although Plater is the official winner, the real triumph clearly belongs to the Harvard University Cycling Association (HUCA).

"A lot of camaraderie comes out of the suffering you do for other people," says Drake, chuckling. "There's a common misconception that cycling is an individual sport, but in fact, it's incredibly team-oriented." The Harvard cyclists are close-knit, united by thousands of road miles, spirited races, and their own website ( This spring's season-ending barbecue featured a Tour de France video and tongue-in-cheek awards: Plater, who has "an amazing ability to destroy bicycles," said Drake, received a spare wheel, and Mike Davis, M.B.A. '00, who invested $4,000 in a racing bike but raced no more after a crash early in his first contest, was acknowledged for his $800-per-mile outlay.

HUCA members on a training ride.

Though it has had a few fallow periods, HUCA, founded in 1890, is the nation's oldest college cycling group. John Allis, B '74, has been the team's unpaid coach since 1982. "John's a tremendous coach--everyone who rides with him gets a lot from the experience. He does it for love of the sport," says Renée Covi '90, an Allis protégée who in 1990 became the third-fastest woman in American college cycling after starting as a sophomore in 1987.

Other outstanding cyclists have ridden for Harvard. Debra S. Cohen '94 went to the Olympic trials. Tracy Timms won a national cycling championship; she returns to Harvard Medical School this fall after taking two years off to race and do research. Daphne Karydas, M.B.A. '00, qualified for this year's national championships.

Allis is a short, bespectacled man with curly gray hair and a shaggy mustache who favors flannel shirts with suspenders and laughs often; he might be mistaken for Pinocchio's creator, Gepetto. Be not fooled: Allis is a three-time Olympian who rode for the United States in the 1964, 1968, and 1972 Games and is a member of the Cycling Hall of Fame. Even now, "John can ride away from us whenever he wants," says HUCA's adviser, Jeff Barneson, M.P.A. '95, a member of the United Ministry at Harvard. On one occasion, Tour de France veteran Tyler Hamilton took a training ride with the Harvard team and a few "young hotshots" from elsewhere rode along. "These guys were showing off for Hamilton so they started very fast and got way ahead of us," says Ed Sassler, who helps Allis coach the team. "But John noticed they were taking a wrong turn, so he went out and caught them to bring them back. They were quite startled to be overtaken by this fellow in his fifties. Those guys were a lot quieter the rest of the ride."

Harvard cyclist Brent Plater in mid race.

The cycling team begins training each fall and rides through the winter, sometimes with the wind-chill factor below zero. They also work indoors with weights and rollers to prepare for the spring season, eight weekends of races from late March into May. Weekday training rides begin at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and often wind through bosky suburban venues like Concord, Carlisle, and Weston, covering distances from 15 to 80 miles (that route takes the cyclists all the way to Harvard, Massachusetts). Twenty cyclists raced for Harvard this year, and as many as 30 might come on a training ride. The club welcomes both competitive and recreational bicyclists: members don't race unless they choose to.

Bicycle races range from 10 to 100 miles. Harvard's longest race this spring was a 72-mile course for the men's "A" race at West Point. Endurance clearly matters: "You need at least two hours to get a decent workout on a bicycle," says outgoing HUCA president Ross Fleischman '00. But skill is essential; each fall, Allis gives weekly clinics on topics like cornering, climbing, pedaling technique, and contact with other cyclists in the peloton, or pack of racers. Though the bicycles can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour on a downhill, speeds for long races typically average between 20 and 25 miles an hour; at that pace, "a lot of energy goes into overcoming wind resistance," says Drake, and drafting other riders becomes critical. "If you get off that slipstream, it's like hitting a wall," says Allis.

An early morning blur on Brattle Street.

Thus college races involve not only intrasquad teamwork but fragile coalitions of riders from, say, Harvard, Connecticut, Yale, and Williams, who rotate drafting each other in the pack; at the end, the coalition falls apart in a Hobbesian sprint for the finish line. In "breakaways," one or more riders break out of the pack and speed ahead in a new drafting clump, while teammates stay behind in the peloton and try to slow it down. If a rider wearies and is in danger of being "dropped" from the pack, a teammate may go to the front, ride slowly, and "try to gum it up a bit," says Barneson, so the other can keep up.

