Weekend Warriors: The science teacher who became a national cyclocross champion

Melissa Barker, in the middle, competes in cyclocross, an obstacle course-style race over mud, grass, concrete and other surfaces. Michael Schaub / Mountain Moon Photography

Melissa Barker is 40, but she can recall exactly what her coach told her on the first day of high school cycling practice. "He said to us, 'If 20 years from now you're still riding your bike, I've done my job,'" she says.

Two decades later, she called her coach, who is still at the Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, to bring him up to date. "I said, 'Guess what? I'm not only still riding my bike, but I have a cyclocross team that's pretty awesome too,'" she says.

Barker, who had been a ski racer and soccer player before she fell for cycling after that high school introduction, has a passion for cyclocross, a down-and-dirty sport that's a little bit like cross-country bicycle racing melded with obstacle-course racing. Cyclists race around circuits of 2.5-3.5K over various surfaces (dirt, mud, sand, grass and pavement), churning uphill and flying downhill, while dismounting and carrying their bikes over obstacles several times each lap.

For the past five years, Barker, a longtime science teacher, has been the head coach of the varsity cyclocross team at Dawson School in Lafayette, Colorado, while also competing at an elite level in state and national cyclocross competitions. In January, she won a USA Cycling national championship. After finishing second in national or world age-group championships the past three years, Barker broke through at Asheville, North Carolina, to win the women's 40-44 cyclocross title.

"At the end, I was just so elated," she says. "I had been working for a lot of years and been so close so many times. It was amazing."

The best gig

As far as Barker knows, Dawson School has the only large, varsity-level high school cyclocross team in the country. That she gets to coach it is "a dream come true." She began teaching science at the school 13 years ago while serving as a soccer and ski coach. She is also the director of the school's experiential education program that gets students outdoors for activities such as backpacking and sea kayaking, as well as national and international travel.

After getting hooked on cyclocross seven years ago -- she had been a college cyclist, club road cyclist and mountain biker before trying it out -- she suggested the school field a team because the Boulder area is a hotbed for the sport. The administration agreed. Now cyclocross is a fall sport for boys and girls, and the school has a 2K course on campus.

Her high school coach led her to discover a lifetime sport, and now Barker has the opportunity to do the same. Many of her athletes are as hooked as she is. When she first tried cyclocross, she felt immediately suited to it. It combined her experiences in criterium racing and mountain bike competitions. That she could get muddy and wear her bruises and cuts with pride at the end of a race made it even better.

"Sometimes, it's equated to steeplechase on a bike, so you're riding in mud, sand, grass," she says. "You're jumping on and off your bike, over barriers, up stairs and doing lots of tight turns."

Cyclocross coaching in the fall overlaps with the national cyclocross circuit that extends into January, so fall is Barker's busiest time. She trains with her students from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday afternoons but does most of her serious riding in solo sessions after she dismisses them. The team has races each weekend (mostly against area junior programs), and so does she, as a member of Boulder's Evol Elite cycling team. Mondays are a day of rest, except for yoga.

During the season, most of Barker's workouts are on the bike. She'll do some running because it's a part of the sport, but mostly, she's working on strength, fitness and technique on the bike. She also does core exercises, such as planks and leg throws, with her athletes.

Barker says she loves two other things about cyclocross: the enthusiastic atmosphere on race days and the fact that after so many years in road cycling, she still feels like a "newbie" in cyclocross.

"I'm still improving," she says. "That's one of the pieces that's really fun, that I can keep making improvements."

A winning strategy

One of the improvements that helped take her to the national title in January was more mental than physical. Her coach had been working with her to stay calm during races.

"You're [going] all-out for 45 or 50 minutes, and the key is to not -- if a rider gets a couple of bike lengths on you -- to panic, and that definitely happened during the race," she says.

After the first lap, Barker and two others broke away from the pack. Barker found herself in second but decided to bide her time. She believes she's better on tougher courses, where more of her strengths come into play -- she's best on uphills, downhills and over obstacles -- so she settled in and decided to pick up time in the technical areas of the course.

"On the final lap, that's exactly what I did," she says. "There were sort of two major uphills, and one of them I got off and ran as fast as I could, got back on, didn't look back and made a little gap. Then the other girl closed it down a little, and then I attacked again in the final uphill ... I didn't know what the outcome was going to be the whole race. It was back and forth the entire time."

Barker won by two seconds.

Later, when she turned on her phone, it was flooded with congratulations from students and co-workers. A teacher at Dawson had been tracking the race online and keeping everyone updated. One of her science classes, being taught by a sub at the same time as the race, erupted in cheers when she won.

"The whole school found out about it before I even got back to my phone," she says. "I got back to my phone, and it was just blowing up with everybody texting and emailing. I was like, 'How did they know?'"

When she returned to school, her students had decorated her office, made signs and written her cards.

Picking her sport

Today, Barker's competitive life flows around cycling and cyclocross. She competes, coaches and is a mentor for girls age 5-12 in the Little Bellas mountain bike program. Although she'd love for all the girls to make cycling their passion, she knows that's not the point. The essential thing is that the girls gain confidence through learning the sport.

"That's very important to me: to have young girls, as they're going through some of those difficult times in middle school and high school, to have confidence in themselves," she says.

In Barker's youth, she tried "every sport possible" until her parents told her she had to "pick a few." She laughs as she ticks off her list: gymnastics, horseback riding, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, swimming, golf, tennis and ski racing. When she left Cleveland to go to the Holderness School, she narrowed it down to soccer and ski racing. In the 10th grade, her ski coach suggested she bike for offseason cross-training. Until then, she had loved pedaling around with her dad but never thought it could be her sport of choice.

Finally, she was down to one main sport.

"I just really fell in love with bike racing and thought it was one of the coolest things," she says. "Maybe even cooler than ski racing."