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 king was in tears.
“Within that culture, it was a super respectful thing to do,” Peterson says.
In Togo he lived with no electricity or running water, contracted malaria five times and came away with a different and simpler way to lead his life.
He tried to emulate the simple lifestyle he learned in Togo when he moved back to Indianapolis. However, he had a difficult time adjusting and decided to live in the red caboose on Monon Trail, because, “It was the closest thing I could find to a mud hut.”
Bennet van der Genugten
Age: 22, junior
Hometown: Bloomington, Ind.
For Bennet van der Genugten, it’s never too early to listen to techno music — even at 6:30 in the morning, riding from East Lansing to Ann Arbor for a race. However, this raucous tendency has a practical motivation.
“I’m trying to get the team hooked so we can be pumped before races listening to that stuff together,” van der Genugten says, who was introduced to techno by his Belgian cousins who compose it.
Van der Genugten and his two brothers were born in the Netherlands, but grew up in Bloomington, Ind.
“I don’t have any real strong emotional ties to being a Dutch guy,” van der Genugten says. “I go back and visit every once in a while with the Dutchies.”
After high school, van der Genugten spent half a year with his cousins in Breda, Netherlands, where he raced before moving to warmer weather in Greece to race during the winter season. He returned to Bloomington for a while, but was quick to head back to Europe and race in Belgium for another six months.
“My experience has been racing with European guys. Those guys over there are such rock stars. They all dress like rock stars,” van der Genugten says. “Every time you’re behind a German guy he’s wearing cologne. They have their hair gelled up and spray cologne on top — it’s like they bathe in that stuff. You just don’t see that here.”
One way van der Genugten is trying to incorporate the European flair into Marian cycling — other than through his chrome sunglasses — is through techno, but for now, it has been to no avail.
“Everyone just calls me names and stuff. They’re little techno haters.”
Age: 21, junior
Major: Graphic design
Hometown: Norwalk, Calif.
Packed in Loren Sommerville’s 5-foot frame is an ode to Hollywood — a fast talker, hip dresser and club-goer. Sommerville grew up in Los Angeles County, fishing in the ocean with her father and watching her mother work in the L.A. fashion industry.
Her mother, who makes clothing patterns and is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in L.A., sparked an interest in the arts for Sommerville.
“She had always been a really good artist and is into the fashion industry. That was always around me when I was growing up. I loved it,” Sommerville says.
Sommerville says she chose graphic design because of a high school teacher who introduced her to contemporary art, and also because of how graphic design manifests itself in different places.
“In graphic design, there’s so many different styles that you’ll learn from being in a different part of the country. Here it’s kind of a laid-back style and in L.A. it’s crazy and Hollywood,” Sommerville says.
Moving from Hollywood to Indianapolis was tough for Sommerville, although she always knew she would attend college far away from home.
“It was a big change. I’m really close to my family. Me and my sister [Megan, 18] are best friends and she’s coming [to Marian] next year to ride,” Sommerville says. “It’s so hard for me to be in Indiana and not have the ocean.”
Age: 21, senior
Major: Sociology and political science with emphasis on peace and justice
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.
The next time you are at an anti-war rally, look for Jon Royal — one hand on the bike, the other waving a “War is not the answer” poster.
“Any anti-war stuff, any leftist social movement that’s going on, I’m part of it,” Royal says.
Royal — the socially conscious vegetarian and political scientist of Marian’s cycling team — is involved with the Dorothy Day House on Marian’s campus, which promotes a peaceful, hospitable and non-violent way of life. During his off-time, he organizes events to raise awareness for social issues in the Day House.
Royal was first drawn to social justice in a sociology class during his freshman year of college.
“It was the first time I opened my eyes to the blatant inequality — especially coming from a white, suburban kid growing up thinking everyone had what I had — and I saw the real world,” Royal recalls. “I guess that sometimes happens in college — it’s your awakening period or whatever. I got really motivated by it — the idea of helping other people. It just seems really ridiculous to me that people can’t live equitably ... I want to change it.”
He says after he graduates in May, he wants to take at least a year off and organize activism campaigns in Milwaukee, Wis., where his girlfriend, also a cyclist, goes to school. He eventually wants to go to graduate school and become a professor.
