Thursday, October 10, 2019

The State Champions Next Door

Samantha & Brad Heckert received their awards in Stevens Point on October 5.

Meet the Heckerts: Brad and Samantha. See them around West Bend with their children and they look like a lot of other young couples. But see them in a mountain bike race and you’re probably seeing them leaving you behind.

Racing for Team Pedal Moraine, the Heckerts dominated their respective categories in the recently concluded Wisconsin Off-Road Series. Brad is the 2019 Wisconsin State Champion in Category 2 for the men’s 30-34 age group. Samantha is the 2019 Wisconsin State Champion in Category 3 for the women’s 30-39 age group.

En route to his state title, Brad won his age group in the Mount Morris Challenge, the Red Flint Firecracker, the WORS Cup cross country race (which, by the way, also makes him the 2019 USA Cycling Midwest Regional Champion), the Colectivo Coffee Bean Classic, and the Reforestation Ramble. Take age group distinctions out of the conversation and Brad finished third overall in Category 2, known to WORS as “Comp.”

Not to be outdone, Samantha took 6 age group wins: the Iola Bump & Jump, the Red Flint Firecracker, the WORS Cup cross country race (filtering out the non-series competitors), the Colectivo Coffee Bean Classic, the Reforestation Ramble, and the season finale, Treadfest. Coming into the last race, Samantha was in second place on series points. Her victory in Lake Geneva gave her the state title.

“I had been keeping track of my standing throughout the season, which affected how I raced all my races, but this race was a little different,” Samantha said. “I knew going into the final race that I couldn’t get sick, have a mechanical, or let certain racers pass me, and I didn’t have that kind of pressure during other races. For the other races, I was able to ‘race my own race’ and focus on racing smart while trying to kindly and tactfully pass the Cat 3 men I caught up to. My strategy going into this final race was similar to others, but I had extra motivation. I knew that if everything went well, I could have a title in my age group, and that was really motivating since I am still so new at this.”

Samantha’s introduction to mountain bike racing came last year when she entered the Reforestation Ramble. She followed up a fourth place performance in her debut with a second place finish at Treadfest, the 2018 season finale. But for 2019 she took on more than just a full WORS season; she also competed in her first triathlon.

“Balancing multiple sports has been difficult, especially because I don’t come from any specific endurance sport background,” Samantha said, “and I decided to race a triathlon while training for mountain biking. That was kind of the beauty of trying the triathlon, though. I’ve been shopping for a new sport since I stopped dancing, choreographing, and coaching a few years ago.

“I balance my training by focusing on what interests me the most, so this summer I naturally ended up prioritizing cycling, and then my secondary focus was running. For the swim, I was a complete beginner and just tried to learn how to swim correctly. During the race I crossed my fingers that I would make up my time on the ride and run.”

What’s next for Samantha? Probably an upgrade to Category 2, with longer races over more challenging terrain in 2020.

“Throughout the season I was envious of Brad for some of the features he got to experience,” Samantha said. “I’ll see how I’m able to train over the winter, but Cat 2 is the goal. I think bumping up a category would push me to keep up with the pack and would be beneficial to my growth. If I can build over the winter and show up ready in spring, I think Cat 2 is doable.

“I plan to be on the bike more in 2020 and shift my focus to cycling, specifically mountain biking. Cycling is something our entire family is able to do together, and I enjoy it the most out of all the other endurance sports I’ve tried so far.”

Brad came into the 2019 WORS season with high ambitions after a very successful 2018 season. With 6 wins in the 30-34 age group, he was last year’s state champion in the “Citizen” class—i.e., Category 3. For most people the next step would have been an upgrade to Cat 2 and at least one full season in the “Sport” sub-category. Brad elected to go straight to “Comp,” the top step of Category 2.

“Coming into the 2018 season, I started training through winter and I had a lot of success right off the bat, and I was able to gain fitness through the season,” Brad recalled. “I felt like I should have moved up to Sport, but I chose to wrap up the overall score in Citizen. I moved up to Sport for the final three races of the year, allowing Samantha to try mountain bike racing for the first time. I was confident in my training plans and wanted to really set my goals high for 2019, so I decided to challenge myself and move directly to Comp.

“My passion for cycling was taking off, and as I gained fitness I enjoyed riding longer distances. The longer WORS races challenged the pacing side of racing, and I prefer that. I really enjoy maximizing my efficiency when racing. My fitness has really taken off since 2017, when I only had 288 logged riding miles.”

Brad’s success in 2019 extended beyond his age group: finishing in third place overall brings a mandatory upgrade to Category 1 for 2020.

“I’m really excited to be racing in Elite next year,” Brad said. “My goal is to just keep improving. The first year will surely be a learning experience, so I'm not expecting results right away.

“Right now I am taking a break from the training and structure. I plan on racing more cyclocross this year but it’s still an off-season sport for me, and I try to keep it fun. I plan on taking an extended break and start training again once it gets too cold to ride outside.”

So, what will Brad always remember about his 2019 state championship season?

“I definitely won't forget the leg cramps from the first few races in Comp,” he said, “and the thoughts of going to Sport for the rest of the season! I had a rough start, but I’m glad I stuck with it. I needed that extra push. New Fane (in the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series) was another event I'll remember, leading the start of the race 1-2 following Matt Grady for a couple laps and then finishing third, just behind Matt, in the 3-hour event.”

Team Pedal Moraine’s Matt Grady is a good benchmark for Brad. The 25-year-old Cat 1 from Cedarburg was this year’s state champion in the 19-29 age group and 10th overall. As Brad moves into the Elite ranks for the 2020 season, he and Matt can encourage each other to reach new heights.

And what will Samantha always remember about her 2019 state championship season? Perseverance.

“It was tough,” she said. “I was sick a few times and had to push through some nasty stuff during races, but in the end I completed all the events I was able to, and it paid off. This year has been huge for me in terms of personal growth, and this championship was part of that!”

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