After two laps on an Olympic-level cycling course, four riders separated themselves from the pack in the women’s road race event of the USA Cycling 2011 Collegiate Road Nationals last May in Madison, Wis.
And as the 72.2-mile race drew to a close, it was Harvard’s Anna McLoon ’04 (GSAS ’11) who pulled away with a gutsy win in 2:58:44, becoming the first cyclist in Crimson history to place first in this event.
“[The road race at Nationals] was really a race I’d been focusing on throughout the year of training,” McLoon said. “It gave me a great opportunity to bring back a national championship for Harvard.”
Of the 67 female cyclists that lined up for the non-interval start of the road race, three were Harvard athletes—McLoon, Eun Young Choi, and poobah Sophy Lee ’12. The course—which Lee describes as “very challenging”—features a gain of 8084 feet.
“The course had a pretty big hill, which was a major determiner in race,” McLoon said. “After the second time around course, a group of four of us [that were] contending for the win worked to get a several minute lead.”
McLoon’s eventual victory did not come as a huge surprise to many of her teammates, as the Harvard cyclist placed second in the 2009 national road race and was seeded to come out on top in 2010. But she missed her shot when she opted not to compete at Nationals when it conflicted with a semi-pro race.
“Bike racing is not just about how strong you are but about how smart you are in conserving your own energy,” McLoon said. “On the way up the hill during the final lap of the race, I broke away from...the other competitors to cross the finish line first.
“The three other women I was competing with [during the last lap] were friends of mine I’d rode with in the past,” she continued. “This time we were all representing our [respective] schools.”
Because cycling is a club sport, the rules allow graduate students to compete for their university on a national level, an opportunity not available on varsity teams.
“Anybody earning a degree at a degree-granting institution can race,” Lee said. “Grad students, undergraduates, PhD candidates...It just explodes the number of people that can compete together.”
McLoon—who also placed second in the overall omnium event at nationals last spring—was a multi-sport athlete as a Harvard undergraduate, earning a place at the NCAA Championships in Nordic skiing for four straight years and two years in crew.
“Both [skiing and crew] contributed to my aerobic fitness and strength in muscle groups used in cycling,” McLoon said. “Obviously fitness level is important, but what it really comes down to in cycling—and in sports—is the mental aspect, your determination and commitment.”
According to Lee, McLoon acted as a mentor for many other Harvard cyclists, helping novice riders learn the ropes on a team without a coach.
“She had a massive impact on the team, just by setting an example,” Lee said. “She’s a very high level cyclist. A lot of times, she had to train by herself because we can’t keep up with her, but Anna’s been a good influence.”
After a year of weekly meetings with McLoon, Lee—who started cycling as a college sophomore—qualified for nationals as a junior.
“Without her, I wouldn’t have improved as much as I did,” Lee said. “I was really inspired by her.”
McLoon wasn’t the only rider who fared well in Wisconsin this past year. Stuart McManus, another graduate student, placed third in the men’s division one road race.
“Stuart has been racing for at least 12 years,” Lee said. “He has a better sense of how tactically to win a race than almost anyone else in the United States. He’s an excellent climber, which helps a lot on a very mountainous course.
“Looking at the top 10 riders or so of both the men’s and women’s national championship races, these people could easily be pros,” she continued. “[It’s really amazing] if you take into consideration that they’re all full-time students.”
—Staff writer Catherine E. Coppinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.