Indianapolis has long been known as the "racing capital of the world," but the newest crop of competitors has a slightly different engine than most local fans are used to seeing — legs.
Led by U.S. National Criterium champion Eric Young, more than a dozen cyclists with Indiana ties are pedaling into the limelight of the professional ranks and serving as inspiration to an even younger group of talented riders.
"Central Indiana cycling is as vigorous and engaged as it ever was," local coach John Singleton says. "There are tons of racing options nearly every weekend. With the explosion of cyclocross and its season extending into late fall, it keeps competitive cycling in the forefront of people's minds nearly year round."
"Indy's always had a really good cycling culture," local team leader Declan Doyle says. "There's a lot of talented young guys who are gaining knowledge and support from the older riders."
Much of the credit for Central Indiana's emergence has to go to collegiate cycling powerhouse Marian University and coach Dean Peterson.
Marian, a 17-time national collegiate cycling champion, not only recruited elite racers like Wisconsin's Katie Antonneau and California's Coryn Rivera, the university continues to develop talented local riders such as Josh Johnson and Weston Luzadder.
"Marian has elevated local cycling," Doyle says. "Not only do they recruit top local riders to race for them, they bring in top riders from across the country. When they race locally, everyone wants to beat them."
Peterson estimates at least eight of his current or former riders have signed with pro teams in the past few years, including Adam Leibovitz, who is now racing in Europe with Chipotle-First Solar, a feeder squad to top pro team Garmin-Barracuda.
"A certain percentage of our riders are already on that pro level," Peterson says. "About 30 percent of the remaining riders aspire to become pros. But only 20 percent of those riders make it — the rest become good, high-end amateur racers."
Even the racers who do make it are faced with difficulties, Peterson says. Most budding pros make only $1,000-$5,000 during their first contract.
"They're going to have to work really hard to get past those starter wages," Peterson says. "Many decide it's simply not worth it. That's a pretty heavy decision to make — that your dreams aren't economically feasible."
Major Taylor Velodrome
Marian also has reinvigorated the long-neglected Major Taylor Velodrome. Marian took over operation of the track and surrounding Lake Sullivan Sports Complex last May, a month after reaching a 15-year agreement with the city of Indianapolis. Built in 1982, when the city played host to the National Sports Festival, the Velodrome fell into disrepair over the years as the city didn't spend the money on proper upkeep. But Marian, the primary user of the complex, saw a diamond in the rough.
Marian will make up to $2 million in improvements to the 41-acre complex now being referred to as the Indy Cycloplex. Student and community volunteers have already spent more than 3,500 man-hours repairing and upgrading the facility. Officials plan to reconstruct the long-neglected BMX park, create a permanent cyclocross course and lay out a new criterium course.
The college's efforts have sparked a renewed interest in track racing, with potentially record numbers of riders competing when racing starts again in the coming weeks.
Revard emerging from junior ranks
The number of junior racers has dropped in the past year or two, but what the current crop of teen racers lack in quantity, it makes up for in quality.
Singleton coaches Thomas Revard, a 14-year-old Carmel wunderkind who won his second state time-trial cycling championship last year and hopes to compete in — and win — the junior national road race and track championships this summer.
Revard is poised to be one of the next great young Hoosier racers — assuming, of course, he stays on track. Barely into his teens, Revard is approaching an age when many young athletes either burn out or lose interest in their younger passions.
"He's a talented 14-year-old cyclist, and if we're lucky, he'll be a talented 15-year-old or 16 year-old cyclist," Singleton says. "When you're Thomas' age, you're much less stable emotionally and mentally — you're constantly being exposed to all sorts of new things. You can't predict how his future is going to pan out quite yet."
But for his part, Revard seems driven. He has been riding bikes since he was 3, and competed in his first race in 2009, coming in second. He won the same race the following year, one in a growing list of victories for the young rider.
"Adrenaline was pumping through my brain, and I realized I got to keep doing this," Revard says. "The next year I came back and got first. As I started getting better, I started dreaming about going pro. ... I wanted to be like Lance (Armstrong).
"I'm a really competitive person. I love to win. I love that taste of victory at the end of a race. ... That's what I strive for."
Revard estimates he has competed in at least 30 races and has won or been on the podium in all but a few. Two years ago, he started participating in the notorious Smokey Row ride in Carmel, where he now manages to keep pace with some of the fastest riders in the area.
