Special feature: USC Cycling hosts first-ever race


It’s Thursday morning and USC Cycling Club Race Director Karl Tingwald is a man on a mission. He drives up to the corner of Hayden Avenue and Stellar Drive, located in the heart of suddenly-hip Culver City, and explains that what used to be a section of burned-out, abandoned warehouses has now become a hub of fresh, sometimes offbeat businesses.

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Photo courtesy of Sheldon K. Smith

But that’s not what Tingwald sees today. In the streets that wind between these businesses, he sees a cycling course, which needs to be set up for Sunday’s race.

“I got 250 of these suckers,” he says, pointing out a box of ‘No Parking/Tow Away’ signs to a group of fellow club cyclists. “Make sure to hit every telephone pole, signpost, fence — we don’t want people pissed.”

Hands converge on the signs and a big roll of twine (“Home Depot was out of wire,” Tingwald says with a shrug), and the cyclists depart on foot to tackle the task of making sure cars don’t park on the race course.

It would be a pretty ordinary pre-race day setup, but this stands as an unprecedented moment: Sunday’s race is the first USC Cycling has ever hosted. To do so, the team has cherry-picked 0.6 miles of prime territory in Culver City and has invested thousands of dollars to hold the event, which will draw hundreds of racers from Southern California and beyond.

The timing of the race falls perfectly in line with the growth of the team’s competitiveness — the team’s president, sophomore John Tomlinson, is the top-ranked male cyclist in the Western Collegiate Cycling Conference, the biggest collegiate cycling conference in the nation. The team is also knocking on the No. 1 position in the ‘national’s team omnium’ category (comprising riders in the ‘A’ category, the fastest group in college cycling) and sits at No. 4 in the overall team category, according to the WCCC.

The cycling team’s history has been an inconsistent one, with the club functioning on-and-off since the ’70s; the current iteration of the club has existed since 2002. But though the team lacks the sheer size and presence of more-established cycling teams such as those from UC Davis or Stanford, its performance has been on an upswing.

Whether the team will be able to sustain this rise is unclear.Tomlinson says most collegiate clubs — including USC’s — suffer from recruiting difficulties.

“Every school struggles with finding talent for cycling,” he says. “It’s usually a four-year cycle of being good and then worse. Schools like Davis have coaches, which helps to keep consistency. We don’t have that.”

For now, the team appears to be in good shape. Much of the credit goes to the intensive practice regimens the club’s top racers participate in, often logging 20 to 30 hours a week in the saddle. The usual path takes club members to Santa Monica Beach, where the path diverges dramatically.

Less-experienced riders turn around and head back to USC, a trek of about 30 miles that takes around two hours to complete. Meanwhile, more-experienced racers head up to the Santa Monica Mountains to tackle some climbs on mountain roads.

These journeys can rack up 70 to 100-plus miles on any given day, taking four to six hours to complete. Though difficult, it’s an experience that can bring a unique sense of liberty in what can be a dangerously stale collegiate schedule.

“The experience is kind of hard to describe, but it’s an intense feeling of freedom — you go out and ride and bring yourself in, just your body on a bicycle,” Tingwald says. “Combined with the incredible views and being out in nature, it’s awesome.”

That rush, Tingwald notes, flies back in full force in racing situations. The irony, of course, is that the process of setting up a race is anything but a rush. The primary problem? Money: Both in how to earn it and how to spend it.

Fundraising can be tricky, and the team primarily lives off the support of sponsors. Helms Bakery and Intelligentsia Coffee comprise the biggest sponsors this year, but it’s not a stable arrangement.

“Sponsors often change each year,” Tingwald says. “The whole Trojan Family thing is huge when we try to find people to help support us financially. That, and personal connections — John [Tomlinson] knows the Intelligentsia Coffee owner, for instance.”

Much of the team’s other revenue comes from the sale of uniform “kits,” which include the team uniform and goodies from sponsors. While they’re popular with alumni and non-team members, the number of kits sold varies each year. Last year, the team struggled financially when rain hampered sales of the kits at Homecoming, one of the most popular sales opportunities.

“We were really scraping the barrel near the end of that season because of that,” Tingwald says.

The fact that the team receives little funding from the university itself also compounds investing into projects such as hosting races. Some collegiate cycling clubs receive upwards of $10,000 from their universities, according to Tingwald; the USC Recreational Club Council gives the cycling club far less — about $2,500 to $3,000 a year.

That makes hosting races a bit of a paradox: Though it can cost several thousand dollars to host a race, the race fees can help to raise money. From every $20 paid per racer, the club takes in $16; $3 goes to USA Cycling for insurance and $1 goes to the WCCC. Regardless, hosting races takes up precious resources and enormous amounts of time: The team began planning the race a year ago, dealing with city government and national cycling organizations to ensure everything came together logistically.

Meanwhile, the club had to dig deep into its pockets to pay for the event’s personnel, including police officers, traffic control contractors, USA Cycling  referees and city officials.

With the race costing about $7,000, Tingwald admits the club will probably lose money, but hopes that it will raise the team’s profile.

“It’s a natural step for us, for marketing and to have a presence,” Tomlinson explained. “USC, for the longest time, didn’t have any presence in the Western Collegiate Cycling Conference.”

Tomlinson wants the club to find more opportunities for funding, as the team doesn’t benefit from athletic scholarships in the way varsity sports do (few universities, in fact, have varsity cycling). Instead, he hopes USC will one day create an academic scholarship for serious cyclists. And staying independent of the university’s varsity sports program comes with advantages, chiefly that the club can host cyclists of all levels and competitive aspirations.

“It’s pretty low-key, and it’s as intense as you want it to be. You can come on team rides for free, even — the problem is that people don’t know about the club at all,” says club member and graduate student Nick Guggemos.

Perhaps Sunday’s race will bolster the inflow of interested cyclists to the club. But beyond that, the team members can’t overstate the race’s broad significance.

“We really feel like we’ve made it by hosting our first race,” Tingwald says. “It’s a big step toward establishing a legacy for our school and our team. And we’ve done it ourselves.”

  • Jared

    Great article. Glad to see the cycling club has grown so much and has so many talented and dedicated members. Good luck Sunday!