Sitting at a restaurant in Silverton, Colorado after the finish of the Iron Horse Classic, Burke Swindlehurst, Ryan Littlefield and other members of the Bagel Team overheard some commentary from the legendary Ned Overend. Swindlehurst had just won the pro race at Iron Horse, and Overend was still surprised that a guy no one had heard of and no one had told him about was able to ride off the front and take the victory. Apparently, most of the field was watching pro mountain biker Rishi Grewal or Jonathan Vaughters and Chann McRae, who had just returned from racing in Spain. This was 1995 and the Brackman Brothers’ Bagels Cycling Team was beginning to make a name for itself.
As with most domestic teams, the Bagel Team had humble beginnings. In 1992 a small club called the Bagel Pedalers was formed in Salt Lake City with backing from Brackman Brothers’ Bagels. This club morphed into the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club (RMCC) and later into the Brackman Bros. Bagels Cycling team, and finally Einstein Brothers Bagels Team. The original club began largely as a mentoring program for riders in Salt Lake and throughout Utah. Andrew Brewer and Steve Johnson acted as role models and gate keepers for upcoming riders like Swindlehurst, Littlefield and Eric Messenger in the early nineties. Johnson at the time raced for the pro team Subaru Montgomery but was willing to assist the club and help develop riders. Around this time, Swindlehurst, one of the younger members of the elite team, was progressing in the regional race scene along with other team members Jeff Wyatt and Steve Tibbits.
“My role the first couple of years was not so much that of a team leader, but more of a ‘go-to guy’ in the races that suited me, such as the hilly stage races and one day events like Vuelta de Bisbee, Tour of Willamette and Iron Horse Road Race,” Swindlehurst remembers. More success came that season and into 1996, which was considered the standout season for the team. This was the year that saw Levi Leipheimer join the ranks along with Mike Sayers. At that time, future team member Dave Zabriskie was just starting to show potential in local races.
“In 1995 we did the Mike Nields stage race in Ft. Collins, Co.,” recalls Littlefield. “Jeff Wyatt won the last stage (criterium). The next weekend Burke won the Ironhorse road race and the next day the time trial at Pagosa Springs. I won the criterium that same day. We won 4 races in a row in Colorado and we were starting to click. It was kind of short lived as someone chopped Burke hard in the criterium and we spent most of that night trying to get him back in shape to finish the race. That same weekend, 14 year old Dave Z[abriskie] won the GC in his group, which was cat 4, I think. We weren’t sure what this kid was all about, but he definitely added color to our group. We took a huge step forward in our confidence after that weekend.”
“That season the main amateur squad was me, Levi, Burke, Eric Messenger and occasionally Ryan would join us,” added Mike Sayers. “Dave Z was just a young punk at that point and we had a few other guys that would come and go for some races now and then, but me, Levi, Burke and Eric were the core of the program.”
And while the team was starting to see some real progress, there were, of course, some unfortunate moments as well. Littlefield recounted the story of Swindlehurst riding at the Vuelta de Bisbee: “he lost the race because his aerobar came loose in the TT and he went back to see if he could restart. We [also] had the entire rack come off my car on our way to Redlands one year, which wasn’t a great way to start a week of getting pummeled by a bunch of super-fast Polish guys on the USPS team.”
“We weren’t a pro team, but we were trying hard to act like one. We also knew that there were events that were key to our sponsor and to our club and we’d have to pass on some bigger races if the calendar called for it,” Littlefield said. The team traveled the Rocky Mountain region and the west coast but also headed east for bigger events like Super Week, the Killington Stage Race, and Elite Road Nationals in Ohio. They sought stage races, especially the hillier versions so they could play to the strengths of Leipheimer and Swindlehurst. In 1996, Levi took second place on General Classification at the Cascade Classic to Marty Jemison, and he also won the National Crit Championships that year.
“The team dynamic wasn’t perfect,” Littlefield continued, “but we usually integrated and clicked pretty well. Basically everyone knew that Burke and Levi were the best all-arounders. Mike Sayers and Eric Messenger were awesome support riders, supported by the rest of us, and they knew how to seize an opportunity should one present itself. For me it was cool to see Sayers take his cycling to the level he did before he retired. When we picked him up I think he was fed up with the lack of opportunity that he was running into.” Sayers became known as a great opportunist. He could hold his own in any sprint or act as the key leadout man for someone else, as he did later on in his career for Gord Fraser, among others.
