Daniel Walker/Special to the Herald
ANGEL FIRE, N.M.
Everybody knows the Skyhawks can climb.
On Saturday, they proved they can go downhill, too. And fast.
The Fort Lewis College cycling team, with unprecedented success in the downhill races, extended its overall lead Saturday afternoon at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike Championships at Angel Fire Resort.
The Skyhawks, on track for an eighth consecutive national mountain bike title, won the women’s Division I downhill on the high-speed descent of Brittany Clawson.
Adam Digby of FLC nearly won the men’s race, finishing second by the blink of an eye – .19 of a second. He led a cadre of screaming Skyhawks’ downhillers who grouped near the top of the field, just like the FLC uphill riders.
Taylor Borucki, Phil Cowan and Zach Graveson of FLC placed 4-5-6, giving the Skyhawks four finishers in the top six at the national downhill finals.
Clawson, who was the lone FLC female downhiller at last year’s national championships, also had company at the top this year. Teammate Meghan Kane finished an enthusiastic third in only her fifth downhill race ever. Leila Carrillo hit the top 10 in ninth place.
“That was really fast. That’s the fastest race I’ve ever done,” Clawson said. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever gone.”
Clawson crossed the line in 3 minutes, 17.99 seconds, winning by 11 seconds over Madison Pitts of Lindenwood University in St. Louis, Mo. Kane was a half-second back in third place.
“The course isn’t technical, but it’s bumpy all the way down,” said Clawson, her hands still trembling from the adrenaline of a national championship run.
“And our whole team did awesome. It was really, really cool to have five girls racing downhill. I was happy to be a part of it,” said Clawson, who was cheered by her parents, Scott and Tara Clawson. They made the 22-hour drive from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Angel Fire, N.M., to watch their daughter win gold.
“I just can’t believe it,” a stunned Kane said after finishing third.
“This is like my fifth time on a downhill bike. I’m normally cross country,” she said, speaking as fast as she rode.
“It was so exciting, so fast. I was really nervous before the race,” she said quickly. “I’ve raced all over. I’ve been in Europe. I’ve never been this nervous until now.”
The bronze medal helped settle her nerves, she said, crediting the preparation of FLC downhill coach Elke Brutsaert, herself a former world champion.
Brutsaert watched as three more FLC downhillers finished in the top 20: Carrillo was ninth, Heidi Nakaoka was 16th and Kaila Hart, FLC’s omnium racer, was 20th. Hart will compete in all four events at Angel Fire Resort this weekend.
Digby, the men’s runner-up, said the downhillers had to be careful because of the high speeds on the course that featured a mix of singletrack and ski area roads with lots of dust and loose soil.
“You had to make sure you were on the good line. It was loose, and you had to be careful you didn’t wash out (on the turns),” said Digby, a former junior college track athlete from California who transferred to FLC to transfer sports.
“This course is high speed. The average speed (Friday) in qualifying was 33.3 miles an hour ... and that includes a little uphill section,” said Digby, a former collegiate 400-meter hurdler/runner. “You’re going almost 50 (mph) at one point. It’s the most high speed course I’ve ever raced.”
He said missing the top spot on the podium by a fraction of a second was “kind of a bummer. I know I could have made that up with a pedal stroke here or a pedal stroke there.”
Digby, however, said he was honored to finish second to a cyclist such as John Swanguen of Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky. Swanguen, with extensive national and international experience, finished second in the downhill world championships as a junior cyclist.
Borucki, an FLC senior, said he was excited to be part of the Skyhawks’ best showing in the downhill discipline at nationals.
“This is the best downhill team we’ve ever had,” he said.
The FLC gravity racers pushed the Skyhawks’ composite point total at the 2012 nationals to 564 after Saturday afternoon’s events.
The University of Colorado is second with 488 points. Wyoming is in third place in team omnium scoring with 359 points. Lees-McRae is fourth (347). Colorado State is fifth, with road/track power Marian University of Indianapolis in sixth.
The national championships will conclude today with the final gravity races – the dual slalom, and the Skyhawks hope to come down – fast – with the program’s 20th national championship.