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Leah Oppenheimer, College Student and Competitive Cyclist

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Headlined to H4 10/17/10
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My guest today is Leah Oppenheimer, competitive cyclist and student at the University of Connecticut [UConn]. Welcome to OpEdNews. Thanks for fitting in this interview between midterms! How did you get interested in biking in the first place? And how do I refer to you? Bike racer? Racing cyclist? This is not my neck of the woods. Help me out here.

Leah in Gear; credit:

Typically we call ourselves "cyclists" or "competitive cyclists," but we'll also respond to "bike racers." "Bikers" alone sounds like a motorcyclist, so we avoid that one ;-)

Anyways, thanks for the interview! October is definitely a busy month with exams and training restarting, but the weather is gorgeous at the moment, so no complaints here. I learned how to ride a bike fairly late in the game around 12 or 13 years old, and later that summer, I did a 50 mile bike tour in Vermont in one weekend with my parents. From that point forward, I continued riding with my dad, doing lots of club riding, until we did the Hazon Bike Ride in the summer of 2005. That weekend I did close to 100 miles on the first day, and (if I remember correctly) 50 or 60 on the second day. A friend of mine was at that ride also, and her dad gave me the name of Dan Coleman, who runs the Colavita-Baci Junior Racing Team out of New Jersey. I contacted him, and started learning how to race that fall.

Thanks for the tip on the terminology. I need to back up a sec. I heard a rumor [okay, I admit that it was your dad who told me this] that until the age of 11 or 12, your bike riding was confined to the back of a tandem. And that you weren't even really pedaling back there! So, you went from never really riding to jumping in with both feet. Were you a little surprised that you were able to cover great distances on your own, virtually right from the start?

He forgot to mention that I did pedal on the downhills! Anyways, sort of, yes. I remember it took me a long time to learn how to ride a bike in the first place, so I guess it did come rather quickly. From what I remember, I didn't do a ton of riding that summer that we did the bike tour in Vermont, so I think we just did that ride and took our time, and two 25 mile days wasn't a bad place to start. Plus, Vermont is gorgeous at that time of year, so we were in no rush.

From there, I just kept riding. I guess I had some endurance in my system somehow, because I never really "trained" for longer rides. In the year that I did my first (and second) century (summer and fall of 2005), I definitely rode more, but again, didn't do any sort of "training" where I would ride more from week to week, and I just did weekend rides with my dad leading up to my first 5 Boro Bike Tour (around 40 miles, in 2004). I never considered it until now, but I guess I just got sort of lucky with having some built in endurance!

Century rides are 100 miles, right? Yikes. I can't even imagine. What's involved in training to race? Walk us through it please, Leah.

Yeah, it can get to be a lot, especially as a student and trying to have a social life. I train with a coach at home, May Britt Hartwell, who runs the Young Medalists/Athletics Cubed program out of Trexlertown, PA. Because it's just a club sport at school, not varsity, we typically train on our own, doing some group rides together once in awhile. Even thought it's a club sport, the collegiate competitive road cycling scene is very competitive and the fields are very strong. That said, it's a great way for people to get into the sport and it's a good time in general. Collegiate races are always really fun. UConn's club in particular, of course, is amazing, and the boys on the team will be happy to know that I am now openly admitting to wanting to try mountain biking (they spent my first 2 years at college trying to convince me to ride a mountain bike).

How do you get your school work done? Are you incredibly organized? Are there lots of kids your age who are into this?

It is quite a bit of time, but I've come to figure out how to manage it. My coach and I work my schedule around my classes school always comes first so that I get Thursdays (the day when I have 7.5 hours of class straight) as a rest day and I don't have any training. Other than that, we've been using running a lot, as it is a good workout and much less time consuming, and we always try to keep weekday rides to under 2 hours, which keeps things very manageable. I've definitely become more organized, but I think it's safe to say that I procrastinate as much as the average college student there have been days when I've had to train on only 5 or 6 hours of sleep, and it's usually my own fault, so I just suck it up and push through it. On weekends I still have fun, but I always keep in the back of my mind the thought that I will probably have to be up at around 9 or 10 the next morning to ride sleeping until noon is rarely an option for me. So I still have a social life and an academic life, but I've learned how to work with both and to limit myself.

Cycling is definitely a growing sport, and the number of teens and young adults doing it is growing exponentially, but it is definitely still a sport that's off to the side of the radar. UConn's cycling club has about 15-20 mountain bikers and around 10 road riders, 3 of whom are girls, and a few people who do both road and mountain. I think people like the idea of the sport, and I know a lot of young people love the thrill particularly of downhill racing and freestyle riding, but many are intimidated by the cost, time commitment, dedication, and spandex that come with road racing. It's definitely getting more popular though.

My friend Gabe runs a great company called Echappe Equipment that rents race wheels out (often the most expensive part of racing) for single events so that poor college students like myself, and others who don't want to make a huge financial commitment, can race on the best.

Do you feel like a jock? What do you get out of this?

Because I'm a student, I'm not able to race at the highest potential I could, meaning that despite how much I put towards training, there's something to be said for the recovery that I don't get by going to classes, going to work, studying, or spending time with friends. That said, I'm happy with how I've been racing. I did a lot of elite and professional races this past summer and did about as well as I thought I would. I didn't win anything, but I spent last semester abroad in Spain (where I was running, not biking), so I didn't have winning set as my goal. I definitely have to admit that the mornings where I end up at the gym doing weight training instead of sleeping in like a normal person (like this morning) do make me feel like a jock; however, I am happy to report that my body doesn't seem to be capable of creating muscle mass large enough to actually make me look like a jock.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
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