“[In 1996] we raced against the pro teams really,” Sayers said. “Navigators, LA Sheriffs, Coors, Nutra Fig, Shaklee and US Postal. Those were the teams we all wanted to go to so that was all we cared about.” Swindlehurst won the Tour of the Gila that year, ahead of Chris Horner, marking the first big stage race win for the team. Both Swindlehurst and Sayers joined Nutra Fig the next season. This team later turned into Mercury, and each of them went on to long and successful racing careers. Swindlehurst went from Mercury to Team Saturn, then Navigators Insurance, Toyata/United and finally to Bissell. He retired from racing after 13 years as a professional and is currently the assistant director for Bissell Pro Cycling, a long time member of the Tour of Utah organization, and the promoter of the Crusher in the Tusher race in Utah. Sayers followed a similar path with several seasons under the Mercury team then moved to the dominant Health Net Pro Cycling team for four years, and finally to team BMC, where he spent his last couple of seasons racing and is now a Director Sportif.
“I have never left cycling. At some point, I figured out I was better mentally at bike racing than physically,” Sayers said. “I ended up being an on-the-road captain for most of the teams I went to, so becoming a DS seemed natural. This position is a lot harder than I ever thought it would be. It can be 24/7 and it involves tons of multi-tasking. Mentally, it is incredibly draining. As a rider you think the DS just sits back there in the car, but it involves a lot more than that.”
Sayers was most recently back in Salt Lake City for the 2011 Tour of Utah, won (again) by Levi Leipheimer. The BMC team’s GC rider was Jeff Louder, a later member of the Bagel team. Louder placed 10th overall and was the best placed Utah rider. With Levi winning the race, Louder placing in the top ten, Zabriskie racing back into form after crashing out of the Tour, Sayers behind the wheel of the BMC car, Swindlehurst either in the Bissell car or behind the scenes managing race promotion, and Littlefield running Contender Bicycles in Salt Lake City, this Tour of Utah was something of a Bagel Team reunion.
Louder and Zabriskie became the key members of the Bagel Team after Swindlehurst, Leipheimer and Sayers moved on to the professional ranks.
“I did some races with the bagel team,” Zabriskie explained. “It was pretty cool getting out on the road with guys older than me. I didn’t say a lot but I soaked it all up and learned all I could. They really took it serious and it was a good, strong, smart team.” Littlefield noticed Zabriskie on some weekly club rides and convinced him he should try racing. They began a friendship at that point have remained friends ever since.
“Ryan wrote a nice long letter to my high school telling them they should let me out early to train because he believed I had some real talent,” he added. Zabriskie went on to Team 7-Up/Colorado Cyclist in 1999, and later to US Postal in 2001. He raced several strong seasons after that with Team CSC, winning the stage 1 TT and wearing the yellow jersey at the 2005 Tour de France. He currently rides for Garmin-Cervelo, having been with Jonathan Vaughters’ squad since 2008.
Zabriskie and Littlefield still keep in good contact, though since Dave’s move to California, the trips into Contender are less frequent. During the summer of 2005, Zabriskie brought his Cervelo P3 time trial bike into Contender Bicycles to have it maintained. He wanted to lower the handlebars a little more than the stem he had on the bike would allow. Littlefield had the idea that maybe the stem could be modified, as in cutting the lower pinch bolt completely off of the stem, lowering it by over a centimeter.
“Cutting the stem actually worked and nothing new had to be installed,” Zabriskie said. “Ryan is a very good mechanic also. I’ve seen guys in the back struggle with something for a while and then they call out the boss and he solves the problem pretty quick and then goes on the floor to sell some bikes.”
Littlefield acknowledges a certain point of pride in watching Zabriskie race. He feels the same with the whole team: “It has been cool to see everyone take their riding to the pro level. There were a few who also fell through the cracks and you always wonder what could have happened. Definitely all of these guys, Leipheimer, Louder, Sayers, Swindlehurst and Zabriskie, all spent some serious time beating their heads against the wall and made some serious sacrifices to get to where they are now. Jeff Louder maybe has impressed me the most because it probably came ‘slowest’ to him and he just kept plugging away at it and he’s had a nice career.”
The Bagel team isn’t the most recognized name in domestic racing history, but it did act as a launch pad for several of the most well known racers from North America. The team used an age old philosophy of mentoring and learning to read and ride the race as the keystone to its success. While training and racing have certainly evolved and progressed over the passing years, the tactics of the Bagel team are still regarded as tried and true. The team fostered some incredible cycling talent, created long-lasting friendships, and directly influenced a significant portion of the cycling world.
Images courtesy of Ryan Littlefield