Going ‘pro,’ as they say

I finally made it.

Back in 2006 I thought it would take one, maybe two years TOPS to become a pro cyclist. And by pro I was thinking cat 2. “Wait, they’re pro aren’t they?” A year and a half later by the time I found out that they in fact were not pro and neither were cat 1s, I figured it would maybe take another half year for me to get on a pro team. But probably not. I’d probably pick up a contract mid season (I was a cat 3 at this point). Well fuck me sideways did it take longer than I thought. And it was way harder too. For all you aspiring new cyclists out there with secret ambitions of becoming professional: it’s way harder than you could ever imagine. Give up now and do something positive with your life before it’s too late!

I’m just kidding of course. But…

The mental agony of repeatedly getting dropped, finishing mid-pack, getting sick, getting injured, continuing to finish mid-pack, having little to no social life for years on end, getting dropped, getting in ridiculous arguments over absolutely NOTHING with teammates and directors, continuing to finish mid-pack at races you dreamed about winning all winter long….all that adds up over the years and eventually it leads to most of us quitting altogether or (hopefully) realizing that being pro isn’t the end all be all of life. (Granted, it may be the end all be all of life, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is but I don’t know yet for sure.) But for serious, I’d continue doing this (whatever it is that I’ve been doing) for years even if I knew I’d be “stuck” racing as an amateur. The truth is that as long as I see progress, I’m happy. As long as I get to go train my brains out, smash some other fools’ legs on the weekend, and eat a LOT of food, I’m perfectly content. That’s the way we all have to look at it and continue to be happy about doing it.

With the way the economy is going (ever downwards to the shit-encrusted bowels of hell),  even landing a spot on an elite amateur team with any semblance of travel budget is a success. The market is absolutely saturated with fast guys and there aren’t even close to enough good teams for them to all have a nurturing environment with a budget that does the average cat 1’s commitment, passion, and talent justice. I definitely got lucky and I’m well aware of the fact. Hopefully the economy or at least the bike racing’s economy will pick up in a few years as everyone seems to think/hope.

Everyone knows that it takes a lot of luck for all the cards to fall in the correct boot, or however that saying goes. And I can’t stop thinking about how the perfect storm this year helped land me a spot on this team. Disregarding my good form and decent results, because there were plenty of others that had as good or better races than I did that didn’t get on teams or got let go from their current team.

Everything fell into place (oh so that’s how the saying goes) starting back in the late winter/early spring of 2013. Getting into Philly was a crucial step. I’d been following Philly’s race-funding catastrophe for months. The race was going to happen. Then the announcement was made that it wasn’t. Then it was back on. Maybe. Then I heard rumors it wasn’t going to happen again. Then the rumors reversed and it was happening for sure, probably. By now it was mid April– a month and a half out from the race. I began scrambling to find a guest ride since my current team, Rio Grande, hadn’t received an invite. My hopes of finding a team slowly dimmed as the race approached and no one returned my emails.

Then, while I was nursing (chugging) my third beer out on the sunny driveway of our Tour of the Gila host house, 90 minutes after completing the final stage, I got a call out of the blue from my old director Joe Holmes. He was guest directing with a team called Firefighters, which I vaguely remembered from my days racing in Oregon. He asked if I’d like to be on the team for the race. I had to think of baseball for a hard, I mean controlled…completely controlled, 20 seconds as the thought soaked in…A SPOT ON A TEAM TO RACE PHILLY!!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! HELL YEAH!! I told him I’d suck a mean dick to race Philly, which is the most iconic, bad-ass, brutal race in the entire country (granted the caliber was lower this year as a UCI 1.2 than in the past when it was a 1.HC, but still!) Within half a week of rest back in Boulder, I was out on Old Stage Rd, busting myself with V02 intervals and 1-minute anaerobic black-outs in preparation for my biggest goal of the season.

I raced Philly. I bridged to the breakaway in dramatic fashion with a lap to go on the Wall. We could have stuck it. It was possible. And I honestly think I would have won if our five-man group had stayed away. I was probably the freshest since I’d spent minimal time in the wind that day and the finishing climb suited me perfectly. But we didn’t stay away and were caught with two miles to go. Even though I didn’t even make the top 10, that ride pretty much landed me my first pro contract. Allen Wahlstrom, manager of Firefighters, nodded his head in approval at my race. He had a secret plan that he’d been working on for quite some time: a continental Swedish/American/Scandinavian squad that would race all over Europe and be based out of Uppsala Sweden. He told me about the proposed race schedule, the goals of the team, how awesome Sweden is, and mentioned that I might have a spot on the team. I said “Great, sign me up,” not really thinking it would happen. In my mind I gave it a 0.5% chance of happening. These things almost never come true. Dreams that is.

A couple weeks after racing Philly I had a great ride with Full Circle at Nature Valley…almost. I got sick part way though and wasn’t even in condition to start the final day. It was a huge bummer as I would have likely finished 8th overall. But I DNFed instead. To make things worse, I was essentially kicked off my team (Rio Grande) a week and a half later when my director let me know what he really thought of me: not much. I took the not so lightly hinted-at suggestion to quit the team. The last thing I needed was bullshit drama from a jealous director, which would have likely lead to a poor second half of the season and a lot of hurt feelings (mine mostly). I decided I’d just finish off the season getting to races on my own and guest riding. Fuck it. I’m still upset about this as you might be able to tell.

