This excerpt is from American Pro: The True Story of Bike Racing in America by Jamie Smith.

Chapter 15

SEASON 4: THE RED ARMY MARCHES ON


THE LOGISTICS OF A CYCLING TEAM can be tricky, and any number of things can foul the works.

In late March, Silverberg, Gardner, and Sitler landed at LAX for the San Dimas Stage Race and found themselves stranded without a ride. The team van had been waylaid by a mechanical issue in Texas and wouldn’t arrive until the next day. They called Frey in Milwaukee, who discovered that a cheap hotel near LAX would cost about $20 less than a 50-mile Uber ride to San Dimas, so he booked a room for the three cyclists. The cab driver gave the squeaky-clean athletes a sideways look as he dropped them off at their hotel, as if to say, “Are we sure we have the right place?”

Staying in sketchy hotels is part of a Continental cyclist’s life, and this one was typically sketchy. As they entered the room they noticed what looked like a bullet hole near the door. The room was filthy, and once the guys saw the condition of the bathroom and towels they decided that they didn’t need to shower. They slept in their clothes and on top of the bedding because they were wary of bedbugs, and Sitler kept a saddle and seat post next to his pillow for protection. For what it’s worth, 3T makes a very stout and confidence-inspiring seat post. At 6 a.m., someone tried entering their room, but the dead bolt prevailed. By 7 a.m., the entire hotel reeked of marijuana, and by 7:30 a.m., the trio called an Uber driver, who loaded their gear into his car and took them to a nearby beach where they waited for the team van to arrive.

Several hours later, they made it to their host family’s home in San Dimas, where they met up with the rest of the team. They could finally relax and focus on the race.

From the start, the race didn’t go smoothly. Sitler was hyper-focused on his warm-up for the time trial and missed his start time by 10 seconds. In the first few miles he overcompensated and went anaerobic but recovered quickly and managed a top-20 finish.

In stage 2, Silverberg crashed early, while Sitler got tangled up in the chaotic feed zone and was taken down. His bike couldn’t be fixed by banging on it with his fists, and he lost time waiting for help from a mechanic.

Feed zone crashes aren’t unusual. There are no training manuals for soigneurs who work in the feed zone—just an implied code and an obscure set of unwritten rules—and as a result, feed zones are the most dangerous stretch of a road race course. The professional soigneurs, who tend to give amateur feed zone workers a wide berth, can hand bottles from a standing position without flinching, while the amateur soigneurs usually run alongside their rider and still drop their bottle.

In this case, it was an amateur team with a well-intentioned family member acting as soigneur that caused the tangle. Unfortunately, Sitler had been Astellas’s highest-placed rider and overall contender, so the team spent the rest of the weekend chasing individual placings.

Late in the crash-marred second stage, Max and Cortlan’s desperate jailbreak was reeled in with a kilometer to go and the two placed outside the top 20. Some riders posted encouraging results. Green sprinted to ninth place in the second stage, while Brecht cracked the top 15 in Sunday’s criterium. For Gardner, San Dimas was his first look at American racing. He didn’t have much to work with, but he had plenty to write home about.

On the Monday after the race, the guys met up with some Astellas employees for an easy ride on the road race loop. Conversation hobbled along as the two groups had little in common aside from the logo printed on the jerseys, but the Astellas group was excited to ride with professional cyclists, and they made all the standard jokes about attaching bungie cords to their handlebars. For the Astellas riders, it was fun to give pointers and show off a bit, and they were eager to solidify the connection between the team and the Astellas mothership.

Brecht skipped the corporate ride and headed straight to the Fulfords’ house in Redlands to enjoy some last-minute training rides prior to the Redlands Classic the following weekend. He loved riding in Southern California and used the Fulfords’ home as a base camp.

Riding along the coast is a novelty for most foreign riders. The sun was shining on Southern California, and the water and sand were gorgeous. Brecht thought it was the perfect setting for a selfie. While attempting to take the photo, he fell and snapped his collarbone.

The news that Brecht was out for Redlands quickly spread to his teammates. He was embarrassed, and the team was disappointed. He had been their best hope for a top finish on the General Classification at Redlands and other races in April and May. (Brecht was dejected but determined to bounce back quickly. While most doctors advise that a broken collarbone needs six weeks to heal, he was back on the bike and racing in three weeks’ time.)

