How I Roll… What it’s Like to be a Pro Mountain Bike Racer

This week’s How I Roll… which is technically last week’s since we missed getting it up on schedule, is a little different. We interviewed three top pro cross-country mountain bike racers to see what it’s like racing among the elite with full team support. Our interviewees are:

Georgia Gould, 2006 and 2007 XC MTB National Champion, 2007 Pan-American XC MTB Champion and U.S. Olympic mountain bike team member, currently racing for the Luna Chix cycling team.

Sue Haywood, 2006 Solo 24 Hour Worlds Champion; 2001, 2003 and 2006 U.S. National Short Track Champion, and shoulda-been 2004 U.S. Olympic MTB team member who raced her last full season as pro in 2008 for Trek/VW.

Jeremiah Bishop, 2008 Short Track and Marathon U.S. National Champion and general terror at endurance races like the Fool’s Gold, American Mountain Classic Stage Race and others, most recently racing for the now defunct Trek/VW team.

BIKERUMOR: I think there is a perception that the top pros lead a cushy life of parties, flying around the world and just getting paid to ride all the time…is that anywhere near the truth? Is anyone getting rich off racing bikes?

GEORGIA GOULD: I wish!  I can’t even tell you the last time I went to a party!  And flying around the world can be overrated- especially when you are there to race.  Trips are usually only a few days, and there isn’t much time for sightseeing.  I think there are a small handful of people who make good money racing bikes, but I think most racers do it because they love it, not because they are making a ton of money.

SUE HAYWOOD: Well the last time I was sipping champagne off my balcony in St. Tropez , I thought to myself, “This is the life…jetsetting, partying, winning races and swiss bank accounts and all I have to do is pedal a silly little bicycle around!” Those perceptions are wildly true

JEREMIAH BISHOP: Truth of the matter is, that more professional athletes have spent more time eating ramen than sushi. that’s not to say that we don’t enjoy it, and some, more than myself, relish an after-race party, but not more than the rest of us knobby tire loving denizens.

BIKERUMOR: At what point do you get your travel covered for the international UCI world cup events?

JEREMIAH: Most athletes’ experience with international top-level racing is after they earn a spot on the national team. That’s when you get a special opportunity to see what its like racing at the top level. Sometimes, if you are an automatic qualifier to that team, your travel will be paid for by USAC. But after that point, there is a need to prove yourself by paying your own airfare, splitting lodging with other riders, taking a train to races and showing sponsors you have what it takes to ride at that level consistently. And, your sponsors have to be interested in those races. Some are interested in domestic racing, it is quite collegiate though, there’s a level of earning your worth, working extremely hard -sometimes with part time jobs – and pay your way.. and a little less partying. But it’s hard work to make it to a high level. (Editor’s note: if you want to see some of the sweet travel JB did last year, check out this gallery)

Georgia with some serious mountain bike fan boys.

BIKERUMOR: There’s a lot more people racing in the pro category at mountain bike races that we never hear of in the cycling mags and websites. What do you think is the difference between unknown people that race in the “pro” category and the “Celebrity Pros” that we’ve all heard of? Is it purely talent, or are the “Celebrity Pros” just better at marketing themselves?

SUE: Well that’s simple. The Celebrity Pros get a discount on the best champagne. They drink lots of it which makes them ten times more interesting. Then they get the press drunk for free so they will mention their names in their articles.

JEREMIAH: I think it’s both, there are certain riders that attract more celebrity by their personality or extra efforts to work with the media. Some riders, like Todd and myself have active blogs that invite riders to follow our adventures. There are a lot more talented riders out there that don’t get their props who are gifted athletes, who work very hard and get amazing results. Some of that comes with time, and if you are in the headlines consistently. The media has favorites too, they’ll cover certain riders they like more than others.

GEORGIA: I think the difference has a lot to do with results and a little to do with how long you have been racing.  When you are consistently at the front of races, people start to notice.  Once you have “broken through” then you are always on the radar.  That said, there are definitely pros who are better at marketing themselves.

Jeremiah Bishop meets the elephants at the 2008 Absa Cape Epic in S. Africa.

BIKERUMOR: Do you think some of these anonymous guys and girls could compete at a significantly higher level if they had the VIP treatment of the Celebrity Pros?

SUE: Yes, someone give the anonymous racers a glass of champagne. They will be more attractive to the press and fans then.

GEORGIA: I think that having support staff at the races is huge.  There is definitely a gap that you have to cross where you are still working but you are having to compete against people who get paid to train and race.  That is hard for sure, and I was there- I lived in a van, was broke all the time, worked part time, raced every weekend and got some help from my folks.  The year before I was on Luna was a tough one.  Once I got on the team and could focus a little more on training and racing, I saw my results improve every year.  Having staff at the events to support you doesn’t directly cause you to have good results, but by taking care of some of the details, it allows you to focus more on the racing.  I think that there are plenty of people who could have better results if they had the support system that the top pros have, but I don’t think that having good support is the ONLY reason that the top pros are successful.  It’s just one piece of the puzzle.

