Cyclist Sarah Hammer discusses the special equipment and tech in indoor track cycling.
Asheville will proudly send some of its finest athletes — a “youngster” who started her sporting career as a blistering mile runner, and a veteran cyclist who lives part-time in New Zealand with his Olympian wife — to represent the United States at the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, starting Feb. 26 in Berlin.
Asheville’s Lily Williams, 25, is one of only eight women in the country, and Adrian Hegyvary, 36, one of only four men, chosen by USA Cycling to compete in track cycling’s largest world-stage race before this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, which begins July 24.
Williams, who began a track cycling career only last year – yes, 2019, you read that right – will be among the rarified elite, joining the three-time UCI world champion women’s team pursuit squad – the U.S. women won world championships in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
She follows, somewhat, in the shoe clips of another Asheville great, Lauren Tamayo, who raced in the 2012 London Olympics in women’s team pursuit, and brought home a silver medal. Tamayo raced with two teammates.
The women’s team pursuit format, in which all teammates are on the track at the same time, was changed in 2014 to add a fourth teammate, and the distance was increased from 3 kilometers, or 12 times around a 250-meter indoor track, to 4 kilometers, adding four more laps to match the men’s event.
“Our team has been working incredibly hard this year and our momentum is building,” Gary Sutton, USA Cycling’s program director of track, said in a statement. “We’re excited to see what else we can accomplish before Tokyo and identify any areas we can improve before then.”
While Williams and Hegyvary are both on the U.S. national track cycling team and have mountains of respect for each other, they don’t often train together.
Williams is in Colorado Springs prepping with her squad at the Olympic Training Center, while Hegyvary, who is married to Rushlee Buchanan, an Olympic cyclist who competes for her native New Zealand, is training in that hemisphere now, where the two live half the year. Buchanan will also compete in track cycling at the World Championships.
But the two do get together with the cadre of elite, professional, amateur, Tour de France and Olympic cyclists who live scattered throughout Asheville and Western North Carolina when they’re back in town to ride and then scarf down tacos at their favorite haunts, including Zia Taqueria and White Duck Taco.
“Barring disaster,” Hegyvary said, he and his teammate Daniel Holloway, should make the U.S. Olympic team after competing in the World Championships, and Williams believes the same of the women’s team.
Sprinting and sport hopping
Williams was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, where she used her unusual amount of natural energy as a runner, scorching across the flatlands. Her specialty was the mile, where she set a state record of 4:42 in 2012. She said her family vacationed in Asheville, where she first learned to love the mountains.
She also ran at Vanderbilt University, where she earned degrees in biology, English and Latin American studies, but said, “I don’t think I got any faster.”
She got burned out on running but while attending graduate school at Northwestern University in Chicago, earning a master’s in science journalism, is where she found her true calling — the bike.
“I really fell in love with cycling in Chicago. It’s pretty popular for commuting and for racing. I felt good enough that I wanted to pursue it more full time, but training in Chicago is not very good,” she told the Citizen Times. After graduating in 2017, she moved to West Asheville.
“Asheville is the best place in the country to ride and train,” she said. “It’s temperate all year. I really dislike having to train inside, so I will get outside any time I can, and you can pretty much do that all year in Asheville. The roads are amazing, there’s no chip seal, it takes me 10 minutes to get out of town and I can do all kinds of amazing training, not see any cars. I love it. It was just a logical fit.”
She started riding and racing in 2016 in cyclo-cross, a sort of road-mountain bike hybrid sport in which cyclists race around a closed course on a variety of terrain, from pavement to grass to dirt, having to dismount to maneuver around obstacles.
The next year Williams started road racing, but in 2018, she was tapped by the director of the women’s track program to attend a camp and “luckily I was good enough to keep coming to camps until started racing,” in 2019.
Track cycling includes several disciplines that take place on a 250-meter banked track, such as the “Mellowdrome” at Asheville’s Carrier Park.
She races only in the team pursuit, what she calls a 4 1/2-minute effort.
“I was always curious about it, because it uses the same energy system as the mile run,” she said.
In the race, there are four women on a team, but only three have to finish. They ride 16 laps on an indoor, 250-meter track, with the “goal to get to the line as fast as possible, using whichever combination of riders is the most efficient. Each rider takes turn pulling on the front to block the wind for the other three. You’ll do your pull and then swing onto the back of the train of four.”
The sport involves an intense amount of physical and psychological energy, which Williams thrives on.
She was part of Team USA’s winning World Cup in Ontario, Canada, earlier this year, but Berlin will be her first World Championships. Her teammates will be Chloe Dygert, of Brownsburg, Indiana; Kendall Ryan, of Ventura, California; Jennifer Valente, of San Diego; and Emma White, of Duanesburg, New York.
