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The road to Madison

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Grant Boursaw takes a corner at the championship criterium in Moscow, Idaho.

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Grant Boursaw and Davis Shepherd pedal their way up a hill at the Whitman road race.

At age 10, junior Davis Shepherd took up road cycling with a very simple goal: to beat his dad.

“It would really piss me off when we’d be riding together, and he would get to a hill and drop me at the bottom,” Shepherd said. “I was always really, really competitive with my dad.”

Those earliest years of riding ensured that bicycling would never be just a leisurely activity for Shepherd. As a freshman at the UW, he joined the Husky Cycling team and has been riding to the top ever since.

Last weekend, Shepherd and his teammate, senior Grant Boursaw, competed at the USA Cycling Collegiate Road Nationals in Madison, Wis., representing the UW among 500 student-cyclists nationwide. For both, it was their second year in a row competing at nationals.

“Just knowing that you’ve done it, that’s kind of like the initial rush of [qualifying],” he said. “And it feels good knowing that you managed to beat out the rest.”

In the regular season, the Husky Cycling team placed first overall in the Northwest Collegiate Conference, meaning the entire team qualified to compete in Madison. But because the trip was individually funded, only Shepherd and Boursaw chose to make the journey this year.

Individually, Boursaw placed third overall, and Shepherd managed first place, so each also qualified for nationals.

But the two haven’t let this get to their heads.

“I don’t just, out of the blue, tell people [in classes] that I race bikes,” Boursaw said. “But when I do, they’re usually like, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ I mean it’s always positive. Nobody is too weirded out by the fact that I like to ride my bike.”

Taking up competitive cycling is not a light time commitment. During the intensive wintertime training season, Boursaw and Shepherd spend at least 10 and sometimes upward of 20 hours each week atop their bikes. A typical training ride ranges from 50 to 90 miles round-trip.

In March when the seven-week racing season begins, Boursaw and Shepherd’s weekends become devoted to traveling all over the West Coast to various colleges for meets. The school week is then often spent playing catch-up with classes.

For Shepherd, this demanding lifestyle can, at times, get exhausting.

“It kind of wears on you over time because there’s essentially no downtime,” he said. “[The rest of the year], over the weekend you’ll have extra time to do homework and catch up with people, but during those seven weeks of the racing season, you’re essentially just going to class and getting your homework done. The race season is certainly the most grueling because there’s very little time for much else other than school and racing.”

Unlike winter training, preparing for nationals was not as demanding. Genevieve Gebhart, president of the Husky Cycling Club, said that, as seasoned cyclists, Boursaw and Shepherd relied more so on their overall fitness to physically carry them through the race, and spent the days before preparing mostly for the strategic aspects of racing.

“So much of the training is mental,” Gebhart said. “You have to know what the course is, know who your competitors are and kind of mentally come to terms with the race that’s coming up. All the long hours and miles are in the winter, by the time it’s spring you can ride your bike all you want, but if you have a race the next day, it’s not going to make you any stronger. Rest is what’s going to make you faster.”

The Husky Cycling Team is a branch of the Husky Cycling Club and is made up of about 30 competitive road racers. Each spring during the collegiate season, the team travels to various colleges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to compete.

Boursaw noted that cycling on the team is largely a group effort.

“You don’t do anything by yourself,” Boursaw said. “It’s definitely a lot of strategizing and thinking together. Maybe you have a teammate that’s really good for going at a long time, so you have them leading the pack earlier in the race. Maybe you have a team sprinter, you want to have him sprint at the end. It’s about getting everybody to win, we don’t care who wins as long as UW wins the race.”

At one meet last year at Whitman College, Boursaw and Shepherd found themselves in a breakaway of three with one of their other UW teammates. To settle the finish, the guys played a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine the order in which they would cross the line.

“We were so far ahead of everyone else, it was just like, ‘Who wants the points?’” Shepherd said.

After the three finished in their order selected by chance, two more of their teammates crossed the line next, meaning the UW ended up sweeping the first five positions of the meet.

“That weekend felt better than winning the conference championship, and felt better than winning the overall for sure,” Shepherd said. “It was the result of [the team] winning over the course of the season. That felt really, really good.”

While Boursaw and Shepherd were the only two members of the UW team who went to nationals, Shepherd’s dad decided to accompany the guys on the trip for support — for Shepherd, serving as a reminder of what he loves most about the sport.

“My dad has always been kind of a big part of cycling for me,” Shepherd said. “We’ve gone all over the Southwest together on mountain bikes, and stuff like that. For me, my dad helps keep cycling fun when sometimes it can get pretty tedious.”

For Boursaw, at the end of the day, the simple exhilaration of being up on a bike and the adrenaline rush of competition serve as his primary motivation to keep cycling.

“I just love racing,” Boursaw said. “I love riding my bike, but when I ride, it’s all prep to race. The thrill of coming around somebody at the end of a race, or taking a corner really fast and almost feeling your tires like start to slide as you just barely make it around the end of the corner … I like that.”

Reach reporter Kirsten Johnson at lifestyles@dailyuw.com.

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