Against stiff competition at Redlands, the team struggled with results. Not having a true G.C. contender meant that they would try to focus on individual stage wins, but that didn’t pan out. In stage 1, Jenkins was the highest-placed Astellas rider in 34th. Cortlan took enough points to win the KOM jersey but would relinquish it a few days later when his competition gobbled up points via a breakaway. The best the team could get at the Big Bear time trial was 86th place. Sitler wrapped it up with 16th in the mountaintop finish on the Oak Glen stage. On the way back down the mountain, the team wasn’t speaking much—the air in the team van was heavy with fatigue and defeat.

The final day’s criterium wasn’t a great outing for the road squad, either, although Sitler managed to grab 13th place. For a guy who preferred road races, he demonstrated some serious pack skills in the criterium but still made it known that he had no interest in jumping to the crit squad.

Despite the lack of results, the team was enjoying their weekend in Redlands. Their evenings were spent around the backyard campfire playing games and sharing their stories with the Fulfords. They had a great host family who made their stay almost too comfortable.

 

FIVE WEEKS LATER, members of the crit squad went to California to race the Dana Point Grand Prix. In previous years Williams had raced well there, and he felt confident that his form was the best it had been all season. In April, he circled May 5 on his calendar and asked Frey to send a full squad. United Healthcare and the Hincapie Racing Team would be there for the NCC points offered to top finishers, and Williams felt it would be his best opportunity to beat the UHC Blue Train, and anyone else who showed up.

Aitcheson was also coming into good form with fifth-place finishes at the Roswell Criterium and the Athens Twilight in Georgia. He took third at the Novant Health Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina, and rode well at Speed Week in South Carolina. Although he hadn’t won a race yet this season, he had established his ability to get into a lot of breakaways, so Frey made a last-minute decision to send him out west to Dana Point.

With both Aitcheson and Williams racing well, it created the classic dilemma: Who would the team work for?

The Dana Point Grand Prix is a fast L-shaped criterium with wide turns that allow the field to go full gas without much worry and just a few small undulations to help break things up. A breakaway of four established a lead of 25 seconds midway through the race. Aitcheson went on the attack with Ty Magner (Hincapie), David Santos (KHS-Maxxis-JLVelo), and Karl Menzies (United Healthcare). They were joined by two more riders late in the race.

Back in the field, the loyalties of the Astellas team were split. Some riders on the squad felt that Aitcheson would place third at best, behind Magner and Menzies. They wanted to bring the breakaway back and let Williams try to win in a field sprint. Others, including crit squad captain Myerson, wanted the breakaway to succeed so Aitcheson could go for the win.

It’s a conflict that almost every team faces at some point. Riders instinctively know when they’re on great form and Williams knew how to win on the Dana Point course, but when a teammate gets into position to win the race, a choice needs to be made. The team had to choose between Aitcheson, who had ridden consistently but hadn’t won yet, and Williams, who had won some races but wasn’t in the best position to win this race.

After a fair amount of bickering, the team put their support behind Aitcheson, who stayed away with the break and held on for third place. Williams ended up crashing on the last lap. In his mind, the team squandered an opportunity.

It took Williams several weeks to get over the sting of Dana Point. He believed he had the legs to win, and he had specifically targeted that race and requested support. The crash only made it worse.

He would be back, but not immediately.

 

THE CRIT SQUAD WAS LOOKING forward to making the trip to Wisconsin in late June for the Tour of America’s Dairyland, or TOAD. With 11 races in 11 days, there were plenty of opportunities to win cash, and this year Astellas felt they had the riders to do it. The crit squad was motivated, and Williams was back from his cooling-off period and ready to race.

