Marion College cycling team works to keep its top rank
On I-69, under gloomy skies and stop-and-go traffic, the Marian College cycling team drives to East Lansing for the third weekend race of their road season. They’re packed in a 15-seat van filled with sports bags, wheels and high expectations. They bring along their multithousand-dollar bikes, Fig Newtons and techno CDs, as well as a rookie coach and nine national track championships.
The team is a quilt of personalities.
There are the two leaders: Dutch-born and Bloomington-raised Bennet van der Genugten, who rides with European flair, and Jon Royal, the peace activist and political scientist, who is always ready to dive into a political debate. The other men’s rider is new cyclist Jeff Carl, who is eager to soak up as much about the sport as possible from his teammates and coach.
On the women’s side, Los Angeles County, California-born and -bred Loren Sommerville and BMX professional Sierra Siebenlist ride for the Knights.
Rounding out the team is its first-year head coach and former Peace Corps volunteer, Dean Peterson.
Marian cycling shouldn’t need an introduction.
Since they won their first national track title in 1995, Indiana schools have won 19 NCAA Division I national titles, with Marian owning nine of them — their titles coming in 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006.
They are a dynasty — the Yankees of collegiate cycling.
They have sponsors, scholarships and hotel arrangements. Other cycling teams have zero to little coaching or administrative support and operate with student activity fees. Marian cycling is a varsity sport that races up to the Division I level, whereas most other teams are clubs and student-funded.
Mid-dynasty, Indianapolis’ most successful sporting team that no one knows about now faces a new challenge: rebuilding.
Fresh off a fall 2006 National Track Championship, the Marian cycling roster is down to only eight riders, a drop from the usual 12 or 15, and the team is unsure if they will qualify for the Cycling Collegiate Road Nationals in Lawrence, Kan., on May 10 — something that was never a problem in the past for former coach Ken Nowakowski.
Nowakowski, who left in the spring of 2006, came to Marian in 1994 and was a relentless and intense recruiter of talent who brought instant championship titles to the small Catholic college of 1,800 students located on Indianapolis’ Northside.
Peterson, 41, is a polar opposite to Nowakowski. He’s a humble educator and coach who would rather bring in athletes he can develop instead of those who might bring quick success.
His developmental coaching style comes from over a decade of experience as a middle school English teacher at the Orchard School and a two-and-a-half-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa.
His focus as a Peace Corps volunteer was to teach locals how to repair bicycles and implement programs that brought in bikes for the people of West Africa.
“My efforts have somehow always been connected around a bicycle,” Peterson says. “It seems to be a metaphor for how my life works.”
His new effort as a cycling coach has already brought Peterson several challenges.
The team Peterson inherited in the fall track season of 2006 had not won a national track championship in two years. There was leftover tension from Nowakowski’s departure and Peterson was feeling the pressure.
“Any time a school has won eight national championships, and hasn’t won one in two years, it feels like everyone is watching you,” Peterson says.
The additional pressure of trying to win over the cyclists from the Nowakowski era was equally difficult.
No matter the difficulty of the transition, the team’s results were not affected. Peterson inherited veteran riders and was able to sign former Indiana University rider Bennet van der Genugten a week before Marian began its fall classes, en route to beating Indiana University and Penn State for a ninth national track title.
“We had enough unique talent to be a good team — a deep team,” Peterson says.
However, after the track season ended, cyclists graduated and some moved on, leaving the team with only six male and two female riders, of which only five race on a regular basis.
The team is now in a regrouping stage where they are fighting for points to qualify for the road national race. Marian cycling has never won a road national championship. In order for a team to qualify for the national race, they have to be in the top five in point standings in their Mid West Collegiate Cycling Conference. Currently, they are in 11th place out of 37 teams, and most of their points come from only two riders, Royal and van der Genugten, who race on the A Level. In collegiate cycling, there are four group levels of racing. D is the lowest and A the highest. The A riders compete on tougher courses and race longer (about 60-70 miles) than the other groups.
Marian has four riders riding in Level A, including Royal and van der Genugten, but these two have been the only consistent riders to pump out points for the Marian Knights. Although Jeff Carl will contribute some points on the B Level, and Sierra Siebenlist and Loren Sommerville will do the same on the women’s B Level, Marian will rely on Royal and van der Genugten to take them to the national race.
“We’re going to be fighting tooth and nails for it,” Peterson says.
Sometimes, however, it’s not about the number of riders, but the quality, van der Genugten says.
“We lost a lot of riders and I realized that that was going to be the case. But when I was at IU, it was so often the case that it was only two or three guys [racing for points] anyway. Once we get to the start line, it’s not that much different,” van der Genugten says.
Royal and van der Genugten proved that point at the Michigan University meet on Sunday, March 25. They led the peloton (i.e., the main group of riders) along the hilly roads during the entire race and, in the last lap, van der Genugten sprinted across the finish line for first place with Royal following in fifth. Their two finishes, along with a top 10 and 15 finish for Carl and Siebenlist in the B races, garnered enough points to finish sixth in the event, ahead of 17 teams with significantly larger rosters.
Sophomore Jeff Carl’s journey from Level D racing to Level A does not come without its obstacles. In the B race at Michigan State, Carl was troubled by a bad start and cross winds, which forced him to drop out of a race for the first time in his career.
Carl, who leaped from Level D to B in just one year, is frustrated and quick to seek advice from his teammates. The veteran van der Genugten reassures Carl that he made the right decision to not finish the race. Producing the energy to finish a lost race would be all for naught, van der Genugten assured him.
“Jeff’s a quiet observer,” Peterson says. “He takes things in and applies what he sees.”
The following afternoon at the University of Michigan, Carl bounces back. He positions himself in the lead group throughout the race and rides across the finish line barely two seconds behind the winner, in 10th place — one of his strongest finishes this season.
