For TJ Eisenhart, the 2017 off-season was a time to paint.
Eisenhart spent the offseason at his home in Ivins, Utah, where the daytime temperatures rarely dip below freezing in the winter. Each afternoon, Eisenhart pedaled his bicycle along the backroads of southern Utah. Every morning, he ventured into his garage to splash acrylic paint onto canvas.
“I found out I need art to balance my life,” Eisenhart said. “When I’m in my studio, I’m not thinking about cycling. When I’m on my bike or in a race, I’m not thinking about art.”
Eisenhart painted a picture of the Buddha, and he painted a lion, and an elephant, and a snow leopard. When Eisenhart’s sister asked him to help decorate her son’s astronaut-themed bedroom, he painted a picture of a spaceman flashing the peace sign. Eisenhart posted an image of the astronaut on his social media, and he received multiple requests to purchase the image. So he painted more spacemen.
He called his painting “The Explorer.”
“I wanted him to be a representation of me,” Eisenhart said. “Don’t be afraid to explore your mind and your new surroundings.”
The Explorer is a fitting image for Eisenhart as he embarks on an ambitious 2018 campaign with his Holowesko-Citadel team. At 23, Eisenhart is stepping into unexplored territory. He is now the team’s GC leader for stage races, following the departure of longtime captain Robin Carpenter to Rally Cycling. And Holowesko has stepped up to UCI Professional Continental status in 2018, a move that will send the team to South America and Europe. So Eisenhart could wind up leading the team on both sides of the Atlantic.
The move came about after Holwesko secured a presenting sponsorship by Arapahoe Resources, an energy company based in Oklahoma City. Sports Director Thomas Craven said the team is still committed to the U.S. domestic circuit, but with an international flair.
Holowesko starts its season off in Colombia at the new Oro y Paz stage race. The team will then target a handful of European UCI 2.2 and 2.HC races in March and April, such as French races Tour de Normandie and Circuit des Ardennes International, and the Tour of Croatia. During that block, other riders will compete in the springtime American races.
“We will take eight or nine guys over [to Europe], but I’ll be phasing them in and out of the races,” Craven said. “You never know how guys will end up after hard races over there.”
Craven said the team will lean heavily on Eisenhart’s expertise during this block of racing. Eisenhart spent four years competing in European development races as a member of BMC’s U23 squad.
“TJ is ready to step up,” Craven said.
Eisenhart says he welcomes the leadership role and the pressure that comes with it. In 2017 he led the team to the overall victory at the Redlands Bicycle Classic after riding in support of Carpenter at the Joe Martin Stage race. When Carpenter crashed out of the Tour of Utah with a concussion, Eisenhart became the team’s leader in that race and at the Colorado Classic.
“I leaned a lot on [Carpenter] and watched how he led the guys and motivated the guys,” Eisenhart said. “It feels right to [be a team leader]. For the first time, it feels like the fog has cleared in my mind and I can see the potential I have in myself.”
To prepare for his step up, Eisenhart has revamped his training regimen. In late 2017 he began training under the guidance of Bobby Julich, the team’s new performance director. The move brought a new level of structure and focus to Eisenhart’s training rides. Now, even short rides include specific drills for cadence and power.
In previous years, Holowesko’s riders worked with their coach of choice. Now, the entire team trains under Julich’s direction.
Eisenhart has already noticed a difference. During the squad’s January training camp in Greenville, South Carolina, training rides were structured around specific drills and race simulations. In one drill, the team split into groups of four and took turns sprinting. In another drill, the group practiced lead-out duties for team sprinter John Murphy.
“Last year it felt like we were doing whatever we wanted — day two and we were already busting our [legs],” Eisenhart said. “This year every day is planned. It feels more professional.”
The added focus and budget has not changed the team famously laid-back attitude, however. As in years past, the team operated its training camp out of the Swamp Rabbit Lodge, a quirky inn in Greenville. Craven said the team’s primary goal is to have fun, even with the European goals and added sponsors.
In that effort, Eisenhart is perhaps the best option to lead Holowesko. He has the legs to win races, and the quirky attitude to cut through the pressure. A self-described hippie, Eisenhart wears a chunky turquoise necklace during races and often sports a decorative poncho at the team bus.
And yes, he paints.
Eisenhart said art helped him continue his career in cycling. He nearly quit the sport two seasons ago and took art classes at the nearby Dixie State University, where he learned to sketch with charcoal and paint with an airbrush. The relaxation of art helped him compartmentalize the demands of pro cycling.
“When I’m at my limit with [cycling], I can switch over,” Eisenhart said. “I needed that balance in my life.”