My perspective on some of the great questions asked by junior cyclists via a social media Q&A.
I never expected such a gentle, seemingly benign crash to matter but when my foot twisted against the frozen ground I heard and felt something like a cold chocolate bar breaking in its wrapper. This is the longest period I've spent anywhere in nine years.
Recharged by the longest off-season that I’ve been able to spend with friends and family in the last six years, an invitation from my new Garmin-Sharp teammate Janier Acevedo to train with him in Colombia before the Tour de San Luís thrilled me. I jumped all over the opportunity to experience a new culture, improve my Spanish, migrate to a warmer climate, train at altitude, and get to know a new teammate outside the stress, structure, and pressure of racing. We both signed two-year contracts with Garmin last year and our race programs will overlap a lot. Becoming friends with teammates improves everything from cohesion in races to mental fortitude on long campaigns away from home. It only took the initiative to make it happen.
Whereas I begin almost every day in Virginia with freshly ground Colombian coffee beans, the majority of Colombians drink instant coffee. Whereas, at this time of year, I have to wait until at least 10 a.m. in Virginia to begin training so that my bottles won’t freeze, Colombians are on their bikes no later than 8 a.m. to avoid afternoon showers. Whereas my American friends are obsessing over American football and basketball, Colombians are following futbol and ciclismo.
Colombia is a super fan of cycling. Drivers hung out their windows, cheering and snapping pictures of us on training rides. In four days Janier gave three interviews with major media outlets. Everyday I passed between 100 and 500 other cyclists of both genders and all ages, sporting jerseys from their local clubs and favorite pro teams. Whereas I often join the junior riders at the Miller School of Albemarle, in Colombia I passed pelotons of 100 minors living and training at 7,200 feet in elevation. Don’t be surprised to see Colombians become the Kenyan marathoners of cycling. Peter Stetina said, “It seems like every WorldTour team now as at least one token Colombian.” For two weeks I was the token gringo in Antioquia, Colombia.
Since meeting Sergio Henao at a Nations Cup in 2009 and racing the 2010 Tour of L’Avenir when Andrew Talansky placed second to Nairo Quintana, I’ve had friends in Colombia. They talk about their home the way I talk about Virginia, and with the same enthusiasm to share it. The reasons were evident from the beginning of my visit.
As in Mexico, Italy, and Spain, the tranquil Latin lifestyle in Colombia balances the physical stress of training. If you spot a friend, you stop what you’re doing to catch up over an instant coffee or agua panella. There is always time for an afternoon nap, and sports massage is cheap. The neutral temperature was comfortable in a jacket or shirtless. My pasty skin hadn’t seen the sun in months. It felt like vacation, but I was at work. With options to ride flat or climb beyond the hearts content every day above 7,000 feet was a quality investment in the coming season.
We ate healthy foods, cooking traditional dishes of rice, chicken, plantains, and arepas, which are like corn pancakes. We prepared smoothies with fresh exotic fruits. Guavas are my favorite. On the last day Janier introduced me to empanadas, saying, “This is food for December.”
I went seven days in Colombia before my first conversation in English. Flexing my mind so much to understand and speak in Spanish hurt like taking the SATs. Near the end of a five-hour ride, which included a 40-kilometer climb, the Colombian on my left shouted, “Wrench! Wrench!” I searched the ground, but saw nothing. At that moment he turned right into me and we nearly crashed. “Wrench! Ah, no, right.”
Earlier in the day I had taught him both words.
“Ha! Exacto, derecha, ‘Right.’ We almost crashed, man!” I said in Spanish. “But good try.”
Many Colombians wanted to know if my parents were worried about safety when I told them I was going to Colombia. My parents are used to me traveling. I stayed with a local, Janier, in a smaller pueblo 30 minutes from Medellin. While I’m not the kind of gringo who gets wasted and wanders down dark alleys, I did do some long solo rides. Unless cows in the road count as danger, it was safe. I never felt uncomfortable or even alone for that matter. Every few minutes, cyclists heading in the opposite direction greeted me with sharp whistles. By the end of the week I was even greeting shop owners on the way to Janier’s home.
I’m extremely grateful to him and others for their hospitality. The adventure in Colombia set me up for a successful Tour of San Luís. I plan on returning and Janier and I are already scheming his visit to Virginia post USA Pro Challenge.
The winter and spring drudged on and on, one cold rainy ride after another, broken only by dirty races in cold rainy places. After four- to six-hour rides, I dragged myself back to my apartment in Lucca, Italy. I’d read and watch the rain fall while waiting for dinner, a chance to socialize with another hungry cyclist.
I’d walk through town, past people kissing under umbrellas and then try to steer the conversation away from girls and family far away. It was the coldest, wettest winter/spring in Tuscany in 70 years. I’m fortunate to share the apartment with Max Durtschi, an intelligent guy capable of stimulating conversation. Good company, good food, and the structure of my training kept me alive. I placed in the top 20 at every time trial, but never in the top 10, creating an insatiable drive to keep pushing.
The summer, on the other hand, is passing like a whirlwind. Returning to the USA for the Tour of California was reviving. I trained with fresh intensity and spent every afternoon adventuring and relaxing with friends and family. It was an immediate physical and mental boost for Tour of California.
Unfortunately, I crashed in training two days before the race and flew home. The team adjusted my schedule so that I could take a week off, reset, and ease back into the second half of the season. Yet, a few days later, the team notified me that they needed me to race the Critérium du Dauphiné. An easy week tapering into Cali, followed by a week off, followed by a few easy base rides meant a lack of form and a lot of suffering in what is one of the hardest races of the season. But my mind was fresh.