In the meantime, Royal can usually be seen at the corner of Illinois and Washington streets every last Friday of the month, protesting and advancing the cycling lifestyle through a ride downtown as part of the Indiana Critical Mass ride to promote an alternative means of transportation.
Age: 19, sophomore
Major: Management information systems
Hometown: New Palestine, Ind.
Jeff Carl barely has time to focus on his hobby — technology — let alone his girlfriend, in his quest to move up to Level A racing.
“Technology is kind of my other vice, but other than that, cycling takes a big chunk [of my time],” Carl says.
Carl just bought a new Mac and always has the newest cell phones.
“Anything new. I just try to stay on top of things like that to keep me interested.”
Carl, who hopes to be a Web programmer, can only focus so much time on his hobby because of his unique situation as a cyclist. He’s been riding a bike his entire life, but didn’t compete until the second semester of his freshman year.
Competing on the collegiate level with little to no experience means Carl had to train extensively and on a daily basis during the off and regular seasons. In his first cycling race, he realized how much progress he needed to move up in levels.
“The first race I ever did, I don’t think I got dead last, but I was definitely not finishing with the group,” Carl says.
Carl hit the training regimen hard and jumped from the D Level (the lowest competitive level in collegiate racing) to the B Level this season. His plans are to win a B race before moving up to Level A by season’s end — completing his rise from the bottom to the top.
Once he reaches the A Level, his training won’t stop.
“Next year it will be the same hours, but I’ll be doing it that much faster.”
Hopefully, that much faster to give him time to buy a new cell phone or maybe even hang out with his girlfriend.
Age: 20, sophomore
Major: Elementary education
Hometown: Indianola, Iowa
Sierra Siebenlist would rather ride in the dirt.
Siebenlist, who started riding BMX at the age of 14, chose BMX riding to separate herself from her sister, Kristin, who was also a national track champion at Marian College.
“BMX was kind of my thing and then she did road and everything else. She had her thing and I had my thing,” Siebenlist says.
Riding bikes is a family affair for the Siebenlists. Her mother competed in BMX in high school and her father also caught the cycling bug after meeting Siebenlist’ mother. They would spend the weekends together traveling across Iowa, their home state, and the country, competing in state and national races.
“It was definitely a lot different from a lot of other families. We were always off riding bikes; always gone on the weekends. I remember in high school I had a lot of friends, but I didn’t really hang out with them because I was always busy riding,” Siebenlist says.
Siebenlist doesn’t get as much time to train for BMX as she did in high school, but still competes professionally in the 19-year-old and over Elite category. When she does compete in smaller BMX series, she usually places well enough to bring home a couple hundred bucks.
Even though her main focus is now on road racing, riding in the dirt will always be cooler.
“In the beginning, I was kind of a tom boy. It was so cool to me. I was like, ‘I want to do that so bad,’” Siebenlist says. “My parents would take me to the bike shows and they’d have demos of the BMXers so I was just always like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Marian Cycling Training Center
Marian College will open an indoor cycling training center for its students and cycling team in the fall. The center, which was built with fund-raising money, will be located behind St. Francis Hall.
The Marian Cycling Training Center will be a hub for the cycling team and Marian’s students. Cycling coach Dean Peterson says he hopes to use it as a recruitment tool, as well as a place to promote a healthy lifestyle.
“I think one of the things we’re trying to figure out the recipe for is how to create an understanding of cycling,” Peterson says. “This is a country that has a great amount of physical issues related to obesity and exercise. We need these kind of sports.”
The center will feature state-of-the-art equipment that can simulate rides, measure physical output and analyze pedaling efficiency, among other things.
The center will host spinning classes for Marian students and faculty, and Peterson also said he hopes the center will eventually be open to the public.
Marian College Midwest Cycling
Come check out the Marian College cycling team when they host the 11th Annual Marian College Midwest Cycling Classic sponsored by Matthews Bicycles on Saturday, April 14. The first race starts at 11:30 a.m. The women’s and men’s A races start at 2:45 p.m. and 3:45 p.m., respectively. A sneak peek of the new Marian Cycling Training Center will start at 11 a.m. before the race.