The inclusiveness of Chicago's xXx Racing opens it to big wins

  
  


by Amanda H. Miller
 
xXx-racing-team
xXx Racing group shot

The USA Cycling 2013 Division I Team of the year wins a lot, but that’s not what makes Chicago’s xXx Racing great.
 
“What makes our team unique and deserving of the recognition is that we really focus on developing new riders into competitive and league riders,” said Rob Whittier, men’s development program manager.
 
The team boasts about 160 regular riders and welcomes anyone who wants to join. Less than a third of the team includes elite riders with high rankings. The team’s Saturday rides are open to members and non-members alike and often draw 100 or more cyclists.
 
Many of the most successful cycling teams are careful to recruit only proven riders – the best in their classes. That’s not what xXx does.
 
The team was founded by a group of bike messengers who wanted to try track racing.
 
“We’ve really held true to those roots,” Whittier said. “We still have a really strong track team.”
 
Open to success
 
But it also has the largest women’s program in Chicago and a strong juniors program which is playing a big part in sending its member, 17-year-old Nikos Hessert, to the 2014 UCI Juniors Track World Championships in Seoul next month.  
 
“The team is hugely important to my success,” Hessert said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them. They taught me everything I know about riding a bike.”
 
Hessert was in eighth grade when his local bike shop suggested he try racing. He entered his first competition on his own. A xXx member came up to him afterward and asked if he was interested in joining a team.
 
The team’s nurturing nature helped Hessert to succeed, he said.
 
“Every person on the team, at some point, has given me advice or loaned me a piece of equipment,” he said.
 
There were a lot of paths Hessert could have followed after that first race, but he believes xXx molded him into the racer he is today. It is a supportive atmosphere that keeps him motivated and excited about the sport.
 
“What I love about the team is that it’s not super competitive,” Hessert said. “We accept everyone and we have a lot more success than some of those teams that just take the elite riders. My team pushes me, but I don’t feel like I have to perform or I’m out. It’s great because it makes me love cycling. I’m not going to get to age 19 and decide I never want to see a bike again.”
 
Rider development makes new leaders
 
As Hessert has grown and succeeded on the team, he has come to lean on his teammates less and has found himself shifting into a more senior role on the team, helping younger and newer riders the way veterans have helped him.
 
That’s a common theme in the xXx culture. Sue Wellinghoff, who co-leads the women’s development program for xXx Racing, joined in 2010. She had been racing in triathlons and realized biking was her favorite part of the events.
 
“I had seen the xXx jerseys all over biking in Chicago,” Wellinghoff said. “Everyone seemed pretty pro, so I was intimidated when I first came to the team.”
 
But she was welcomed and quickly felt comfortable with the women on the team. She went to a women's only cycling camp in Wisconsin with the team and learned a lot in a short weekend.
 
“They were all about teaching women who had never raced before,” she said.
Wellinghoff said she was nervous about entering her first race and one of the coaches told her that if she waited until she was ready, she’d never race. She just had to do it.
 
The other women on the team recommended a good criterium race for beginners and were there to support her from start to finish.
 
“I was terrified, absolutely terrified,” Wellinghoff said. “But probably five minutes into it, I though – this is awesome. I love it!”
 
She was dropped at the second corner, but found her niche and finished. She has gone on to win several crits since then and she now helps other new female riders gear up for and break into the racing scene.
 
Making a local impact
 
There’s a lot of opportunity for anyone interested in taking on leadership roles on the team, Wellinghoff said. It’s a lot of work, but she loves co-leading the women’s program. Her counterpart, Courtney O’Neil, focuses on building awareness and recruiting new members.
 
“We’re really getting a lot of visibility on the team this year and a lot of new riders have joined,” Wellinghoff said.
 
Beyond building a healthy team and welcoming all comers, xXx Racing has helped to elevate the sport in Chicago.
 
“We’re so big and prominent, we’ve really woven ourselves into the fabric of Chicago’s cycling culture,” Whittier said.
 
There are more than 100 cycling clubs in Chicago now. While xXx might not be the oldest, it’s momentum has encouraged the creation of several other teams.
 
Team members also tend to be bike advocates and the city has started to take the sport more seriously. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made a major commitment to increasing the number and accessibility of bike lanes in the city, and there is a new effort to build a mountain biking park.
 
“I feel like there’s a lot of momentum behind Chicago’s cycling culture,” Whittier said. “And I think xXx is a big part of that.”


This Article Published July 29, 2014 For more information contact:
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