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WCU cycling team brings regional race to Cullowhee

out frBy Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent

About a year ago, Patrick O’Neal bought an old, chrome-rimmed Schwinn bicycle. He was just looking for an alternative way to get to class from his off-campus dorm. Now he spends most weekends enduring long periods of what he and other cyclists acknowledge as a kind of physical and mental punishment. 

It is a grinding workout routine. The Western Carolina University senior spends his weekends pedaling several dozen mountain miles and speaks with enthusiasm about “putting your body through hell.”

“It’s pretty much my whole life right now,” O’Neal said.


That enthusiasm is perhaps what led the WCU student to head a cycling team at the university. And it will likely be such enthusiasm that carries him in a race in Cullowhee this month that the new team has helped arrange for the first time as part of a regional collegiate cycling conference. 

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Scheduled for March 22-23, “The Airport Assault” is expected to draw dozens of such cycling teams from universities across the Southeast. They’ll be seeking bragging rights for the overall best times in several races scheduled over a few months each year.

For cyclists like Eric Gatilogo, also a senior and member of the WCU team, the race is seen largely as a measure of endurance.

“There’s going to be a lot of climbing,” he said of the race.

The race will be comprised of three competitions. Among them are a time trial and a racing circuit, which loops about six miles on Little Savannah Road, off N.C. 107, across a terrain with steady, grueling increases in elevation.

While the WCU team may have a home-field advantage as they train — becoming accustomed to the mountainous terrain — O’Neal knows that out-of-area cyclists will come prepared.

“You can get strong anywhere,” he said.

And the WCU cyclists aren’t just training for the local race. Gatilogo is training with an eye towards a race in Cashiers in May that stretches some 100 miles. 

“Getting mileage in right now is coming before speed,” he said of his workout routine.

Cycling has recently emerged as a major theme in Gatilogo’s life. The student threw himself into the sport a couple of months ago when he replaced his mountain bike with one built for the road. 

He manages to find time between school work, an internship and a job at a nearby market, and now devotes much of each weekend to a training routine that involves long hours and constant recuperation. Increasing the distance of each ride has remained his central focus since joining the team. A couple of weeks ago he logged his longest distanced of 50 miles. 

And Gatilogo are not alone in there passion for cycling. The sport has captured an increasing amount of attention across the country in recent years, evolving from a subculture into a popular recreation. That is especially true in Western North Carolina, where cycling shops and less-traveled roads are abound.

And it is evident at the university, whose environs are considered by many as a cycling haven. Among the well-known routes are stretches along Cullowhee Mountain and Tilley Creek, as well as a 38-mile trek featuring a 5,000-foot elevation climb known as the Ring of Fire. 

Earlier this year, the university opened a nearly seven-mile trail, albeit a mountain-biking one, in what is an indication of a marketing strategy meant to underscore the area’s natural splendor. And this upcoming race will coincide with a WCU open house, which could help further refine the image the university is working to project.

The university will be well represented at the race. The WCU team, consisting of about a dozen students, will don tight-fitting white and purple uniforms bearing the school mascot and compete with teams from a few dozen universities from throughout the Southeastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. 

The WCU cycling team is not new, noted O’Neal, who serves as the group’s president. But the team has seen a renewed interest particularly over the past couple of years, with a majority of it members being freshmen.

Among those who joined the team this year is Andrew Nicholson, a junior who transferred from a community college in the region. He acknowledged the physical benefits of cycling, whose rigors have long remained a source of exhilaration for someone who spent much of his adolescence on a mountain bike.

Nicholson also said he believes the cycling lifestyle has given him a sense of balance. He credits it with helping him improve his academic performance and his well-being. Each time he finishes a long ride there is a sense of renewal.

“You’re probably a better person than you were a day before,” Nicholson said.



Want to know more?

The Western Carolina University Cycling Team will host a regional two-day collegiate road bike race, “The Airport Assault,” on March 22-23 in Cullowhee.

The event kicks off at 9 a.m. March 22 with an individual time trial event starting near WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building uphill to the Jackson County Airport. Following the time trial, a road race will begin at 1 p.m. The course will cover a nine-mile loop starting on Little Savannah Road next to the Health and Human Sciences Building.

At 9 a.m. March 23, an event in which cyclists ride laps on a closed course with fast turns will start on the landing strip of the Jackson County Airport. Spectators are encouraged to park at the Health and Human Sciences Building and take a shuttle to the airport to watch. 

The event is free for spectators, and members of the community are invited to attend and cheer on the racers.

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