As big University of Wisconsin teams go, football generally first comes to mind. With 82 athletes on the roster, Bret Bielema’s squad is the largest varsity program on campus.

As successful University of Wisconsin teams go, Bielema’s team also stands out.

Yet on the very same campus as the reigning Champs Sports Bowl victors is another athletic team that boasts its own impressive reputation of success.

The UW Cycling Team is Wisconsin’s largest club sport, but the “club” designation fails to do it proper justice. One hundred and five members strong, UW Cycling continually bolsters its reputation as a collegiate cycling powerhouse. For the past eight years, the club has competed at the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, and in the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Conference has been the top non-varsity squad every year since 2006.

In fact, UW Cycling’s classification as a club sport arguably makes its successes even more impressive. In addition to balancing their academic pursuits, the club’s members also plan, organize and participate in all of their events — no easy feat, especially for some of the executive members who also double as med school students.

In addition to its members’ arduous schedules and rigorous training regiments, UW Cycling will be hosting the national championships in Madison this weekend for the first time since 2004.

“This is huge,” president and med school student Jason Carr said. “It’s a huge honor. Hosting nationals is a recognition of the quality of cycling in your area, the quality of your cycling team and their … ability to manage an event like this. Also, it was a long process. It was a lot of work that went into it to pay off, so it’s extremely rewarding for the club.”

Long process indeed

For all the planning and logistical nightmares that are synonymous with hosting such a popular event, talks for the 2010 Nationals did not begin until last year’s event in Fort Collins, Colo.

“The biggest [hurdle] was timing,” Carr said. “We didn’t get into the process until really late, so we had to really work hard to get everything together on time.”

After being approached by USA Cycling — the United States’ national governing body for bicycle racing — to bring Nationals back to Madison, the ball was in the club’s court. Aside from having hosted Nationals back in 2004, Madison was already regarded as a haven for cycling enthusiasts. Men’s Journal magazine named Madison the healthiest city in America, and Wisconsin’s capital boasts nearly 100 miles of bike paths.

“We basically sat around the table, we said ‘All right, is this something that we want to do?'” secretary Ken Huxtable said. “‘Do we want to try and pursue hosting nationals?’ Of course, none of us really knew what that meant at that time. We knew what type of event it would be. It would be a highlight for the club, a highlight for the university… it would be something we want to do.”

And with that, UW Cycling had its sights set on another type of race — bringing Nationals back to Madison.

“We’ve kind of made a brand out of UW Cycling, and getting to host nationals again kind of deepens the brand,” Carr said.

With USA Cycling already on board, the club received additional support from the Greater Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in October. After partnering with Team Sports Inc., a cycling event management company based in Wauwatosa, the foundation for the club’s proposal was set.

“We’ve been doing weekly conference calls with [the city and Team Sports Inc.] to organize everything that goes into the event, which is pretty huge,” vice president and men’s racer Jon Cook said. “It’s a logistical nightmare, I guess you could say to emphasize. As far as the road race, there are a lot of different forms and different permits you need; every township you go into, you need a separate permit or permission. It’s a large process to get that going.”

Despite the three-pronged approach to the bid laid out by UW Cycling, Greater Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Team Sports, there was little doubt Carr was the leader of the pack.

“There were a lot of people doing a lot of different things,” Huxtable said. “Jason really kind of was the binding force in all of this. Without Jason, nationals would not be in Madison. I can guarantee you that.”

2010 Nationals

Perhaps impressed by the previous success of the 2004 Nationals and the overall cycling appeal of the city, USA Cycling awarded Madison both the 2010 and 2011 championships.

This year’s event kicks off Friday morning with the Men’s Division I Road Race at Blue Mound State Park and will culminate with the Awards Ceremony at Trek Bicycle Headquarters in Waterloo.

Friday will see the road races for both the men’s and women’s DI and DII teams take place, while Saturday the criterium around Capitol Square will be the featured event. Criterium races, often referred to as “crits,” are races held on short courses in closed-off city centers. The crit will begin by the Capitol on E Main St. and run counter-clockwise around the building. Sunday will host the Team Time Trial events, with teams going off at two-minute intervals and genders at five-minute intervals.

For the UW club, the crit in particular will be the highlight of the weekend.

“With the criterium around Capitol Square, having home-field advantage and having raced on this course a number of times before really gives our riders a big edge,” Carr said.

“My expectation is that a lot of people will come out and watch [the crit] and really get interested and there will be a lot of people that support cycling in the city,” Cook said. “It’s an event that can help cycling support in the city, which is strong, which is really strong for how small the town is, but it can only help.”

With the heightened expectations that come with hosting Nationals in Madison, UW Cycling also finds itself ratcheting up training preparations.

“The women’s A’s team has been really coaching tough this year, so we’ve gotten out on a lot of training rides and focused on more of the team aspect and what the different roles are people have within the team,” women’s racer Kelley Hess said. “So, for example, you have people who are really good climbers, who are really good sprinters, and then you have other people are very good all-around, and so if people are good all-around they help out their teammates to get them in good position for a sprint or to pull back so the other group can get out in front and try to break away from the group.”

More than just racing

Back in the Nov. 13 press release announcing the Nationals coming back to Madison, Carr lauded UW Cycling’s “progressive bicycling agenda.” To uninterested readers, the phrase might just seem to be traditional public relations jargon. To Carr and the club, however, “progressive” is the mission statement UW Cycling has pursued for decades.

“The club is really big into racing, but we’re also into promoting bicycling as a way of transportation,” Carr said. “I was really involved in Ride to Drive in August, which promoted using the bike paths and biking as a way to get around Madison…We were involved in assorted other cycling events all over, actually, that just promote bicycling, and we try to raise awareness of cycling on campus.”

Beyond the diversity of activities and events UW Cycling organizes and participates in, the progressive appeal of the club extends toward a more basic, simple characteristic — a natural love for cycling.

“It’s a huge club, and the one thing that kind of bonds everyone together is that we love bicycles, we love cycling,” Huxtable said. “That’s the one thing that holds everything together.”