One day last November I had a sudden urge to ride an indoor trainer. This urge is notable because when I quit competitive cycling more than three years ago, my first thought was, “I will never ride a trainer again.”
Bikes have been on my mind since then, and suddenly I want to ride again. I saw a poster in Berlin for a fixed gear crit and felt a desire to enter, followed by questioning whether or not I was slipping back into an addiction.
Why I like cycling, why I packed up and left Denver in 2014 to pursue it professionally, whether or not it was “worth it”, and what I got out of the whole experience are all questions I’ve spent years thinking about, but never really shared. Why I left Denver? Easy. Worth it? Yes. In what way? Still figuring that out.
Why I’m posting this, I’m not sure. In March I went on The Hard Way podcast and found myself unable to articulate so much of the experience, so maybe I want a different version out. Or, I just like the pressure of making myself confront this and put it into a structured form, rather than aimless rants in my diary. When I first quit cycling, I thought it was a detour, but it turned out to be more formative than any other experience.
How I got into cycling is a rather comical story. I moved to Colorado in 2008 to ski and spent the 08/09 winter living in Breckenridge and skied 112 days that season. After I started my “real job”, one day I overheard someone at the company gym brag about how he got 28 days last year. I knew right away this wasn’t going to work for me and more or less scrapped skiing on the spot and started riding my bike to work, about 30 km each way.
Sometimes you just meet the right people. A roommate whom I didn’t get along with. A lot of days I just didn’t want to go home so I’d ride 2-3 hours extra after work through the mountains. The Lockheed Martin gym manager, Joan, who had won Leadville 100 twice, and riding with her and talking about racing got me excited. My 22 year old brain thought that if I could beat Joan up one hill and Joan won Leadville, then… Twenty two year olds are dumb. Another roommate who moved in who used to work at Saturn Cycling, and he was just so positive and encouraging to me that I felt like I had to give racing a shot. Jordan and Bryan on a ride in Golden Gate Canyon and them telling me to check out Primal Racing, then Haulin' Ass Race Team, which I joined.
I think I got my first win about a month into my first season, Sunshine Canyon Hill Climb, and I was hooked.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I actually liked cycling. When I was competing, I was never sure if I liked cycling or only training and racing. My first season was 2010, I was 23. I won some of the first races I did in the absolute beginner category on the road and then got 4th place at mountain bike marathon national championships. I thought, maybe I can win one of these one day*, and pressed on from there.
* I did, in 2013.
I don’t know if I loved cycling or just loved this process of learning how to master a skill and seeing myself get better by moving up into higher race categories, getting better results, setting new best times on climbs. Either way, it was addictive and I just kept going.
When I got an offer from a team in England to race with them for the 2015 season, I only slept on it one night and then accepted. I had a great job, an even better boss, a home, and a lot of friends in Denver. I also knew that, cycling wise, it was a dead end. I was already 28, had done a few NRC/UCI races, and knew my place in the world: I was not destined for the Tour de France or anything close to it. I cannot tell the future, but I also knew with certainty that, in 20 or 30 years, I would regret not going. So I went.
My first six months in England were nothing short of a disaster. In my first years of cycling I had developed a routine so powerful that I didn’t even realize it. When I worked vs. trained, when and where I went shopping, what I bought; a thousand decisions every day already made so that my actual training could be as focused and effective as possible. From the point of view of cycling, I viewed my job as an obstacle to be planned around. So when I got to England, I thought that I could just focus on cycling and be even more effective.
Simply put, I was wrong. I remember one day in Asda, standing frozen in an aisle for 20 minutes, paralyzed by the decision of which breakfast cereal to buy. My entire environment had been replaced. I was good at cycling. I was good at cycling and managing other adult responsibilities. But I still chose to focus harder on cycling and shut out the rest. My response to everything was focus harder. A more mature response would have been to trust my cycling ability enough to ease off for a few weeks while I discovered life in a new country and all the surprises that came with it. Often the rest of life is not an obstacle, but a guard rail.
