Last year at Lousiville Nationals, Caleb Swartz (Marian University) showed he is a strong runner when he won the Collegiate Varsity race in the slog that was the Joe Creason Park course.
With two run-ups per lap at the course at Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood, the circuit seemed suited to his skill set, but he still had to win against a talented varsity field that was looking to knock the defending champ off and bring home a title for their respective teams and cycling programs.
Early in Thursday's race it was the Brevard duo of Tyler Clark and Tyler Orschel pushing the pace, perhaps inspired by their coach Bradford Perley's win in the Baby Masters race on Wednesday. When things sorted themselves out, it was Clark, Orschel, Scott Funston (Colorado Mesa University) and Swartz racing at the front.
The group stayed together for a lap and a half before Swartz called on his running skills to earn a decisive gap. He sprinted up the rutted second run-up and stayed on the gas up to the top of the orchard section. When the lap cleared with 2 to go, he had an 8-second lead he would not relinquish en route to his 2nd-straight Collegiate National Championship.
"There were two steep run-ups per lap, and I’ve been hitting the hill repeats and long runs all season," Swartz said. "I knew I felt good I gave it a test on the second lap after I caught up and [my coach] just said, "Go, go, go." I knew I could start stretching it there and I just hit it again every lap until it was a good size gap."
May the Swartz Be with You
The second race of Thursday's seven-race Championship slate was the Collegiate Varsity Men's race. On the line was the chance for an individual title, but perhaps more importantly for the varsity cycling programs, the chance for points in the overall team omnium.
Kicking things off on another damp morning following overnight rain was Scott Funston, who took the holeshot and led the field toward the first run-up.
After the first descent, Tyler Clark joined Funston at the front in pushing a fast pace. By the time the leaders reached the second run-up, Tyler Orschel bridged to make it a group of three, with upwards of five riders in fast pursuit.
The long climb to the top of the orchard and descent back to the bottom section at Fort Steilacoom Park sorted things out, with seven riders bunching up at the front. The group included Orschel, Clark, Funston, Cade Bickmore (Marian University), 2018 Reno Champion Henry Nadell (Fort Lewis College), Carson Beckett (Brevard College) and Swartz, who bridged up after starting off the front row.
The group neutralized through the start/finish straight and bunched up similar to road peloton. The time for niceties, however, did not last long.
Swartz helped lead the charge up the run-up at the beginning of Lap 2, and the move split the lead group in half. At the drop, the leaders were down to Swartz, Clark and Funston and Orschel tail gunning the trio. Orschel closed the small gap by the end of the lap, and with three to go, the four riders were together again.
The defending champ Swartz had already helped push the pace on the run-ups, and in Lap 3 on the second steep run-up to the top part of Fort Steilacoom Park, he again charged up the steep incline. He continued to push by hammering the long slope to the top of the orchard and earned a gap on the others in the group. Clark took up the chase, trying to keep the Marian rider in check.
At the end of what would prove to be the decisive Lap 3, Swartz had an 8-second lead on Orschel. Funston and Clark scrambled to chase another 8 or so seconds behind him.
"I knew if it hurt me, I was hoping it was hurting everyone else too," Swartz said about his fast pace.
In Lap 4, Swartz solidified his lead, growing it to 19 seconds at the bell. Orschel held a 13-second gap on Funston and Clark. For a moment, it looked like Swartz's teammate Cade Bickmore (Marian University) might bridge to the group racing for third, but he slipped on a corner before one of the flyovers and severely harmed his bid for third or fourth.
Swartz held his lead in the final lap to get the win and bring home a second-straight title for himself and his Marian teammates.
"Personally, it feels good to have [another title] for my wall, but beyond that, it's really about the team," Swartz said. "Doing everything I can for the Marian team, my teammates, everybody, including myself just giving 110% for the group effort. That’s so much more special than any other National Championship where you’re just racing for yourself."
Orschel finished a strong second, and Funston separated in the last lap to capture third. Clark finished fourth and Bickmore fifth.
For more from the Collegiate Varsity race, see the winner interview, photo gallery and results below.
Caleb Swartz: Collegiate Varsity Winner Interview