By Rebecca Schmitz
Stroll through the woods surrounding Miller School of Albemarle’s sprawling, 1,600-acre campus on any weekday afternoon and you’ll likely come across a sight you don’t often see while hiking: a group of athletes on mountain bikes expertly navigating the challenging 15-mile network of trails that snake up and down steep hills and uneven terrain. Leave the school grounds and venture down one of the many scenic roads nearby, and you might glimpse another group of young cyclists zipping by at lightning speed. Meet the members of the Endurance Team, Miller School’s nationally recognized mountain biking, road racing, and distance running program.
The team, which was founded by Dean of Faculty Peter Hufnagel five years ago, has had a tremendous impact on junior development cycling in Virginia. “When Miller School created the cycling team, one of our first tasks was to create an interscholastic race scene. We had an ‘if you build it they will come’ mentality,” Hufnagel said. “We knew that if we provided the infrastructure and arena for competition, schools and students around Virginia would decide to pursue mountain biking as an interscholastic sport. It would also provide Miller School athletes a competitive experience similar to traditional sports.”
Miller School—a private boarding and day school for grades eight through twelve–founded the Virginia High School Mountain Bike Series. Its first race in 2011 had only 27 riders from four teams. This spring, they expect about 200 riders from 15 teams. Last year, they worked with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association to create a second mountain bike race league. “In total, over the past five years, we have had roughly 300 student athletes compete in interscholastic mountain bike races,” Hufnagel said. “I expect there to be 600 riders at the races within the next few years. It’s a growing sport.”
The Endurance Team is one of only a handful of high school cycling teams in the state. While cycling is growing in popularity, it has traditionally been a niche sport. Most high schools don’t have teams, so high-school cyclists tend to train independently, only getting together with their team members for competitions as trade teams, or teams made up of club members scattered around a broad region.
Andy Guptill, head coach and director of the team, said this is what makes Miller School’s team stand out. “The beauty of this is that we have everyone training all together—we are true teammates,” Guptill said. Freshman Gus Myers, a day student who lives in Ivy, agreed: “I have learned a lot in the months I’ve spent riding, especially from the older riders. Being a freshman, I’m constantly getting advice from my teammate who are juniors and seniors. That is one of the best things about the program.”
Guptill says another thing that sets the team apart is its focus on academics. “In most elite junior development cycling programs, you sacrifice academics to some extent,” he said. “We are the program where you get professional cycling support without sacrificing academics. You get the best of both worlds.” In order to compete, team members are expected to adhere to the same rigorous academic standards as all other students at the school.
Miller School’s team started small, with only seven students, and was at first made up primarily of cross country runners. It has since grown to 20 students ranging in age from 12 to 18 and attracts talent from all over the world. One-third of the team is made up of international students, from places as far away as Hong Kong, Brazil, and the Czech Republic. “Europe is the hotbed of cycling,” said Guptill. “Talk to any aspiring cyclist, and the bar they want to reach is to race in Europe. It’s amazing and a testament to our program that students from Europe want to come here.”
While some foreign students discover the Endurance Team through web searches for scholastic biking programs, others encounter the team competing at large U.S. races. Their interest is sparked when they realize the Endurance Team competes as a school, and is not a traditional biking team. In addition, USA Cycling, the governing body for the sport, recommends Miller when parents of international students contact it while researching schools with fully-supported cycling programs.
Miller School’s picturesque landscape and ideal training conditions also play a large part in attracting elite international athletes. Leo Yip, a junior from Hong Kong who is one of the top road racers on the team, didn’t start out intending to study abroad. But after visiting Miller School three years ago during its annual summer bike camp, he changed his mind. “I went there with only a little intention to study abroad, but after a quick tour of the campus, Miller had a very positive first impression on me… Training in Virginia for me is key to my future and current success in the sport of cycling. Cycling isn’t a sport where you go to any gym and shoot a ball for hours or swim at a pool. Cycling requires what I would say is never enough space… but in Virginia, you can ride routes you never rode before, going anywhere, everywhere. I come from a megacity, there is literally not enough space to cycle. I can ride laps around my city and still not be done with training.”
The access to top-notch coaches and the camaraderie among teammates was part of what drew Marcio Oliveira, a junior from Brazil. One of the team’s top road racers, he is working toward representing Brazil at the World Championships in Richmond this September.
“The Endurance Team was the main reason for me to leave my home in Brazil to come to live in Virginia,” Oliveira said. “Here at Miller School we have our coaches whenever we need them.”
