Longtime American sprinter Brad Huff is calling it a career.
The 39-year-old Rally Cycling veteran, twice a national criterium champion, is riding in his final race this weekend at the Gateway Cup in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s a fitting send-off for Huff, a Missouri native, who has been a member of the pro cycling scene across two decades.
Huff spent his pro career in three of the largest teams in North American racing: Jonathan Vaughters’s TIAA-CREF team (now EF Education First-Drapac), Jelly Belly, and Rally. He has ridden all over the continent — and in Europe — and seen it all en route to becoming one of the elder statesmen of the domestic peloton.
That made this week a great time to catch up with Huff for one last time as a pro — to get his firsthand account of the whacky, wonderful world of bike racing over the last two decades.
VeloNews: You’ve been in the sport for a long time. What’s it been like knowing these past few weeks will be your last as a pro racer?
Brad Huff: It’s definitely bittersweet. But at the same time, I’ve really struggled the last two years, just because of the trajectory of the sport and the level that it is at in these past few years. I’ve definitely noticed my capabilities; what I’m trying to achieve, the level that my team is at, is exceeding what I can do. These last two weeks [racing in Germany] have just verified the fact that, you know what, it’s time to tap out. Time to step aside and let all these incredible athletes that have risen to a new level take over.
VN: Is that just a fact of being 39?
BH: You can’t discount age affecting the decision but the competitive level of cycling has risen, especially in the last five years. There’s more accessibility to quality coaching, more of the science is being understood, and each individual athlete has more time to understand their body.
VN: How has American cycling, and cycling generally, evolved since you broke into the sport?
BH: I came into the sport during the heyday, the height of cycling from the Lance effect and the NORBA mountain bike scene, and it just seems like the fan base is kind of diminished, so therefore those key sponsors that were helping all those developing teams have kind of shrunk a little bit. But at the same time, you’ve still had some headline fans and sponsors that have stepped in to fill that void. You see a lot more grassroots development teams that are really trying to band together as if its a family. You see that with Jeremy Powers’s JAM fund. You see that with the Little Bellas. Really developing those grassroots riders that can build into the scene.
VN: Do you feel like the sport has gotten cleaner over the years?
BH: It’s cleaned up so much that a rider of my capabilities — I don’t put out great numbers, I’m not one of those genetic anomalies — has been able to thrive in the sport for 13 years. When I first was in the sport, my very first year, I did Tour of California. Stage 1, I got fourth and the two guys ahead of me were questionable. And then, one because of my abilities and two because of the scene at that point, not fully cleaned up, I was out of the race on stage 3. Fast forward to 2014 or 2015 with Optum, yes I’m fitter but still, it’s the same level of athletes, actually faster than it used to be, and I made it all the way to the last day before having to DNF because I just got s—t-canned out the back. That explanation is what I use to tell people how I feel that the scene has “cleaned up,” but it’s apparent across the globe. There’s more accountability. Less of a good old boys’ system that there used to be.
VN: You tweeted a few weeks ago about finishing your UCI racing career the same way you started it: In the broom wagon. How did things come full circle?
BH: My very first broom wagon was my very first UCI race. The very first stage, I got dropped. I didn’t even know what a broom wagon was. I didn’t know there was a time cut, so I’m trying to chase and get back into the race. It was in Japan, 1999, and a driver gets up and he points, he does like the, ‘You’re over,’ and I’m like, ‘No!’ and he pulls over and gets in front of me and he’s like, ‘No, you’re done, kid.’ And I’m like, ‘What happened?’ And he’s like, ‘You’re out of the time limit. You’re not going to make it…’
I didn’t understand. Now, fast forward to 2008 Tour of Germany stage 3, I get dropped on the very first hill of the race, 34k in, and long story short, I got in the broom wagon with a lot more composure. I’m like, you know what, this is where I need to be.
VN: What’s been your best broom wagon-related memory?
BH: Qinghai Lake [in 2008]. There was a stage, it literally just goes up from kilometer zero to 50 kilometers in, and then it goes down to a hundred kilometers… When I tell people the story I put my hands together to make a triangle, and then I point at my elbow and say, ‘This is where I got dropped — at the beginning.’ And they’re like, ‘Really?’ Yep. A hundred percent.
I’m climbing up this mountain and I’m dropped and I get in the gruppetto and I can’t even stay in the gruppetto. This former amazing rider from Ireland, Ciaran Power, he tries to help me out there, and I’m like, ‘Dude it’s over, I can’t even make it.’ So I’m dropped, all these other riders had quit the race. Freddy Rodriguez was in the broom wagon at this point. A couple other guys too.
