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By Ben Delaney
It’s been a bumpy ride for Andy Bajadali. The 34-year-old has gone from pro mountain biker to pro roadie, to amateur roadie and back to pro roadie. Oh, and there was a stint living in a Turkish slum, while racing in Belgium with his buddy Alex Candelario, thrown in there for good measure. This year, Bajadali is shaking off a rough early season and heading into the Redlands Bicycle Classic as the defending champion, riding for Kelly Benefits Strategies-Medifast.
At 6-foot and 150 pounds, Bajadali is all climber. In addition to Redlands, he has also won the climbing-heavy Tour of Utah, the Sea Otter Classic road race, the climber’s jersey at Mt. Hood, and the TriPeaks Challenge, twice. With a super-steep finish on the final day, TriPeaks showcases Bajadali’s abilities.
“That is a particularly steep climb; it’s horrible,” he said, adding that he used a compact 36×27 gear for the stage. “After 90 miles of hard racing, you hit this thing, it’s straight up. I’ve done that race twice, used that gear twice, and won twice. It’s a big advantage to have that gear; you can accelerate.”
Regardless of gear selection, few riders can stay with him on the steeps when he’s on form. At the 2006 U.S. road championships, Bajadali was the last man standing in the winning move with Levi Leipheimer and eventual winner George Hincapie on a climbing course in South Carolina.
“The steeper the better for me, when I’m riding well,” Bajadali said. “I can ride out of the saddle for 30 minutes. It’s my style. It may not be as efficient, but I use more of my upper body, my core.”
This season, Bajadali has had a bit of the rough luck that affects bike racers from time to time. He was sick and off the bike for six days right before the Amgen Tour of California, then at that race he and most of his teammates — like many at the race this year — got ill.
“That was a hard hit,” he said. “We really wanted to perform at that race so we could get selected for [the Tour de] Georgia. It was our one shot to impress.”
In the big picture, though, it’s just one more of the punches Bajadali has learned to roll with. VeloNews caught up with him at home in Boulder before he headed out to Redlands.
VeloNews: In 2005, after a few years with Ofoto, you were racing with the amateur squad Vitamin Cottage. What’s the story there?
Andy Bajadali: I broke my femur at the end of 2003, and I was off the game the whole year in ’04. I trained my ass off that winter. Then ’05 was an awesome year, when it really took off again. It started with a top 10 at Redlands, and I ended up having really good form the whole year. We went to Tour of Utah with four or five guys. I had the leader’s jersey until the last 5km of the last day. That was a big disappointment. But after that, I won the Boulder Stage Race, I won Utah, I won a stage of Mt. Hood, the climber’s jersey at Mt. Hood, and took second overall there. It was a really good year for me.
And it was also redemption for not finding a job. You know, shit happens. What are you going to do? You gotta keep rolling.
VN: Tell me about your experience in Belgium.
AB: I raced mountain bikes for the first part of my career, and moved up the ranks pretty quickly. Unfortunately, when I turned pro all the sponsors were pulling out. My whole thing just crumbled on me. I was working odd jobs. But I still wanted to race, and had always been really strong on my road bike in local races. A couple friends of mine, Alex and Micah Thompson, we were all partying one night. We were pretty hammered, talking about Belgium. We all made a pact to go over there. Just throw down and see what happens. We decided the summer of 2000 to go over there, and race in horrible conditions.
AB: It was an awesome experience. I learned a lot. If I was 20, I would be over there full time. Maybe not Belgium, as it doesn’t suit my ability, but Europe for sure. Just because they’re so passionate. It was a great time. I loved the super-aggressive racing style.
I lived in the Brit’ house, as the only ‘septic tank Yank.’ We were all on a team together. I paid $150 a month for rent, and was living off prize money, going kermesse to kermesse. It was a blast. I learned a lot about racing and tactics, how to take care of yourself in bad conditions. How to harden up. It was cool. I’d definitely recommend it to any aspiring young guy.
We lived in squalor, but looking back on it, that was half the fun. It was in a Turkish slum area of Ghent. You walked down to the grocery store and there was just mayhem on the streets.
VN: What are you thinking about with Redlands this year?
AB: Form-wise, I could be going better, so I’m disappointed. Of course you want to defend your title at any big race like that. It’s disappointing that I’m not really flying. But I’ll feel good enough to be competitive in one of the stages. But our team is riding strong. Alex will be riding well. We’ll have a full-strength squad. I think there are a couple of guys that are going to surprise people. At Sequoia, Reid Mumford was third in the long time trial there out of a class field, only about 20 seconds off Rory [Sutherland] in an hour-long time trial. He’s one of the only guys that didn’t get sick in California.
VN: And for GC?
AB: We’ll have options. I will definitely be motivated. We’ll have three or four options for GC. And we’ll have a really good sprint team with Alex and Kevin Lacombe, who’s a big tough ex-hockey player, for the crit and the first road stage, which will likely come down to a kick.
VN: How about the course, and the four-day format?
AB: It’s a little disappointing that there is no Oak Glen stage this year. That has always been the hallmark stage. It really shows who’s in there for GC. You can separate yourself from the guys who just smashed the prologue. Someone who is 20 seconds in front of you on the prologue, you can put a minute into them on Oak Glen. Now, we’re going to come into the last day and there will be 50 guys within 15 seconds of each other unless there is a crazy break on the first day. It will be a very different race.
VN: From a certain perspective it’s good to switch up the race format. This might keep people guessing and keep the racing aggressive.
AB: Yeah, sure. The last day is hard, too. A lot of guys don’t expect how hard it is. It’s only 150k, but it’s brutal. I’ve done that race in 95 degrees, and only 35 guys finish. It just gets so hard.
VN: What other races are you targeting this year?
AB: Definitely Philly week. That’s the big target for the team. Kelly Benefits Strategies is based in Annapolis, Maryland, so all those East Coast races are really important or our team. And there is the pro crit, which we want to win again; hopefully get someone in the stars and stripes. Then we have the Colorado Stage Race, which looks really good. Then I’ll try again to win USPRO. That’s always the goal. I’m always motivated at the end of the year for it. That would be a lifelong dream, just to wear the stars and stripes for a year.
VN: Does the NRC matter to you?
AB: I don’t know what there is about it. There is no prize money, nobody gets a gold watch or anything. It’s not our focus. Our focus is what’s important to Kelly, our directors, and the management.
That said, there are hallmark races. Races that have been around a long time — Redlands, Cascade, Altoona — the big races. And now you have Mt. Hood, Philly week. You have these hallmark races that have been established, they’re like the classics. You open up the race bible and there’s that list of names, there’s that history. They’re the ones you want to win.