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Student-athlete par excellence

(February 10, 2000, Gazette)

Chris McNeil juggles school, athletics

By Susen Johnson

You may have seen the image on television: muddy, super-determined cyclists, running for all they’re worth up a steep embankment with a bike tossed over their shoulders. You may have thought, why would anyone do that? Doesn’t the bike mean you don’t have to run?

Welcome to the world of cyclo-cross — a combination of off-road racing and marathon running that’s usually held in winter conditions over wood trails, soggy meadows, and short, steep hills. It’s also the world of Chris McNeil, a 22-year-old St. John’s native and engineering student who is the only Newfoundlander ever to place on the podium at the Canadian National Championships for cyclo-cross.

As one Web site puts it, cyclo-cross is about getting off, running around, and getting back on. It’s a test of stamina, agility, and intelligence, a three-kilometre odyssey of gruelling effort that tests your fitness and your ability to strategize — to adapt instantly and well to the changing terrain. But to Mr. McNeil, it’s just fun.

“I love cycling. Actually, I love every event I do — road racing, mountain biking, cyclo-cross. I love them all.”

Mr. McNeil evolved from a kid seemingly glued to his bike into a member of the Prince of Wales Collegiate cycling club, where riding through snowstorms was the norm. Initially reluctant to race, his first medal in Pippy Park got him hooked, and now his interest in cycling plays a part in his career decisions — even his choice to pursue engineering.
“I’d always been into the technology side of cycling, because especially in competition, if you don’t have the right equipment, you can’t compete. And I love to design things, so mechanical design completely suited me.”

Mr. McNeil uses his engineering work-terms to fund his cycling habit, which, between equipment, travelling to competitions, and race entry fees can get pretty steep. His sponsorship from Trek Bicycles as well as Canary Cycles in St. John’s is crucial because equipment gets put through the wringer at every event. And those bikes aren’t cheap — coming in at around $6,000 each.

“He’s been a big influence on me,” Mr. McNeil said of shop owner Joe Planchat, who he’s the first to call after a race. “And he’s helped me get to where I am today. He just does it because he loves racing.”

Of course, being a part-time cycling champ and a full-time engineering student is no easy ride either. But despite the workload, he finds an hour a day to train and eight hours for sleep.

“It’s all about priorities and scheduling. It was rough at first, but now I don’t even think about it.”

In the off-season, Mr. McNeil stays off his bike as much as possible and tries new things like cross-country skiing and running, weight training, and swimming.

He kept his conditioning up during a move to Ottawa for work-term last November, racing twice a week, and then some.

“I’d get on my bike Saturday, ride for an hour to get to a race, do the race for an hour, and ride home. And the next day, Sunday, I’d do it all again. So I’d be burnt out Monday and Tuesday at work, and my boss would be, ‘Why are you so tired?’ But it paid off. Within a 10-day span, Mr. McNeil did the best racing of his life.

In a local competition, he placed second in his age group, then went on to win a silver medal at the nationals in St. Sauveur, Quebec, pushing through freezing wind and snow to beat 99 others and claim Newfoundland and Labrador’s first ever elite Canadian championship medal.

Returning from Quebec, Mr. McNeil had to leave Ottawa again almost immediately for a business trip to Toronto, all the while trying to figure out how he’d get to Chicago the next weekend for the American National Race Series Super Cup, one of the largest and most competitive race series in North America.

“I figured I had to find a way to get down there. I wanted to know just how well I’d fare against the next level of competition. Because if I didn’t go, it’d always be in my mind, ‘How would I have compared?’”
In Chicago, Mr. McNeil raced against riders from all parts of America, Canada, and Europe, with 5,000 spectators watching, and on a flat course (he’s used to hillier terrain). He prevailed again, placing 10th in his age category, before hopping the plane back to race the next day at the Ontario Provincial Championship in Oshawa — and he won.
Currently ranked at 103rd in the world (the third highest-placed Canadian), Mr. McNeil is grateful for his success.

“Looking back, it’s kinda hard to even think about where you are now. It’s like ‘Holy cow, I’ve actually done some of this stuff that I didn’t even imagine I could do’. I’ve surpassed my goals.”

But when it comes down to it, Mr. McNeil sees his twin interests of cycling and engineering as intertwined, the one helping the other.
“There’s one level where cycling is almost exactly like engineering. You have to train so hard to do well in the races, and you have to study so hard to do well in your exams. And everything that goes along with training — the same things apply to studying: you have to eat right, you have to get your sleep, you have to study hard all the time.”

Home now for his fifth term in engineering, Mr. McNeil hopes to be able to return to Ottawa for his next work-term this summer to push both his design skills and his racing to newer heights. Although racing as a career choice remains an option down the road, the engineer’s heart remains with design.

“The creativity of it and the satisfaction when you design something and have it fabricated ... that’s incredibly rewarding.”