Nathan Labecki: Cyclocross Photography at the National Art Museum of Sport


By Robyn M. Perrin

Walking through the National Art Museum of Sport evokes an odd sensation. Wherever the eye gazes, it is met with images of athletes – sprinting, swimming, hurling javelins, launching themselves into full-body tackles. Amidst so much motion, it hardly seems appropriate to stand in stillness and take in the colors and textures of the human figure.

Hugging one wall of an exhibit named “Speed and Motion: Racing to the Finish Line,” a fine art photograph is displayed as a five-foot-by-nearly-four-foot canvas. Entitled “Focus,” it shows a cyclocross racer. The compositional elements include strong lines and angles: an oblique tree trunk frames the right side, a slash of red barrier tape provides a directional blaze, and bike handlebars tilt to support the rider’s powerful pedal strokes. Mud draws the viewer’s attention. It is spattered across everything – glasses, bike components, helmet, face.

And that face itself is a study in determination. Gazing at the path ahead, the rider is fully immersed in the throes of competition. His entire figure is poised to explode with forward momentum. A competitor is visible a mere bike length behind him.

Who is the subject of the photo? None other than Nathan Labecki, an up-and-coming cyclist from Milwaukee, WI. Labecki was in the fall semester of his senior year of high school when the photograph was made by Clint Thayer in September, 2011. Nathan’s love for cycling was encouraged by his father, Jay Labecki, who shares a passion for the sport. Throughout Nate’s high school years, father and son had trained together and traveled to race after race – not only in cyclocross, the human steeplechase of the cycling world in which riders traverse unpaved courses and carry their bikes over obstacles – but also road cycling and mountain biking.

“There’s never a bad day on a bike,” said Jay, while describing Nathan’s experiences at the USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross National Championships in Madison in January, 2012. The Championships were plagued with an unusual warm spell that made the course the consistency of modeling clay, followed by a cold snap that left stone-hard 3-inch-deep ruts. Nathan started the day intending to race on tubular tires, a type of racing tire that is glued directly into the rim – fast, but leaving no options to swap the tube if the tire flats. The tires did flat, but thankfully during the warm-up.

“It worked out,” said the elder Labecki. “He’s a strong rider.”

Strong, indeed. Nathan spent the spring of 2012 racing in Belgium. “He had a good series of races,” said his father. “He took a 3rd place in one of the races, a 4th in a field sprint in one of the other races, and led his teammates out for several good finishes.”

Nathan spent the rest of the summer competing in the U.S. and Canada against some of the fastest juniors in the world. Jay Labecki said that during the Tour of America’s Dairyland, Nathan “…was on the podium everyday, won the Downer Avenue race, and in the end took the overall yellow jersey for the Junior series.”

It’s no wonder that Labecki was recruited by Marian University – which, like the National Art Museum of Sport, is located in Indianapolis. Marian runs one of the most competitive cycling programs in America. Now, nearly a year after “Focus” was taken, Labecki is racing at the collegiate level for the first time. He is planning on racing at upcoming National Championships in multiple disciplines, including track, mountain biking, cyclocross, BMX, and possibly road cycling.

When asked about his thoughts on his son leaving for college, Nathan’s father paused for a moment. “We’ve biked together for so many years,” he shared. Although he is overjoyed at his son’s successes, “When he leaves for Marian, it’s not only a matter of seeing my son leave the nest. I’m also losing my training partner.”

But, in “Focus,” the intensity of Nathan’s competitive spirit as a junior rider on a brilliant autumn day remains forever frozen in time.

Editor’s Note: “Focus” is one of six works that have been displayed at the National Art Museum of Sport. All are available for purchase. A portion of the proceeds supports the museum.