This week I talked in-depth with Penn Cycling co-President and senior Colby Samstag and learned everything you need to know about Penn Cycling. I also got plenty of extra insight from Samstag about Lance Armstrong's fall from grace and what it means for the future of cycling:
Who does Penn Cycling consist of?
We have about 50 undergrad and grad students and it’s basically for anyone who likes riding a bike. We have a club aspect to it that’s for people who want to go on rides and want to have access to resources. But then we also have a dedicated race team within the club. And we focus on road racing. The collegiate road season is in the spring and we have about nine race weekends, men and women, undergrads, grad. Just road races for the most part.
What does Penn Cycling do in the fall?
Mostly cycling is offseason, so we do get-togethers, have group rides, we have rides that individuals can post on our listserv. Training for the next season doesn’t start until November/December. So fall is just slower group rides to build base fitness up. As soon as the new year starts we have indoor classes at our sponsor shop where you’re on a CompuTrainer so you have an indoor trainer that measures your wattage output. We have a coach that gives each person what they’re supposed to do for that day.
What’s the difference between road and track racing?
Track racing is you go in a circle, there’s different types of events and different distances, but they all focus around going in a circle and being a strong sprinter so normally track guys are these big huge hulking guys who are good at sprinting. There are two different types of road races. One is called a criterium, which is 30-90 minutes, and that’s like a small loop. Last year we had one on Temple’s campus and that’s just like a square track, again for the sprinters, the big hulking guys. But then true road races are gonna be by the mile. A 'D' race might be 13 miles but an 'A' race might be close to 100 miles. Road races are usually more endurance-based and determined by how you can do on the hills. There are more places you can mess up.
Do you prefer road racing over track racing?
Road racing I find more interesting because it’s longer. I do rides out to Paoli and Conshohocken every weekend and you get to see more and experience more. You get to burn 3,000 calories that you could eat more.
I’m a small guy. I’m what they call a climber. I focus on hills. I thrive on the longer steep hills, like in Pittsburgh [where Samstag is from]. I’m 125 pounds and almost 5-foot-11 so I’m a skinny guy.
Does Penn Cycling do track races in addition to road races?
We have but this year we’ve just been focusing on roads. It really depends year to year on what the contingency is. We have some people that ride mountain bikes but we haven’t done any mountain biking this year. We might do a few races called Cyclocross where it’s like this crazy European sport where you jump over barriers and jump on your bike and ride through the dirt. So we’ve had a bunch of people do that in the past but this year the contingency seems like it’s mostly gonna be road racers.
How did Penn Cycling do last year?
Last year was kind of a rough year. It was a tough year for Penn Cycling. The year before last we actually did really well. We had someone on the podium at Nationals, and he became a pro last year. We’re getting a lot more members this year who want to race.
Max Korus went pro—he went on to win Elite National Championship, for elite racers that are non-pro so he got a pro contract after that. He got a National Champion’s bike and jersey and everything. And now he rides professionally. Last year he rode professionally for Team Kenda. He hadn’t ever ridden a bike, never raced a bike before his sophomore year here and then he became a pro right after graduating.
When does road racing begin?
Road racing starts the first week of March. There’s sometimes still snow on the ground in our races. We had one in Troy, N.Y., one year where we stood out the night before our race and there was six feet of snow on parts of the ground. So you have to instill people with the will to do this early on because if you don’t get people riding in this kind of weather and have a lot of group rides and stuff now it’s hard to get participation when the weather sucks.
Where does the gear, bikes and clothing for members come from?
Clothing is subsidized by the team. We provide all the transportation, race fees, hotels, everything directly race-related. They don’t have to pay anything at all out of pocket for their license, for any of the races. But we do make them pay for their equipment. We have club sponsors that we get discounts from the bike shop, and we give subsidies for clothes. Also we have a team sponsor for our bikes that we can get 30 percent off of bikes from. We can’t give free bikes or free clothes. Cycling is an expensive sport but we make as affordable as we possibly can. We have a pretty good fee allotment and sponsors that take care of us, so we make it way more accessible than what cycling could ever be in a non-collegiate setting. Every student probably spends $200 from our budget as far as race fees and travel that we all subsidize.
What is Penn Cycling's schedule like?