One of the more popular stages takes place at Schlitz Park in Milwaukee, the site of the original Schlitz Beer complex, which has been redeveloped into a vibrant community. The Schlitz Park course is eight-tenths of a mile in length, with a long straight uphill between turns one and two and a long, snaking descent between turns three through eight. It is one of the hardest courses in the sport because it requires a combination of great climbing strength and superior descending skills. The downhill section winds through a neighborhood of stately homes on tree-lined streets. There is only one good line on the descent, and it’s exactly six inches wide. If a rider deviates from that line, he will either scrub off speed and lose ground, or lose control and crash. Recessed manholes, crowned roads, off-camber turns, and odd turn angles demand an arsenal of bike-handling skills. And it’s crazy fast. When gaps begin to form in the peloton, riders immediately become vocal because there aren’t too many places on the course where time can be made up. To close a gap on the flat homestretch spends precious energy that will be needed on the climb. Any gap between riders usually spells the beginning of the end for riders on the wrong side of it.

Early in the race, Myerson found himself in a breakaway with Australian legend Jack Bobridge (Budget Forklifts) and about six other riders. A six-time world champion in the individual and team pursuit, a seven-time Australian national champion, and a two-time Olympic silver medalist, Bobridge also had four Giros d’Italia on his race résumé. A Bobridge-led breakaway was almost a guaranteed success.

By his own admission, Myerson is not the best climber, and as the race progressed, he found himself struggling. But he’s one of the best bike handlers, with superior cornering skills, so instead of killing himself to stay with the breakaway on the climb, he paced himself and allowed a small gap to open up between himself and the breakaway every time they went up. On the downhill he used his descending and cornering skills to quickly close the gap again. In essence, he was riding in his own solo breakaway very near, but only briefly, with Bobridge’s breakaway. Each time they passed the finish line, the crowd saw seven riders riding together in a breakaway group. Elsewhere on the course, it was a group of six with Myerson in pursuit.

This was the type of strategy that a seasoned racer like Myerson shared with his younger Astellas teammates. Where a younger rider would panic if a gap opened up between them and the breakaway, Myerson knew how to work it.

Had the other riders in the breakaway taken note of what Myerson was doing, they might have conserved enough energy on the Schlitz Park climb to remain in the lead group. But the race was winding down, and now just three riders survived, having managed to lap the field: Myerson, Bobridge, and Benjamin Hill. Unfortunately, Myerson had nothing left on that final trip up the hill and resigned himself to a third-place finish.

Myerson also taught the younger riders that it’s sometimes necessary, and perfectly okay, to talk to the other riders in the breakaway. Early in the Schlitz Park breakaway, Myerson realized that he wasn’t going to be able to take his share of pulls at the speed they were going. He told the group that he would contribute now and then, but their 100 percent effort was faster than his. They let him stay in the breakaway, which allowed him to end up on the podium, when a more aggressive strategy would have been to shed him.

Two days later on a flat course at Neenah, the team agreed that it was going to be Stephen Hyde’s day. Myerson was patrolling the front early in the race when Bobridge made a move off the front with Omar Mendoza of Ciclismo Meta Colombia and Grant Erhard, riding for SBR Quantum Racing. Myerson tagged along with them so that Hyde could sit in the pack and conserve energy.

As usual, Bobridge was flying. He drove the breakaway hard, and they quickly built a lead that was never to be challenged. When Myerson’s breakaway group lapped the field, his Astellas teammates met him at the rear of the peloton and dragged him straight to the front in case another attack went off containing Bobridge or the other breakaway companions.

With ten laps to go, the Red Army of Astellas drove the pace in order to discourage any late attacks. In this situation, a selfish rider might focus on attaining the highest place possible for himself. Knowing that Myerson had guaranteed a top-five finish by lapping the field with four others, a teammate could attempt to win the field sprint for sixth place. But when the team has a chance to take first, no matter how remote that chance is, an unselfish rider doesn’t consider sprinting.

Williams, who felt that Myerson had prevented him from winning at Dana Point, was in a good position to contest the sprint. He knew he could win it, but with an Astellas rider in position to win the race, nothing else mattered. The seven-week cooling-off period had done its job.

Williams and Monk were the last two members of the lead-out train, with Myerson sitting in the catbird seat in third place. They were driving the pace hard in order to keep him in position, and it was Williams’s job to get them through the penultimate corner. Once he had done that, his day would be finished and Monk would take over and deliver Myerson to the line.

