A downhill racer on her way up
Andrea Napoli is a champion in more than just collegiate cycling
Andrea Napoli freely admits that there are two Andreas, really.
On the one hand, there is the meticulous, process-driven, planning-minded Andrea. This is the person who can look at a stretch of road and see the unassuming blacktop come alive before her eyes through the possibility of multiple uses for pedestrians, automobiles and bike users.
It's the same Andrea who can be out with friends on a mountain bike ride along the ridges near her old home in Lake Tahoe, riding for fun yet also thinking of the ride in terms of another building block, another natural progression, in her skill as a mountain biker.
"When I ride for fun," Napoli said recently, "I'm pretty conservative and generally don't take a lot of chances, for better or worse, I suppose. I'm more about 'baby steps' and working up to things to build my confidence."
When Napoli races, however, an entirely different Andrea surfaces.
"Downhilling," Napoli, who won the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championship in downhill in late October, said matter-of-factly, "requires a lot of confidence. When I'm racing, I feel totally different. It's like I don't have time to think and I just do it. I often get in a zone when I'm racing where I'm just too distracted to pay attention to my 'self-preservation' voice ... who's probably screaming at me."
Either way, having two sides, one a bit methodical and one a bit intuitive, one brimming with long-term plans and professional ideas and the other full of the passion and simplicity of a single, thrilling moment, has made Napoli an extremely well-rounded individual.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in her competitive cycling career, where Napoli's individual success has helped earn her recognition for her many works that have helped build a stronger, safer and more diverse cycling community in Reno.
In December, Napoli, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Department of Geography's Land Use Policy Program and a member of the Nevada Cycling team, was named the recipient of the Joshua Kuck Memorial Scholarship, a national award given through the USA Cycling Development Foundation in honor of outstanding achievements in the areas of cycling safety, advocacy and education.
The news came on the heels of Napoli's thrilling, fearlessly audacious championship downhill run at Angel Fire Bike Park in Angel Fire, N.M., in late October.
Not bad for a competitor who only bought her first mountain bike - "an old beater" - seven years ago for $200. Plummeting down a freezing, muddy, root-laden downhill course was probably the furthest thing from Napoli's mind then.
She can still remember when she graduated from riding up an old fire road near her home in Carnelian Bay to the Northstar mountain bike park, where the dusty descents are challenging enough that at any time a rider half-expects to see a dry-land training Lindsey Vonn come swooping by.
"I was really intimidated by that place," Napoli said. "I had always heard how gnarly it was. It certainly was challenging, but I loved it. Every time I went I was able to ride more and more sections of trail - and there is nothing like the feeling of progression; it just feels good to consistently get better and better at a sport.
"That's about when I stopped riding uphill and just wanted the descent."
Napoli competed in her first downhill race in 2010, originally competing in downhill and dual slalom events before adding "Super D" (super-downhill) races in 2011 to her racing repertoire.
When it came time to lay things on the line for a national downhill mountain bike championship in October, Napoli felt she was ready.
Conditions in the southern Rockies in Angel Fire, N.M., were far from favorable, though. Temperatures were below freezing at the top of the 10,650-foot elevation mountain bike park, with a treacherous line of roots and mud on the lower portions of the 2,000-foot run.
Yet, Napoli knew, almost from the very beginning, that the day was going to hold a good result. She was the first racer to test the course, which was both a challenge - could she even finish the run, given the conditions - and a real emotional boost.
"Once I was out of the gate, the adrenaline just kicked in and I pushed myself hard," she said. "I really, really wanted to win. I was the first racer to go and when I crossed the finish line I saw that I had shaved off over a minute from my seeding run the day before. That told me that I would have to end up at least in the top five."
As she waited out the rest of the competition, a certain top-five finish compressed to thoughts of top-three, and then ... was it possible ... a championship?
"I certainly didn't think I had first place in the bag ... but as more and more racers came through ... the more real the thought became that I might actually win," she said.
