Alexis Skarda going for third straight national mountain biking title
Alexis Skarda had aspirations of greatness and still does — just in a different sport than she originally planned.
The daughter of a former U.S. Olympic Trials track qualifier, Skarda hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps as a distance runner and appeared to be on her way.
Skarda became the first Colorado Mesa All-American cross-country runner in school history, but a muscle-imbalance injury in her hips and legs forced an end to her running career before she reached her potential.
In her final cross-country season in 2011, Skarda began developing an overuse injury, ending her season early.
She was frustrated that she couldn’t run, but teammates encouraged her to try cycling.
“I never imagined switching to cycling,” Skarda said. “I think it’s a bonus actually. I was hoping to go far with running, but with injuries and how things worked out, it wasn’t happening.”
Her father initially was against her switch to cycling, worried she would suffer an injury that would certainly end her running career. Eventually he changed his mind.
“He realized it was something I could excel in,” Skarda said. “He helped me out. Now, of course, he’s a fan.”
This weekend, Skarda will attempt to win her third national title in cross-country mountain biking at the USA Cycling Collegiate Division II Championships in Beech Mountain, N.C.
She had competed in only two mountain bike races before nationals in 2011. Then, at nationals, she surprised everyone, including herself, when she won the women’s Division II cross-country event.
“I was still getting used to how you race and how you handle your bike,” Skarda said. “I think I was getting the hang of it at nationals. Plus, the course wasn’t technical. It was really suited for me and the good running-endurance background.”
Mountain bike racing presented a new and different challenge for Skarda.
There is bike handling, shifting gears and balancing the bike on downhill sections.
“I think a lot of it is bike-handling skills and get behind the seat (on downhill sections),” Skarda said. “Being able to lift up my bike (over big rocks). A lot of it is frustrating, especially on Tabeguache (trails). No matter how good you get on a bike, there will always be those sections.
“I do a lot of endos (falling over the front of the handlebars) because I can’t get behind my seat (to balance her weight on a downhill section).”
Skarda, though, remained determined. She still had the itch to compete.
“There is a lot to think about,” she said. “At the beginning of a race when I was running, the only reason I was nervous was the pain. If you put in the work and you know you’ve trained to your best, you go out and do your best. That’s all you can ask.
“With biking, you’re thinking about, ‘What’s this course going to be like? How much air do I need in my tires. Do I have the right equipment with me if something goes wrong?’ There is so much to think about.”
Skarda returned to run track in the spring, but she was hampered by her injury again. Cycling, though, gave her a new outlet to push herself physically.
Last year, she won a second consecutive national title in the cross-country mountain bike race in Angel Fire, N.M..
This fall, she competed in track racing and placed eighth in the omnium (overall individual championship).
“She has a talent for it,” CMU coach Patric Rostel said, adding Skarda had to make a significant adjustment from running to cycling. “For a runner, you go as hard as you can, but in (cycle) track and road, it doesn’t work. She is slowly getting there. That’s why she did so well in track (cycling).”
A third national mountain bike title won’t be easy, but that makes it exciting for Skarda.
“You never know with the course and competition, especially with biking,” she said. “That’s what’s kind of cool about it, too, though. You can’t predict it.”
This year’s mountain bike nationals take place on different terrain.
Instead of the desert, dirt and rocks of New Mexico, mountain bikers will travel in between trees and over tree roots and rocks.
“This course will be different,” she said. “I assume it will be muddy. I hear the course will be more technical than Angel Fire.”
Skarda hasn’t trained for nationals as much as she would like, either.
She is student-teaching this semester and has to practice on her own because of her schedule. She will graduate in December with a degree in Kinesiology K-12 and Kinesiology Adaptive/PE.
She’ll compete in cyclocross for the Mavericks after the mountain bike nationals, then train to turn pro while she does some substitute teaching.
Skarda competed in a couple of Pro XCT Series races this past summer.
“It was a good experience racing the pro field,” Skarda said. “The courses are more technical. I need to learn more bike handling.
“I need to get a lot more quad muscles. Running is all lean muscle.”