Erica Clevenger doesn't remember when she first learned to ride a bicycle, and she didn't find the activity especially interesting before starting college in 2012.
"I thought cycling was nothing more than my father's embarrassing hobby," joked Clevenger, a 2017 University of Arizona graduate in chemical engineering and now the USA Cycling collegiate national champion. "It just sounded like fun, and something I'd be good at. It was both and so much more."
The 2015 El Tour de Tucson winner proves that you don't have to choose between being a top athlete and a highly successful student. She participated in water quality research, did two summer internships with Intel and was named UA Club Sportswoman of the Year in 2016. During her senior year, she received the prestigious John Stenner Collegiate Cycling Scholarship from USA Cycling.
She took notice of the TriCats during one of the UA triathlon team's 36-hour fundraising rides on the UA Mall, and the rest is history. As a junior, she took first place at the 2016 USA Triathlon Collegiate Club National Championships. Her favorite UA memory is besting the field in the Olympic-distance course — a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) bike ride and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run — as her teammates cheered her on.
Finishing 18 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor, Clevenger won the Women's Division Club Road Race at the 2017 USA Cycling Collegiate and Para-Cycling Road National Championships in late April in Grand Junction, Colorado.
"For most of the race I was out front with these four riders, and I got a really good chance to figure out how they rode and how strong they were," said Clevenger, a native of Placentia, California. She noticed that the other riders in the early breakaway pack were struggling on the hills.
"I attacked up the hill, and on the finishing straight I looked behind me and saw a pretty big gap," she said. "I knew then that I had it."
That confidence is also what drove Clevenger, who was on the Dean's List and Engineering Student Council, to excel throughout college.
"Erica has the amazing ability to keep a balance between the very demanding coursework in chemical engineering while also becoming a top athlete," said Paul Blowers, University Distinguished Professor in Chemical and Environmental Engineering.
Solid performances at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race and Tour of the Gila before winning the USA Cycling collegiate nationals nabbed her a rare midseason signup with the Visit Dallas DNA Pro Cycling team. She has secured an offer for a research position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California when racing season ends in the fall.
Landing a professional cycling contract is much like finding a job, Clevenger said, complete with "race resumes" — and a lot of networking.
"All of this was in the final, crucial last few weeks of the last semester of my senior year," she said. "It was a very stressful time, but I prevailed and earned a spot on the roster."
Clevenger's UA teammates were an integral part of the formula that powered her across those finish lines. They understood the challenges of excelling in a college sport while also succeeding academically.
"Erica's win at nationals speaks volumes about her dedication as a student-athlete and the delicate balance between focusing on school and training for elite competition," said Joey Iuliano, UA Cycling Club president. "It is the culmination of years of hard work on her part and on the team's part to be able to support a national-caliber squad."
Clevenger's victories have some cycling fans wondering if she will try to break the Tour de France gender barrier. Since its 1903 debut, the world's most prestigious cycling race has admitted only men.
"The barrier for women in sports is cultural, and we need the patience to understand that it might take generations to change," said Clevenger, who serves on the USA Cycling Collegiate Committee. "The trick is going to be making the sport more accessible to women, then gradually moving toward equality.
"I admire the people fighting for equality in the sport now, because it is the next generation of athletes who will really reap the benefits of their hard work."