I remember one race in particular from the few months I spent in England. It had three laps through a valley and then a finish on top of Haytor (look at a map of Devon). The temperature was just above freezing, it was raining, and the wind blew a steady 60 kph in the valley. On top of Dartmoor — a windswept plateau where nothing taller than your knees will grow — the wind was over 100 kph. In England they often cut the shrubs on the side of the road to perfect vertical walls so that going down a road kind of feels like Luke flying down the channel of the Death Star. It also funnels the wind with a Bernoulli effect if it’s going in the right direction. On the second or third lap, I had one of those moments where time stops and a few milliseconds seem to stretch minutes. I was going down a hill with the wind behind me and took a gentle left turn. Because of the shrubbery walls, you can’t see around the bends. I looked down at my bike computer and it said 110 kph. And I just thought, “I have a degree in aeronautical engineering. I could be sitting in an office, with heat, indoors. But instead I’m risking crashing into a wall at 110 kph in the rain in my underwear.”
Back in 2011 or so I read a book that a teammate recommended, Winning: The Psychology of Competition. Two things stuck with me. First, that being competitive is not a bad thing as long as it’s expressed in a healthy way. Second, that competition is a social activity, a non-verbal form of communication. This was all contrary to the popular view that competition is anti-social (or in the American frame, capitalistic, which is just a virtue, sociality be damned). Don’t be so competitive.
(The main focus of the book, which becomes hugely relevant around July 2015, is an investigation of the question: If you take a large group of competitors who have similar ability and experience levels, why does the winner routinely come from the same, small group?)
Seeing competition as a social activity changed the experience for me and I think contributed to why I spent eight years in the sport. Riding with someone in a break for a few hours, despite not saying a word, can make you feel like you know the person. I always felt awkward when it came to introductions and breaking the ice, but after a bike race you can skip the small talk. You’ve experienced something together that somehow established trust.
I find this quality now in a writing group in Berlin. Just sitting next to someone for a few hours in silence and working establishes the foundation of a relationship. These things surprise me, that the closest feeling I get to bike racing these days has nothing to do with speed or exercise, but sitting next to someone in a cafe for two hours while we write.
Not to do with cycling, but one observation of human behavior (my own included) that confounds me is the cafe bathroom trip. People will go to the bathroom, leaving their laptop out on the table or backpack in their seat for several minutes. Nobody would ever walk into a cafe, put their laptop down on a table, and leave it. But after half an hour of sitting there, they will trust the stranger next to them to not steal it or to prevent someone else from stealing it.
Cascade Cycling Classic 2014 in Bend, OR was one of the bigger disasters and learning experiences of my time in cycling. I did not show up with an appropriate amount of respect and paid a heavy price. At the time it was the biggest road race I had done — six days with all the top U.S. teams a month before the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge, one of two big American stage races where the World Tour teams would come over from Europe.
The first two days went not bad. I got my butt kicked, but not in a totally embarrassing way. I was near last place, but I stayed with the main group for most of the second day over some big climbs. Tom Zirbel had won the prologue and Stage 1 was my first experience seeing professional teams organize. Every time I saw the front, it was a line of orange Optum jerseys neatly positioned around him and driving the pace.
Things fell apart on days three and four though. One way I did not take the race seriously was my housing. Some friends in Bend offered me their guest room for a few days, but I had to change homes mid-race because they had family visiting. So in the morning I raced the time trial, gave it my best and still ended up several pages down the results sheet. In the afternoon, I packed up all my bags and gear, transferred to a different apartment across town, unpacked, made dinner, and did all the preparation for the next day.
I paid for that extra stress on the next day, day four, a 180 km road race that finished on top of Mt. Bachelor. At the start I was talking to another racer from Colorado who had heard I came to the race alone. One of the Optum riders overheard that and said, “Hey man, it’s amazing that you’re still here and haven’t been time cut.” I don’t know who it was, but that sentence changed my approach to racing. One of the top riders, one of those orange jerseys making the race so difficult, had a lot of respect for me, the guy hanging on for survival. And I realized that I didn’t respect him or the race — that I showed up without a stable housing situation where I could rest, that I didn’t have a way home after the 180 km stage we were about to start, which would cut into my recovery time. I got hammered in that stage — crashed in the first 10 km, chased back on, got dropped about 15 km up the first of two Mt. Bachelor ascents, rode off the back with a group of about 12 to the finish, and then rode an additional 40 km home.