“It’s pretty wild. It’s happened very quickly,” Williams said of her rapid rise in the cycling world.
“I’ve never raced at this level. This is a huge step. It’s a little terrifying, but every time I get to represent my country, it’s really exciting and cool. I’m thankful that people have invested their time in helping me improve so I can go race,” she said.
She is hopeful for a good showing in Berlin to possibly be considered for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
“This is the last race before the Olympics, so it’s very, very important to demonstrate that you can ride on the pursuit team that can go to the Olympics,” she said.
“Given our history and our trajectory, I think we have the potential to do very well at both the World Championships and the Olympics. Having not done too many races, I’m putting quite a bit at stake, not only as a measure of progression, but as the last opportunity in a race setting to really prove myself.”
U.S. Olympic team selections are in May.
Third time’s the charm?
Adrian Hegyvary spoke to the Citizen Times last week from his home away from the mountains in Cambridge, New Zealand, which is 18 hours ahead of Asheville.
He was born in Chicago, went to high school in Washington State and, like Williams, combined a love of learning and athletics throughout his life, earning a degree in comparative history of ideas as well as a juris doctorate from the College University of Washington.
Hegyvary formerly competed in cycling for Hungary, but moved in 2011 to Asheville, where he competed with Team UHC Healthcare until it ended a couple of years ago. He met Buchanan in Asheville, and the two married in 2014 and settled into the Chicken Hill neighborhood.
Hegyvary raced in road cycling and other track disciplines, including scratch and team pursuit. He now races with the Louisville, Kentucky-based Texas Roadhouse Team in his current specialty, a little-known race called the Madison.
It actually originated in the United States more than 100 years ago, named after New York’s Madison Square Garden, when, Hegyvary said, there were more cycling tracks than baseball fields in the U.S. But that ended with the advent of the automobile.
The Madison is a two-person team event, the longest and one of the fastest and most grueling of all track events in which riders take 200 laps around the track, or 50 kilometers (31 miles), in less than an hour. At full speed, he said, riders can be spinning at 37 mph.
“I kind of think of it as a cat playing with a mouse. Each rider rides 30 or 40 seconds at a time and throws their partner into the race. You constantly get little rests, but the problem is it convinces you that you’re OK, then you go well over your limit, get a rest, and blow up again,” Hegyvary said.
“It’s kind of like a death by a 1,000 paper cuts. You go in and flog yourself again. Whereas other events, you have more self-preservation.”
The Madison can be difficult to understand for first-time watchers, he said. It involves the need for lightning-fast legs and whiplash-like instincts.
Its most well-known feature is the hand sling. Since it is a relay race, one rider speeds around the track, meets his teammate, grabs his hand and throws him into the race to transfer speed.
“It’s like in track and field, you pass the baton but there’s no transfer of energy. In the Madison, there’s no passing of baton, just grabbing your power and throwing your partner into the race,” he said.
Both riders are on the track at all times, but only one is racing at a time. There are 18 teams of two, so 36 riders are always on the banked track, but only 18 are racing at one time, with the other 18 circling high on the track, waiting for their turn to come in, he said.
“Ultimately it’s a points race. A big part of the race is taking laps on the field. You attack and rejoin at the back of the field. If you do that, you gain 20 points. That’s always been our strategy, to sit back a little bit, follow, then take a lap, which rewards you more than sprinting. It’s a nice strategy if you can read the race well,” Hegyvary said.
This will be his third World Championships, although the first two didn’t go so well, he said. During the first, Hegyvary was sick, and in the second, his partner was under the weather. This time around they’re both feeling strong, he said, and looking to leave an impression.
“As long as we finish the Madison, in essence, barring disaster we’ve qualified spot for Olympics,” he said.
The U.S. has already earned a spot at the Olympics, but now it’s about gaining selection for a start in Tokyo since there are three riders in the running for two spots.
“There’s a lot going on, but ultimately, it’s the World Champs, and you want to race the best you can,” he said.
After Berlin, Hegyvary heads back to New Zealand, then will race in series in the Southeast U.S. and be back in Asheville from mid-May until, hopefully, Tokyo. Hegyvary said he always looks forward to coming back home to the mountains.
“Asheville feels like home. I spent a lot of time in Colorado last year, where Olympic Training Center is, but found that, looking at Tokyo and its environmental demands, which will be heat, humidity and sea level, Asheville is a good place to prepare because it’s similar to Tokyo,” Hegyvary said.
“It has awesome road riding, a vibrant cycling community, and the city has always been cycling friendly and looking at ways to become more cycling friend. I think it’s one of the best places on the east coast to train.”
Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.
Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
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