Down the backstretch, however, Bobridge’s team tried to go over the top of Astellas, or pass the Astellas lead-out train. There’s nothing untoward about the move. It’s a race, after all, and whoever can go faster is free to go. Williams looked over at the Budget Forklifts team and quickly accelerated to the corner, taking Monk and Myerson with him. Just as they hit the turn, Monk hit a pothole that caused his chain to jump off his front chainring. He lost all his momentum and pulled out of the line. Myerson yelled and Williams dug a little deeper. Instead of dropping off as planned, he stayed on the front doing the work of two men, pulling Myerson to the final turn at a speed no one could challenge.

As they rounded the final turn, Williams peeled off. Myerson sprinted and was passed by a handful of riders. He quickly looked around to see if Bobridge, Mendoza, or Erhard had passed him. They hadn’t, so Myerson, by virtue of having lapped the field, won the race.

It was just one win in a long series of races, but the team’s two best sprinters rode for Myerson, demonstrating their maturity.

The next day in Waukesha, Monk found his way into a breakaway with 10 other riders and lapped the field. With the help of his teammates, he fought his way to the front of the field and won the sprint to take the win. He had come a long way from the days of the Astellas Oncology team, when he was doing well to finish third in a regional race. Now he was reading the races correctly, getting into the right moves, and finishing with wins.

 

THE RED ARMY’S CRITERIUM TEAM was learning that bike racing requires much more than simply going fast. There were tactics and lessons, and the easygoing Myerson had a gift for teaching them. Having had a coaching business of his own, his methods were honed to a few basic principles: talk plainly, don’t lecture, be empathetic and not pedantic.

Myerson encouraged his teammates to ride by feel instead of fixating on their power meters. He wanted them to treat the race as a bike race, not a math problem. Amateur riders frequently focus on their wattage during a race, unlike most pro riders. Many pro riders go so far as to put electrical tape over the heart rate and wattage data fields. Green had a reputation for blazing criteriums with a single piece of information displayed on his device: running time.

On the road squad, Jenkins was the mentor and he had as much or more experience as Myerson to share. It was a slower teaching process in road races when days and weeks would pass between events. Contrasted with TOAD, which had 11 classroom sessions in as many days, the road calendar had only a few weekends with multiple road races. And once a rider gets dropped from the main field in a road race, the rest of the day is spent riding in a small group to the finish line, at which point there aren’t a lot of tactics to learn. If they could hold on, younger riders could tap Jenkins’s vast knowledge of each race and the courses they were held on. Over the course of his bike racing career, he had competed at Redlands multiple times and had finished in the top 10 at Gila. He usually knew how race action would play out.

 

ASTELLAS ASKED THAT THE TEAM attend the 12th annual Ride for Roswell, a charity ride in Buffalo, New York, in June. More than 7,200 amateur riders took part, and the local Astellas sales reps were out in force, helping to raise more than $4 million for the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Institute. The appearance of the pro cycling team created excitement in the Astellas tent, where reps and families mingled with the riders and had photos taken.

Continental riders usually feel uneasy about being treated like stars. They know that they’re at the bottom of the bike racing ladder, so the attention can feel unwarranted or undeserved. But the people who attend such events are inspired by the chance to interact with athletes wearing a pro kit. Eventually, the Astellas riders succumbed to the adoration and had a great time.

In the days that followed, one of the sales reps wrote a glowing letter of praise to the home office, declaring it a brilliant idea to have a professional cycling team representing them at charity rides such as Ride for Roswell. The letter was shared with the team and everyone agreed that this was precisely the sort of feel-good inroad necessary to win the hearts of the global headquarters.

 

LATER IN THE 2015 SEASON, Curin had his eye on the horizon, ever on the lookout for potential replacements should Astellas choose to end their agreement. His long-term goal was to advance the team to the next level of competition, but he was well aware that finding a sponsor to simply maintain what he already had would be challenging enough. Out of the blue, he received a phone call from a marketing consultant offering to conduct a free sponsorship search for the team. Kevin York, a cycling and triathlon fan, had recently started his own company and was anxious to grow his client list. He was a godsend for Curin. Having someone else looking for out-of-industry sponsors took away one of the more onerous tasks of team management. With his own role limited to nights and weekends, he welcomed any effort to find more money, and because York was working solely on commission, it wasn’t going to cost the team anything up front.