On day five I barely made the time cut and was allowed to continue to day six, also my 28th birthday, where I dropped out about half an hour into the race, rode back to the apartment, sat on the floor, and cried.
Although the start of 2015 was a complete disaster, I turned it around in the latter half of the season. My lifeline came in the form of a visa error. In April I got a letter from the U.K. Home Office that I had checked a wrong box on my visa application and would have to leave the U.K. and reapply. While I was definitely going to leave the U.K., I certainly was not going back.
I almost just called the whole experiment off and went back to Denver. When I quit my job in October 2014, my boss didn’t actually let me quit. He gave me a one-year leave of absence; if I “broke my leg” (his words) I could just come back to work. But, I had a French teammate who offered a spare bedroom with his family in the countryside north of Toulouse. So I decided to spend a few months in France and then go back to the U.S.
I took the ferry to Calais at the beginning of June, got a long-term car rental, and drove down to my teammate’s home. His address was just the name of a village. I got there and drove around until I found him and his family sitting on their porch.
Once in France, my training started to improve and I started seeing better power numbers, but I was still not getting good results in races. That changed when I took a trip to Agde in July to visit a friend from the U.S. While trying to fill up at a gas station, my card was declined. An unexpected charge had left 5 pounds in my U.K. bank account. I entered a race in Beziers on Bastille Day and, knowing that if I wanted gas money to get back to Toulouse, I needed to make some prize money. To understand the absurdity of this, I had not yet made a single pound, dollar, or Euro that year. I was relentless in forming a breakaway, got fourth place, and won enough money to buy gas.
More important, it cemented in my head the idea that I belonged at the front of the race. That was a distinct turning point and for the rest of the season it seemed that I could do no wrong. Every move I was in succeeded. I seemed to get top five in every race I entered.
After one race in Auch on a Thursday night, I started talking to the rider who was parked next to me as we packed up. His name was Axel and he was there with his parents. They didn’t speak English and I spoke about as much French as you’d expect after a month. His dad said, “Hey Axel, give Joe your phone number. Joe, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”
I took him for being polite, but the next day, my teammate asked, “Where are you going on Monday?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, we have some family coming and need your room.”
So I texted Axel (with the help of Google Translate), actually I do need something. So on Monday I packed my things, did a race, and went to Axel’s after. I apologized for the inconvenience and suddenness and offered to find an Airbnb or generally figure something out, but they wouldn’t have it and insisted that I stay. I stayed with Axel and his family for a month and then went on to spend time racing in Brittany, the Alps, and Flanders. In Ghent I decided not to return to the U.S. (except temporarily to get my French visa) and sent my resume to 50 Elite teams in France. After talking with a few of them, I joined one in Normandy for the 2016-2017 seasons.
A bike race is too big to fit in your brain. Most sports consist of two teams, on a uniform surface, with the same dimensions (in both time and space) no matter where the game is played, and with some common objective. In soccer, for example, all fields have the same dimensions, last the same amount of (regulation) time, and each team will always try to score more goals.
Now, for cycling. You have 15-25 teams and 150-200 riders. Of those, only about ten have a legitimate chance to win the race. Some riders from different teams will collaborate in an effort to win, up to a certain point. For example, riders will work together in a leading group until they think that they will beat any chasing group, at which point collaboration falls apart and they race against each other. Not all riders will agree on this assessment, though, and some want to keep collaborating as long as possible as it may favor their strengths at the finish. Then, not all riders even want to win the race. Crazy as that sounds, some might be there to get in a breakaway or win one of the intermediate points competitions.
If you’re interested: A lot of people who watch a bike race scoff at those riders in the break for being so stupid as to attempt something virtually hopeless. It serves a variety of purposes. One, as long as your team has a rider in the break, the rest of your team can sit idly in the main group and not use energy chasing. Two, you get a lot of attention from the announcer; make no mistake, professional athletes are products for advertising. Many a rider has secured a contract just for their consistent breakaway presence.
