A Gilbert native is one step closer to achieving her dream of competing in the Olympics after she was officially named to the United States Track Cycling Olympic Long Team for the Tokyo games.
Christina Birch, 33, a 2004 graduate of Gilbert High School, automatically qualified for the Long Team after earning a World Gold Cup Medal in Team Pursuit in November in Belarus, followed by a World Cup Bronze Medal in the Madison in Canada in December. She will now wait until May 2021 to see whether she makes the final cut to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, which had originally been scheduled for this summer but were pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Making the Long Team is one important step before making the team that actually goes to Tokyo,” Birch said. “It took a ton of repetition to get to this point. I didn’t know what my path would look like. I kind of went in blind.”
Birch, compared to other Olympic cyclists she competes alongside and against, got a late start to her cycling career. An avid cross country athlete in high school, she didn’t begin to dabble in cycling until she began competing in triathlon while attending the University of Arizona, where she obtained two Bachelor of Science degrees in math and biochemistry.
She went on to pursue her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was there she began competing on the club cycling team and realized she had the ability to pursue the sport in a more competitive fashion.
“There’s a really big cyclocross scene in New England,” Birch said. “It’s these people basically doing a cross country running race with their bikes and barriers they have to hop over. It’s muddy, it’s icy and in the worst possible conditions but when I saw it, I knew it was for me.”
She continued to compete for the cyclocross team while also experimenting with the veledrome, a type of track. Birch said the one in New England wasn’t at all comparable to a professional veledrome seen in the Olympics, but she used it as a way to learn how to ride a fixture bike and interval training for cyclocross.
However, as she won more and more races on the veledrome, her club director encouraged her to pursue the sport in a more professional setting.
“It was mostly a side thing until I was finishing up my PhD and the director for a row team I was riding for who had rode on a track encouraged me to keep doing it,” Birch said. “Literally the next month I put everything in my car, and I drove to L.A., which is the only veledrome we have in the U.S. with a 45-degree banking that is wooden and made for competition.”
Birch began teaching at the University of California, Riverside once in Los Angeles. She taught bioengineering there while training with the 6 a.m. veledrome group. After a year, she realized she wanted to take her training to another level. But in order to do that, it required a more flexible position that was closer to the track. She left UC Riverside and began teaching at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where she remained for two years before deciding to pursue riding full time.
“I think the most good I’ve done in my life came from being a teacher. I really poured myself into it,” Birch said. “I think the pursuit of sport is a luxury. To be this good, you have to be selfish with your time. I know there is a biological limit to this. I’m going to hit my peak in the next couple of years and I can’t chase an Olympic spot when I’m 50.”
Track cycling isn’t for everyday riders.
Birch finds herself training at least 15 hours a week, lifting weights or going on endurance rides that average nearly 20 miles per hour. She said the pure speed for which they race at is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the sport.
She compared it to holding a hand out of the car window while driving. At 10 miles per hour, it seems calm. At 20 miles per hour, the speed she is able to maintain for hours on end, there is some wind resistance. But once at 40 miles per hour, which is the speed Birch reaches during races, the wind is powerful enough to knock one off of a bike.
“We get up to that speed from a dead stop. It’s so much wind we have to push, and we fight, it’s why we are in those tucked positions. It’s also why we stick in that line and tuck behind each other when we aren’t in front.”
Birch said she never imagined being in this position when she first began cycling at the University of Arizona. Including her gold and bronze medals, the latter of which she won in front of her dad, Birch has also won several national titles and a silver in London last year.
She credited her family for pushing her to find her path in athletics, as well as her former teachers and coaches at Gilbert High School. In April, when she was home visiting her family and training, she rode by her old high school nearly every day.
She said she was overcome with a feeling of nostalgia each time. But more importantly, it led her to be even more determined to keep pushing for more in her cycling career and to represent Gilbert on a global stage.
“It feels so special because in many ways I started my athletic career at Gilbert High School,” Birch said. “I feel really proud to have come from that community and to be doing what I’m doing.”