We don’t impose schedules on people. Pretty much every day someone will host a ride. There’s also lots of rides around Philadelphia that we all do. I did a ride tonight on a ride through Fairmount Park. It’s park-looped and meets every Tuesday and Thursday. I want to say we had four members that showed up tonight out of the eight members that do it in general. We don’t have a strict schedule but we encourage teamwork and teach basic training principles. So I tell people how they should be training at any given time. It’s really on an individual basis because it’s hard for an A racer to train with a D racer in the middle of the season just because there’s such a discrepancy of skill level. So we try to pair people up who have similar skill levels and have them ride together. We always encourage group rides.
How people train and how involved they want to be is up to them. There are ‘A’ racers and ‘B’ racers and beginners and we don’t want to force people above their level. But we encourage them to do the best they can.
What organization is Penn Cycling affiliated with?
We’re part of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC). It’s actually one of the hardest conferences. When it comes to getting spots for nationals we get one of the highest allotments because we’re so competitive nationally.
What’s your reaction to the stripping of Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles?
He did it. It was endemic in the sport at the time. People are focusing on Lance only because he’s such a bully and kind of silenced everyone that opposed him. Almost everyone at the top level of the sport did it. I think it’s a shame but I’m not surprised by it. I do want to believe that’s it gotten a lot cleaner since then and will continue to do so as a result.
I used to say [he cheated] years and years ago and people would argue with me. It’s not shocking, it’s just sad that it happened.
How much of a problem is the fact that cycling’s greatest public figure is suddenly a negative for the sport?
I’d like to think that people will ultimately see that’s it’s been cleaned up a lot since then. One of the measures you can use to see how EPO and blood transfusions and all those things. You can look at the times of the climbs in the Tour de France that they’ve had for the last 100 years. You can see how long it takes for them to go up some of these mountains and you can see a drastic decrease in those times when they were all taking EPO, the main drug they took and human growth hormone and all those things they were taking.
But now the times have gone way back up and people are saying that’s because people aren’t doping now. So it’s taking them longer again and there’s been a big massive shift in how people within the sport perceive doping. At the time it was just accepted but now you can see a lot of effort and people who do it are actually getting shunned. There’s a concerted effort to change it.
I would hope it wouldn’t stop someone from getting involved in the sport because I’d like to believe that it’s changed enough. We’re talking about 10 years ago, you know? He didn’t even have an EPO test when he was originally doing it. Like VO2 max and threshold power, EPO can boost those so much it’s unbelievable. Because what you’re doing is increasing your red blood count. It’s the same thing with blood doping.
So the years people were allowed to do it without any consequence, it created that atmosphere. I’d like to think it’s subsiding in part due to this because people are coming forward saying, ‘Look, I did it too. Lance did it, I did it. The whole team did it, all the doctors provided us with drugs.’
What do you think of the argument saying that Armstrong still won competing a level playing field because everyone was cheating?
It’s a myth because everyone responds differently to these drugs. He had the best doctors, he had the best trainers. He had the best doctors in the industry that people couldn’t afford that gave him all of these drugs. I don’t think it was a level playing field. I don’t think he was just the best doping athlete among doping athletes. I think that’s a myth. I think that he was a cheat and you’ve got to look at the context – he did it but it’s still hard to disentangle what was right and wrong in that era.
Give me your best pitch for joining Penn Cycling.
If you like to ride a bicycle, we have something for you. We have everything from ice cream rides where we’ll go out and get ice cream and just ride really slow and we have racers that are winning races every now and then. I just think that if you like bicycles and you wanna meet other people with the same interests, you can do it here. We encourage any riding of bikes basically, competitive if you can, but if not that’s fine too.
What’s your favorite Penn Cycling memory?
I don’t know if I have just one. There’s been some great races in my four years of racing. I didn’t come to Penn expecting to race. I had a non-roadbike and I wanted to join the club and see if it was fun and now I’m riding multiple days a week. It’s just an encouraging group of people.
What’s your favorite Penn athletics memory?
I like [Penn Associate Director of Structured Sport] Mike Reno a lot. I feel like he’s really honest and easy to talk to. I don’t know if that’s a memory but I think he makes the sports club committee meetings a lot easier than they would be under someone else’s rule.