This gets even more complicated in a stage race, where some riders are trying to win the overall and some only want to win stages. So on a given stage, the overall riders might focus on staying safe and not losing time,* while the stage hunters attack.
* This is why one-day races are so much more exciting than stage races like the Tour de France. Stage races are mostly about damage control. You win seconds on the best days and lose minutes on the worst.
Finally, factor in the weather and the route. Every race is different: elevation profile, length, wind, temperature, sun/rain/hail/snow, and road surface all play their part in the outcome of a race.
Now try to imagine yourself in this. You are riding along at 40-45 kph for several hours at high levels of physical exertion, perhaps extremely cold or hot, you can only see a few riders ahead of you because the group is so tightly packed, and you have to make a stream of micro and macro decisions with highly asymmetric risk profiles. For example, micro, how much to slow down for this corner? Too much, over hundreds of corners in the race, will waste precious energy for re-acceleration that could be used tactically. Too little, one time, and you crash. Macro, there is a corner in three kilometers, given the wind conditions, which side of the pack should I be on?
Maybe all this is why my other favorite sport is tennis. Two players, each utterly alone, with full views of the play area and their opponent, a game of pure geometry. Some of my best cycling memories are from races where I was totally outclassed by an opponent. Every tennis match has this quality of vulnerability; there is no person or chance event to blame for your loss. Second at Tarascon-sur-Ariège, fourth at Castelsarrasin (to Lilian Calmejane, who would go on to win stages at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France in 2016 and 2017, respectively). I raced perfectly those days and I lost.
So why did I want to do the most unpleasant training activity, riding the trainer, which I had sworn off forever the day I quit racing? I don’t remember what I was stressed about that day, but riding a trainer with nothing but a stopwatch and earbud headphones seemed like the out I needed.
There’s nothing quite so boring as pedaling nowhere; no visual stimulus from the world, no feeling of rolling, the texture of the pavement, no wind, no distraction. But it compels a presence where you notice the sensation (albeit usually discomfort) in every nerve of your body and must confront the ticking clock.
As unpleasant as the activity can be, I always felt great when I finished. To have conquered boredom, to watch the final seconds tick to a nice, round number. Physically, it wouldn’t make any difference to end a cool-down twelve seconds early, but mentally this would represent surrender. The trainer has a purity about it: no coasting, no coffee stops, no waiting at red lights; just one to two hours planned down to the second to give the most effective workout.
But what benefit does any workout give you? Training is, after all, principally an act of faith. The effects of any workout don’t set in for at least ten days (in the short term, rest has the most immediate effect) and gains cannot be attributed to one specific workout. You just have to believe that what you are doing will make you better in the future. And after riding the trainer, I always really believed it.
After I stopped racing, some part of me thought that quitting my job and spending three years racing my bike was a detour. All my friends were getting promoted and settling down while I was putting a three-year gap in my resume. But as I’ve returned to engineering work, I’ve found that the skills I gained in cycling are more applicable than anything I learned in engineering school.
I think the first thing I learned is how to zoom in and out on a topic. Zoom in to learn as much detail as possible, and zoom out to keep perspective on how it fits in. Bike racing consumes every facet of your life, and I had to learn them all. How to schedule workouts, what workouts to do, what to eat, how to fix my bike, how to corner, climb, sprint, how to manage emotions and motivation and burnout. Most important: how to rest. This skill was not necessary in aerospace because the industry is so mature that departments mostly function in isolation. However, in a startup in an industry that is a startup, this skill feels priceless.
I learned how to handle abrupt change. I hear a lot of concerns now about staying productive while working from home, as work and interaction have changed. I must say, this never occurred to me until I heard others express this concern. I already know not to stress about continuing to deliver on my strengths, but rather to confront all the changes. I used to shower in the morning before going to the office and go grocery shopping on my way home. Those don’t happen automatically anymore, but I know now that finding these routines takes priority over short-term productivity. If you’re good at e.g. programming, don’t stress about programming; work out everything except programming and let that happen in the proper space. Your mind needs space to do original and creative work, you just need to erect the guard rails around this space.