The Creekside Middle School eighth grader is already competing with adults more than twice his age, and as his 6-foot, 120-pound frame continues to mature, he'll only get faster. He's also a gifted runner, a sport his parents and coach don't want him to give up quite yet.
He knows he has a long way to go before he's able to reach his dream, but he says he is willing to make any needed sacrifices to make the leap.
"I'm going to do what I need to to be the best," he says.
When it comes to the best local cyclists, most racers point to Young, a Bissell Pro Cycling rider. Young is a bit of an anomaly because he didn't take up cycling until he was a freshman at Indiana University, when he joined the Cutters Little 500 team. He quickly discovered an affinity for the bike. He started as a Category 5 racer — the lowest racing category — his freshman year. As he began winning races, he was quickly upgraded to the more challenging race categories.
Singleton was awestruck the first time he saw Young compete at the velodrome.
"You could tell right away he was special," Singleton says. "The way he sat on the bike, the way he spun his legs. ... The track helps you develop tactical sense, but no tactic could prevent him just riding off the front of the pack.
"When I saw Weston [Luzadder] for the first time, I thought, 'Oh, he's pretty good.' But when I saw Eric, my jaw dropped."
By his senior year, Young was racing pro-level events as an elite amateur, and placed high enough at the Tour of Elk Grove in Illinois and Superweek events to attract attention from pro teams. Bissell was the most aggressive suitor. The only thing keeping Young from turning professional was, ironically, the Little 500. Rules prevented pro riders from participating in the event. After Young's team won that race, he soon joined the professional ranks and instantly began winning criteriums across the country.
His biggest highlight came in August, when he won his first stars-and-stripes jersey after scoring a victory at the U.S. Pro Criterium Championships in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"We'd won a few races right before the event, so we had some momentum coming into it," Young says. "It was a big goal for us (Bissell's main sponsor is located in Grand Rapids). The weather was crazy; it rained for about three-quarters of the race, and it got so bad they actually had to stop the race with just a few laps to go. They restarted it about an hour later. The team worked well, and I managed to stay up front, winning the final sprint against a Jelly Belly rider.
"A lot of people didn't really know who I was, but the team knew I was fast and that I could win if things fell into place and I got help from my teammates. People try for 10 years to win this race, but I won it in my first try."
Young's huge win now sets the tone for his career, raising his and his team's expectations.
"If I hadn't won that race, I would've been perfectly happy with my season," Young says. "But it's really opened my eyes to my potential and what I can do. ... I'd love to get to Europe one day and race at the highest level, but right now, that's just a general goal and I don't have a route planned out yet (to achieve it). Right now, I'm concentrating on winning the most and the biggest races I'm sent to."
Young seems pleased his current and future success reflects back onto Hoosier and Midwest cycling.
"Few of us really get that recognition," Young says. "Hopefully (my success) draws more pro teams to the Midwest and helps promote more local guys into the pro ranks.
"People are often surprised about my background. Winters are hard in the Midwest, the weather's horrible. ... But people love to race, so you have races everywhere and you can race a lot. You only have to drive a few hours away, where in other parts of the country, amateur races are more spread out."
Bissell ABG NUVO
Young's success has already helped other local amateurs who aspire to join him at the pro level. Less than a year after Young joined the pro team, Bissell partnered with two existing elite amateur cycling teams to form the Bissell ABG NUVO squad. The new team is a feeder squad to Bissell's domestic pro team, much like Carmel native Leibovitz's Chipotle-First Solar team or Marian rider Adler Martz's BMC-Hincapie Sportswear developmental cycling teams, but with a much smaller budget.
Doyle, the Bissell ABG NUVO team leader, says up to three riders will be brought up to the pro ranks in June.
"We want to see how guys step up (between now and then)," Doyle says. "We want our guys to do some big races, including elite nationals in Georgia, and see how they do."
Doyle, a Marian graduate, has recruited several of the school's top riders to be on the team.
"We feel Midwest riders don't get the exposure other riders from the east and west coasts do," Doyle says. "We want to give back to the Midwest scene and help these guys achieve (their professional goals)."
Doyle is critical of the current system — "A lot of it's who you know, so you see a lot of riders from California and Colorado," he says — but he hopes as more local riders work their way onto pro rosters, it will force the big-name teams to look closer at Midwestern riders.
Their hard work seems to be paying off. Bissell ABG NUVO recently swept the podium finishes in the Pro/Cat 1/2 at a rainy and difficult Hillsboro Roubaix race in Illinois, besting more than 70 other elite-level riders.