A few years ago, Carl may not have had a place on Marian’s cycling team. He wouldn’t have been talented enough. But under Peterson’s coaching system, Carl will have the chance to develop as a rider.
“Dean is really good at making it more of a developmental program,” Carl says.
One of Peterson’s goals as a coach is to develop the rider not only competitively, but also academically and socially — and take chances on non-traditional riders.
For example, one of his top female signees is Abby Nicks from Noblesville, who is training for the Olympics in speed skating.
“We want to recruit the best riders, but we also want to recruit new riders and be known as a college that includes new riders into the sport,” Peterson says. “The system is built for swimmers and runners, too. I believe that collegiate cycling can be the future for producing professional riders.”
Peterson says having more riders and developing them gives him a cushion during competition. For instance, Sommerville, who is a better track cyclist, and Siebenlist, whose BMX background includes no road experience, are steady riders on the B Level who contribute minimal points during races. With more riders, Peterson does not have to rely on Sommerville and Siebenlist to produce points for the team, but can focus on building their confidence and ability levels.
Under Peterson’s new approach, his riders are comfortable.
“Dean is the kind of guy people like to rally behind. He’s a super nice person and he’s a good rider so people respect that,” van der Genugten says. Peterson has been racing for 24 years and is a Category One professional rider. “When we get these 10 new kids or whatever, I think he’ll make some good racers out of them.”
Peterson hopes his approach to developing riders will result in the school’s first ever road cycling title.
“The real goal is three years from now to have a road championship team, and that puts the ball in the recruiting court,” Peterson says.
It’s a lifestyle
“I see cycling as more of a lifestyle than a sport,” Royal says. “It’s a different mode of transportation, a philosophy of life, a way of living. It’s environmentally friendly; it’s healthy; it’s everything you could possibly want and it’s so much fun.”
It’s a lifestyle that can be painful, too.
“It’s so damn hard that you can’t really fake it,” van der Genugten says. “There’s no one else to blame. At the end of the day, it’s a mental test. It’s brutally painful and a lot of people can’t do it.”
As Royal says, “The truth comes out on the road.”
On the road, the cyclists pedal 20-25 miles per hour for an hour, maneuvering in the peloton, fighting crosswinds and burning 3,000 calories. A sport can’t get much more difficult than cycling.
Racing the Tour de France’s 26 stages, for example, is equivalent to running a marathon every day for three weeks.
The most difficult sport can also be the most expensive.
The bicycles and gear provided by Marian’s sponsors can add up to more than one person’s annual salary. Unlike other teams, Marian cyclers don’t worry about finances.
“[Dean’s] gotten a lot of sponsors, which is really nice. He’s brought in a lot of companies that are really doing a lot for us. This is a really expensive sport and we have bikes that are $3,000 or $4,000 — that’s ridiculous when you’re in college,” Royal says. “You take a lot for granted at Marian. You see the way other teams ride with just students running … They’re living on dirt, staying at the crappiest motel out there, trying to scrape by and at some points, it’s like, ‘Why do I deserve this over the other guys?’”
The other guys are the ones who drive themselves to the meets and pay their own entry fees. Sometimes their uniforms consist only of a black shirt with their school’s acronyms pinned on with duct tape, while others simply wear jean shorts and a T-shirt to the race.
During the Michigan State race on Saturday, March 24, students taped up a small, forlorn sign that simply read, “bike race” with an arrow pointing in the right direction. On the course’s muddy rode another read, “Caution, stay left. Roads are bumpy.” The ink was too light and the sign too small to read. But according to Peterson, that’s what the sport is all about.
They represent the grass-roots culture that makes collegiate cycling unique.
So when the Marian cycling team rolls out in their Nike uniforms and Zipp wheels, it’s easy for animosity to creep in.
“There has been [animosity] in the past,” Peterson says. “There’s an opportunity in front of us to show programs that you can do what we are doing and maintain that grass-roots appeal.”
Building a new future
Back on I-69 under the grey weather and spitting rain, Sommerville and Siebenlist try to sleep in the back of the 15-seater van, while van der Genugten and Royal give directions to the driver and bob their heads to a techno and Megadeath mixed CD titled, “Hide your daughters and grandmothers — Marian Cycling.”
Peterson drives behind the van with Carl, following the sponsor-laden bikes and equipment.
It’s the new face of Marian cycling: The most talented riders relentlessly leading the way up front, while the riders in the middle wait to be awakened and their talent tapped. Bringing up the rear is the program’s foundation: eager, developing riders like Carl who rely on Peterson to put it all together.
No matter where they are in line, they’re all headed in the same direction.
Editors Note: NUVO was a sponsor for the NCAA Track Nationals at the Major Taylor Velodrome last year, where Marian College was the host school.
Education: Butler University, M.S. in education administration; Purdue University, B.S. in organizational leadership
Family: Shari, wife; children: Sam, 12; Noelle, 9
Cycling history: Silver medalist at the Pan American Masters Cycling Championships in 1991; VeloSport Vacations guide for bicycle tours during the Tour de France; owner of coaching consulting firm DAPGEAR
For two and a half years, Dean Peterson was known as Gao Gondii Bintienapou.
In Togo, West Africa, Marian College cycling coach Dean Peterson was a Peace Corps volunteer, after graduating from Purdue University in 1988.
The villagers named him Gao, meaning great hunter, because great hunters must have beards, and Gondii, meaning eldest son, because they assumed with his beard, Peterson was the oldest son. Bintienapou referenced the location of his hut in the small village of 500 people.
He was so revered by the village’s king that he offered Peterson his daughter in marriage. Peterson said the offer was a sign of respect for him and the king’s daughter, because the king knew Peterson would be able to provide for her. When Peterson turned down his offer, he said the k"