And I learned how to recover from setbacks. In April of 2015 I was sitting in my apartment in Plymouth binge eating corner store cookies and neglecting my training. I had given in. But moving to France, almost getting stuck in Agde, deciding that day to turn things around, actually doing so, landing in Axel’s home, and making a great season. Sometimes you need to reset. February - April 2015 were the worst months of my cycling career. July - September were my best.
Cascade taught my so much in six days. How to show up. From then on, I always come to a race prepared. Even when I traveled with the full support of a team, I brought all the food and water bottles I would need and kept a small toolkit in my bag. Just in case the team manager forgot. Startup/corporate examples aren’t so exciting, but showing up to the office ready to work, answering someone’s question with the thoroughness it deserves, putting in the appropriate thought to asking a question.
Likewise, being at the cutting edge of the blockchain industry, I see a lot of industry leaders pushing boundaries and creating new things. Sometimes they make it look easy, but I like to remind myself that they are constantly pushing themselves and that they respect curiosity, hard work, and discipline.
Sometimes shit happens, though, and you don’t get to prepare. I think cycling taught me to deal with that too. Like my first Belgian kermis in 2014 when I missed a flight to London (long story), arrived in Ghent at 2 AM, rode my bike 30 km to Lokeren the next day, found out the race had three cobbled sections per lap (13 laps, if I remember correctly), and it was so rainy and foggy that you could only see a few meters ahead. I just forgot about everything except racing during that race and ended up with a good result. Or in 2015 when I flew from Paris to Philadelphia on a Thursday and got a call that night from a team saying that a rider dropped out of Saturday’s 200 km race and could I do it? That race was quite a day but one of my better memories.* I dropped out near the end but I felt so much more at ease in the peloton than I had only one year earlier at Cascade. Given the current Corona situation, nobody got to plan for 100% virtual work and store and transportation shut downs. But we roll with it and just have to get stuff done, find new ways to deliver.
* That Philadelphia race also contains one of my worst memories: seeing an ambulance pull out in front of the peloton — 200 riders going downhill in the rain, with wet brakes and no hope of slowing down — and a volunteer run into the street to stop it, only to get run over by the riders.
One thing that’s new to me in the last year is public speaking, whether as the host of our company’s podcast, presenting at conferences, or more recently, being interviewed. I’m an introvert and talking to people is not always high on my desire list. Or sometimes you just really need to get some task done today. Regardless, everyone has bad days; colleague frustrations, a breakup, or just travel and fatigue. But you just have to show up and deliver, and I usually feel able to turn off the distractions in my head. That doesn’t mean ignoring them or dismissing them, it just means being able to focus when you need to and come back to them with the attention they deserve.
Although the first half of 2015 was a disaster, my emotional low point came in the spring of 2016. I realized that, had someone asked me a year earlier, If you could do anything, what would you do?, my answer would have been, Exactly what I’m doing right now. But I wasn’t happy. Whatever life I had imagined in my head didn’t exist. And that, I think, may be the the root of my biggest change: Jobs, relationships, cities, they are never what you imagine them to be. There is no box to check that will make everything perfect. As an engineer and analytical person, I like to plan, model, predict. But I have let some of that go, or at least I choose the appropriate times to exercise that. Now, I always try to set goals that align with the development I want in myself, but focus more on experience and discovery than outright planning.
I always secretly thought that a major injury would end my cycling career. I felt addicted and only broken bones would keep me off a bike. In reality, I just didn’t know what else to do. I could have gone back to my job in Denver, but I knew that I wanted to stay in Europe. I went out quietly, injury free, early in the 2017 season, which I started for all the wrong reasons. I had no goals for that season, except perhaps redemption in a few races that I wanted a second chance at, but was mostly just killing time until I found something else.
Near the end of The Hard Way interview, Andrew asked if going to Europe was my way of, “getting it out of my system.” I have no idea what “it” is, but I doubt it is out of my system. I think it is part of my system, and cycling was one way to express it. I’m sure I will find new ways to express it, but I don’t think it will ever be out.