Accidentally a champion
Injuries turned CMU runner to cycling, where a pro career may await
She fell off a cliff.
Not one that Wile E. Coyote would drop a grand piano from. Rather, it was a smaller embankment on a mountain bike trail, so Colorado Mesa University’s Alexis Skarda survived what she called a clean fall. She got up, got back on the trail, then displayed a determination that people familiar with her say is at her competitive core.
She does not like to get beat. And on Oct. 19 in Angel Fire, N.M., on the cross country course of the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships, Skarda brushed off a fall that probably should have prevented her from coming back against a professional mountain biker from the University of Denver. After finishing second to Skarda a year earlier at the Division II national meet, Rebecca Gross was determined to unseat Skarda as the cross country national champion.
Instead, it was Skarda’s determination, combined with her strength, aerobic fitness and motor, that prevailed again.
Crash, be damned.
“I got a little angry,” Skarda said of the crash, which resulted from racing side by side with Gross, and when their handlebars clipped, Skarda was the one who went down. “That was an adrenaline rush.”
Skarda said it’s difficult to get the legs going again after a crash, but the adrenaline offset that, and the only thing on her mind was catching and passing Gross, which she did on the third and final lap of 14.1-mile race. Skarda claimed her second national championship in the event with a time of 1 hour, 43 minutes, 20 seconds, which was faster than the winning time in the women’s Division I race.
Not a bad start to a cycling career for someone who only got serious about cycling because she needed a way to train when injuries prevented her from running. Running is what brought Skarda from Boulder to CMU, where she has earned multiple NCAA Division II All-America honors in cross country and track.
Skarda can rattle off a list of injuries from stress fractures to tendinitis. Never the same injury, or at least not on the same leg. If it was the left foot one time, it was the right foot the next.
Mesa cross country coach Gig Leadbetter said Skarda was hurt during her senior season in cross country, and he told her she was not going to heal if she kept subjecting herself to the pounding of running. He talked her into cycling, but not just as a way to train. He told her she should compete for the Mavericks’ competitive cycling club, which was in its mountain biking season.
“My injuries are what led into biking, and it’s what kept me from going crazy,” Skarda said.
At the end of that first mountain biking season, she was first in cross country and second in short track at Division II nationals. She was second in the short track again this year, losing to Gross both times.
The cycling success came as no surprise to Leadbetter, who said Skarda does not want to be beat in anything, even in practice. He said he thinks the world of her and she’s incredibly humble for someone with her accomplishments, but when it’s time to compete, “Underneath it all she is just an animal.”
For example, Leadbetter said, Skarda gets down in a crouch, as if she is at a starting line in track, to begin running intervals.
“Even against the guys,” he said, “if she gets beat a couple of times, she’s going to do 10 more than them. She does not want to be beat.”
The same mentality is displayed on a bicycle, whether it’s a mountain bike, road bike or cyclo-cross bike, and Colorado Mesa cycling coach Rick Crawford said she has the physical ability to go with the mind-set. Her future is in cycling, whichever style she chooses, he said, and maybe she can compete professionally in all three.
She should at least try all three, Crawford said, expand her base and see what she is capable of doing in each before making a decision.
“She’s ready to rock and roll in mountain biking right now,” Crawford said.
As for road racing, he said she’s wired right to do it.
“She attacks,” he said. “She has the fierce competitive nature. She has this determination … basically she loves to race … whatever kind of race it is, she’s going to go after it. That’s why I know Alexis has a future. She has that indomitable spirit.”
The key to becoming elite will be learning the tactics, what Crawford calls a chess game, in road racing.
Whatever race people see her competing in, they’re going to be impressed and want her to specialize in it, Crawford said.
“If she does the road, she’s going to get solicited to do the road,” he said. “If she does the mountain bike, she’s going to get solicited to do the mountain bike.”
He calls her a rare talent, then takes the time to emphasize he’s not using that characterization loosely. He said if she commits to cycling, she’ll be a candidate for the 2016 Olympic Games.
She has the motor, he said, and the mental makeup to get the most out of her ability.
Former professional cyclist Scott Mercier, who helps Crawford coach Colorado Mesa’s cycling program, sees the same thing, and he didn’t have to look hard. He said the first time he saw Skarda on a bike, she was riding a cheap, inferior bike and regular shoes and keeping up with the men’s team.
“There are few people you meet who have that killer instinct,” Mercier said. “She’s got it. And she’s not afraid to lose, which allows her to win.
“She has an opportunity to be world-class.”
Crawford said Skarda’s eyes get sparkly when he tells her she has a career in cycling.
“I don’t know if she quite buys it yet,” he said.
She’s still a college kid, although Skarda laughs when she says she’s on “the five-and-a-half year plan” after she decided a year ago to pursue a teaching license in kinesiology.
And she’s not done running.
“I really want to focus on track for now,” she said. “It’s my last season, and I want to do well. I’ll see how it goes.”
But she acknowledges she plans to do a lot of bike riding after that, possibly putting her running shoes away for good.
She plans to student-teach next fall, meaning she can make a run at a third national title in the mountain bike cross country race. If she adds the gravity events next year, she could contend for the overall mountain biking title at the national meet, Crawford said.
So much for the detour Skarda thought cycling was when she first started training on a bike. Soon after that, while back in Boulder during the summer, a friend of hers who preferred mountain biking suggested they go on a mountain bike ride.
Her response: “That’s so dumb. Let’s go road riding.”