Racing to the top

LEROY — A sport he used to help stay in shape while nursing a running injury has led to a professional cycling contract for LeRoy resident Alex Vanias.

Vanias, who ran track and cross country at Pine River High School before graduating in 2008, recently signed a deal through the end of the year with the BISSELL Pro Cycling Team out of Grand Rapids. He will be participating in the USA Cycling Pro Criterium National Championship on Saturday in Grand Rapids before making the trek west next month for the Tour of Utah.

The event is a professional stage race that follows the Tour de France and the 2012 Olympic Games format. Many athletes who will have competed in those events will travel to Utah in August for the race.

The races will serve as an initiation to professional cycling for Vanias after a successful amateur career led to his

signing.

“I started off as a runner and actually had a running scholarship to Division I (Detroit Mercy), but I was injured all the time,” he said. “I started riding when I was injured and started doing some racing. I gave up running the next year and started taking cycling seriously.”

Vanias began participating in races on the amateur circuit, winning races in Category 1 races — the highest of five levels of amateur competition.

He has won five races as an amateur including the Joe Martin Stage Race in Fayetteville, Ark., and the Criterium race in Iowa as a member of Bissell-ABG-NUVO — the amateur team that is the official feeder to BISSELL Pro Cycling.

It was during the Joe Martin Stage race that Vanias began to catch the eye of the BISSELL Pro team, Team Director Omer Kem said.

“I think he’s been on a faster than normal upward trajectory,” Kem said of Vanias’ ascension as a cyclist. “His talent is evident, but his work ethic helped him move up as fast as he has.”

Now Vanias, 22, is looking to take on a new role as a member of the BISSELL Pro Cycling Team: Teammate. He will be one member of the 12-person team that competes in races across the country.

“As a pro, I’m probably just going to be supporting the team in any way I can this year,” he said. “I’ll probably get the opportunity to win once in a while, but I’ll mainly be helping the stronger guys out.”

That might include providing assistance to teammates on the course or helping if their bike has any problems on the course and keeping the team together.

“I haven’t met the team yet, I meet them this week,” he said. “I’m excited to meet them.”

Cycling is a physically demanding sport, Vanias said. It has resulted in him racing 2-4 days in a row or more. Typically, a day of racing might consist of between 100 to 140 miles on the bike. During his training, Vanias said he typically will ride about 300 miles per week or up to 500 miles if he’s preparing for a longer race.

He’s still learning the dynamics of being a professional cyclist, Vanias said, but there are some basic qualities he has been able to pick up in reaching the professional circuit.

“I’m still learning a lot about the team strategies, but fitness is always a huge thing,” he said. “In cycling, it’s all about getting faster and lighter. My weakness has been (developing) race strategies, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.”

Kem said Vanias is a good “climber,” excelling during the elevated portions of a race. He will need to work on becoming part of a team now, however, after racing on his own as an amateur.

“He’s going to have to step up his tactical awareness and learn how to race with a group now,” he said. “A strong amateur can be very successful on their own, but at the pro level, the expectation is to be on board with the team’s plan. I think he’ll be able to learn quickly. He’s got a long career in cycling ahead of him.”

Although cycling has become a major part of his life, Vanias is still looking at the big picture with his future, studying mechanical engineering at Ferris State. His professional cycling aspirations include continuing to improve and compete in higher level races — including the famed Tour de France.

“That would be the ultimate goal,” he said. “I just hope to continue to progress further and race

internationally.”