ANGEL FIRE, N.M. -- The adrenaline. The blood pumping. Lungs burning. Legs screaming. The bloody knees, the dust flying, and fans screaming while setting off fire alarms.
This was the scene at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships held Oct. 20-21. Teams from all over the country ascended to the 8,000-foot elevation of Angel Fire Resort to compete in four different mountain bike disciplines.
The club cycling team from Northern Arizona University sent a host of supporters and eight riders to compete against the nation's best in the cross country, short track, downhill and dual slalom races. Compared to the riding most Flagstaff mountain bikers do, it was no walk in the park.
"When you're racing, you're pushing yourself harder than normal and you can't take any breaks," stated Scott Countryman, 20, a mechanical engineering student who placed in the top 10 in downhill with a 7th-place finish.
Senior Jacque Povilaitis, 22, said it straight: "I pretty much wanted to cry the whole time."
But throughout the three-day event, her teammates had her back.
"Everyone on the team is really supportive; we're like a big family. If you're having a bad day, there's always someone there to remind you everything is going to be OK."
NAU fared better than OK, with multiple top 10 finishes and a seventh-place finish in the overall team standings. Povilaitis finished 21st in cross country and 16th in short track. The other woman rider on the team, sophomore Lindsay Dye, 19, took 13th in cross country and grabbed 10th in short track with a thrilling last-second sprint to the finish.
Had there been an award for cheering sections, NAU might have topped the podium.
"We brought the loudest and proudest cheering section of any school, which contributed to all or our great results, including mine," stated senior David Timmons, 28, who rode his way to a 13th place finish in cross country and a top 10 finish in short track.
NAU's faction of supporters donned wild costumes and crafted their own noisemakers, including the use of condominium smoke detectors, in an effort to push their teammates to their limits.
"It's incredible the power a group of your closest friends can give you with nothing more than a speech and maybe a slap on the butt," said senior Erik Nelson of the raucous cheering.
Nelson had the toughest three-day stretch of all the NAU riders, competing in all four events, called omnium. It was a big push for him to do something special after he suffered massive injuries in a downhill race crash in Switzerland a year ago.
"Omnium is an event that I think really shows the depth of a rider's skill. I've got a lot of respect for anyone who can finish it and do well."
Nelson finished respectably in each event, capped by an 11th-place finish in the downhill and 7th in the dual slalom, to take 4th place overall in the men's Division I omnium. All he had to say about his top five podium finish was, "I wouldn't have finished if it wasn't for my teammates."
Without a doubt, this is a tight-knit group of riders. Their support for one another was present all season, but it really came through at nationals.
Said Countryman: "I can't imagine what it would have been like to race nationals without the support of teammates. They encourage you before your race, cheer you on during your race, and congratulate you after your race."
In a time when cheating and constant doping allegations dominate headlines, NAU's cycling team is a shining example of what the sport is truly all about. With the collegiate mountain bike season now over, they now look forward to cyclocross this winter, followed by road bike competition in the spring.