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Bike Racing for College Students

The Ultimate Guide to Racing Bikes in College

By: Jim Rusnak  April 27, 2022

If you’re a young athlete interested in collegiate cycling, here’s some good news: There’s probably a program out there—somewhere—that’s right for you. So why not give it a shot?

The following are some guidelines to help you understand what collegiate cycling is all about, some of the opportunities out there for collegiate cyclists, and the questions you need to ask yourself to find the right fit.

Varsity or Club?

Collegiate cycling is not an NCAA sport like the more mainstream college sports you’re familiar with, such as football, basketball, swimming, track and field, and so on. Instead, it’s governed by USA Cycling. This means that some of the rules regarding recruiting, scholarships, eligibility and training time might differ a little bit from NCAA sports at the same college.

USA Cycling sanctions two categories for collegiate cycling—varsity and club. Schools generally model their varsity programs after their NCAA sports. Varsity teams have coaches, award scholarships, and usually extend the same resources the schools offer to their NCAA teams. This includes things like uniforming, athletic training, study tables, a competition schedule and travel to races. Regular training with the team is usually mandatory. The coaching staff tends to be full-time in the varsity setting.

Club cycling is run more like a traditional club. Some schools have it under student life; others have it under a club sports department, but the students themselves run the club. They have officers, a club president, and every member has more weight to push in running the club. They have to organize and pay for their own races. Do their own fundraising. Training and participation in racing is more flexible (often optional), based on each club’s by-laws and culture.

Patric Rostel is the Cycling Manager of Operations at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo. The Mavericks of CMU are a varsity team, and one of the best at that. Rostel says there are advantages to both club and varsity options.

“The varsity teams are really good for more serious riders who want to take their careers to the next step,” Rostel said. “The club side is more like a fun environment to be around. There’s not as much pressure on it except the pressure they put on themselves. It’s a good learning opportunity for a lot of people—running the club, and maybe organizing races. Maybe they want to go into sports management and organizational kind of stuff. I think it’s a good learning experience for people who want to have fun in college and don’t want to take the biking part too seriously. They want to have an activity, and race and stay active.”

Picking the Right Environment for You

Both varsity and club teams differ from school to school and offer a variety of opportunities unique to each program.

Some are intense and competitive; others are more laid-back. Some are looking for high-performance athletes and recruit for their specific needs; others allow walk-ons and bring newer kids into the sport. Some offer all five collegiate cycling disciplines – road, mountain bike, BMX, track and cyclocross; others focus on just a couple.

“Each varsity program has their own mantra,” Rostel said. “[We] are focused on having good athletes that are good on the bike and good at school, and we try to help them manage the gap between juniors and elite. We look at their schedules and makes sure it lines up with what their priorities are on the bike, and make sure they get an education, so they have a leg to stand on when they finish and maybe the pro dream doesn’t work out.”

Rostel recommends potential collegiate cyclists to evaluate their own needs when considering a college program. The following questions might help:

  • How serious do you want to be?
  • How many races do you want to do each year?
  • Which disciplines (road, mountain bike, BMX, etc.) are you interested in? Which disciplines does the school offer?
  • Do you like where the school is located?
  • Does the school offer what you’re looking for both athletically and academically?

Arielle Coy is a medical student at Marian University and a member of the cycling team. A former triathlete, Coy began focusing on road racing in 2018.

She fell in love with the sport and wasn’t ready to call it quits just because she was going to med school. Marian was the first school she interviewed with, and the cycling team had one of the best reputations in the country, so she figured she might as well go for it.

One of the things she needed as a med student was a flexible coaching staff that would be sympathetic to the demands of med school.

“They’ve been so accommodating and extremely lenient,” Coy said, adding that while she has the option to train with the team, the coaches allow her to do most of her workouts on a trainer in her basement to accommodate her busy schedule.

In addition to the questions posed by Rostel above, Coy said potential collegiate cyclists should also consider the size of the team (more brains to work with and more camaraderie); the geography and the rideability of the area around the school; the coaching staff (how many coaches are available, and do they offer internal coaching and extra guidance?); and the facilities and equipment.

“Whether a seasoned rider or novice to the sport, incoming athletes should consider the program history and track record,” Coy said. “Marian has been an established program for several years. They breed national champions and have won ‘USA Cycling Club of the Year’ on numerous occasions. These accolades speak for themselves. Every incoming athlete will get the experience they're looking for when they opt into a program that has proven successful over numerous decades.”

Recruiting and Scholarships

As with everything else discussed so far, recruiting policies and the availability of scholarships will differ from school to school.

Generally speaking, collegiate club teams accept walk-ons of all levels, but even some of them can be more selective. Do your homework.

Varsity teams are a different story. Rostel said there’s a limit to the number of athletes he and his staff can serve, so they cap their roster at about 60 athletes. Therefore, they are very selective of the athletes they recruit. Rostel and his staff look at a potential rider’s race results and academics, then recruit for areas in each of the five disciplines they need.

“If a rider fits on the team, then we reach out to the riders,” Rostel said.

“For us, it’s important that we have a personal connection to each athlete. They have to have a good personality, be good in school and willing to be part of a team. They have to have a good team spirit. It’s hard to be part of the team as an individual athlete.”

As far as scholarships go, Rostel said, “It depends on the university and what their background is. We have athletes on scholarship, but about two-thirds of them are not. Nobody on our team is on a full ride. It’s not like football or basketball where millions in scholarships are available.”

Rostel said one of the most important things about scholarships is that it shouldn’t be the first question out of a recruit’s mouth during an interview. He also couldn’t stress the academic side of the recruitment equation enough.

“For us, they have to be good in the classroom and a national contender,” he said. “You can be the best bike racer in the country, but if you can’t make grades, you can’t race here.”

Why Collegiate Cycling?

So why should you consider collegiate cycling? Well, if you’re an overachiever like Coy, it completes the college experience.

“If I was only doing school, I would go crazy,” said Coy, who, in addition to riding for Marian, also competes in the offseason as a Cat 1 racer for Butcher Box Cycling under coach Ben Sharp. “I never imagined having a college experience without sports.”

Coy says cycling forces her to manage her time better and provides balance with her academics for mental well-being. It’s also an opportunity to socialize and get to know a variety of people beyond med school. “It’s the best,” she said. “I love it so much, and I’m lucky to be a part of it.”

Rostel said the camaraderie of being part of a team and the respectful rivalries that develop between schools are some of the highlights of college cycling.

“It’s a pretty cool thing, the camaraderie and backing each other, no matter how hard you are fighting each other (in a race),” Rostel said. “Everyone tries to help each other out.”

USA Cycling offers a wide variety of resources. If you are interested in racing in college, click here to find a program near you.

If you’re looking to start a cycling club at your university, learn more here.

For additional questions on how to get involved, email