By Melissa DeVaughn, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Yeaton, 15, and her brother Josh Yeaton, 17, competed as part of a team in the 24 Hours at Kincaid last month. The two just finished racing in the U.S. National Championships. They fared best in the road race where Jessica was second and Josh seventh for their respective age and gender categories.
Not only do Josh and Jessica Yeaton ride bicycles, they also both ski for South High School. Josh Yeaton freestyle skied the third leg of the boys relay race at the State Ski Championship at Kincaid Park in February.
Becca Letts gives Jessica Yeaton of South a hug after Yeaton finished the first high school ski race of the season with teams from Anchorage area schools competing at Service High School last December.
POTTER VALLEY ROAD -- The wind gusted and smoke-gray clouds scudded across the sky as racers began warming up for the Potter Valley Hill Climb earlier this summer, a race regularly held by the Arctic Bicycle Club's road racing division. By Tour de France standards, it would rate about a Category 3 -- steep but not long enough to warrant a stiffer Category 2, 1 or beyond ranking.
For Anchorage cyclists, Potter Valley is a premier testing ground, one at which cyclists routinely gauge their hill-climbing success throughout the season.
And it was here that Josh and Jessica Yeaton (pronounced YAY-ton), 17 and 15 years old respectively, began bickering over something that only brothers and sisters fight about. The topic was irrelevant, but who would win the argument seemed crucial.
They sat side by side on their bicycles, spinning in unison atop stationary trainers. With each comment flung at the other, the pace quickened, as if pedal strokes could decide the winner.
But within minutes the argument was done. Over. They were laughing and joking as if it had never happened.
Because the reality is, the Yeatons are a team that works together and wins together. Hours later, Jessica won the women's race, and Josh placed second among the men, demonstrating again that in just a few years of racing the Yeatons have dispelled the myth that the best cyclists must be a decade older with far more experience.
"They're both starting with some initial talent, which helps," said cyclist Janice Tower, who has coached the Yeatons for the past two years. "But also Josh, in particular, has been very dedicated and driven toward cycling; it's just a passion of his."
FOCUSED AND FIT
Wiry, with braided muscles in his limbs, Josh Yeaton is built for the sport of road racing. Stray curls hang in his intense eyes, and when he talks about cycling, he gets animated and begins moving his hands to illustrate his point. He works at Paramount Cycles, wrenching bikes and offering advice to other cyclists. He thrives on an environment in which his entire life revolves around the sport.
"My dad is a big driving force in how I got into this," he said, sitting on the curb in the sunshine as he took a break from his job one afternoon. It started with mountain biking at first, he said. But soon, the lure of road cycling, a sport in which dad Jeff Yeaton also is active, caught up.
"My dad really wanted to get me a bike," he said. "And I liked it. I think it's the speed. There's nothing like it."
Josh started out with the basics, learning how to master corners and climb hills, a specialty at which he is particularly gifted.
"I started off in the junior category. Soon, he bumped up to the next level of competition, the Sport Men category. All of a sudden, Josh was thrust into 15-man packs traveling at high speed with their handlebars inches apart.
He found the diciness of such maneuvering a challenge, but rather than shy away from it, he was thrilled. In 2005, not yet 15 years old, he won the Sport division's Clark's Road hill climb in 29 minutes, 27 seconds. It was a time that would have put him squarely among the field of expert riders, most of whom were at least 10 years older.
Kid sister Jessica has fared just as well. Tall, thin, with hair that reaches halfway down her back, she wears a near-constant smile. At most races, her laughter can be heard amid the pre-race preparations, as she enjoys the camaraderie of a pack of young female athletes that includes such up-and-coming talents as Dana Tower, Kinsey Loan and Hannah Summers.
"I don't think it's unusual that (the Yeatons) are doing so well at such a young age, because in Alaska entire families are active and culturally we nurture that," Janice Tower said. "What IS unusual is the number of girls that are excelling at these endurance sports and how many of them are rising at the same time."
Yeaton is clearly at the top. A week ago, she competed in the U.S. National Cycling Championships in Pennsylvania, finishing second out of 16 girls in the 15/16 age category road race. It is one of several Outside events she and her brother have raced. In June they went to the West Coast Regional Development Camp at Sonoma State University, in northern California for experience.