York immediately got to work contacting companies of all sizes. He pursued every promising lead, and quickly became frustrated by the preponderance of roadblocks. Often his first connection with a company was with lower-ranking personnel who understood cycling, but by the time their proposal reached the desk of the company’s chief trigger-puller, it would die a quick death. He discovered that most people in influential positions just didn’t “get” cycling.

All the usual arguments against advertising in the sport came up when York spoke with companies like Allstate, Takata, and UBS: There’s no revenue, a limited audience, no TV, no activation; bike racing is difficult to understand. These were all things that Curin knew. In a nutshell, there was simply no return on investment.

Two large companies that supported pro baseball and football said they didn’t want to touch cycling as a result of the Lance Armstrong drug scandal. But the negative responses mostly came down to the negligible number of impressions to be had—not enough people would see their product.

From a business standpoint, a company with $300,000 to spend on sports marketing can purchase space on the boards surrounding the ice at a National Hockey League arena that will be seen by roughly 18,000 spectators at 40 home games, in addition to a TV audience that numbers in the thousands. The sponsoring company also receives the right to use the NHL team’s logo on marketing materials, declaring it an official team sponsor. And the company gets an arena expo booth that gives them access to thousands of walk-up customers each night.

That same $300,000 would have funded the Astellas team for the entire season, but how many people would see the company’s logo?

In the fall of 2015, York traveled to New York City for a meeting with a large bank with close to a trillion dollars in assets. He knew that they were heavily involved with sponsorship in two other sports and that it would be tough to get them to add a third, but he went to the meeting with a killer presentation and impressed the first wave of decision-makers. His hopes skyrocketed; he took a deep breath and pressed on. Somewhere in the third or fourth wave of his pitch, things fell apart. Someone with the authority to kill the idea killed it. They knew nothing about cycling and saw no value in learning, and York went home empty-handed.

Once back in Chicago, he met with some heavy hitters who had worked with the Chicago Cubs and other major sports properties. He didn’t make it halfway through his presentation before the top dog shook his head and said, “Not worth the time.” The group made its exit before York could collect his things. Cycling was a far cry from being the instant plug-and-play moneymaker they were after.

After many months of trying, York managed to get a couple of token sponsorships, such as in-kind product offerings on par with the free socks that are handed out at Interbike. But otherwise he rode the same roller coaster enjoyed by a thousand sponsor seekers before him: His hopes shot up whenever he received a morsel of encouragement, only to plummet a few weeks later.

He made headway with another large pharmaceutical company, but they weren’t motivated to move as fast as the Astellas team needed them to. Business relationships take time to foster, and advertising budgets take shape more than a year in advance. Even if the new sponsor had been all in, it wouldn’t have been ready in time to save the team.

Meanwhile, it was costing York money to chase golden goose eggs. The other side of his business grew into other sports that actually paid him, and he stopped working for Astellas.

By that time, Curin was fully aware that the winds of change were blowing at gale force within Astellas, and it was a matter of time before the cycling budget would catch the attention of someone who had the power to divert it elsewhere.

 

AS THE SEASON WINDS DOWN each year, a team director’s thoughts turn to the following season and questions arise: What were our strengths and weaknesses? Which riders will stay, and which ones are leaving? Who is available? Who can we afford?

It was during this time in 2015 that Frey received a call from another team director who had seen Astellas grow quickly in its first two years as a pro team and wanted to offer a solution to the problem of sponsorship acquisition. He suggested that the two teams merge.

He had obviously given it a lot of thought. His elaborate plan put him in the director’s spot at all the races, leaving Frey to manage the logistics from his home in Milwaukee. He had a big bike shop in California lined up and ready to take on a major role. He also had a “bunch of industry sponsors” ready to ship bikes, clothing, food, and equipment. They were just waiting for the green light. And for his services, he would accept a salary of $60,000.

Throughout its existence, no one on the Astellas staff made anything close to $60,000. Not even half that amount.

In addition to offering his services as team director, he insisted that four of his riders join the team for no less than $12,000 each.