JEREMIAH: If you want it bad enough, that is the most important thing. It’s a mental game. None of us are going to stay at the top very long if you aren’t willing to work. The cool thing is that most of my racing has been done at a grassroots level, and I’ve spent 10 of the past 17 years as an amateur, and sleeping on couches and racing for prize money to pay the bills. I’ve seen both sides of the situation, unlike some of the riders who went straight to the top from teams like Devo as young phenoms.

Sue Haywood showing the typical course conditions at Snowshoe.

BIKERUMOR: Kona does a great job of promoting Ryan Trebon…it seems like I get an email a week with some fantastic feat of cycling he’s accomplished. And every time I talk to you, Jeremiah, even casually, you’re always on message. What else do you or your teams to do build up the Celebrity part of being a pro?

JEREMIAH: most of us have had media training in the past, and that really helps us to communicate effectively, to keep on topic and focus our conversations with the media on our sponsors and their goals.

SUE: Ryan Trebon could use something to mellow him out, maybe some valerian root or kava kava tea. Yes, its awesome advertising for Kona when Ryan tosses his bike in a tempertantrum. But I guess those antics are accompanied by winning titles. Jeremiah has a nice website.

BIKERUMOR: Let’s break down the race experience for you:
- How early do you arrive before a major race?

GEORGIA: Depends on where the race is, and how much I have been traveling.  Usually for races in the US I arrive on thursday night or friday, then race saturday and sunday.  For races in Europe I usually arrive Thursday for a Sunday race.

JEREMIAH: Usually three days before the races is ideal. the farther away the race is, the more time I prefer to be there, though it’s not always practical. For marathon races in Europe, it’s more tactical to be there earlier, you’re not just starting a race at 6 a.m. local time, you’re starting at 2 a.m. in your mind, and that has a major impact on your ride.

SUE: a lot of that depends on the amount of travel time to get to a race. If its really far away its better to arrive early and work the travel out of the old legs. So much of that is personal preference learned by trial and error. And of course sometimes you just go when you are told to go.

Jeremiah leads out the pack at Sea Otter 2007.

– What prep work do you have to do, and what’s taken care of for you by team managers, mechanics, etc.

SUE: I don’t even carry my carry on on. Its all taken care of.

GEORGIA: The team takes care of travel arrangements.  I pack my bags and my bike and get myself to the airport.  When we arrive, I build my bike and try to get out for an easy ride. Our team mechanics tune and wash our bikes, change tires, and do lots of other stuff- those guys really help the races go smoothly.

JEREMIAH: For the past year, we would fill out a card itemizing work or adjustments that we’d like done to the bike to get it ready for the race. typically anything involving fit, shoes, cleats is up to us. And ultimately, it is up to the athletes to check everything and make sure it works, but having a great mechanic has been really nice. Dusty and Steve did an awesome job last year, and hats off to them for an entire year with almost no mechanicals.

– How much of the race day bike set up, such as tires and shock/fork settings, do you oversee versus being chosen by your team mechanic?

JEREMIAH: typically bike setup is decided by the athlete. The parts from which we get to chose are determined by the manufactures and sponsors. The setup is determined by us, but we rely on the mechanics for their advice and recommendations.

GEORGIA: We decide what tires we want to run and what tire/fork pressures.  A lot of times I will ask their advice because they have been doing this a lot longer than I have!

SUE: Celebrity pros always check their own air. Its so rarified that no one else could even breathe around it.

Sue rests up after breaking her ankle in a “stab & dab” at Mount Snow last year.

– What type of support system is there for you?

SUE: You know that “I’ve fallen down and can’t get up” button? Its just like that.

GEORGIA: Our team manager, Waldek decides which races we are going to, makes travel and hotel reservations, gives us bottles during the race and is also a massage therapist.  He’s pretty much a one-man-band.  Our mechanics Chris and Zeph drive the trailer to US races, and one of them travels with us whenever we go to races abroad.

JEREMIAH: The past two years, we’ve had a souginer, mechanics, and team manager. At other events, like the 100-mile races, there is more preparation that needs to be completed ahead of time. it requires more planning, to have parts you need ahead of time and stay on a schedule to stand on the start line ready and fresh.

– What expenses are covered by your sponsors, and what do you typically have to pay for on your own?

JEREMIAH: I’ve been very fortunate with Trek/VW to have most of my expenses covered including gas, lodging, travel to and from team events. My equipment has been provided, and spare equipment and parts for the bikes. When we arrive at an event, we all go to the grocery store together and buy our own food, it’s a fun part of settling in for the week(end) as a team, and sometimes we share cooking duties and have family-style dinners together.