And that coaching staff is impressive. Guptill, who also teaches World Geography, is a former professional cyclist who has competed in some of the world’s top races. He began riding bikes at 13, went pro in mountain biking at age 18, and transitioned into road racing in college. Hufnagel–who was head coach for the first two years until hiring Guptill as director in 2012, and still serves as an assistant coach—has experience in many professional-level events and is a triathlete who competes at an elite level. His wife, Andrea Dvorak, also helps with the team. She is one of the world’s top professional cyclists, with a breathtaking list of athletic achievements, including winning the collegiate triathlon national championships in 2001. She is now a team captain on a professional International Cycling Union team. Assistant Coach Phillip Robb is also an elite rider, and was twice crowned Hillclimb Champion for the state of Virginia for his performance climbing the challenging Wintergreen Ascent.
The only requirements for joining the Endurance Team are a commitment to learning and a deep desire to pursue the sport. Some students who join have limited biking experience, but, nonetheless, are dedicated to growing as cyclists. “We are both cultivating the next generation of Pro Tour riders and introducing and entirely new group of students to the sport of cycling,” Hufnagel said. “Whether one of our elite riders is winning a national championship or one of our JV riders is finishing his or her first mountain bike race, the program is having a remarkable impact on the sport of cycling and the lives of student athletes.” Many team members have won college cycling scholarships, and some have even turned pro.
Athletes start out on the JV team, and most begin with mountain biking, moving on to road racing as they gain skills and experience. Team members are also required to run cross country. Guptill explains that distance running provides good cross training, and helps build strength and endurance. The team practices for 90 minutes every afternoon, and most weekends are spent competing. “The Southeast is the hotbed for cycling,” Guptill said, so they usually don’t have to travel farther than Northern Virginia or Richmond. But at times during the heart of their season, which lasts from late March through late September, they travel to races as far away as upstate New York or Vermont. The coaches prepare individualized training plans for each athlete, and during the summer, they train at home and meet up for races. This summer, for example, they’ll meet in Quebec for the international stage race Tour de l’Abitibi, one of the most prestigious junior cycling events in the world.
Road races range from 20 miles to 85-90 miles, and may involve several consecutive days of riding. Mountain bike races are typically 12 to 20 miles long, and involve navigating obstacles such as narrow bridges, rocky paths, sharp switchbacks, and leg-burning climbs.
The athletes know the trails around the Miller School well—after all, they are the ones who built and developed them. Following Miller School’s philosophy of “Mind, Hands, and Heart,” which encourages community service and hands-on learning in addition to academics, the team has spent hours clearing brush, raking leaves, and constructing obstacles. “They are building their own arena to compete, train, and ride on,” Guptill said. “It’s not just a path through the woods. It makes the kids want to test their limits.” Local bike enthusiasts, impressed with the team’s efforts, have also reached out to help, and one even donated a compact excavator to help with trail clearing. The team’s hard work has also benefitted the school as a whole, as well as the local biking community: “These trails have provided a venue for mountain bike camps, daily practices, and general recreation for students and faculty,” Hufnagel said.
Team members acquire more than just racing skills when they join. “The students learn firsthand how to work on, repair, and service their own bikes,” Guptill said. These hands-on skills are essential for serious cyclists, who may need to perform impromptu bike repairs while deep into a ride on a trail or back road. Some students have become so adept that they work at bike shops during the summer.
Team members need not miss a day of training, even when the weather turns nasty. They just hop on indoor training bikes, which are bolted to the spacious building where they store their bikes and equipment. The bright, airy space, with dusty hardwood floors and exposed brick walls, also serves as a gathering place for the team and helps foster camaraderie. It was once an abandoned storage building filled with old jars of leaking roofing tar and an assortment of other debris, until Guptill and Hufnagel transformed it through months of sanding, painting, and cleaning into an ideal space for the team to meet, practice, and repair and maintain their bikes.
The team has a number of exciting upcoming races on campus, and Guptill encourages the community to come cheer on the team (see sidebar). Miller School also hosts the popular summer Cutaway Bike Camp, which is open to cyclists ages six to 18 and affords campers the opportunity to ride and experience some of the best trails in the state. The camp also organizes youth mountain bike teams that practice weekly in the spring and fall and are open to all youth cyclists in the state. “Last year, over 110 cyclists were involved with the camps and/or the teams,” Guptill said.
Clearly, Miller’s Endurance Team is making a difference, not just in the Virginia Junior Cycling community as a whole, but also for the individual students on the team. “Practice at the end of each day is definitely a highlight of the average school day. I can’t imagine Miller without the Endurance Team, as it plays a large role in the community,” Gus Myers said. Leo Yip shares his sentiments: “Overall, Miller has helped me not only drastically improve my physical and mental performance in cycling competitively, it has risen the bar of my own expectations. Living and riding with other juniors just like me who want to be better, mentally drives me to be better at cycling and academically.”