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Mazzei has aspirations for Olympics

by Anthony Hanshew

SPORTS EDITOR

Call it cautious optimism.

Make no mistake, the Rocky Mazzei camp had ample reason for confidence. The budding star had won 10 of 11 races during the 1999 West Virginia Mountain Bike Association season, and there since had been upgrades across the board.

Among those were:

n Practicing under the tutelage of Chris Carmichael, coach of Tour de France winner and cycling legend Lance Armstrong.

n Receiving start-of-the-art equipment, including a new Schwinn mountain bike and a virtual reality training system.

Still, there are no guarantees in sports, thus the reserved giddiness prior to this year's season opener.

"Before the first race, I was thinking, 'Is this for real?'" said Rocky's father, Rocco Mazzei. "All the training, the new bike. I didn't want to put too much pressure on him, but at the same time we were excited."

What a difference a few months, along with elite coaching and top-flight equipment, can make. Rocky, a Lost Creek resident, not only won his age division at Pipestem State Park, he defeated the entire field.

Rocky followed with another age-group victory in his second WVMBA event and leads the Junior Sports standings by seven points. At just 14-years old, Mazzei already is setting his sights beyond the 2000 points title; he's thinking Olympics.

No, not this year's Sydney, Australia Olympics. Mountain biking doesn't lend itself to teen-age prodigies in the fashion of figure skating and gymnastics. Instead, this will be a long road Mazzei hopes will end at the 2008 Games.

Rocky wouldn't have it any other way.

"I love cycling," Mazzei said. "There's nothing that's not fun about it. And it doesn't matter what level you're at.

"It's all about the ride."

Such an attitude is essential considering the direction of Mazzei's mountain biking pursuits. His prized new bike, valued at approximately $4,000, was given to him as part of a sponsorship with Schwinn, one of the sport's leading manufacturers.

The virtual reality system, which allows Rocky to ride trails throughout the world from his kitchen, was provided at a substantial discount by Whitetail Cycling in Morgantown. Whitetail owner Ed Evans and several employees, all experienced mountain biking competitors, have offered endless hours of instruction.

With of all this, not to mention coaching from the person who helped shape Armstrong's career, comes responsibility.

Jim Lehman, a resident cycling coach at the United States Olympic Training Center, coaches Mazzei under Carmichael's instruction. Lehman provides workout regimens, Mazzei replies with training times and heart rate information, and the two then converse on a weekly basis.

According to Lehman, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Mazzei is well-suited for the task at hand.

"He's extremely motivated and driven," Lehman said from his Colorado Springs, Colo., office. "And he's a tremendous athlete. Each week he's given a standard test, and each week he's made progress since day one."

Lehman also is instrumental in curbing Mazzei's workouts. Mazzei has been involved in the sport for four years, but had to wait until last year for his first win.

Victories since have snowballed -- he's won 12 of his last 13 races -- but Lehman is careful to avoid too much, too soon. He's well aware of the threat of physical and/or mental burnout dealing with a 14-year-old athlete. Lehman said Mazzei has tireless work habits, but overtraining remains a threat.

"We've tried to steer clear of the no-pain, no-gain philosophy," Lehman said. "This is a tough sport, and if the idea of getting on the bike is tough then it can lead to mental and physical exhaustion.

"That's the thing about kids like Rocky. They're going to be the next Lance Armstrong, so it's important to keep them motivated."

That's hardly an issue. Opportunities appear to be overflowing in 2000. He has sponsorships from Schwinn, Speedplay, Michelen and Whitetail. Beyond the WVMBA series (his next race is the 24 miles of Canaan at Canaan Valley State Park next Sunday), Mazzei also is at the genesis of his Olympic aspirations.

On May 20, he will compete at Big Bear Lake, Calif., in the first of five Junior Olympic Mountain Bike Series events. Mazzei hopes to compete in at least four races (the others are held in Vermont, Utah, Washington and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.), and earn an invitation to next year's Junior Olympic Development team.

"He's reached the ceiling on the local level," Lehman said. "He's knows he can beat those kids. It's time to go to the next level."

Sports editor Anthony Hanshew can be reached at 626-1444.

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