James Piccoli has tinkered his way to the top of North American racing
When James Piccoli couldn’t find cycling shoes that fit him, he built a homemade pair of carbon-fiber racing shoes in his parent’s garage in Montreal, Quebec.
On another occasion, Piccoli wanted a super-light handlebar that fit the dimensions of his hands. So, again, Piccoli retreated to the garage and built himself one out of carbon.
“Carbon-fiber construction is basically fancy arts and crafts,” Piccoli told VeloNews. “Anybody can learn how to do it. You can learn a lot through trial and error.”
Perhaps the most bizarre—yet successful—story of Piccoli’s tinkering comes from the lead-up to the 2017 Tobago Cycling Classic. Piccoli wanted to buy the lightest possible racing bike for the race’s steep climbs, yet he couldn’t afford the retail price tag. So, Piccoli instead bought an ultralight carbon frame on Ebay that had been damaged in a crash.
Piccoli repaired the shattered carbon frame himself. He then raced on the bicycle and won the Tobago race.
“I’m a tech nerd,” Piccoli told VeloNews. “I still have fun making stuff from carbon—parts for my car, chopsticks, and coffee cups. I just like to tinker.”
This inventor’s spirit, which drove James Piccoli to build homemade carbon-fiber cycling products, has also fueled his circuitous pathway through the sport. A relative late-starter, Piccoli has in recent years blossomed into one of the top stage racers in the North American domestic racing scene. This year Piccoli has amassed a list of eye-popping results. His overall victory at the Tour of the Gila is bolstered by second-place finishes at the Tour de Beauce and Joe Martin Stage Race.
He’s done so by—you guessed it—having the confidence to take chances. Piccoli won the Tour de Beauce in 2018 by attacking into a daring breakaway. He won the Tour of the Gila this past May after chasing down and then beating Oscar Sevilla on the opening stage. During the Canadian National Road championships, Piccoli embarked on a daring solo breakaway for more than 100 kilometers.
He came up short, and was caught with 10km to go. Of course you can’t win unless you try.
And now, Piccoli heads into the Tour of Utah with a firm goal in mind, one he believes may open doors for him in the near future.
“I want to win the Tour of Utah,” Piccoli said. “If I could have everything go [right], it would be to race in the WorldTour and race the Tour de France. I think I was built for it.”
Indeed, Piccoli has the cardiovascular engine to excel on long, steady climbs like the ones found at the Tour of Utah and Tour of the Gila. His stellar results in stage races this year have sprung from impressive performances on the climbs: he won the Mont Megantic stage at Beauce and the Mogollon stage at Gila.
Physiology aside, Piccoli says it has simply taken time to develop the confidence to race to win—that’s where his recent success has come from, he says.
“When I finally had people tell me that I could win races, that mindset-switch changed things for me,” Piccoli said. “Up until then I’d always been told I was too old.”
Piccoli says he grew up around bicycles, and often went on long road rides with his family as a boy. He did not begin racing seriously until after he left Concordia University in Montreal, where he studied mechanical engineering. Piccoli showed immediate promise, and quickly rose through the amateur ranks.
He inked a professional contract in 2013, and his early career included stops at the Italian team Amore & Vita, where he was teammates with Michael Woods, and the H&R Block pro team.
Since he started racing in his twenties, however, Piccoli says he felt overlooked within the peloton. Bigger teams gobbled up young riders who came up through Canada’s various development programs, but nobody was interested in the 25-year-old who had only been racing for two seasons.
“There is this rhetoric in cycling about youth—it’s like once you’re past 23, you’re no longer improving as a bike racer, and I was constantly told that, because I started late, I should just try to have fun,” Piccoli says. “It’s like, ‘You will never be that good.'”
By 2017 Piccoli was ready to end his pro career and return to school to finish his engineering degree when he was invited to race with the new Elevate-KHS pro team for the Tour of Utah.
As a relative unknown, Piccoli turned heads when he nearly won the second stage—an uphill finish to Snowbasin Resort. Piccoli attacked with 1 kilometer remaining in the stage and quickly distanced the field. A last-minute surge from Brent Bookwalter and Sepp Kuss eventually reeled Piccoli back in. But the Canadian’s result placed him and Elevate-KHS on the map.
“I was literally two weeks away from quitting, and it was finding out we were going to Utah that kept me going,” Piccoli said. “After that, the team sat me down and it was like, ‘Here’s the plan: You’re going to win this race, and try to win that race, and we’re going to support you. We believe in you.’ And that’s where it started.”
So, what’s next? Piccoli believes he has the experience and confidence to compete for the win at the Tour of Utah.
A win there would be bigger than Gila, bigger that Beauce, and even bigger than fabricating a pair of shoes from carbon in his garage.
One final anecdote from the annals of James Piccoli. He owns a fancy espresso machine that recently went haywire. Rather than pay $300 to have the machine fixed, he took the apparatus apart, ordered parts online, and repaired it himself.
“The company told me they didn’t approve of anyone taking apart the machine—’we do not want you tinkering with it,'” Piccoli says. “I ended up fixing it.”