NASCAR on Two Wheels
His older brother loved to race bikes, and so, as a boy of only 5 or 6, Matt Baranoski found himself dragged along to the track. He was technically too young to join in, but he knew how to ride, and it hardly seemed fair to make a kid that age sit and watch while the older boys had all the fun. So his parents asked, and the folks in charge at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome said sure, and an exception was made.
Fifteen years and a cabinet-full of trophies later, the exception seems to have worked out pretty well.
It’s late April as Baranoski tells the story by phone from suburban Toronto, where he’s part of a select group of cyclists training at a sparkling new Canadian cycling center. It’s among the best facilities of its kind in the world, and the elite competition is exactly what he needs as he works to peak in time for Rio. “It’s always good to be pushed,” he says.
In truth, Baranoski doesn’t seem like the type to struggle for motivation. A junior national champion by the time he was 12, able to hold his own against top international competition just a few years later, he quite literally never slowed down. His ambitions on the track informed his college choice: The Perkasie, Pa., native chose Penn State Lehigh Valley because of the proximity of the world-class velodrome and the campus’s cycling program, led by longtime coach Jim Young, whom Baranoski calls “a legend in the collegiate cycling world.” (Baranoski will be joined in Rio by Bobby Lea ’06 Berks, a fellow Lehigh Valley alum making his third Olympic appearance.)
Baranoski rides in an event called the keirin, which he calls “the most fun race on the track.” It’s an eight-lap sprint around the 250-meter banked track, paced by a motorcycle, that leads Baranoski to compare it to NASCAR; world-class cyclists will approach 50 miles per hour down the stretch, occasionally bumping each other to protect their position. “For the last two and a half laps,” he says, “it’s all-out war.”
Six days after his final race in Rio, Baranoski will be back at University Park for his final semester in the Schreyer Honors College; the electrical engineering major is set to graduate in December. It’s a quick turnaround, but if anyone can handle that sort of pace, he’s probably the guy.
Ryan Jones, deputy editor