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Marian University’s cycling program is building better riders — and people

  • By Robert Annis
  • Published Mar. 12, 2014
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 5:35 PM EST

Marian University’s 120-acre campus is a fairly small dot on most Indianapolis maps. Many of the city’s residents probably don’t know about the college, let alone its amazing cycling pedigree.

Under the watchful eye of head coach Dean Peterson and former coach Ken Nowakowski, this 1,800-student Catholic university has become the preeminent collegiate cycling powerhouse in the United States, winning more than 20 team national titles across the road, track, and cyclocross disciplines over the last two decades.

Peterson has assembled a group of young riders that would make many a sport director drool. Marian cyclists, including as Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), David Williams (5-hour Energy-Kenda), and Adam Leibovitz (Champion System-Stan’s NoTubes), are finding success in the pro peloton both during and after their time at the school. Two young riders — incoming freshman Logan Owen and Felicia Stancil — have already won multiple national or world championships.

“It’s a great school offering a great education and a great cycling team,” Owen said. “It’s cool to see a college invest the money and effort into cycling that Marian has. You see colleges do it for football or basketball, but never cycling.”

Junior Coryn Rivera, who also rides professionally for the UnitedHealthcare women’s team, believes the collegiate ranks are particularly beneficial for young female athletes who don’t have the benefit of competing in the under-23 ranks. Getting high-profile male athletes to commit to a collegiate program has been a little more daunting, but the commitment by Owen, a top-five finisher in the road and cyclocross worlds for junior men in 2013, could mark a shift.

“Going to college didn’t hinder my development as a cyclist at all,” said Marian graduate and pro rider Rob Bush. “College helped me round out my life, whereas a lot of guys I raced with who didn’t go are more … one-dimensional. They only cared about racing their bikes and ended up burned out or really unhappy.”

Bush jokingly claims Marian’s training facilities are better than the national teams he’s ridden for. The school operates the neighboring Major Taylor Velodrome for the city of Indianapolis, as well as a state-of-the-art Computrainer facility that’s also open to the public. (Fees from non-university users are fed back into the cycling program.) Peterson was reluctant to discuss budget specifics, but admitted the school gives few full-ride athletic scholarships; academic scholarships supplement the private college’s tuition costs.

Juggling collegiate and professional commitments can be tricky, riders and coaches freely admit. Peterson consults with his pro riders’ trade teams as he formulates their training and race schedules at the beginning of each season, keeping the teams updated as the year progresses.

Those same trade teams will also come to Peterson looking for new riders to sign. Favorable recommendations from Peterson and Rivera recently led the Twenty16 women’s team to sign senior Allie Dragoo.

“Allie’s come a long way over the last two years,” Rivera said. “She’s lost a ton of weight and gotten a lot more serious about training. I introduced her to [Twenty16 manager Nicola Cranmer], who ended up signing her.”

Dragoo quickly repaid their confidence by finishing just off the overall podium at the Valley of the Sun stage race last month.

Building a winning cycling program is only a small part of what the soft-spoken Peterson wants to accomplish. A teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, Peterson hopes to mold his driven charges into more diverse human beings. Part of that is giving the riders a traditional college experience.

Although the university prides itself on the cycling team, riders are able to attend class almost anonymously.

“The kids live the life of a typical college student,” Peterson said. “I’m sure there’s a few of Coryn’s friends who don’t realize she’s a 50-time national champion.”

Peterson stresses academics before athletics, but Marian professors do make some accommodations to their globetrotting students. When Rivera is overseas, she frequently Skypes into classes and spends her time between races doing her marketing homework. The students interviewed stressed that this isn’t routine for all Marian cyclists.

“I built up a lot of trust with my professors,” Bush said. “At the beginning of each semester I shared my schedule with my teachers, so they knew early on where I’d be. During my last semester at Marian, I missed seven weeks of class, but I was still able to do well in my classes because I was putting in the work.”

Every incoming freshman is paired with an older student-mentor throughout the first year. Peterson admits that a few students have been initially overwhelmed by the “social influences and possibilities that exist just down their dorm hall.”

“(Some students) didn’t realize just how micro-managed their life was until they came to college,” Peterson said.

Recruited by Peterson in 2008, Bush eyed a pro career, but wanted to continue his studies. During his time at Marian, he not only helped power the team to several national championships, including its first road victory in 2010, but he also found time to ride for trade teams, including Kenda and Garmin’s developmental squad. Bush rode for French squad VeloClub La Pomme Marseilles in 2013 after Garmin’s developmental team dissolved, afterward effectively retiring from the sport. He credits Peterson with helping him with that transition.

“At the end of the day, I felt I wasn’t doing something meaningful with my life or helping other people,” Bush said. “Dean’s coaching helped me achieve my goals in cycling, but we also had hours-long conversations about his time in the Peace Corps, the large number of marginalized people in the world and what we can do about it. That’s what I want to do with my life.”

Peterson couldn’t be more proud of Bush or the dozens of other racers who graduated from the program.

“We want to set each rider up for success, no matter what level they’re riding at,” Peterson said. “It’s up to the individual student to determine how much hard work they’re going to devote to the program. At the end of their four years here, I’m confident that any one of our kids will be able to accomplish anything in the real world and still be able to rip your legs off on the bike.

“I want (our athletes) to have experienced something special, something they can use to build a better life, even more so than a national championship … things like hard work and teamwork. I’m proud of everything we’re doing here; I’ll always treasure being a part of it.”

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