By now you’ve probably heard about TJ Eisenhart, the young phenom on George Hincapie’s Holowesko-Citadel team.
On Sunday, the 22-year-old Eisenhart wrapped up the overall at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the iconic SoCal stage race where young American stage racers hone their craft before heading to the big leagues. Eisenhart dropped everyone on Redlands’s long, punishing climb to Oak Glen on the race’s second stage, and then held off ageless wonder Francisco “Paco” Mancebo on the race’s final Sunset Loop. The win came two weeks after Eisenhart nearly won New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila, where he scored a blazing performance in the individual time trial and then climbed alongside the domestic peloton’s top mountain goats.
OK, enough with the results.
Chances are you’ve heard about TJ Eisenhart because of that big turquoise necklace he wears during races, or because he sounds less like a cyclist and more like a guy who hangs-ten on a surfboard. Or maybe you’ve seen the photos on social media of him out training in a big blue denim shirt, or hanging out with his favorite band.
In a sport where serious attitudes and Type-A personalities abound, Eisenhart is something of a unicorn.
“I don’t ride my bike because I’m obsessed with winning. I ride my bike because honestly bike racing is the most beautiful thing to me,” Eisenhart recently told VeloNews. “I ride my bike for those five- or six-hour training rides when you don’t even have a bike computer on and you’re just going out and exploring, you’re ripping it and going hard. You just have this faded sensation of fatigue. It’s almost spiritual. You’re just like, ‘Wow, this is it.’”
There is a backstory to Eisenhart’s cosmic musings on cycling and racing, of course. Eisenhart is from Utah and has been racing near the top of the sport since he was a kid. As a junior racer he rode and raced primarily for fun, even though his talent and work ethic won him big results. In 2012 he won Canada’s Tour l’Abitibi, considered a bellwether race for cycling greatness. In Eisenhart’s mind, he was destined for the Tour de France.
In 2015, his second year in the under-23 ranks, Eisenhart’s trajectory hit a plateau. Like many talented youngsters, he had adopted the monastic lifestyle of a pro and put tremendous pressure on himself to win every race. He raced on BMC’s development squad and wanted nothing more than to progress toward the WorldTour.
The results never came. It wasn’t that Eisenhart was bad, he just did not turn heads the way he had hoped. For someone who was counting every calorie and logging every mile in hopes of WorldTour greatness, mediocrity was a crushing blow. He considered quitting cycling entirely to pursue a college degree.
“My whole life revolved around cycling and I was having terrible results,” Eisenhart said. “I told myself to eat, drink, and sleep cycling. I was pretending to have this Type-A personality and I was fooling myself. Deep down inside that’s not who I am. That works for some guys. For me it felt like I was wearing a mask. I was trying to fit the persona of what a cyclist should look like.”
In early 2016, BMC brass told Eisenhart they would not take him to the WorldTour in 2017. He took the bad news in stride and raced as a stagiaire with the team at the Tour of Britain and at the Tour of Utah, where he finished seventh overall. Eisenhart said BMC’s decision came as a blow, yet also a relief. He understood that he was not yet ready for the WorldTour. BMC’s choice marked a bookend to the waiting game he had played for years.
In the fall a lifeline came from Hincapie, who invited Eisenhart to join Holowesko-Citadel for 2017. And that’s when Eisenhart’s attitude toward training and racing began to change. A self-described hippie, Eisenhart started to grow his hair longer. He pursued his love of the hip hop group Mod Sun. He still trained, but decided to adopt a new carefree attitude toward cycling.
Eisenhart’s father collects Native American arts and crafts, and when he brought home a Navajo turquoise necklace, Eisenhart saw the perfect talisman for his new attitude on cycling. He started wearing the necklace shortly before his 2017 team camp. He has yet to take it off.
“I feel like every time I see it in a photo it reminds me to stay grounded, to remember not to take off the necklace just to be a little bit faster,” Eisenhart said. “It helps me see the bigger picture that I’m racing my bike for a living — and that is awesome.”
Eisenhart still has many years of racing ahead, and he has not abandoned his WorldTour dreams. His career goal is to someday race the Giro d’Italia, his favorite race. For the immediate future, however, his goals are to keep racing and winning on the domestic circuit. And, of course, to maintain his relaxed attitude toward pro cycling.
“I tell people that I live 98 percent stress-free. When that 2 percent comes up you gotta conquer that,” Eisenhart says. “When you’re having fun and staying true to yourself, that’s when the results come.”