SACRAMENTO, California (VN) — Travis McCabe sat beneath a shade tree and recounted his life’s rollercoaster-like twists and turns over the last eight months.
McCabe has endured painful setbacks. In August, he was left jobless when his longtime United Healthcare team folded after a futile search for sponsorship. A few offers trickled in that fall, but the pay was too small to cover even basic living expenses. McCabe left Denver and moved back home to Prescott, Arizona, fearing his career was over.
“It was the first time I was truly scared about what I was doing with my life,” McCabe told VeloNews. “I was looking into the abyss of my cycling career and realizing that it might end before I want it to.”
McCabe has also enjoyed moments of pure joy. McCabe received a lifeline from Floyd Landis’s new pro cycling team in November. The team’s training camp in Tucson, Arizona was a blast. His teammate Johnny Clarke won the overall at the Tour of Taiwan in the team’s first race together.
McCabe then went on a hot streak, winning a stage and the points jersey at the Tour of Langkawi, before taking a stage at the Tour of the Gila. Both results helped McCabe secure a spot at the Amgen Tour of California as part of USA Cycling’s national team. The formation of a national team for California was something that McCabe had actually lobbied for earlier in the year.
“I still do what I love to do for a living, and sometimes I just have to put it all in perspective, McCabe said. “I used to think that I wasn’t succeeding because of everything. Now I’m like I’m definitely succeeding, and I’m trying not to let the other factors affect me racing my bike.”
The latest twist in McCabe’s eight-month odyssey came Sunday afternoon in Sacramento at the Tour of California’s opening stage. Race announcers presented McCabe with a cake to celebrate his 30th birthday on the stage—a gesture that drew applause and attention from television cameras.
McCabe then put on a show in the finale. He surfed the sprint trains of WorldTour teams in the chaotic last kilometer, and found himself on the wheel of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) inside 500 meters to go. Sagan gapped McCabe with a burst of acceleration with 150 meters to go, but McCabe clawed his way back to the Slovakian rider’s wheel in the final push to the line.
McCabe finished second place by a hair to the three-time world champion. Not bad for a guy who was out of a job just eight months ago.
The entire ordeal has left McCabe with a new attitude toward racing. He feels like an outcast, a throwaway. And he’s using those feelings to fuel his motivation to train and win.
“I’m riding with a chip on my shoulder—I think we’re all riding with chips on our shoulders,” McCabe said, referring to his teammates on the Floyd’s squad. “We’re guys who a lot of people have written off. It makes guys really hungry.”
Indeed, the career uncertainty is tough pill to swallow for a rider with McCabe’s bonafides. Perhaps the most versatile American sprinter of his era, McCabe has won big races at home and abroad. He is a three-time stage winner at Langkawi, and he owns four stages of the Tour of Utah.
A decade ago, McCabe might have garnered a six-figure salary from a big budget domestic U.S. racing team. And if he was just five years younger, his results could have opened the door for a WorldTour contract.
Alas, McCabe’s physical peak has corresponded with the worst financial year in recent memory for American professional cycling. And it has come just a few years too late for WorldTour squads to take notice. By WorldTour standards, 30 is simply too old for a new hire.
McCabe says he’s finally at peace with racing and living in the United States. Several years ago, his big goal was to catch the attention of WorldTour teams and to potentially secure a spot in cycling’s biggest league. After scoring major results without much notice, McCabe said he readjusted his expectations.
“I’ve tried so hard, and knocked on all of the doors, and had those hopes. And it hasn’t happened,” McCabe said. “I’m not going to get my hopes up and think, ‘Gee, if I’m going to get that one result and go WorldTour.’ If it happens, great. But I don’t want to consider myself a failure if it doesn’t.”
And that perspective is helping McCabe throughout this week at the Amgen Tour of California, where he has ambitions to win one of the race’s flat or hilly stages. He understands that his results at the California race will not make or break his career, he says. It’s simply another opportunity to race.
And it’s an opportunity to lead as well. McCabe’s teammates are all under 25, and his job is to help lead them through the WorldTour peloton. A win here represents an enormous triumph. A second-place finish? Well, that’s pretty good too.
“Enjoy the experience” is McCabe’s big piece of advice for his younger teammates.
“You’re racing here in California with your idols,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”