Throughout the team’s entire existence, very few of the Astellas riders made a $12,000 salary; zero was closer to average.

Frey suppressed laughter as he declined the offer and its $108,000 price tag.

The scenario is somewhat common in cycling. Team directors enjoy a taste of success and believe they’re on the path to becoming a WorldTour director, so they become out of touch with racing at the Continental level. The hard truth is that no one makes $60,000 as a team director unless they are also filling water bottles, booking hotel rooms, loading the car, and winning poker tournaments.

Frey considered it to be an odd, backhanded compliment that someone would want to take his team away from him. It meant that it had value, though he wasn’t sure what that value was. They certainly looked professional, and he took pride in how his riders handled themselves on and off the bike. They had a good reputation among other racers. If that attracted hostile takeover attempts, he was flattered, but neither he nor Curin was interested.

Having been turned down, the team director vowed to bury Astellas at the upcoming races. It was the last they ever heard from him.

 

THERE WAS BUZZ BUILDING around the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, which were to be held in Richmond, Virginia, in late September. Normally, this wouldn’t affect the Astellas team because historically the worlds were exclusively for national teams. But a 2012 rule change allowed riders to race in the team time trial (TTT) event with their sponsored trade team instead of their country’s national team. In addition, because of the UCI rating for the world championships, Continental teams from the host country were eligible to enter the race at their discretion.

This meant that Astellas had an opportunity to race against the top WorldTour teams, something they had never done. They would be on the same course in the same race with the biggest names in cycling, in front of the largest crowds they had ever seen.

The conversation among team members throughout June and July reflected the momentous opportunity as well as the reservations felt by some riders:

“No. We aren’t going.”

“We are definitely going.”

“No way. We’ll embarrass ourselves. We’ll finish dead last.”

“It’ll be a great experience.”

“It’ll be humiliating.”

“So? How often are worlds held in our backyard?”

“You guys. Do not go.”

“We’re going.”

The veterans knew what was likely to happen—they would be trounced—but the younger riders didn’t care. Mechanic Matt Kelley, who knew what it took to move six riders and six bikes around the country, predicted it would be “an utter logistical nightmare.” Frey pondered the decision briefly and concluded that it was a unique experience his riders wouldn’t get elsewhere. Sure, it had the potential to be a disaster, but he was willing to take the risk.

If the team was going to go, a lot of details needed to come together quickly. They would need someone to replace Matt Kelley, who was unable to make the trip, so freelance mechanic Gary Bavolar filled in. Each rider would need a time trial bike and an aero helmet, along with pristine team skinsuits (theirs were ripped from prior crashes). Most importantly, they would need to find time to train together while the regular racing season marched on. None of them had ever ridden in a six-man team time trial.

The most difficult order of business was finding six riders who were willing to race. The TTT requires a different level of commitment and a different style of training. It would mean setting aside regular season goals and focusing only on time trialing skills, because no rider, no matter how experienced, can simply show up and ride well. Not racing the regular schedule meant forfeiting any chance at prize money, which is a tough choice for riders who rely on prize money as income. Eventually, Gardner, Feehery, Brown, Jenkins, Sitler, and Silverberg each committed. A pure sprinter, Feehery was ill-suited for the long steady effort of a TTT, but he figured it would be similar to riding in a breakaway. Plus, they needed six guys.

Each of the equipment sponsors stepped up with contributions to the effort. A call was placed to Litespeed asking for time trial bikes. Because it was late in their production cycle, inventory was low, so they were only able to provide four of the six needed. Two riders would have to ride their personal time trial bikes. Limar went above and beyond the sponsorship agreement and provided six of their best aerodynamic helmets. Pactimo printed up custom, long-sleeved, windtunnel-tested, time trial skinsuits, which arrived just in time for the trip. And Fast Forward sent six new disc wheels and high-profile aero front wheels, rounding out everything the riders needed to go fast.

In August, the guys met up at the Feehery house in suburban Chicago to train. They assembled and tweaked the new bikes and rode as many miles as possible. Their part-time director, Wenger, was on hand to teach them the finer points of riding a tight rotation in various winds: communication, timing, and most importantly, concentration. The first few rides involved a lot of yelling and chaos, which was to be expected. With each bad rotation, awkward exchange, and near miss during the early training sessions, the very real potential for crashing the entire team became evident. That would have ended the project immediately.