"I was kind of shocked when I realized I had the winning run, but the best part was how pumped both my teammates and some of the other Western Conference teams were," she said. "It was really just awesome."
The reaction of her teammates, as well as other athletes from other schools, reminded Napoli that any sport, no matter how individualistic it might seem, is never truly lonely.
At 38 years old, thanks to her participation with the University's cycling team over the past two seasons, Napoli said her enjoyment and appreciation of the sport had never been greater.
"It certainly has made bike racing a lot of fun," she said of being part of the team. "Some of the races that I compete in outside of collegiate racing have competitors that take themselves VERY seriously, which can take away from the fun of racing. College racing and the team aspect of it all, however, is such a welcoming environment.
"We all want to win, of course, but the team atmosphere is more about having a good time rather than killing your competition. It could be your first time on a bike and you're dead last in the race, but your UNR teammates are going to yell and scream for you just as loud as they did for the Wolf that won it.
"That's how we roll."
Napoli's other big "win" of note, receiving the Kuck Memorial Scholarship, was a fitting finale to what Napoli termed "the amazing season I had this year."
"I consider myself a very dedicated student, so I had hoped that my academics combined with my results and my advocacy efforts would make me a good candidate for the award," she said. "I feel very strongly about making biking safer in communities. I'm doing what I can to contribute here in Reno, which is right in line with the intent of the scholarship.
"I'm completely honored to have been selected."
As impressive as Napoli's collegiate championship was, her advocacy efforts are probably even more noteworthy, given that they will have a lasting impact on the lives of many others.
Through her graduate program's student club, the Northern Nevada Student Planning Organization, Napoli had participated in walking audits of the Reno/Sparks Bike and Pedestrian Plan. Already an avid bike commuter - she had reveled in the fact that her older neighborhood in Reno gave her the perfect launching pad where "I could ride my bike to most everywhere I needed to go" - the walking audits piqued her interest in community cycling advocacy work.
"I started going to some of the RTC Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meetings over the summer to find out what was going on in the area in regards to projects and goals," she said. She complemented this effort by doing research into "Complete Streets" and "Safe Routes to School" programs, efforts where other communities had made their streets more bike-friendly and accessible, as well as noting what improvements had been made to make the streets of the Truckee Meadows more safe for bikers and pedestrians.
"Biking is such a great form of transportation and exercise, and because we've been designing our streets to only accommodate automobiles for so long, the safety of those biking and walking is jeopardized - as well as being ignorantly viewed as 'lower class,'" Napoli said. "This needs to change - for our health, for environmental reasons, and to create a more pleasant community. First and foremost, improvements need to be made to allow cyclists to feel safe. If that happens, more people are likely to give it a try."
In visiting other bike- and pedestrian-friendly communities, Napoli was struck by the fact that she would often see entire families out on the road, biking or walking, together.
"Introducing people to biking at an early age helps, too, which is why I volunteer for the Reno Kiwanis Kid's Bike Program," she said. "I help refurbish bikes to be given to kids and will hopefully be helping with the Kiwanis' bike safety classes this spring."
In addition, Napoli has become involved with the newly formed Campus Cycling Coalition, an ASUN club advocating cycling in and around campus.
"We've got a lot to work on," she said. "We are hoping to get more students to use biking as a primary form of transportation by pushing for improvements to make biking safer and more convenient for students."
Napoli will graduate in May, which, with the speed of a mountain downhill, will bring a life for Napoli outside of graduate school.
"Ideally, I'd like to land a job doing biking and pedestrian planning after I graduate," she said. "I'd really like to stay in Reno or be back in Tahoe."
Although she knows that job opportunities in such an area might be hard to find, Napoli is optimistic she will eventually find a job and a place to live that will suit her professional goals, and her personal desires.
"As far as mountain biking is concerned," she said, sounding both incredibly precise and incredibly full of the power of possibility, "my number one deciding factor for relocating for a job is, 'Are there good trails?' At least I know I have my priorities straight."