Young riders elevate cycling
Americans take place in world
BRECKENRIDGE» Atop the brutally steep Moonstone Road after four laps, 21-year-old Sara Poidevin leaned into her handlebars and attacked. It was a bold move for the young Canadian, who hammered her final lap at the Colorado Classic with such vigor, she finished more than two minutes ahead of the next rider.
An hour later on Friday, 23year-old TJ Eisenhart dropped the hammer early and led a starstudded peloton for the entire race, crushing the steepest course in American racing this season to notch one of the biggest days of his career with a down-to-the-finish-line sprint after 64 miles of racing.
At the Colorado Classic, a thick-thighed swarm of young athletes like Eisenhart and Poidevin are promising a bright new era for professional cycling. Especially in the U.S., where a swell of young riders could elevate U.S. cycling in an international sport that has long lacked a strong American presence.
“I think we have the strongest crop of young up-and-coming dudes in the last decade, for sure,” said the Roaring Fork Valley’s Keegan Swirlbul, a 21-yearold, four-year pro with the Jelly Belly P/B Maxxis team.
Swirlbul exploded on the cycling scene in 2012 when, as a gangling teenager, he beat Lance Armstrong in Aspen’s Power of Four mountain bike race, prodding one magazine to proclaim him “the next Armstrong.” Now, after two years of debilitating over-use injuries in his knees, Swirlbul is poised to elevate American cycling on the international stage.
“We have a lot of different types of riders coming up, whereas in the past we have had mostly just climbers,” said Swirlbul, who still wears a fading yellow Livestrong bracelet. “In the next five, six years, I think we will have American guys doing well on the World Tour and classics and the Grand Tours.”
The under-23 athletes with the Axeon Hagens Berman team are going to play a big role in that revival of American prowess in international competition long dominated by Europeans. Riders such as Durango phenom Christopher Blevins, Logan Owen and Jonathan Brown are gaining race experience while developing the strength needed to win the big races. Founded in 2009 as a feeder for Team Radioshack, Axeon has pushed 22 riders onto the biggest stage of the World Tour, including Taylor Phinney, Nate Brown and Joe Dombrowski.
“It has such a rich history,” said Brown, a 20-year-old from Austin, Texas, who this month pushed teammate Neilson Powless to a fourth-place finish in the
Tour of Utah. “We have shown we can race with the biggest teams. We are just as much a part of the race as everyone else. It doesn’t matter our age. The whole point of this team is learning and progression … and to give us that key race experience.”
The pitfalls for young riders are plentiful. Swirlbul can attest to that. After getting picked up by the prestigious BMC Development team in 2016, he went hard on the training. Too hard. He spent most of the last year recovering from injuries that flared as he overtrained.
He is hoping his struggle can help the kids coming up behind him.
“Take it slow and try to keep it consistent. That’s something I really screwed up with, is trying to do too much. Too much training. Too much dieting,” Swirlbul said. “Try to keep it consistent and build your strength and don’t get too stressed because you’ve got a long ways to go.”
Eisenhart, from Utah, offers similar advice. The five-year pro with the Holowesko Citadel Racing team is an uncommon presence on cycling tours. Where other riders stay on point with outwardly intense focus and drive, Eisenhart masks his prowess in a distinctly relaxed aura. He’s a sort of Spiccoli of bike racing. At the news conference kicking off the inaugural Colorado Classic, he roiled the room with this line: “It doesn’t matter if you won or lost … we have a righteous after-party.”
“Don’t take it so seriously. A lot of times, this sport can eat you alive,” said Eisenhart, who got his first race bike at age 11 and turned pro at 18 when he signed a four-year deal with BMC Racing.
“You get 100 percent focused on the bike and you stop focusing on other things. You need to have that good balance in your life to continue to have a long career. I’ve seen it tons of times where a lot of young guys way more talented than me just burn out because they put too much pressure on themselves. I’m blessed to be able to find this balance in my life and just enjoy it. It’s been pretty righteous.”
Lynne Anderson doesn’t want to hear all this age talk. She is the oldest competitor in the Colorado Classic — racing, at age 59, for ski racing legend Alison Powers’ Boulder-based ALP Cycles. In a field of 80 women, there are 15 athletes who won “best young rider” awards in previous races. The 95-racer men’s field includes 18 “best young rider” winners.
“I don’t think about my age. I just go out there and race. But when I do line up and they look at me like, ‘Hey, that’s my mother,’ well, then I think about it a little bit,” Anderson said as she prepared for Stage 2 of the Colorado Classic in Breckenridge. “This race is a whole new level. But I’m bringing my expertise. I love to climb and I’m not afraid to go deep into the pain cave. Maybe some of the younger kids aren’t that familiar with that. Maybe that’s an edge for me.”
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or @jasonblevins