The notion of preparing for the world championships stoked a different fire under each rider and led to some training rides that took the riders to new heights of focus and new depths of suffering. Gardner went so deep on one of the rides that he became wobbly on the bike. Wenger was forced to throw him into the team van mid-ride and transport him back to the house.

They also struggled to balance their different abilities. When Sitler pushed too hard on the hills, there were protests. There was more unhappiness when Silverberg rode them straight through the roughest section of road and when Gardner touched wheels with Cortlan in a crosswind. The dire warnings from the older riders about this team competing in the world championships were making sense. But one day during one of their hardest training runs, the group crested a hill and everything clicked into place. They achieved complete cycling bliss: a vacuous silence broken only by the scratchy whir of the disc wheels. Millimeters from one another in a perfect formation, they were flying down the road at 37 mph.

Suddenly, they believed they could beat some of the other American Continental teams, like Lupus, Jamis–Hagens Berman, and Champion System–Stan’s NoTubes. After a few more good training sessions, they felt they were ready.

With no budget for flights, the riders drove themselves to Richmond. They stayed at a crummy hotel and ate at Chipotle, just as they did at many other races. Why change now?

When the Astellas van parked alongside the massive BMC and Cannondale team buses, it became clear that this was a case of David and Goliath. The team was unfazed and beyond excited to compete against the best in the sport.

At worlds, the entire 23-mile course, along with every cross street and side road, was closed to traffic on the day before the race so teams could pre-ride it. There was more fanfare and larger crowds for the pre-ride than the guys had seen at any race during the season. Fans lined the entire course. They didn’t care if it was BMC, Team Sky, LottoNL-Jumbo, or Astellas Pro Cycling; they cheered for everyone. It was the most exciting non-race the Astellas riders had ever experienced.

The team pulled off the practice ride without incident. They made mental notes on how to tackle the technical course that wound its way in and around downtown Richmond. They occasionally had to reel in Silverberg when the cheering caused his adrenaline to pump at a higher rate, but they returned to the van confident and ready.

For Curin and Frey, the team managers’ pre-race meeting was a surreal experience. They had a place at the table with WorldTour directors and a placard with their names on it—proof that both had come a long way from their Pharmacia days.

The next morning the riders awoke with surprisingly little nervousness. They felt ready. They simply needed to ride their bikes as fast as possible, turn where necessary, and not bump into each other.

The team handled the pre-race scene with aplomb. They didn’t get starry-eyed when Peter Sagan rode past on his way to the porta-john, and they were nonchalant about using the same porta-john as Peter Sagan just moments after Peter Sagan. And so what if their bikes didn’t match and no one knew their names? Astellas was holding the lowest spot on the totem pole, but they were on the totem pole.

In the distance, the crowd surrounding the starting line was cheering. Every few minutes, the familiar chirp of the countdown clock wafted over to remind them that they were on a critical path. Everything was going perfectly until the curse of being a small budget team struck . . . twice.

Fast Forward had asked Frey if he could loan one of their FFWD disc wheels to one of the women’s teams that the company was also sponsoring for their race. He was assured that the team would return it in time for the men’s start, and Frey had agreed. Now, just minutes before the men’s race, the wheel still hadn’t been returned. The only spare wheels available were heavy-duty aluminum training wheels with clincher tires, so Jake Silverberg was forced to put those on his bike.

Then, during the bike inspection, which takes place 15 minutes before the start, Cortlan’s bike was deemed out of compliance. In assembling the bike, he had mounted handlebars that extended too far forward by two centimeters. Since he had never used his TT bike in competition, it had never been properly inspected. Seeing as how it was worlds, the UCI commissaires weren’t going to let it slide. The bike was deemed noncompliant.

WorldTour team bikes are inspected multiple times during the course of the season, and every team has a fully equipped repair facility in their truck and a stable of spare bikes standing by in case of emergency. The Astellas van, however, was virtually empty. There were very few tools and the riders didn’t bring spare bikes, so Frey and Bavolar tried every way they could think of to pull the bike back into compliance. Bavolar scrambled around fruitlessly looking for a hacksaw to cut down the bars. As the clock ticked down to the official start, Frey came close to asking other American teams if they had a spare bike, but he decided against it.