By now it was late June and just a week and a half out from Nationals. I wondered if anyone wanted me to ride in their kit for nationals. It seemed like a waste (and an unnecessary expense) to go out and buy a blank kit.  I called up Allen and he said yes. Wear the Firefighters kit and you’ll just be on our team for the rest of the season. I took 5th in the race, not bad, not great, but good enough to get on the podium. It confirmed to Allen that I should be on Firefighter’s Cascade squad, which was a few weeks after Nationals. They gave me a bike, wheels, helmets, more kits, goodies galore! More importantly, a spot at Cascade.

I had a terrible Cascade. Worst race and form of the season, but showed that I was a good guy, a hard worker, and definitely a team player–something that anyone from my three years on Hagens Berman would have adamantly agreed with. Allen told me I would be on the squad for the new Firefighters continental team assuming it got all the necessary funding. I said “Great, sign me up!” giving it a 1% chance of actually happening. The way Allen described it this time sounded WAY too good to be true, but I gave it that extra half percentage point just out of pure excitement.

Sometimes all that’s needed is that one in a hundred chance.

If one of the above things hadn’t gone just the way I needed them to, I wouldn’t have made it. If the Philly organizers hadn’t accrued the right sponsors, if I hadn’t had such an amazing accidental attack on that last lap, if I hadn’t gotten yelled at by my director on Rio and decided to quite the team and missed out on the chance to ride with Firefighters at Nationals and Cascade…if one small piece of the puzzle was misplaced I wouldn’t be bragging here right now about how amazingly awesome my life has just become: the realization of an eight-year long dream. I’ve wished for nothing else for those eight years. I’ve thought of nothing else. I’ve worked for nothing else. I’ve had just one goal for approximately 30% of my lifetime and I finally accomplished it. And damn does it feel good.

I’ll be moving to Sweden in early April to race for Firefighters Upsala CK along with a few other Americans and a bunch of Europeans. I’ll be racing more awesomely hard, in-the-gutter UCI one days and stage races than I could ever dream of. The first two months of our season will be here in the States as we sharpen up with tried and trusted US classics like Merco, San Dimas, and Redlands. Possibly some Mexican races thrown in there during the early season as well. It would be terrific to finally pull out a really good result at one of these, especially Redlands, just to prove I’m deserving of the spot on the team. 17th is great for an amateur–what I placed at Redlands this year. Next year as a pro the pressure is really on to show that I earned my contract and wasn’t handed it. That’s one thing I’m slightly worried about–having others angrily and jealously talking shit behind my back wondering why I got on the team instead of them or someone who’s actually fast. I know this sort of gossip happens all the time because I used to talk trash with my teammates about other guys in that exact same manner. Almost all of us do it to some extent. Intense competition can drive nasty, even hateful, words towards pretty much complete strangers–people that we’ve “known” for years but only spoken to at the start line or in the parking lot for like 37 seconds total—people we want to CRUSH in a race for the sake of competition but would otherwise be friends with. Enemies are created out of  our greedy need for success, to get on a team, to keep our spot on said team, to confirm to ourselves that we are in fact good at something. The fact that we give something so much worth by competing over it means that whoever comes out on top is inherently a better human being than everyone else. To be admired is to have success. Sport is an essential outlet for the brutally impassioned, mean-spirited, violent yet natural competition that resides in almost all of human kind, which would otherwise be unleashed in the business world, politics, and battlefields—and would inevitably lead to the destruction of us all through the disintegration of all basic human morals and along with those, human rights, the depletion of all natural resources, rocketing the planet’s environment to unstoppable doom, and the mass-murder of the weak for the final, cannibalistic feast of the strong. End of days shit.

I’ll definitely have quite a bit to prove next year. I can deal though.

The team:

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8 thoughts on “Going ‘pro,’ as they say

  1. Kennett, great piece, you tell it like it is for so many riders striving
    to make their way in pro racing, hardest sport on the planet. Your story reminded me of “Dog in a Hat” by Joe Parkin. You read it?
    About his life racing in Belgium, warts and all.
    Good luck with the Firefighters.
    Keith Bingham, England

  2. Keith, it’s always nice to hear that others can relate with what I’m writing about. I did read Dog in a Hat a long time ago and need to re-read it for some more inspiration. It’s a terrific story and I’ll definitely take the comparison as a compliment. Thanks for reading and it’s cool to see I have an audience overseas!

  3. Right there with ya on the beets thing. Thanks for mushroom tip. Good luck. Who are the other US riders. Barry Miller?

  4. You can do it at any category. For UCI races as a cat 1 you need a team release letter from your current team. For any other race you don’t need a letter. When you ask your director, just tell them you want to go to X race and since your team isn’t going, you were hoping to guest ride with a team that is going. It’s a lot better to go to race and travel with a group of people or a team than to do it all by yourself. But if your team is going to that race and you just want to guest ride with another team, that looks bad. Don’t do that. I suggest only guest riding if your team isn’t participating in that given race. If you’re looking for a new team and guest riding isn’t an option because your team does all the same races as them, get out on some training rides with them instead.

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