"I learned so much about being in a pack," she said. "We did a crit (slang for "criterium," a race in which cyclists form packs and race short, tight-cornered loops for a determined length of time, testing their bike-handling and sprinting abilities) and I was in a pack of 50, 60 masters men. I've never seen anything like it. It was amazing. You really had to know how to handle your bike, and you don't get that here at all."
Competition in Alaska, Yeaton said, is usually limited to a field of about 10 expert-level women, including such adult standouts as Sheryl Loan, Amber Stull, Tiffanie Novakovich, Tower and Sheryl Mohwinkel-Fleming. Jessica and her fellow junior competitors are in the mix, too. And while it is a competitive group, it's seldom big enough to mirror the reality of racing Outside.
Tower, who also coaches the other junior riders, said there's a definite advantage to traveling Outside for competition. It has shown Jessica -- or Jessie, as her friends call her -- what real racing is all about.
"Jessie's very different from Josh," Tower said. "She is also a very well-rounded and gifted athlete, but she loves to participate no matter what -- running, biking, cross-country skiing or orienteering."
The real challenge, Tower said, is convincing Jessie to slow down, that recovery is an important part of building a stronger training platform.
"When I do make suggestions for training, most often I'll say, 'Here's your recovery schedule,' not your workout schedule," she said.
Jessie acknowledges that cycling is just one of many passions.
"I do a lot of other sports, too -- cross-country skiing and running," she said. "And the triathlons are getting fun. I got 15th in the Gold Nugget this year and that was really cool for me. ... But biking will always be a big part of my life."
Indeed biking is central to the Yeaton clan. Josh looks to dad, Jeff Yeaton, as inspiration and Jessie gets the same from her mother, Susie Anderson.
"She's tough," Jessie said. "She did the 24 Hours of Kincaid after she broke her thumb. They took her to the hospital, set it and she came back and finished."
The family has lived all over -- including Anderson's native Australia; Houston, Texas; and Dubai (one of the seven emirates that constitute United Arab Emirates). That's where Jessie remembers Anderson and the elder Yeaton doing most of their road biking.
Her mother used to run marathons, she said.
"A lot of why I think we get better is that we all ride," she said. "That's the difference between me and some of the other kids -- my whole family does it."
Tower is proof of that. Her son, J.J., is now on a college cycling team; daughter Dana is nipping at mom's heels in the expert women's division, and husband, Steve, is also competing locally.
"That's the key, is family involvement," she said. "You look at the Loans, the Lammers, and there are whole families involved in one race or another. That's what makes it such a really fun and growing sport in Alaska, because it's not just soccer, where you're on the sidelines watching. You're actually able to participate."
The Yeaton kids -- both South High students -- just finished racing in the U.S. National Championships. They fared best in the road race -- Jessie was second and Josh seventh for their respective age and gender categories. Josh's finish is notable because it put him ahead of several junior development squad members and a handful of U.S. Development Team members.
"This definitely was a breakthrough race for Josh, and it shows ... that he belongs," she said.
Matt Novakovich, who races locally and Outside in Category 2 events, said he has watched Josh grow as a cyclist over the last two years and sees much promise.
"What I've noticed this year is he seems to be a lot better sprinter," Novakovich said. "He's always climbed well, and I would mark him as my best competitor up here. ... For his age, I'd say he's probably in the top 10 in the country."
As he approaches college, Josh is focused on schools that offer strong cycling programs -- University of Colorado tops his list.
But he also wants a good academic program that focuses on math, engineering or even sports physiology and other athlete-related majors.
Jessie has several years of high school left, but she too hopes cycling will play a big role in college. She is interested in marine biology as a major, something she thinks would pair well with attending a cycling-rich school such as University of California or UC Davis.
"(The Yeatons) are part of the first crop of junior riders here," Tower said. "They started out with Mighty Bikes and now they are strong racers. But there's another group coming up right behind them.
"What we need to do as a club is really encourage these kids along so when they do get into racing, there are other kids to race with. It's good for them and it's good for the sport."