I never asked to be a professional cyclist. I feel like it just happened to me, and before I realized it, I was chasing something. I guess that means my path was unorthodox compared to most guys who race bikes for a living. No one in my family ever raced a bike. None of my friends raced bikes. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I grew up around who was particularly athletic or competitive, or even watched a lot of sports on TV. Somehow, I found bikes, and pro cycling sucked me in. I still haven’t caught the something that I’m chasing. In fact, I’m not completely sure what it is. But I’m not complaining.
In 10th-grade technology class, everyone took a career aptitude survey. We input our interests, preferences, and abilities, and the computer suggested professions accordingly. Mine said “Pro Athlete, or Agriculture/Forestry.” I lived in a suburb in Atlanta, nowhere near any agriculture, and I’d never planted a tree or set foot on a farm, so that was out. I was also five foot nine, obese, and exhausted by physical activity. I laughed at the test and made fun of the teacher, but I suppose I owe Mr. Beck an apology.
My older sister was a star student. Teachers recognized my last name and always had high hopes for me, but sooner or later I wouldn’t live up to Valerie’s legacy. Junior year, I was the first to arrive in English class, so I walked straight to the back of the empty rows.
“The back, huh? You know I notice that sort of thing,” said the teacher.
“You’d have figured it out anyway,” I told her.
By sophomore year, bad diet and lack of physical activity had built up a spare tire and stretch marks on my belly, while puberty and teenage angst had caused my grades to slip and my teachers to call my parents, complaining that I was being a disruptive smart-aleck in class. Who, me? I hadn’t gotten into any real trouble yet, but it was probably coming. And then I found bikes.
When I bought a used Trek hybrid, I didn’t think of it as a potential profession. It was a mode of transportation. On weekends and after school, I’d ride around Atlanta to friends’ houses, where we played video games, copied each other’s homework, and killed time. On the way, I found that riding was a way to relieve some of my anger and get out of the house for a while, away from concerns about college, life, and the future. I discovered and experienced a whole new world outside of the suburbs, from the woods to the inner city. As a bonus, after a couple months of getting around by bike, I noticed that my size 36 pants needed a belt to stay up.
My parents bought me a car when I was 18, but it was too late to stop my bike addiction. Riding had become its own purpose rather than a means to hang out with my friends, and it was all I wanted to do. It gave me a goal, and it formed the basis of a healthy routine. I took the same route every day, exactly 10 miles from the top of our driveway—through busy streets (riding on sidewalks), over the hiking trails in a park near my friend Kalin’s house, and around the mall on the other side of the neighborhood. I rode as hard as I could every day, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, trying to cross my finish line at the top of the driveway in under 30 minutes.
I enjoyed the equipment side of it, too. I was constantly buying and selling used bikes from yard sales and web sites, making a small profit each time and coming out with a cooler bike. I never achieved the elusive 20 mph average speed I was shooting for, but the attempt helped to solve a lot of my problems. Spending all that time outdoors cleared up my allergies, I lost 40 pounds, and my waist size dropped to 30 inches. By the time I finished high school my grades had improved, and I was less moody, more confident, more social, and happier in general. It was nice to be able to lift things or run up the stairs when I needed to. Best of all, when I looked down, I didn’t see a big roll of fat anymore. I felt okay about myself.
Bikes are a great way to get through college
I didn’t know anyone at the University of Florida (UF) when I started school there in the fall of 2004, but I liked riding bikes, so I joined the collegiate cycling club. The coach, Dan Larson, was a strong racer, and he was working on a master’s degree in sports management. Dan e-mailed a training plan each week, and with no friends other than the guys I met on the team, and nothing to do but show up for my entry-level classes, I did every workout, often adding a little extra. I still wore a T-shirt and shorts, and I didn’t have a road bike yet, but I’d upgraded to a Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike with slick tires. Gainesville, Florida, is a great place to start riding, with flat roads, warm weather year-round, and lots of open countryside and nature to explore.
When Dan and his wife, Rebecca, convinced me to get a road bike, shave my legs, and order a set of UF tights for the 2005 season, I won my first few time trials and a few criteriums (flat courses with lots of short laps and full of corners—very hazardous to a beginner). I upgraded from the Category V races, which were for riders just starting out, to Cat. IV, for riders still likely to crash but at slightly higher speeds. For collegiate racing, the packs were smaller and safer than the open amateur races, and I was strong enough, so Dan threw me into the A class, which was intended to be for elite-level racers. I wasn’t experienced enough to contribute much, but I climbed well, and I was always on the podium in the time trials. We drove to races throughout the Southeast most weekends during the spring semester, crammed into the cheapest hotels we could find. I slept on a sofa at a Howard Johnson one weekend—and scored a free room when I found a used condom in the cushions.
For the rest of my time at UF, most of my friends, roommates, girlfriends, and social activities stemmed from the cycling team. I didn’t go to a lot of college parties, and I never saw a football game, but I was happy. Dan and Rebecca became my parents away from home, and I’d often be the third wheel when they went out to dinner. Unlike in high school, I found myself sitting in the front of the classroom and acing my exams.
Adapted from Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro by Phil Gaimon, with permission of VeloPress.