Matt Baranoski cycling

A tale of two Olympians

As one athlete competed in his first Olympics, another took his third trip to the Summer Games. But Matt Baranoski and Bobby Lea have more than one thing in common: They were the only two U.S. men to qualify for track cycling events at the games in Rio De Janeiro and they are both former Penn State Lehigh Valley cyclists.

By: Dennille Schuler
Matt Baranoski and Bobby Lea have more than one thing in common: They were the only two U.S. men to qualify for track cycling events at the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro and they are both former Penn State Lehigh Valley cyclists.

Baranoski, of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, who was the youngest USA Cycling Elite National Champion, qualified for his first Olympic Games and competed in the Keirin event, an eight-lap sprint event, in Rio. Lea of Topton, Pennsylvania, who is one of the most-decorated cyclists in American history, qualified for his third, having competed in the Summer Games in Beijing and London. Lea competed in the Omnium in Rio, made up of six events over two days. When comparing track cycling to running, Baranoski would be the sprinter; Lea the marathoner.

Their events and training could not be more different, but their paths have crossed for over 15 years. Lea was actually one of the teenage coaches when Baranoski first ventured onto the track as a child at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center in Breinigsville. Their careers and journeys have been linked ever since. Then in August, the two men represented the U.S. along with five female athletes in the track cycling events at the Summer Olympics.

cyclist competing in london games

Lea in London

Bobby Lea competed in both the Beijing and the London Summer Olympics. He competed in his third Summer Games this August in Rio De Janeiro.

“I have had the chance to watch Matt go through the cycle and develop. We have been racing together and crossing paths for a long time,” said Lea. “One way or another, friendship overrides the competitive side.”

“We have ridden on the same pro team together and we also share an allegiance to Penn State,” said Baranoski, a Schreyer Scholar.

Lea graduated from Penn State Lehigh Valley in 2006 with a degree in business. Baranoski, an electrical engineering major, attended Penn State Lehigh Valley for two years before transitioning to University Park, where he returned this fall after a two-year leave of absence to allow him to train for the Olympics. Baranoski is set to graduate in December.

They were both attracted to Penn State Lehigh Valley because of the desire to ride for the renowned former cycling coach, Jim Young, but both gained more than they ever could have imagined from the campus.

“Having the support of everyone from Penn State Lehigh Valley was absolutely instrumental in my success over the years,” said Lea. “It was such a formative time in my career and was a great time to find my way in the sport and figure out who I was. The Penn State community as a whole, regardless of the sport, has been a fantastic tradition to be a part of. I am proud to continue to fly that flag.”

“I definitely still feel support from Penn State Lehigh Valley. People were so welcoming and expressed how great they thought it was for me to be there. They were also supportive with whatever I needed and were flexible with my schedule,” said Baranoski, who went on to ride for Penn State University.

The collegiate cycling program at Penn State Lehigh Valley has a rich history of a legendary, long-time coach, numerous collegiate cycling champions and athletes who have since gone on to become Olympians, such as Lea and Baranoski, among others.

Baranoski finished fifth in his preliminary heat in Rio. He was leading the fourth heat of another qualifying round when he was bumped by another cyclist. This bump knocked him back into third place preventing him from moving on.

“Rio was an amazing experience for me. Opening ceremonies and walking into the stadium with everyone chanting ‘USA’ was a feeling I will never forget,” said Baranoski. “Every time I posted something on Facebook or was tagged in something, there was a huge outpouring of support from home and especially the Penn State community. It was an immense honor to represent my country and Penn State on the biggest stage in sport.”

Lea placed 17th in the men's omnium cycling competition at the Rio Games.  He placed eighth in the individual pursuit, which was his highest finish in the Omnium's six races.

“Rio marked my third Olympics and really symbolized the pinnacle of my career.  It also marked a milestone in my life as I now start to look beyond cycling and transitioning away from professional sports and into the next phase of life,” said Lea. “ It has been a really great run that all started years ago with my time at Penn State Lehigh Valley and I found it very fitting to share the experience not only with a fellow Penn State cyclist, but also a young athlete I watched grow up and turn into a world class bike rider right in front of my eyes."

Penn State Lehigh Valley’s alumni community welcomed home the two Olympians on August 26 at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center for a special Blue and White Night event during the Madison Cup.

Penn State Lehigh Valley Alumni Society hosted the event for over 200 guests. It featured dinner on the infield of the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, a silent auction, and a meet and greet with Lea and Baranoski. The athletes signed autographs and shared their experiences from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The night concluded with a firework extravaganza.