The frantic search was raising anxiety in the Astellas camp. Without a bike, Cortlan would be forced to sit out. The rest of the team was warming up on stationary trainers, watching their team of six become a team of five.

Meanwhile, Bavolar was instructed by UCI inspectors to put electrical tape over the logos on the Ritchey handlebars and stems because they contained small graphics of rainbow stripes, which under UCI rules are reserved for current or former world champions. The debacle was a momentary distraction from the chaos caused by the noncompliant handlebars.

Had the team carried a spare road bike to Richmond, even one that wasn’t set up for a time trial, Cortlan could line up at the start and contribute something for the first few miles.

At the last possible minute, a dejected Cortlan climbed into the team van and removed his helmet. He wouldn’t be racing today.

As the team mounted the steps into the start house, the mechanic from the women’s team sauntered over to return the borrowed FFWD disc wheel. In the pre-race chaos, the team had neglected to scavenge Cortlan’s bike, so they frantically swapped out Silverberg’s heavy training wheel for the faster disc wheel in the start house.

The clock ticked down to zero. The team rocketed out onto the course and quickly settled into the rhythm they had rehearsed in Chicago. All the pre-race chaos melted away into a concentrated ride through a blurry tunnel. They didn’t see or hear the crowd, and they didn’t think about it being the world championships. They simply turned the pedals and kept their respective noses out of the wind for the next 20 miles. Another mechanical issue arose and Gardner and Feehery struggled with slipping saddles on the new time trial bikes, but they weren’t going to let it destroy their ride.

With UCI rules requiring only four riders to finish, the team followed their plan and let Silverberg pull them, with his final pull taking them to the bottom of the climb on Governor Street. His effort was remarkable and caused the other four to hang on for dear life. They approached the turn onto Governor like a commuter train, and when Silverberg peeled off, it became Sitler’s job to lead them up the hill.

On the Governor Street climb, noise from the largest crowd on the course hit them like a shock wave and they picked up speed. It was a surreal feeling for each of them, and in that instant, Gardner reflected on how far he had come since that sketchy night in New York, when he first landed in the United States. Barreling down the finishing straight, a rush of emotion swept over him. Bombarded with cheers from the crowd and thoughts of everything that conspired to put him in this place—the support of his family, Green’s recommendation, the Dave Rayner Fund’s financial backing—the actual riding became secondary. Then he snapped back to reality and put everything he had into the last 500 meters.

Jenkins had raced in big events before. The Amgen Tour of California has huge crowds and big-name stars, so this was nothing new. But he also felt a similar wave of emotion as he crossed the finish line. He was proud of what the team was able to accomplish under the circumstances and in such a short time. He also felt a deep sense of personal accomplishment at having reached this point, knowing full well that it might be the highlight of his career.

Astellas rolled across the line completely spent and near the bottom of the standings. But they had done it. They competed at the world championships. They escaped humiliation and they didn’t crash. They suffered no ride-halting mechanical issues on the course, and while they hadn’t beaten any of the other Continental teams, they were happy to have gone to Richmond.

As it turned out, they didn’t finish in last place. Elsewhere on the course, two members of the Tinkoff-Saxo team had crashed when Michael Rogers and Michael Valgren touched wheels. They lost time regrouping and finished a couple of minutes behind Astellas. It was inconsequential to the team; there was no moral victory in another team’s misfortune.

The trip to worlds was a microcosm of the team’s existence. Severely underfunded and woefully understaffed, they made mistakes, but they looked the part, tried like hell, and came out better for having endured. It was the pinnacle of the team’s existence thus far.

Even this near–last place finish would be hard to top.

Click here to read more excerpts from American Pro

American Pro lays bare the heart and soul of a struggling sport—and shares what’s wrong and what’s right with American bike racing. Bike race announcer Jamie Smith follows a fledgling professional cycling team on its five-season rise and fall, revealing the personalities, passion, and business side of the sport.

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