Bicycle racing got in Nolan Tankersley’s blood, and now it’s fueling him across the country and beyond.
The Erwin native and Milligan College signee is currently in Madison, Wisc., for a holiday event. A week or so later, he will be in Quebec, Canada, for a junior version of the Tour de France — called the Tour of L’Abitibi, an international men’s junior cycling competition.
“I’m super pumped, but nervous,” said the 18-year-old Tankersley. “I’m hoping to do well. From what I’m told it’s a good opportunity for me to learn. It will be a good way to show what it takes to be at the best level.”
Tankersley was invited to participate in the Tour of L’Abitibi, which runs July 15-21. He got the invite after a strong showing in a USA Cycling camp in Flagstaff, Ariz.
“There were 24 of us racing against each other,” said Tankersley. “We had time trials almost every day. I finished in third place, and was able to get picked. The USA Cycling A team is a level below the national team.”
It all started when Tankersley was 15 years old. He was a cross country runner and also played basketball in the Unicoi County school system, but said he always watched the Tour de France.
Tankersley started riding with his brother, Connor, who is 16 months younger. Then they tried a couple of races.
“We got a quick feel for racing,” said Tankersley.
Nolan had quite the learning experience in his first race — one that left a lasting impression.
“We were down in Oak Ridge, and it wasn’t anything big for our age,” said Tankersley. “We were going down the hill and I thought, ‘Sweet, I’m still with the lead group.’ ”
Unfortunately for Tankersley, his focus didn’t stay on the course.
“I was grabbing my water bottle, and I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “I went into the dirt and crashed into an embankment.”
All in all, it wasn’t too bad. Tankersley was scratched up, but nothing serious.
“One of the guys watching said that was the best save he’s ever seen,” said Tankersley. “But for a long time, I had a rough time going through the downhills and cornering. My brother has always been ‘no fear.’ But it took me a long time to get over that crash, probably about a year.”
Tankersley still wasn’t 100 percent racer at that point. He was still playing basketball and running cross country.
However, in the spring of 2010 things began to change as race season started. Then in 2011, the brothers got a coach (Everett Baker) and started training. Then they changed to Brian Sheedy, a collegiate coach and a former professional rider.
Throughout the course of riding and training, Tankersley got to know Zack Nave. That would eventually lead him to Milligan because Nave recently took over the Buffaloes’ biking program.
“He told me Milligan wanted to develop a strong team,” said Tankersley. “I wasn’t going to send an application, but I did and then toured the campus. Once I did, everything changed. It’s the best campus I’ve seen.”
Tankersley signed in May, and expects big things with the Buffaloes.
“They had a program but it was more of a mountain biking program,” he said. “For what I’ve been told, the new athletic director wanted to put more money in the program and Zack was given the opportunity to coach.”
The college racing season starts in the winter, and this fall Tankersley will be doing Cyclo-cross season.
“Cyclo-cross is 60 minutes of pure pain,” he said. “It’s mainly all effort for the duration. You have to get off the bike and jump over barriers, ride through sand pits, and dismount to go uphill.”
For now, Tankersley is focusing on the 2013 USA Cycling Amateur & Para-cycling Road National Championships. He will compete in Madison through Sunday.
Tankersley rides for Village Volkswagen out of Chattanooga. He said he’s also thankful for support back home from Brian White and Alan Sparks at the Hampton Bicycle Shop.
Tankersley’s dad, David, said he’s appreciative of the support from the local community.
“They’ve helped us tremendously,” said David. “I think that’s important for other parents to know, seeing they have a way to get started.
“There are different people, including the Tri-Cities Road Club. Even if parents don’t ride, they can get their kids involved in cycling. Cycling is discipline all the way around. It’s discipline as far as diet, training schedule, and it’s something mechanical you have to take care of. Race car drivers have the whole team, but with cycling it’s just you and the bike.”
As for the future, Tankersley said he’s focusing on college — at least when he’s not focusing on riding.
“I definitely want to try to get on a pro team, within the next couple of years,” said Tankersley. “But I’m committed to finish college. That’s one thing I want to do no matter what. I’ve seen so many bike racers who go pro, and then have an injury or get burned out. They come back to reality and don’t have anywhere to go. College is Plan A. It’s a big thing for me.”