I got through the Dauphiné despite catching strep throat for the last two stages. Antibiotics did their job, and two days later I started the Tour of Luxembourg. It was encouraging that I had my strongest day on the last of the 13 race days in 15 days supporting Bob Jungles to victory.
During that time, Lucca had transformed into a paradise of wild flowers and fruit growing roadside, people swimming in the river, tourists sauntering around town, live music, and sunshine. Max and I joined Evelyn Stevens and Neil Henderson to preview the 2013 worlds course in Florence. Don’t miss that race. It’s going to be epic. Then I raced the Tour of Austria. I felt great, raced hard, and finally cracked the top 10 in a time trial. I flew straight from Vienna to Fort Worth, Texas, for a sponsor event, then enjoyed another three weeks in Virginia.
In Virginia I had the opportunity to visit with juniors at the Charlottesville Bike Camp. Send your kids next year. I got to speak to the Boys and Girls Club Cycling Team and their supporters, and I got to cheer for the juniors racing the Virginia State Championships which my brother, Jake, won.
My message to the juniors and their supporters, and riders of all levels felt simple and generic. Cycling taught me to live a balanced and healthy lifestyle. It taught me about discipline, perseverance, and humility. Through it, I have experienced the rewards of hard work and delayed gratification. It has exposed me to different cultures, interesting people, and led to fulfilling relationships. Plus, it has led to a greater understanding of myself as I explore my surroundings and my personal limits daily.
I got to share stories from my career beginning with my first mountain bike ride. It was for a friend’s 12th birthday party. His dad had to pull me out of the bushes every other corner. Looking back at my methodical progression from that first ride, to group rides, to local races, to international competition, to the professionals, to the UCI WorldTour, I am most excited to tell these aspiring racers that we do the exact same thing. The sport, lessons, character building, and ethics are the same. It only gets faster, longer, and harder.
LUCCA, Italy (VN) — My parents raised me to be well rounded, which has helped me adapt to new countries, cultures, languages, teammates, and circumstances since I became a pro cyclist. But, since leaving Virginia Tech in 2009 to pursue my goal of a ProTour contract, the sport has consumed me.
From the season’s beginning in early January to its end in late October, I break my daily routine — eat, sleep, ride — only for international travel and team events. Immersed in cycling culture, it’s easy to forget that many people dream of owning a bike simply for transportation. From that perspective, straddling my $10,000 Trek Madone humbles me. I fantasize about all the great things I’ll do during my offseason. Yet, after over nine months of hammerhead training, racing, and recovering, the couch is very seductive and lethargy soon follows.
Guy East, a former teammate on Trek-Livestrong, struggled seeing destitute poverty as he traveled for racing. He gave up professional cycling, sold almost all of his belongings, and bought a one-way ticket to Puerto Rico. He worked his way through Central America to Nicaragua, serving in orphanages, soup kitchens, and through local outreaches. Ironically, Guy ended up at El Puente, a mission base in Nicaragua where I went during my first ambitious offseason as a full-time pro cyclist.
When Guy told me that he and Todd Henriksen of AIA Cycling were organizing a four-day trip for athletes to build a home for a family in Tijuana, Mexico, I signed up.
Twenty-three of us, including Olympians in cycling, track and field, and rowing, piled out of vans onto the building site in late December. I expected to see oversized Lincoln Logs and boards with pre-threaded screw holes. The stacks of shingles, 2x4s, and drywall dumbfounded me.
My first thought was, “Good thing there are some rowers and triathletes here for the heavy lifting.” Still, none of us had building experience. Homes of Hope assigned our group two experienced builders who assigned tasks so that everybody always had a hammer or brush in a hand. We literally put up a two-room home with bunk beds and a stove in two days.
Even though it wasn’t a race, our group, the green team, couldn’t help using a little competition against the other four teams to motivate us. Team Green-GO! built that house with enthusiasm.
Since the Lambert family founded Homes of Hope 20 years ago, they have placed over 4,400 families in homes globally. The Moreno de la Cruz family had been living exposed to the elements in a makeshift shack with dirt floors. Having moved to Tijuana for employment, they still earned under $400 per month. On our second day of building, Señor Moreno de la Cruz had returned from working the nightshift as a security guard at 6:00 a.m. He swung his hammer as hard as the rest of us.
There is a long list of organizations that facilitated our service including: CWAM (Companies with a Mission), Homes of Hope, YWAM (Youth with a Mission), More than Sport, and Athletes in Action. Through CWAM, small groups can sign up for their schedules builds with Homes of Hope. We’ll be back.
Each night, 120 of us from the five separate builds congregated at the YWAM base for dinner. There, Corwin (AIA national director of pro ministry) and his wife, Kim Anthony (UCLA hall of famer), shared their testimonies in motivational segments. These thought-provoking talks, taco dinners, late night soccer games, and, of course, building a house together, united athletes — who are people too — and helped us step out of our specialized worldview for a moment that will remain with us throughout our sporting careers.
We left feeling like heroes for giving up a long weekend. But that was all possible thanks to the people at Homes of Hope and YWAM, who’ve spent years developing a strategy that enables groups to make a real difference on such a short trip.
Certainly, life changed for the Moreno de la Cruz family, but the experience also made differences in our lives.