After chasing his racing ambitions on the U.S. circuit for nearly a decade, McCabe landed a WorldTour contract with Israel Start-Up Nation for 2020, and packed his bags for Europe.
And just when the multiple U.S. critérium champion was hitting his stride, a world pandemic comes out of nowhere, and derailed those European racing dreams in what seemed like an instant.
Speaking to VeloNews, McCabe described his whiplash over how fast things unraveled as he went from racing the Belgian opening weekend to heading home days later as a lockdown engulfed Europe.
“That was always the dream to get this level and do these races,” McCabe told VeloNews. “And when you have that dream, and you think you’ve achieved it, and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. Sometimes it felt like the sky was falling.”
Every professional racer has gone through the wringer during the past several months. Each has their own story of how they’ve dealt with a seemingly endless string of lockdowns, quarantines, race stoppages, and uncertainty.
Yet for McCabe, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The 31-year-old is on a one-year deal with the Israeli team, and what seemed to be a dream come true has morphed into a tortuous months-long waiting game.
After a stop-and-start attempt to get back to Europe this summer, he finally flew to Spain earlier this month.
On Tuesday, he’s back in the saddle for his first European race since March at the French WorldTour stop at Bretagne Classic – Ouest.
With a hilly, demanding 254km course in western France, and forecasts calling for cooler temperatures and possible rain, he couldn’t be happier.
“I’m looking forward to it,” McCabe said in a telephone interview. “It’s great to be back with the guys, to be racing again, to have a bit of normalcy.”
To Europe and back again
McCabe’s long wait is over. Now that he’s finally back in the saddle, the Arizona native wants to maximize whatever opportunities remain in the truncated 2020 season.
“I’m still on for Tirreno-Adriatico, and I’m fighting for that last spot at the Giro d’Italia,” he said. “Everything is so uncertain. My approach right now is to take it week by week, stay healthy, and just make the most of the rest of the season.”
This is hardly how McCabe imagined how his inaugural WorldTour season would go.
McCabe was the most versatile sprinters on the U.S. domestic scene from 2016-2018, with multiple stage wins at the Tour of Utah and also international victories at the Tour de Langkawi and the Herald Sun Tour. He is a fast sprinter who can also survive the hills and even moderate-sized mountains; in a different era, his stellar U.S. results would have punched his ticket to the WorldTour.
Yet McCabe’s rise corresponded with fewer opportunities for U.S. racers. He almost ended his career entirely after his UnitedHealthcare team folded at the end of 2018, but for 2019 found a lifeline with Floyd’s Pro Cycling. He made the most of it and finished a close second to Peter Sagan at stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California while riding for the composite USA Cycling team.
That combination of speed and talent led to an opening on Israel Start-Up Nation, where he is the lone American on the international roster.
“I’ve been so careful on my end,” he said. “I just want to focus on training and racing these next two months, and see what I can get out of it.”
Over the winter, McCabe’s European dream was fulfilled with a late-hour contract with the Israeli team. He raced a bit with United Healthcare in Europe in 2018, but Israel Start-Up Nation, racing in its first WorldTour season with a mixed squad of veterans and developing talent, offered a full European calendar.
Things started out promising enough. McCabe opened the season in Argentina and Colombia, and raced the three one-days to open the Belgian calendar, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Le Samyn.
“Those races at first were a bit of a shock,” he said. “But after that block, I was comfortable in the bunch and holding my position. I was happy, and the team liked what they saw, and it was going in the right direction.”
And then the coronavirus changed everything.
Finding a silver lining in lockdown
McCabe’s COVID odyssey was similar to many of the American pros living in Europe. By mid-March, it was obvious that Europe was shutting down, and McCabe and his team decided it was best if he rode out the lockdown in the United States, rather than in the one-bedroom apartment he was renting in Girona, Spain.
“I was bummed out at first, but it was also out of my control,” McCabe said. “The whole world is struggling with this. I took the time to enjoy being with family and friends. It’s the first time in most pro cyclist’s lives that we’ve been home for five months straight.”
Throughout the ordeal, McCabe self-quarantined twice despite not showing any symptoms, just so his family, friends, and girlfriend – who was in residency at a local hospital – could remain safe. With so much turmoil, he went quiet on social media, and left fans wondering what had happened to him.
“I’ve been pretty quiet with everything going on,” he said. “I went rogue there for a bit.”
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, going rogue in a world pandemic opened up some unforeseen opportunities for McCabe.
Unable to race, he reached into his personal to-do list, and went mountain biking and hiking into the mountains of southern Arizona. And with his girlfriend accepting a new job in Florida, McCabe could actually be useful around the house, and help pack and prepare all the details that go into a cross-country move.
As bleak as everything was, McCabe searched for a silver lining.
“I just shut everything out, and spent time with my loved ones,” he said. “Most of all, I just spent time riding my bike. I frickin’ love it.”
Flash forward to June, and McCabe was starting to make plans to return to Europe (he also shared his experiences on a personal blog). And that’s just when the U.S-Europe travel ban went into place. Some of his racing peers already had European residency, and made it back without problems.
McCabe, racing in his first season in Europe, still needed to jump through some hoops to get permission from Spanish authorities to return. Spain made an exception for professional cyclists, so after helping his girlfriend move to Florida, he was all set to fly back in July.
After clearing COVID-19 testing controls, McCabe also underwent antibody tests, which came back with elevated levels suggesting possible infection. That threw a kink in his travel plans, requiring a new round of controls. Results took longer than expected to get back from a lab. And after a missed flight, he cleared another round of tests yet again, and the doors to Europe finally swung open.
“The good news is that I haven’t contracted it,” he said of COVID-19. “I made through all this without getting sick.”
McCabe flew back to Europe on August 14. Following some training rides in Spain — and yet another round of PCR tests required before any WorldTour race — he is racing again.
“It’s a loaded shotgun. A positive test now means another two weeks of quarantine,” McCabe said. “By then, the whole season is pretty much done. That’s the last thing anyone wants. Everyone is walking on eggshells.”
McCabe doesn’t know if he’ll be racing next season, and he can only take a philosophical approach to his uncertain situation right now. On one side, he’s healthy and he did make it to Europe as a pro. On the other side, he’s a competitor and wants to keep pushing.
“I want to keep racing,” McCabe said. “It’s a one-year deal, and I was hoping to have time this year to prove it, and then this happened. And now with Froome coming on to the team, the direction will be slightly different from what it was this year.
“It’s stressful,” he continued. “It’s always on the back of my mind. Every year I’ve raced, I’ve always had that uncertainty of not knowing my future. With the quarantine and COVID-19, the stress was just amplified.”
With no deal signed yet for 2021, his future is uncertain, but he says he’s used to that as part of the itinerant lifestyle that comes with being a professional bike racer.
“Things could be worse,” he said. “Everyone in my family is healthy. I haven’t lost anyone, and I have a ton of support back home. My life isn’t over if I cannot race a bike. This might be my last season racing. I hope not. I’ve come to terms with that.”
Right now, McCabe is going to savor the moment. It took him a long time to get to these European races. It’s been a strange yet eventful road to get to where he is. McCabe is simultaneously grateful, yet hungry for more.
“I am grateful for everything that has happened so far. I’m not bitter or hold any grudges,” he said. “I’ve always fought for everything I’ve had in cycling. I’m not going to be someone who lays down and throws in the towel. I’m going to put everything out on the road, and maybe something will come out of that.”
McCabe has a few months ahead of him to prove it. He’s hoping the coronavirus doesn’t pull the rug out from under him again.