At first glance the title of this column may seem like a blatant attempt at irony intended to garner respect from the hipster world. I hate to disappoint, but I don’t even own a messenger bag and all of my bikes have two brakes. The meaning of the title is a little deeper, and it is actually a quote from the classic, “Lawrence of Arabia.” In the film, a soldier was lost while crossing the desert. All the Arabs blamed fate as they voiced, “It is written.” Lawrence, however, defied them and turned back. He returned later with the lost man; half dead and exhausted Lawrence simply said, “Nothing is written.”
It may seem a little dramatic but I think it fits. This column will focus on the gritty, unforgiving world of elite bike racing in the U.S. It’s about all the people that disregard the odds and try to write their own story in the annals of bike racing. We don’t believe that races or our cycling careers are predetermined by some higher power. We shape our future through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. I’m sure many of you have heard the stories of Mark Cavendish going through physiological testing and being told by all the coaches that he didn’t have the ability to be a top level racer. Then he won Milan San Remo. Enough said.
As cyclists in the U.S., we tend to idealize the top European pros. Why not? They have the life. They have mechanics, soigneurs, team chefs, money and the chance to ride the biggest, most beautiful races in the world. I would be lying if I said I didn’t envy them. But if you take European racing and strip away all of the fame and money, the hoards of fans that line the climbs and the front page news stories, you have domestic racing. It’s such a pure scene because everyone is there for the love. I remember reading an article where a ProTour rider said the only reason he was still racing was that he was starting a vineyard and needed the money. You would never get that in the U.S. You could work full-time at McDonald’s and make more money than most pros do here. I am my own mechanic, soigneur and chef; we pack into vans or cars and go to races in the middle of nowhere, and most of us even depend on prize money to pay bills. However, to me, that hardship and sacrifice does as much for the beauty of bike racing as any mountain in the Alps can.
As a Cat 3 racer and college student, I remember hearing stories from old school guys like Adam Myerson and Erik Saunders. One that has stuck with me came from Erik at a development camp I attended a couple years back. Everyone at the camp was sitting in this hotel conference room listening to talks about everything from nutrition to networking and Erik stepped up. Erik will always retain that old school mentality that I think is lost on a lot of racers today. He doesn’t obsess about wattage numbers, how many grams bottle cages weigh or vitamin supplements. To him, bike racing is all about getting to the finish line first, and it’s how you ride, not what you ride that makes the difference. I will never forget sitting there, surrounded by others like me, many of whom I still see regularly at races and on results sheets, and listening to Erik talk about piling in a team van and heading out for a block of racing without enough money for the trip. In his casual California style he simply said, “I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t won money.” Remember, this was before everyone had cell phones and the Internet. If they didn’t win money they couldn’t pay for gas to get home. They were going to win money and that was that. These guys had guts, nerves of steel and above all, a passion for racing bikes. Having never met Erik before, there was an instant feeling of respect and admiration. Riding with panache is one thing, living with panache is an entirely different level. At the risk of subjecting myself to never ending torment, as Erik was talking I started to tear up. It sounds a little ridiculous now but don’t judge me, I was in the moment. That kind of emotion is special and I realized then that I had to try to make it as a bike racer.
Now fast forward to last year when I moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I spent the first few months sleeping on an air mattress at a friend’s house in his study. One night, as I was lying there five inches off the floor, staring at the ceiling, wondering what I was doing with my life, it hit me. This is it, I’m living it. I was writing my story, and it was about a bike racer. I don’t think anyone has ever been so proud to be sleeping on somebody’s floor. A lot of cycling, or life really, is about visualizing your dreams and making them happen. It wasn’t my dream to sleep on a floor, but I wanted to be like Erik and his teammates so badly and that was it. I had done it. I wasn’t pro but I was living the life and it was incredibly gratifying to know that I had come that far.
While things have certainly changed since the early 90’s when Erik’s story took place, the spirit has remained the same. Hopefully, through this column I can give you another perspective and some insight into the world that I have come to love, respect and fear, the world of elite racing in the U.S.