By Daniel McMahon
Early in 2008 Neil Bezdek was a bit stumped. He was growing tired of his job as a Manhattan bike messenger but still loved to ride. So, in the spring he entered his first race, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, as a Cat 5. He won it — as well as the next seven races.
Fast-forward to the end of 2009, and Bezdek is getting ready for his first professional season with Mountain Khakis p/b Jittery Joe’s signed Bezdek.
“My license said Cat. 5 but I considered myself a more serious cyclist,” the 25-year-old Bezdek said. “When I upgraded to Cat. 3 and did some Pro-1-2-3 races, I was on the front, mixing it up with the pros. I was thinking that maybe it was foolish to do that, but then again, I wanted to know if these guys were as good as they said they were.”
In 2009, Bezdek was competing with the top regional riders at races like the Harlem Cycling Classic in New York City, a popular criterium he watched from the sidelines the previous year as there was no race for Cat. 5 riders. He got sixth place in Harlem, after missing the break but winning the bunch sprint.
Try-outs with the pros
In May 2009, Bezdek found out about Mountain Khakis’ talent identification program and contacted the team, who invited the Centennial, Colorado, native to race at the Crossroads Crit Series in August. In the midsummer heat, Bezdek raced six days in a row, lining up for the final race, the Cat. II-III Hanes Park Criterium, on Sunday with a bag of ice stuffed down the back of his jersey. He won.
“It was exciting to hang out with the pros who until then I’d only read about,” Bezdek said. “And the student-teacher ratio was really favorable, so I learned a lot. I don’t have 10 years of racing in my legs, so it’s a matter of getting experience and learning. It’s important to recognize that and work on it.”
One of those on the team he learned from at try-outs was Adam Myerson, a team captain on Mountain Khakis.
“Neil struck me as bright, analytical, insightful and committed,” Myerson said. “Those traits are hard to come by in good bike racers. On the bike he was aggressive, strong and willing to take risks.”
Myerson said the team’s management also saw similar qualities in Bezdek, and that although there were other riders with lots of talent at the try-outs, talent was not everything.
“The other part of the equation is about who you really want to spend a couple weeks on the road with — or drive across the country with — in a 12-passenger van,” he said. “Neil is that guy.”
Big Apple beginnings
New York City cycling promoter and former elite racer Charlie Issendorf was one of the first to spot Bezdek’s talent.
“Neil caught me eye when he started winning almost all the Cat. 5 races,” Issendorf said. “I told Neil that he was super talented but needed to keep pushing himself. It’s easy to stay to in a category too long and enjoy the wins and never progress to the next level.”
Issendorf gave Bezdek advice on which races to do and helped him join the local GS Mengoni team and, later, Mountain Khakis.
Bezdek attributes some of his success to the busy racing scene in New York.
“You can do three or four races a week there,” he said. “I don’t think there are other places in the country where you can do that if you don’t own a car.”
Other sports helped Bezdek prepare for cycling. He skied for several years and was into skateboarding, whitewater rafting and surfing, sports in which he gained confidence moving quickly while navigating a flowing environment. Bezdek says his time working as a bike messenger also helped him feel comfortable riding in a tight pack and use his instincts to find a clean line through a crash.
Dedicated and ambitious
After working as a messenger for several months, Bezdek landed a full-time desk job last year, which required him to make time outside work hours to train and rest. He started going out for three- and four-hour training rides at 5 a.m. over the George Washington Bridge and up along the Hudson River, before rolling into work for a full day.
“I’m a bit of a scientist, Spartan and Evel Knievel,” he said. “I’m also pretty introspective. For days after I’ll think about everything that happened. And if there’s a field sprint and things are dicey, I’ll still go for it.”
Still, he is paying close attention to the everyday things, such as his diet. He not only considers the quality of the food he eats but also the quantity (he’s lost 15 pounds since September).
Asked what he thought of Bezdek’s fast rise to the pro ranks, Myerson said it was a unique combination of important traits.
“I think it speaks to his natural talent, of course, but also his cleverness,” Myerson said. “Lots of guys are gifted and get strong without a lot of hard work. But bike racing is also a game, like chess, and you have to have the instinct and intellect to learn how to play the game effectively.
“Neil seems to have both of those things, and that’s going to serve him well as he steps up another big level this year.”