GEORGIA: Equipment, race/riding clothing, travel, hotel and entry fees for team-approved events are covered by the team.  For local races, or other races we go to without the team, we are on our own for travel, hotel, entry fees, everything.  That is one thing I don’t think people understand.  Half the ‘cross races I did this year I paid for out of my own pocket.

SUE: Does bike racing cost money?

Georgia enjoys the scenery on a European bike trip.

– What’s your favorite night-before-a-race dinner?

GEORGIA: I like Thai food a lot, but I’m not that picky.  Probably not raw oysters. I try not to have a specific regimen- sometimes when you are traveling you have to take what you can get. We keep a small “kitchen” on our trailer so we have a hot plate, some pots and pans, spices, etc.  That way we can cook our own food in any hotel.  We usually keep is pretty simple- rice, pasta, veggies, salad.

JEREMIAH: Veggie stir fry with tofu. I really like that.

SUE: Homemade Risotta and salmon. I do save the champagne until after the race.

– What about breakfast the day of the race?

JEREMIAH: oatmeal and some toast, coffee, orange juice, some Mona Vie.

SUE: Eggs, toast, tea.

GEORGIA: Again, probably not raw oysters.  Things are a little different everywhere you go, especially outside the US, so I try to be pretty flexible with breakfast.  I usually have cereal with yogurt or soymilk.  Maybe toast with jam or some fruit.  I’m not too big on eggs before a race.

– How long do you typically warm up for before a race?

JEREMIAH: depends on the race. The shorter the race, the longer the warm up is a good rule of thumb. Also the less you’ve been training before the race, the longer your warm up should be. For shorts tracks, I’ll warm up twice – wake up, ride in the morning, eat breakfast and then do a shorter more intense warm up about an hour before the race.

SUE: 35-45 minutes including pee breaks.

GEORGIA: Usually about an hour.

Jeremiah Bishop wins the 2008 Iceman Cometh topping off a stellar season.

– What goes through your mind when you’re on the starting line?

GEORGIA: “This is going to be hard.”

JEREMIAH: I usually think about visualizing a clean start, what line I’m going to take and how to most smoothly get through the race. I also try to be aware of my surroundings and see what everyone else has brought to the start line, because sometimes that will hold great clues to see what their race strategy might be.

SUE: I better have a good race or else I’m going to be angry and feel like a loser.

– How much do you typically eat or drink during a typical (non-marathon or endurance) race?

JEREMIAH: I usally have four bottles of CytoMax, a bottle of water and three gels for a typical 2.5 hour race. Sometimes I’ll have a coke or a redbull on the last lap.

GEORGIA: It depends on the race and the length of the laps.  I would say average would be 4 bottles for a 2 hour race and 3 gels.  I put my gels in a flask and add a little water so they are easier to swallow.

SUE: 2.5 gels, 3 bottles(1 water, 1 sports drink, 1 coke)

BIKERUMOR: For smaller races where you’re on your own, let’s say you show up the day before, how do you go about picking tires and other parts for the race? Do you bring a ton of options with you, or do you have some all-purpose equipment that gets you through most events?

SUE: Race what you brung. Race like you are stealing it.

GEORGIA: I use the exact same set-up at almost every race.  Maxxis makes great all-around tires, so I rarely change tires except if it’s very wet and muddy.

JEREMIAH: I’ll set up the bike with all purpose equipment or I’ll do research by contacting the promoter or other racers who’ve competed in the event. Once I arrive, I’ll do a preride of part of the course and that will usually be an indicator of the rest of the race, then I’ll select my equipment from the choices I’ve brought along.

Sue runs up a muddy secion at the 2006 Fort William World Cup.

BIKERUMOR: Speaking of smaller races, what are the Locals’ attitudes when you show up on the start line? Do they just figure you’re going to destroy them, or do they enjoy getting to race against the best? Do they ever beat you?

SUE: I got beat pretty good by Rachael Lloyd at her local Downieville event.

JEREMIAH: It’s a little bit of all of those. Recently, I raced the MABRA Championships and Wes Shempf, the winner of the mid Atlantic cup, and us national champion for semi pro, said to one of my friends, “who the hell invited Bishop.” But you’ve gotta take that as a compliment. Ironically, he got that out of his head the next weekend, and beat me at the Capitol Cross. But I can remember getting psyched out a bit at the races as an up and coming pro, when I’d find out that Gunnar was there and that I was in for a beating.

GEORGIA: Local races are really fun for me, and people seem to be psyched when I show up.  I think most people think it’s cool to race against and talk to the top riders- I know I did when I was an amateur racing local races.  Sometimes at local races I will race with the pro/semi-pro men and those guys have been great.  Overall, the response has been very positive.

