By Jason Sumner
Talk about your contrasting sporting career highlights. In his primary vocation, Bill Demong is an Olympic hero, the first American to ever win gold in a Nordic combined skiing event, a feat achieved this past February in Vancouver, British Columbia.
But in his other athletic endeavor, elite amateur cycling, Demong’s claim to fame is more ignominious. The New York native is that guy in those hard-to-believe photos that pictured Chris Horner doubling another rider on the back of his bike near the tail end of the 2008 Cascade Classic.
It was Demong’s first NRC race, coming shortly after an upgrade from Cat. 2 to 1. After surviving a nervous day of racing, Demong was just three kilometers from the finish of stage 5 when he touched wheels with the rider in front of him and went down hard.
“I was OK but my bike was toast, derailleur in the spokes and all,” recalled Demong. “But being the ski racer who never quits — and someone who, knock on wood, has never not finished a bike race — I picked up my bike and started running to the finish.”
And that’s where Horner came in. The then-Astana rider was in Oregon riding support for teammate and eventual overall winner Levi Leipheimer. After shepherding Leipheimer to the base of the final climb, Horner sat up and was coasting toward the finish when he came upon Demong.
“All the sudden I hear this guy say, ‘Dude, this is a bike race. You can’t run. Get on your bike and I’ll push you,’” continued Demong. “Then I showed him my bike. And then Horner said, ‘Well, get on then.’ So up I went, bike and all. We looked like a couple of school kids.”
Two years and one gold medal later, Demong can laugh at the whole episode. But you get the feeling he’d prefer to alter his lasting bike racing image. Turns out that’s more likely than you might expect. Besides being one the world’s best in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and ski jumping, Demong is a seriously talented amateur cyclist.
In just four years, the Park City, Utah resident has risen from Cat. 5 to 1. And while he’s yet to have any serious breakthroughs in the elite ranks, those close to the soon-to-be 30-year-old are convinced he’s capable of almost anything.
“The only thing he’s lacking is time in the saddle,” said Scott Ford, manager of Demong’s Utah-based Cole Sport team. “If and when Billy decides that’s what he wants to do, he’ll do it and be great at it. The guy has truly amazing talent and focus.”
For Demong’s part, he says 2010 won’t be the year he dives headlong into cycling. Indeed, winning Olympic gold, and all the extracurricular activities that come with it, means he won’t truly turn his attention to cycling until May. When Demong’s wheels do start turning, his primary focus will be August’s Tour of Utah.
“That’s basically the Tour de France for our team,” said Ford. “We’ll do the Tour of the Gila, Cascade and Mount Hood for training, and then hope to be peaking for Utah. I think Billy could be really good by then.”
But even if Demong doesn’t pop a big result at Utah, he’s sold on the benefits of cycling.
“Last year was the first time I actually tried to do a summer peak and a winter peak,” he explained. “Obviously that worked out pretty well with what happened in Vancouver.”
For those too immersed in curling and figure skating during the Vancouver Games, Demong’s Olympic experience included the aforementioned gold medal, plus a silver in the Nordic combined team event, selection as the U.S. team’s closing ceremony flag bearer, and an accepted marriage proposal to his longtime girlfriend.
“That was a pretty big day,” recalled Demong. “I had the ring in my pocket and was headed to propose when I got the call telling me I’d been chosen to carry the flag. I was like, ‘Great, but I’ve got some other things going on right now and I need to call you back.’ So I went and proposed and then did the media conference call to talk about carrying the flag.”
Demong has become a flag bearer for cycling as well. He calls bike racing his perfect summertime outlet.
“The best part is that I get to do something totally different than the guys who are roller skiing all summer,” said Demong, who’s competed in four Olympics and is a three-time world championships medalist, including gold in the 10km individual large hill event in 2009. “When fall comes around and it comes time for me to get back on the roller skis, I’m totally pumped to get started again. I think a lot of the other guys are kind of over it. It’s like if you had to ride rollers all winter and then get back on the bike, you’d get a little burned out.”
Demong’s altered offseason routine initially drew raised eyebrows from his staid skiing peers, but success has led to more and more acceptance.
“For years people would just follow what the Norwegians did,” said Dave Jarrett, head coach of the U.S. Nordic combined team. “They’d say you can’t ride bikes all summer and still be good at cross-country skiing. They’d say that since you don’t support body weight it’s not real training. But I’ve always been a big fan of cycling, and we’ve incorporated it more and more every year. Now I think we’ve effected a training shift in the sport.”
Since joining cycling’s elite amateur ranks, Demong’s measured his gains in small increments. He’s learned how to maintain his place in the bunch, and progressed from satisfied-finisher to a potential top 40 guy.
“In the beginning I was really bad at riding in the pack, and I always wondered what would happen if I knew how to ride at the front,” he said. “But I’ve slowly been figuring out how sketchy it needs to be. You’ve got to be right on the wheel in front of you.”
Now Demong says he’s straddling the line, curious to see where he could go with bike racing, but knowing he’s turning 30 at the end of March.
“I look around the NRC races and see that there are guys older than me,” he said. “But it’s the mental game of putting in time when you are 35 and missing time with the family and kids. You can be good if you make the sacrifices, and I’ve gotten a lot of emails saying I should try to take it to the next level. But I know that next step is a lot tougher.”
It’s too early to tell where bike racing will take Bill Demong. But even if he never pins on another number, he’ll always have at least one lasting summertime memory to go with his Olympic gold medal.