Jeff Metcalfe, Arizona Republic Published 8:00 a.m. MT June 20, 2020
Corben Sharrah of Tucson and Chloe Woodruff of Prescott were U.S. cycling Olympians in 2016 and are contenders again for Tokyo in 2021.
Sharrah, 28, is No. 4 in world BMX racing rankings and Woodruff, 33, is No. 13 in mountain bike, both cycling disciplines popular in Arizona.
Track cycling is different. The closest velodrome to Arizona requires a six-hour driveto Carson, Calif., which doesn’t lend itself to even a basic understanding of the sport, much less aspiring to be an Olympian in it.
But of the seven endurance riders eligible to make the U.S. Olympic track cycling team, one is an Arizona native who grew up in Gilbert.
Christina Birch recently was named to the USA Cycling women’s track long team off which five cyclists will be chosen to compete in team pursuit, Omnium and Madison events at Tokyo next summer.
“It is just a step, obviously a critical step,” Birch said. “You have to be on the long team to make the short team. It’s good validation and good momentum to have made it this far. My goal has always been to get as fast I possibly can and go as far as I can then in a more tangible way to go to the Olympics and win a medal, not just participate.”
Another Arizonan, 22-year-old Brandon McNulty of Phoenix is on the long team for men’s road cycling.
What Birch has accomplished in eight years since first getting a taste of track cycling is close to gold-medal worthy. She dabbled with triathlon while attending the University of Arizona (after running cross country at Gilbert High School) but didn’t gravitate to cycling until 2009 while doing post-graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Birch started in cyclocross, where riders compete over a variety of terrain and obstacles, with track work in New Hampshire for cross training.
“I had a team director for a road team I was on look at my power numbers and the way I rode,” she said. His advice: ‘You ride like a pursuiter. You’ve got to get to the track.'”
That was enough motivation for Birch, after completing her PhD in biological engineering, to take a teaching job at UC Riverside and commute 70 miles to the VELO Sports Center in Carson for weekend workouts. She then worked at Caltech in Pasadena — less of a drive to the velodrome — before putting her science career on hold in 2018 to take a full-time run at making the Tokyo team.
She competed in team pursuit at the 2019 World Championships in Poland, where the U.S. finished seventh. In November, Birch and teammates Jennifer Valente, Chloe Dygert and Emma White won at World Cup team pursuit race in Belarus. A month later, Birch and Kendall Ryan were bronze medalists in a World Cup Madison race in Australia.
Those results made Birch an automatic qualifier for the USA Cycling long team. She knows at 33 that the discretionary selection for Tokyo could go against her but also believes that the Olympics being postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic gives her more time to get faster.
“I’m trying to make a team on which the two best track riders (Valente, Dygert) perhaps of all time are on,” she said. “I’m not just trying to make just any Olympic team, I’m trying to make the best Olympic team.”
The U.S. women are ranked No. 1 in the world in team pursuit and won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Birch is No. 41 in the world (third among Americans) in Madison.
“I have a really strong belief in my ability to contribute to the team. The best I can do is to make myself as fast as possible, help make the team as fast as possible. Whether or not I’m on the starting line at Tokyo, I know I’m Olympic capable and medal capable and I helped the team get there. But I would much rather race.”
Birch, who married last year to Todd Woodlan, has been quaratining recently at her family’s ranch in Montana, where the nearest grocery store is a 27-mile drive. Her father lives in Gilbert, and she was in Arizona for most of April. She was born in Mesa.
“I am very proud to be from Arizona and to at least have made it this far on the international stage,” before moving on perhaps to accomplish her dream of running a lab. “My hope is to return to a much more intellectually stimulating job after this, but I had to focus on this right now because I can’t do this when I’m 50.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
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