Zach Winn finds himself at Union College in part because it's warmer in the winter than his hometown of Ontario, Canada.
Rachel Millsop was introduced to cycling five years ago by a family friend, and as she searched for a college, she sought a school where she could race. A transfer, she has found her niche at Union.
Winn and Millsop, both sophomores, recently were named Rider of the Year in the Midwest Collegiate Cycling Cycling Conference.
The pair and their teammates will compete in the National Collegiate Cycling Association national championship this weekend at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C.
To train for their mountain-biking season, the Bulldogs bikers can leave their dorm rooms, ride out of Barbourville and wind their way over the two-lane roads of southeastern Kentucky. Their season begins in late August and ends in late October.
Other conference schools, such as Lindsey Wilson, also may compete in cyclo-cross in late fall and the road course season in the spring.
The training regimen for mountain biking is usually between 10-12 hours in a five-day week with competition on the weekends, climaxing with the MWCCC championship. The nationals are two weeks later.
Riders may travel from 40 to 100 miles, which can take between four to five hours.
"I do some things with them," Union Coach Chuck Coffey said. "Because cycling is such an individual sport, everybody is different. Some start slowly and finish fast. Some train at a steady pace."
While individual awards are at stake, team competition is also fierce. Men's and women's points are combined to determine a team champion. Schools are divided into divisions based on the number of riders.
Union won the overall region title and Division II crown in West Lafayette, Ind., Oct. 11-12. Lindsey Wilson captured the Division I title and was second overall. The MWCCC championship was Coffey's fifth at Union.
Coffey started the program in 1998 and returned in 2002 to lead the Bulldogs to the Division II national title. Individuals have qualified for nationals every year since 1998, and the team has qualified nine consecutive years.
"Each individual wants to pull his or her own weight and not let anyone get ahead of them," Coffey said. "But they don't want to let their teammates down either."
Winn and Millsop have done their share this season.
Winn repeated as MWCCC Rider of the Year and has won nine races this fall. Although he was ill, he raced in the 2007 nationals, "but I didn't do too well," he said.
Winn had raced in Canada when he was younger. Coffey recruited him, and he chose Union.
"Racing in Canada isn't at the same level as it is here," Winn said. "I visited and liked the area."
Winn's strengths, he says, are his power and solid race tactics. His best events are short track and cross country. To complete for the overall title, he also will race in the downhill and dual slalom.
A successful regular season for the Bulldogs should carry over in the nationals.
"We were fourth last year," Winn said, "and we're much stronger this year. We have a couple of new riders with German Bermudez and Brad Nelson and a lot more depth."
Millsop will lead the women's contingent which includes Amy Russell and Sara Seitz from Lexington.
"We have a good chance of winning as a whole team," Millsop said. "We have six really great guys. We need to stay healthy and do our best."
Millsop began her season slowly but progressively improved with a goal to reach her peak at nationals.
"I try to keep my mind-set focused on the trail instead of letting other competitors get into my head," she said. "I realize I'm racing more against the trail. The one who can maintain that focus will win."
Millsop, who is from Little Rock, Ark., won seven races this fall after competing in the nationals for Lindsey Wilson last year.
"I did pretty well my freshman year," she said. "I hope this one is better."