UCSD graduate student and cyclist looks toward Olympics


Anna Lang played softball and volleyball as a kid, but for whatever reason, said she never truly took to either sport.

Tall and athletic with a competitive bent, she couldn’t quite figure out why neither sport attracted her, but she longed for a competitive outlet. It wasn’t until she turned 21 that she found the athletic pursuit for which she had always been looking.

Lang, now 29 and a graduate student at UC San Diego who has lived in La Jolla since 2003, is a competitive bicyclist aiming for a shot at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

She rides for the San Diego Bicycle Club, sponsored by Karl Strauss brewery. Most of her track training is done at the velodrome at Balboa Park’s Morley Field, and she does her road work up and down the coast from La Jolla.

“I always enjoyed the training, but never liked the games for volleyball and soccer,” Lang said. “But I just didn’t get much out of it. I fell in love with the mental aspect of this.”

Track cycling is the oldest form of cycling in the world, and at the beginning of the 20th century, the sport was as big or bigger than baseball or boxing. There are endurance races and sprint races in track cycling - Lang is a sprinter.

The lone Olympic track cycling event for female sprinters is match sprint. Sprinters make three laps around the 250-meter track. The first two laps generally involve jockeying for a position, but the excitement comes in the last lap, when the cyclists engage in an all-out sprint for the finish. “It’s a very intense event,” Lang said.

Lang also races in an event called keirin, named after a region in Japan. Cyclists race eight laps six at a time around the track, following a motorbike for the first half of the race, and then taking off at speeds as high as 40 miles per hour over the last half of the race. It is a very aggressive form of racing in which the athletes bump shoulders often and battle for position the entire time.

“Being a track sprinter, people don’t expect me to have a lot of aerobic fitness, because so much of the training is so intense,” Lang said. “People don’t expect me to be out on the road for three hours at a time. But what I’m doing differently is spending a lot of time on the road. I’m competing in the women’s professional road field and doing really well. I’m bringing my track sprint ability to the road.”

So far, it has produced incredible results. She is among the top road sprinters in the world, and on Aug. 19, will compete in the U.S. Criterion Nationals in Chicago, an event that involves short loops around a city block and lasts about an hour. The event is all about tactical racing and the final sprint.

Last month, Lang finished fifth out of 53 competitors at the 46th annual Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. “I’ve been racing bikes for about eight years, but I’ve only been on the track for about three years,” Lang said. “But I always sort of knew I was suited to track racing. I’m tall - 5-foot-11 - and I have long legs and have always been a power rider.

“I always knew I would do well on the track, but it wasn’t until I moved down to San Diego that I could train at a track nearby.”

Lang’s shot at the Olympics appears to be a strong one - she has been in the national talent pool for the last three years. She has all the physical tools, and appears to have the right mindset, both for the tactical racing skills needed and the approach to training. She is currently No. 2 in her class, and has beat the No. 1 rider, who is nearing retirement.

“She’s big, she’s muscular and she’s not afraid,” Mark Whitehead, Lang’s long-time coach, told the Marin Independent Journal recently. “She’s tough, and she comes from good stock.”

Lang is working toward her Ph.D. in structural engineering at UCSD. She is more than busy with her studies but also dedicates plenty of hours to training for what she hopes is a chance at Olympic glory.

She said nothing would provide a bigger thrill than the chance to represent her country. A big step will come in October at the Home Depot Center in Carson, the site of the U.S. Track Nationals.

“The Olympics are about competing, and just thinking about walking into the opening ceremonies will be enough,” Lang said. “Just making it there would really be enough.”