The broom wagon rolls up and guys are like, ‘Come on Brad, get in.’ And I’m like, ‘No! I’m not quitting.’ And then I’m literally time trialing down the mountain. It finished on like a criterium circuit so I ripped the corners and made the time cut by 20 seconds.
VN: Did you make it through the next few days too?
BH: I did! I finished the thing.
VN: Speaking of criterium circuits… What is the craziest memory you have from crit racing?
BH: When I won my very first pro national championship, I actually got second place, because that was back when it was at Downers Grove and then allowed foreigners in the race. Hilton Clarke won and I got second place behind him and I was so frustrated. I wanted to win. I was still ecstatic, I had the national title, I raised my arms in the air, acting like I had won, even though I was second. Fast forward to 2016, back in another national championship criterium, and Hilton has got his green card now or he’s a citizen, so he can race the US national championship. He’s on the start line. And I’m like wow, this is kind of cool — and I win, outright. He doesn’t. Not even close to placing next to me, and I felt like I’d gotten my title back, like that championship he’d won in 2006, now that he’s a citizen, I’m like, “Hey man, I actually am the national champion.” It’s official now. That was a cool thing — even though it was at Hilton’s expense.
VN: What’s the biggest blunder you made you in your career?
BH: When I was an amateur, 2003, I had placed second at crit nats at Downers Grove… In 2004, Mercy Cycling, the team I was riding for, put all this pressure on me to win, they showed me an actual national championship jersey in team kit, and I’m like, “F— man, I don’t want this stress!’ My dumbest move, biggest regret, is allowing that stress to dictate how I performed in the race. I was so nervous, I had so much anxiety about performing, that I quit. I probably had 20, 30 minutes to go, because I just couldn’t handle that pressure. I allowed it to affect the outcome of my day, the potential to win a national championship. That really taught me a lot about how to handle myself better, more professionally, keep a level head going into those events. In 2005, back at the national championships, I was still with Mercy and I won the elite title…
Another bonehead move, I’m racing in Europe in my very first European race with TIAA-Cref, we’re at Tour of Normandie. I win stage 1, I’m in the yellow jersey, we’re going into stage 2. I’m in the sprint finish with Jürgen Roelandts, former Belgian national champ and still an incredible rider. We hit the finish line, and I raise my hands and he nips me at the line. From that day on, I never raised my hands again unless I 100 percent knew that it was a sure victory.
VN: So what’s next after you hang it up?
BH: There is a high probability that I will be working for a company, Topical Edge, now called AMP HP, in marketing, maybe team liaison. The business side of it. I’ve really become a good friend with the CEO Jeff Byers, a former NFL player who loves riding his bike. He’s willing to give me an opportunity to apprentice under him, take me under his wing — literally, because he’s six foot five — and teach me the ins and outs of business. He used to run a hedge fund even while he was a player.
VN: After so many years as a pro, are you nervous about life outside the peloton?
BH: Oh sure. I’ve been a cyclist roughly since I was 19 years old. My bachelor’s degree was in nutrition because it was more oriented to where my passions were. Everything in my life has been all about sports and cycling up to this point. To change my drive and change my outlook to not be totally performance driven is going to be a big shift.
VN: Do you at least have some vacation time in your near future? Now seems like a good time for you and fellow retiring pro/partner Lauren Hall to take a little break.
BH: We’re going to go do a charity event down in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Bricks and Spokes at the end of September. Then a little family vacation with the Hall family. You know, THE — capital t, capital h, capital e — Lauren Hall has been in my life since December 2008 when I first met her. We’ve been able to be friends and peers and teammates throughout the years and having her to lean on as a confidant and a best friend is invaluable in our transition together. I can’t think of a better partner to be able to experience this with and lean on.
VN: But first, the Gateway Cup…
BH: Growing up in the Midwest, the Gateway Cup was the paramount race of the year. It’s the one you went to try to perform and finish off the season well. I grew up down in Springfield, Missouri area in a small town called Fair Grove. Being able to finish up my career at the Gateway Cup, it’s like coming home. I can’t think Mike Weiss of Big Shark [Bicycle Company] for putting on this series year after year enough. Allowing me to come back, represent, hold the tears the back — hopefully, I’ll have more droplets of sweat than tears out there.