Ashton Klein is minutes away from the end of his career.
The cross-country mountain bike racer’s heart rate is approaching the red-line level. For almost an hour, the William Byrd High School senior has put total focus and maximum effort into pedaling three laps around the undulating, single-track dirt trails of Blue Ridge School in Greene County, the site of his final race of the spring season.
High school cycling in Virginia is growing in popularity and participation, mirroring a regional explosion in endurance sports. As prep cyclists graduate, they are looking to continue their competitive careers and several local universities are intent on meeting that demand. Roanoke College in Salem is finishing its first year of club cycling and has sights set on becoming a varsity sport in the next few years.
Klein has committed to race with the Maroons when he enrolls this fall. He is currently a high school mountain bike racer for Roanoke Star Cycling, a team of 25 young men and women representing more than a dozen schools in the Roanoke Valley, where cycling is popular but not yet school-sanctioned.
He rides in the highly competitive Boys Varsity category of an interscholastic race series called VAHS that includes 32 entrants from around the state. Boys Junior Varsity will see almost 100 racers, and several dozen girls will race similar categories later in the afternoon. Morning races include middle school and elementary age participants.
Mountain bike racing is popular enough that in Central Virginia, all three Albemarle County School District high schools have sanctioned teams, as does Charlottesville High School. Most of the other 30 teams in the VAHS league participate as composite teams — like Roanoke Star Cycling — that pool the resources and coaching required to support the effort. The New River Valley and Lynchburg support several composite teams as well.
The league was founded in 2010 and saw 35 riders that first season. Participation has grown steadily and this spring included over 600 racers, making it the largest USA Cycling junior mountain bike series in the nation.
VAHS founder Peter Hufnagel was a standout collegiate cyclist at the University of Virginia and started the series to provide prep students a venue for racing.
“We’ve come a long way and we’re proud of what we currently offer our teams,” said Hufnagel. “We have way more production value than USAC collegiate events.”
Races are both a spectacle and a feat of logistics. Public address announcers provide running commentary throughout, letting spectators know what is unfolding. Music plays loudly between races, lending a festival atmosphere to the scene. Race waves are staged and started on schedule, down to the second. Instantaneous results are posted online for viewers and participants to pore over.
Ashton Klein started racing the series as a fifth grader and participated in both fall and spring seasons through middle and high school. Last Saturday’s race was his finale as a high school student-athlete, and he was both introspective about the experience and excited about the next chapter.
“It’s very emotional,” said Klein. “I think the main thing was to go out and have a good time with the team and make good memories in the last race.”
“I wanted to find a school where I could study physical therapy and ride competitively,” Klein said. “Regionally, I looked at Lees-McRae down in North Carolina and a Virginia Beach school. But I wanted something closer to home. Roanoke College was a perfect fit.”
“I’ve already started riding with them some this spring, but I’ll be able to ride regularly with the team this summer, once school is out in a couple weeks,” Klein said.
Roanoke College is completing its first year as a club program. Head coach Shelley Olds, hired in August 2022 to build the program from scratch, was a soccer star for the Maroons as a student-athlete in the early 2000s. After college she turned to endurance sports for a competitive outlet and found success in cycling, culminating in racing for Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics.
Olds is passionate about her vision to bring her experiences as a pro cyclist to recruiting and training racers at Roanoke College.
“What I’m trying to do is simulate what I did, racing overseas for professional teams that fully support and sponsor their riders,” Olds said.
One of the unique aspects of college cycling is it’s not governed by the NCAA. Instead, like its high school counterpart, it’s governed by USA Cycling. Coaches can offer scholarships to student-athletes, even at Division III Roanoke College where other sports like soccer or baseball are not scholarship-eligible.
“At this point I’ve been able to get alumni and community donors to give money to offer scholarships,” said Olds. “It’s been a learning experience, working with our admissions department, trying to send out award letters that say, ‘You’ve received an athletic scholarship for cycling.’ It’s not something they’ve written before.”
She also plans to transition the program from club to USAC varsity during the next few years, a process that includes several checkpoints and conditions. Offering scholarships is one requirement. Sending racers to national championship races is another, and in order to achieve the second, Olds is again confident her experience can provide a roadmap.
When she trained as a professional, she learned a multi-discipline approach to cycling is a key to success. Some athletes come to cycling via mountain bike, like Klein. Others start in road or track racing, or a hybrid discipline called cyclocross.
“Once you get to the highest level you have to use road as a supplement to training,” said Olds. “And the track will give you something that the road can’t give you. On the track you don’t have brakes or gears, so it’s all leg cadence to speed up or moving up-track to slow down. You’re always thinking ahead. Awareness of space and tactics are different in each discipline.”
The collegiate season generally consists of mountain bike and cyclocross in the fall and various road racing disciplines in the spring. Maroons athletes are encouraged to train and participate in all disciplines.
“I’ve done cyclocross a few times and I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Ashton Klein. “And I’m looking forward to some training on the roads this summer.”
Ben Cerkovnik is a Roanoke College sophomore from suburban Baltimore who comes to cycling from a road racing background.
“I am very much an endurance person,” Cerkovnik said. “I like to spend time in the mountains, getting as much elevation as I can. I love climbing,”
This spring he got out of his comfort zone and entered several criterium races. Criterium takes place on the road, but consists of short laps of less than a mile, usually in an urban setting on streets closed to vehicular traffic.
“It’s extremely fast-paced,” Cerkovnik said. “There is a lot of strategy, you have to be very in tune with your team. Every line you take around each corner is incredibly important.”
Olds is excited about the growth she’s seen in her athletes this spring. She’s also passionate about recruiting the first women to the team.
“When I first started cycling, I trained with the men. You had to,” said Olds. “Then when I raced in Europe, it was a whole different world. There were so many strong women over there and often the women were stronger than the men. There were more opportunities over there for the women. I want to create that here.”
Olds is also excited to be a part of a strong local cycling scene. She envisions the Roanoke College program to be central to the community and has started a weekly Thursday evening team road ride. She invites locals to join — the college’s president has been among recent participants. She also helps with a youth mountain bike team that introduces elementary school girls to mountain biking on local trails.
Another block in the foundation will be an early fall intercollegiate mountain bike race at Roanoke County’s Explore Park. Local youth riders will be invited to race, and Olds hopes her networking with Virginia Tech’s cycling team will lead to a downhill mountain event on Blacksburg area trails the same weekend.
“We don’t have races here,” Olds said. “I want home court advantage for my team. I want us not to have to travel to races. I want to highlight Mill Mountain, Explore Park and [Carvin’s] Cove, and to show off those places to recruits.”
Elementary. Middle school. High school. College. Pro. The pieces are falling into place for Olds and the Southwest Virginia cycling scene.
“We have a real gem here,” Olds said. “It’s an easy sell to recruits. I just need to get them to come for a visit and they’re hooked.”