BIKERUMOR: Some of the legends of the sport, Gary Fisher and Ned Overend to name a few, have actively moved from racing in the limelight to careers in product development for their sponsors. Is that something you plan to do?

JEREMIAH: It’s something that I’m open to.

GEORGIA: I don’t know, I don’t really have any huge plans, I just take things as they come.

SUE: Maybe if I start plying some of the bike companies with champagne, I could get a respectable job in R&D.

Georgia leads out the 2008 UCI world cup mountain bike race in Offenberg, Germany.

BIKERUMOR: If not, or assuming it doesn’t work out, what are your plans after you retire from pro racing?

JEREMIAH: I’d like to do some coaching. First, I’ve always taken it upon myself to learn as much as I can about exercise science. At the time, it was because I wanted to see how fast I could go. But now those skills are coming in handy because I’m working with Hunter Allen and the Peaks Coaching Group on some projects to let other athletes in on what we’ve learned.

SUE: I’d like to go on Dancing with the Stars. Then I would like to make the mountainbike reality show a big hit on VHI.

GEORGIA: Well, I just graduated from Culinary School, so at least I will have some sort of marketable skill when I stop racing (I’m not doing much with my psychology degree…that you know of…)

BIKERUMOR: I know it didn’t really affect your classification, but what do you think of USA Cycling’s new ranking system, switching from Beginner, Sport, etc., to Cat 1, 2, 3, Pro?

GEORGIA: I don’t know that it is going to make much of a difference.  They did the same thing for ‘cross a few years ago and it didn’t change anything, just gave categories new labels.

JEREMIAH: The general idea is good, but the renaming of the categories is irrelevant, especially because it doesn’t correlate directly to the road categories. Having large fields for the pro and expert categories is a move that I think will pay off, though one thing I think the national cup series could use is a u-23 leader’s jersey – so the young riders who have to race against the very best can get recognition for being the best young riders. Also, I think there should be a qualification to upgrade to pro, not just giving the option to upgrade. Should be some good watching at the first race though! HA, it’s going to be like a world cup.

SUE: Anything that makes our sport more like road cycling is really cool.

BIKERUMOR: What are your thoughts on the new MTB U.S. Cup series as a replacement for the NMBS?

JEREMIAH: the us cup is going to be awesome. because it is backed by USAC they will have a vested interest in involving the media, publicizing and covering the events, and it will spread the burden of organizing the events between promoters and the organizations.

GEORGIA: I think that it’s great that we have some kind of National Series- that’s important for US racing.  I don’t know much about the details, so I really can’t comment until I’ve been to the events.

SUE: I’ll probably still call it the Norba races. Nothing speaks the truth more than the eloquence of passing time. I’ll just have to wait and see.

BIKERUMOR: Why do you think the UCI didn’t have any World Cups in the U.S. for 2009?

SUE: The U.S. racers like going over to Europe to race. They have great champagne over there.

JEREMIAH: Money. They are very expense to host.

GEORGIA: There aren’t many US promoters who have been willing/able to raise the money needed to put on a World Cup- they are very expensive.  That is what I have been told, too.

BIKERUMOR: When you’re not riding, what do you do all day? What’s a typical week like for you?

JEREMIAH: You’d never believe it. This time of year, every minute is packed and I work my butt off preparing for the coming season. Each day, I’m up and in the office reviewing my training, managing sponsors, speaking with promoters to plan events and appearances, planning travel and logistics, putting together a racing calendar, working on my bike, cleaning my bike, and everything else you have to deal with when you have a wife, a house and are expecting a baby. Add in another 20-30 hours of riding, stretching and core exercises. Let’s just say I’m busy!

GEORGIA: I run errands, answer emails, read, work in my garden, cook.  All very exciting, I know.  I don’t really have a “typical week,”  depending on the time of year I am doing different stuff.  For example, at this time year I am home more, but also training a lot more, so I dont really have a ton of free time.  During the spring/summer I’m not training as much but I am racing more and traveling a lot, so that takes up most of my free time.

SUE: Well between the jetsetting, parties, interviews and TV apperances, I do manage to get 20 hours of training in per week. I also update my blog once a week. I spend a lot of time with my little doggie.

BIKERUMOR: Thank you all very much for your time and best of luck this year!

EDITOR: It’s worth mentioning that we invited Ryan Trebon to participate in this interview but haven’t heard back…we’ll try to get him next time around.

Comments

Yves - 02/11/09 - 11:00am

Great article/interview. You all rock. (Sue, you’re a hoot…I almost split my gut laughing from your answers – !!!oh…you mean you were serious ;-p) Keep it real guys and have a great season in ’09.

Flanders Fat Cat - 02/17/09 - 11:38am

I’ve ridden with Sue many times and had no idea she was that cool. Of course, I was in my basement and she was on the Carmichaels Traing System DVD. Gunnar is scary in person, though.

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