WEST CHESTER - Michael Chauner rarely wastes a lot of time dreaming about potential triumphs and has always tried to focus on being prepared for every cycling race he enters. But that mindset was severely tested in the weeks leading up to today's Iron Hill Twilight Criterium.
Not just a West Chester resident, Chauner also runs a business in the borough, and from the doorway, he can see the start-finish line of the .8 mile circuit that will host about 120 competitors for this evening's main competition, the Pro-Men's event.
"I can look out the window all day and see where everything is going to happen," said Chauner, 24. "This is about as close to home as you can get."
A professional cyclist with more than 10 years of competitive experience, Chauner will be making his fourth start of the 48 miles race through the streets of his hometown. And unlike the previous three, Chauner has developed into a legitimate contender, spurred on by a new coach, a new training regimen, and bolstered by recent successes.
"I am going for the victory," Chauner said. "I have been racing well, especially the last couple weeks, and have been preparing specifically for this race. I will be disappointed if I am outside the top-15."
Chauner admits that in his first Twilight Criterium in 2007, he "was just hanging on for dear life, really." A year later, he finished 29th, but never seriously challenged the frontrunners. He missed the '09 event due to illness and then failed to finish last year's competition.
"It was a bad patch in the season and I was feeling real tired," Chauner said, thinking back a year ago. "I was frustrated with the results I was having, but that was actually the turning point to my season."
A few weeks after the Iron Hill event, Chauner found a new coach in Mattias Reck, who is also an exercise physiologist, and his strength and power began to improve dramatically. Chauner finished the season impressively, and it carried over to the 2011 season.
This winter, Chauner made his annual trek to Europe for training and experience purposes, and promptly won his first event, the Brugge-Dudzele GP in Belgium. He later won the Grant's Tomb Criterium in New York and placed second overall in Coatesville Classic. But the most thrilling outcome came at the TD Bank International Championship in Philadelphia, an event that his father - U.S. Bicycling Hall of Famer David Chauner - started in the mid-1980's. A first-time participant, Chauner was the 11th American to finish, and was 39th overall.
"I grew up in the cycling environment," Chauner said. "From a young age I watched the Philly race every year, so it was huge to be in it. I saw Lance Armstrong win it in in 1993.
"It was cool just to finish it and to be in the top third of the pack was even better."
David Chauner competed for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1968 and 1972, and won a bronze medal in the 1967 Pan American Games.
But Michael didn't start cycling in earnest until the family moved from Connecticut to West Chester in 2000 when he was 14.
Chauner attended Tower Hill School in Delaware, and by his senior year, he was good enough to be recruited for the U.S. Junior National Team, who traveled to Europe in 2004.
"I missed my senior week in high school because I was over in Belgium racing," he said. "It was really cool and I fell in love with European racing. I've gone on a trip overseas almost every year since, mostly to Belgium, which is the cycling hotbed of the planet."
A total of 11 collegiate victories followed during his four years at Bucknell, where he majored in psychology.
"I always wanted to be a pro but it took me a while to develop," he explained. "I decided to go to college, and that can slow the development process a little bit, but it was right for me. But no matter what happens, you have to put cycling first if you are going to be a pro."
Shortly after graduating, Chauner joined Team Cyklecity, and has been with the Swedish squad ever since. He spent six weeks in Sweden in 2009, but really wasn't able to break out until hooking up with Reck.
"In just a few months of working with him, I took a huge leap," Chauner said. "I've never really felt that strong before.
"This has been my best year to date and the training program has been a huge factor. I have been surprising myself with my results. It feels like this is where I should be, but I had a slump the last couple years where I was getting great experiences but not performing at the level I wanted to be at. Now I am there."
Chauner opened Velo Souplesse on High Street in late 2009, which is a cycling-specific fitness center. If he wants to notch the biggest win of his career just down the block, Chauner will have to contend with an elite field of riders that includes two former USA CRIT National Champions - Frank Travieso and Yosvany Falcon - as well as two past Iron Hill Twilight Criterium winners: Clayton Barrows (2010) and Emile Abraham (2007).
It's a cool race to begin with, and guys come from all over the place," Chauner said. "But I live in West Chester. I have a lot of friends and family coming out to watch. So for me it's a very special event."
NOTE: Some good news for racing fans unable to catch the action up close and personal this year: they will be able to watch the race live on the web at www.TotalCyclistTV.com.
By Neil Geoghegan, The Daily Local News