By Daniel McMahon
In Czech, Neil Bezdek’s last name means “without thanks,” but if there’s one thing to know about the first-year pro it’s that he’s anything but thankless. And certainly he has much to be thankful for, a theme that has permeated 25-year-old’s young pro career.
In just a few months of racing professionally, Bezdek has proven himself by riding selflessly for the good of his team, North Carolina-based Mountain Khakis-Jittery Joe’s, and he’s quick to praise his teammates, too, whether they’re setting him up for a sprint or sharing a bit of wisdom in the team van as they crisscross the country.
Mountain Khakis signed Bezdek last fall after he showed promise as a guest rider in the team’s talent identification program.
This week VeloNews caught up with Bezdek after the Tour of Somerville to find out how his first year has been going, his take on racing as a pro, and what his good results might mean for the future.
VeloNews: What have been the big differences racing professionally?
Neil Bezdek: In some ways, there isn’t that big of a difference between a pro and an amateur cyclist. When I was an amateur, I used to put the pros on a pedestal. I came to realize, though, that the same motivation, passion and drive that an amateur has to have is the same a pro has to have. Sure, you have more time to train and recover, and sure you start doing better and you get moderately strong, but you don’t turn into Superman in just a few months. Sometimes you show up at races and you’re tired and you don’t want to be there. It’s the same set of challenges.
But tactics are much more precise and more deliberate in the pro races. We’ll have meetings after every race and discuss in detail how the race went and what we should have done differently. Rarely does it come down to saying things like, “So and so was a monster today” or “Someone just couldn’t pedal hard enough.” It’s more like, “We did well because of our tactics.” If we don’t do well, it is also because of our tactics. In the races I did before turning pro, that precision just wasn’t there.
VN: What has been most challenging for you personally this year?
NB: One thing I’ve had to come to grips with is the external pressure to do well. It’s not that people have been riding me hard or anything, but suddenly I had this reputation as a pro that I had to live up to, whereas before I was maybe a bit of an underdog. For the first time my motivation became external, and I had to live up to my teammates’ and the team management’s expectations. Before I had been personally motivated; I just wanted to do well for the sake of doing well. I didn’t care who I was riding for, what type of bike I was on, who took notice. I just had this burning intensity to want to do well.
Jumping to a pro team, it just took a while to transition. Recently, I came to really understand the shift, and I’m racing better because of it. I want to do well for the team. At first I let that pressure compromise my drive a bit and the way I raced, but now I’ve internalized it and am moving past it.
VN: Racing the crit circuit must require a lot of travel. How have you been holding up?
NB: What I’ve discovered is, with transportation to the race, everyone is careful about getting there early, having time to rest and ride, not getting rushed. But after the race, it’s like, who cares if you just raced and have to recover! Just jump in the car and let’s go! (Laughs])The idea is, we will have as much time as possible to prepare for the next race. After we left Somerville, it was straight on to North Carolina, and we didn’t get in until three in the morning.
It’s little things, too. Experienced guys know exactly how to watch their diet and plan ahead for long road trips. I noticed that guys bring their own coolers, and each guy has his staple groceries that are nutritious for on the road. I’ve been working on those smaller details, not just the big things, like how to find my place in a lead-out.
But in the end, yeah, this year I’m not really a guy for stage races but for the criteriums. That means a lot more races and more travel. And the travel can sometimes make things more difficult.
VN: You achieved the biggest result of your young career this week with fourth place at the Tour of Somerville. What did you think of that ride?
NB: It’s funny, because on the one hand I was totally psyched. Top-five not only in an NRC race but also in a race that is very important to me personally. More than any other race this year, it’s well attended by those from the New Jersey and New York racing scene, people I know and have raced with. Also, I was born in Somerville, though I grew up in Colorado. In fact, I was born at the hospital on turn 1. And there was so much exposure. Lots of crowds and lots of energy. Last year I did well there, too, in the Cat. 2 race, taking third.
But on the other hand, there was sort of a funny irony. The better you do in a bike race, the more agonizing it is that you didn’t do better. Like the week before, at Basking Ridge, I was 11th, which was good and I was happy with, but I was just one off the top 10. After, it ate at me a bit. So yesterday, to be so close to being on the podium, it’s all the more agonizing. I think, how cool would it have been to be on the podium? There’s a balance there. You have to be happy with your results as you get them, but I’m not totally satisfied with fourth place. I’m not going to be satisfied until either one of my teammates wins or I win.
VN: Does the team now have bigger expectations of you?
NB: I don’t think that a single result really proves too much. The phrase I’ve been using since the beginning of the season is, ‘I’ve been in over my head but not out of my league.’ I don’t have everything completely dialed, but I’ve got the instinct to be there and to keep up. Every week I’m learning something new, finding another piece of this puzzle. I’m definitely building confidence and having fun; I can hang and compete and be a factor. And as my teammates recognize this, we as a team recognize that each of us will contribute as we can in the best way.
And as I continue to refine my tactics, it’s more likely that I will be riding for a result. But it’s all fluid. One day I’ll lead a teammate out, the next he might try to set me up for victory. The one thing our team has is an egalitarian approach. It’s fun to race for a team that puts team mentality first and above individual results. At Speedweek, after Athens, Adam Myerson was our highest-placed guy, so for the rest of the week we were racing to get Adam results, so there was a clear order and favorite. But for the rest of the season, we are going to be racing for whoever can get the result, and each of us can be a part of that order.
VN: Have there ever been times when you felt you just couldn’t hack it as a pro?
NB: Yeah, for sure! I was so miserable in the first laps of Athens Twilight. It was raining; it was cold. I didn’t get a good warm-up. I was hurting. I flatted on lap 1. I was then at the back. It was brutal at the back! So I had to deal with the accordion effect at the back of the race and had to come around a lot of riders. Then I flatted again and got put back on the back of the race. It was my first big criterium, my first really big race. I dug deep, and I realized only a fifth of the riders were still racing. But my team was doing a lot of work at the front, and I took my pulls at the front, too. It felt very validating to be there at the end.
VN: What do you do for fun when you’re not cycling?
NB: There’s quite a lot of downtime, and I often have my nose in a book. One thing I really enjoy is eating meals together with the team after a race. We always have a deliberate team debriefing, but then we’ll often eat together afterwards, and the conversation naturally but consistently turns casual, and we don’t discuss business. It’s cool to travel around with a group of guys and have a lot more to talk about than just cycling.
The personal growth has been rewarding and made me psyched about the team. I’m counting my blessings, because this could be a cold business environment. I’ve made a dozen friends on the team, and that’s been helpful racing together on the bike, too.
Daniel McMahon is editor of cyclingreporter.com, a contributor-based blog devoted to road and cyclocross racing in the New York City area.