Sports cycling

Alumna wins cycling's elite national championship

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Christina Birch PhD ‘15 took first in the women’s individual pursuit at the US cycling championships.
Courtesy of Erika Fulk

Christina Birch PhD ’15 won her maiden elite national title when she clinched first place at the women’s individual pursuit race at the USA cycling elite national championships held at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center in Trexlertown, PA. Despite suffering major bruises in a crash that involved four other racers, Birch managed to clinch second position in the points race. Finally, she capped off her weekend with a photo finish in the Madison race where she, along with teammate Tela Crane, clinched second as well.

For Birch a national title at the elite level was a testament of immense hard work and belief in herself. Having completed her PhD in bioengineering at MIT, Birch made the bold choice of prioritizing competing at the elite level over research.

“It was a very hard decision to prioritize cycling. I moved to LA after grad school to be close to the only world class Velodrome in the United States which is in LA,” explained Birch.

Taking a bold step is just the first part. Unflinching dedication is required to compete at an elite level.

“We tend to increase the intensity of training for 3 weeks and then back it off for a week and then back to high intensity for another three weeks. I spend at a minimum 10 hours a week. Prior to the nationals I had to put in upwards of 20-25 hours,” said Birch.

Birch recognizes the national title was a significant milestone in her path as she sets her sights on representing the United States on the international stage.

As fierce a competitor she is on the tracks, her passion remains science and the intellectual stimulation that comes along with it. Yet the pragmatist in her knows the window of opportunity to be an elite cyclist is short.

To keep in touch with world of science and research she enrolled as a full-time lecturer, teaching bioengineering at UC Riverside.

While balancing her academic demands with those of an elite athlete is undoubtedly challenging, Birch thrives on challenges, using them to motivate herself even more.

“I know it’s cliched to say I want to be the best that I can be but I feel that comes from somewhere. That comes from a challenge of the preconceived limits you have about yourself. I started late and part of it is just challenging the prejudices I have against myself. I like a challenge because there is something satisfying about overcoming one.”

So with the national title under her belt, what is next for Birch?

“I need to better a certain qualifying time in the individual pursuit race (3km) after which I would like to represent USA in international competitions. There is the Pan-American Championship, the World Cup, the World Championships, and the Olympics.”

Almost a year removed from her big decision to prioritize cycling, Birch has demonstrated her determination and commitment to achieving her dreams. While no doubt bigger accomplishments lie in the horizon, Birch fondly remembers where it all started — with the MIT cycling club.

“My best friend Zach Labry used to get a bunch of team members to cycle in the wind tunnel at MIT so we could learn to race while minimizing the air-drag. Our competitors would say MIT cyclists are fast because of their ability to practice in the wind tunnel. In reality it was because we were such a close-knit group that practiced really hard.”

“I owe the start of my career as a competitive racer to the MIT cycling team,”said the elite national champion.