When a teammate is up the road in a breakaway and other strong riders want to give chase, another tactic is to block them from passing. "It can get a little bit physical, and there is a certain amount of risk," says Allis, who adds, laughing, "Certainly a risk of great unpleasantness!" Says Drake, "Riding right behind someone, another person's mistake can become your problem," who notes that bicycle races average one crash per 60 riders. After repeated experience with the abrasions that cyclists dismiss as "road rash," he says, "You realize that hitting the ground is not the huge, traumatic event that people imagine. Yes, you get bruised and scraped up at times. But usually, the bad accidents you hear about on bikes involve cars." "The biggest risk to cyclists," Barneson adds, "is SUVs, with drivers on their cell phones. They don't see you."

Coach John Allis kneels to instruct a team member on a finer point of cycling.

A less obvious hazard is the expense: new racing bicycles start at around $1,000 for a no-frills model, and expenses can easily mount from there; Barneson estimates that he has $5,000 invested in what he rides and wears on the road. HUCA has an annual budget of $10,000, largely for uniforms and travel expenses. Unlike varsity sports, club sports get minimal funding from Harvard (though the Undergraduate Council kicks in $1,000 for HUCA), and the association has no organized alumni supporters. The cyclists mostly pay their own way, although the club did get $4,000 from sponsors this year. Ace Wheelworks and Belmont Wheelworks, two bicycle shops of which Allis is co-owner, give team members discounts on parts. Cycling sponsorship can get whimsical: Elizabeth LeFavour, who owns Vintage, Etc., a Cambridge clothing store, and races bicycles herself, gave the team $300, then offered to double her donation if the cyclists would put a picture of André the Giant, the late pro wrestler and cult figure, on their uniforms. Hence, this season, André the Giant traveled on wheels.

With or without a giant on their backs, the Harvard cyclists continue flying up the road, into a future that can hold surprises: some of them started out barely able to ride a bike, yet won races a year later. There is probably only one sure bet. "Cycling has always been a club sport, and always will be," says Allis. "No university wants to send a bunch of kids out to play in traffic on their bikes!"   ~Craig Lambert

["Freewheeling at 50 M.P.H.," July-August 2000, Vol. 102, No. 6: pages 98-91]


A Sportive Spring


The softballers (19-21, 11-1 Ivy) tore through the Ivy competition to win the league title easily. Seven players made the all-Ivy team, and shortstop Deborah Abeles '00 was named Ivy League Player of the Year. But at the NCAA Regional Championships, Oklahoma and Northwestern overpowered the Crimson by 11-0 and 9-6, respectively.


The baseball team (18-25, 10-10 Ivy) relinquished its league title to Princeton this year. Catcher Brian Lentz '02 made the all-Ivy First Team.

Track and Field

JHJ-SportsBrenda Taylor
Brenda Taylor '01 (right) in action Harvard Sports Office photo

The Crimson women took third place while the men came in eighth at the Heptagonals. The NCAA Championships produced several outstanding individual performances. Senior Darren Dineen repeated as an all-American, finishing eighth in the 800-meter final with a personal record time of 1:47.35. Brenda Taylor '01 was another repeat all-American; she finished seventh in the 400-meter hurdles, having clocked a personal best of 57.25 seconds in an earlier heat. National indoor high-jump champion Dora Gyorffy '01 took second in the outdoor high jump with a 1.87 meter leap, finishing behind Erin Aldrich of Texas, who cleared 1.90. Junior Chris Clever grabbed fourteenth place in the javelin.


Sailors from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge meet in July in a four-way regatta at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, a competition for the inaugural Atlantic Cup. Each university will enter two Sonar yachts, each sailed by four people--the teams can include both women and men --in a variation on America's Cup-style racing. The Cambridge University Sailing Team, which organized the three-day regatta, hopes the event will find a corporate sponsor and become an annual affair, on alternate sides of the Atlantic.


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