Young isn't the only local rider to get a late start. Rebecca Zink was in her late 20s when she began racing, and after a breakthrough season last year, Zink is seeking sponsorship to further her mountain-bike racing. She worries that now at 30, her window may be rapidly closing.
"Having Marian in the city, with all those fast and gifted racers, some of whom aren't even 20 yet, puts those dreams (of going pro) in check," Zink says.
But Zink's no slouch. She won state championships in the short track and Super-D mountain-bike disciplines in 2011, as well as on the road and in cyclocross. She also won a national mountain-biking championship, and ended the year as the top-ranked Category 2 female mountain biker in the country.
Despite her success, Zink, who rides for A Cycling Team on the road and mountain bike, knows she still has a long way to go to reach her ambitions. She's currently sponsored for the cyclocross season by Shamrock Cycles, a local custom steel-bike builder. Local professional endurance rider Sally Marchand Collins is serving as her mentor, offering advice on racing and life. Collins, who is sponsored by the Pivot brand of mountain bikes, was also in her 30s when she turned pro.
Even if Zink does eventually make it to the pro ranks, she acknowledges it's highly doubtful that will be her full-time job. Collins, who once finished on the podium of a world championship event, works full time. Fortunately, she owns the Sundance Salon in Zionsville and can set her own hours.
"Right now it's a fitness question — how fast can a person get as they continue to age?" Zink says. "I'd like to think I'm not close to my limit yet. I look at the women who are faster than me now, and it gives me hope that I can continue to improve and get better."
Eric Young, Bissell Pro Cycling — The 2011 U.S. Pro Criterium national champion, Young has won more than a half-dozen races since turning pro last year. He'll be looking to repeat his national championship win July 28 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Weston Luzadder, Bissell ABG NUVO — The multi-talented Marian University student competes — and consistently wins — in a variety of disciplines, including road, track and cyclocross.
Adam Leibovitz, Chipotle-First Solar — Leibovitz recently left Marian to follow his dream of competing in Europe. He's racing for the developmental squad for top pro team Garmin-Barracuda.
Ryan Knapp, Panther p/b Competitive Cyclist/Bob's Red Mill — Knapp spends his springs and summers pounding the road for the elite Panther racing team, but truly shines in the fall, when cyclocross season starts. A consistent top-10 finisher on the domestic CX circuit, Knapp has traveled to Belgium the last two winters to compete against the most hardened cross racers in the world.
Mike Sherer, Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies — The Illinois native and IU graduate is a force on the domestic pro scene.
Josh Johnson, Bissell ABG NUVO — The Marian rider not only is a monster on the mountain bike and cyclocross scene, but he's podium candidate for most road races as well.
Neal Forbes, Bissell ABG NUVO — The 20-year-old Columbus, Ind., native splits his time between Marian and the Bissell feeder squad. He has won several juniors races and took the victory in last year's second cyclocross race at the Major Taylor Velodrome.
Alex Wieseler, Bissell ABG NUVO — The multiple collegiate cycling national champion is on the top step of the podium so often it's a wonder he doesn't get altitude sickness. He's a threat to win any race he enters.
Kevin Depasse, Bissell ABG NUVO — The IU grad and Little 500 winner scored a big victory when he won the Category 3 race at Superweek in Milwaukee last year.
Jake Rytlewski — He has competed in almost every major cycling event in the country, including the Tours of California and Utah. He recently moved from the Kenda pro squad to the elite Astellas Oncology Cycling team, and his success continues. He scored a podium spot on April 14 in the pro/am Tour of Battenkill in Cambridge, N.Y.
Chad Burdzilauskas, Texas Roadhouse — Another former pro rider for Kenda, Burdzilauskas now dominates for the elite Texas Roadhouse team, capable of winning almost any race he enters. If you find yourself on a local group ride with him, be prepared to suffer.
David Williams, Competitive Cyclist — Yet another former Marian rider, Williams recently moved from Bissell to the Competitive Cyclist squad. He recently won the Pro/1/2 race at the Midwest Classic, beating several of his local cotemporaries.
Sally Marchand Collins, Sundance Salon — The smiling, pint-sized firecracker is a familiar face on endurance mountain-biking podiums across the country. She placed third at the 2007 24 Hours of Adrenalin World Championships in California and was second in the brutal 2010 24 Hours of Leadville race in Colorado.