Cycling enjoys a curious position among American sports. On one hand, it is a nearly mandatory childhood activity that provides many of us with our first real taste of freedom. On the other hand, it ranks slightly above billiards and slightly below poker in the hierarchy of American interest in professional sports. While it is almost expected that one participate in the childhood ritual of removing one's training wheels, it is equally expected that the passion for cycling fizzle out long before adulthood. Bike riding gives way to baseball, soccer and other conventional team sports and it isn't long before the bike becomes a mere tool for occasional transportation before the onset of the coveted driver's license.
As a competitive sport, cycling demands extreme, often solitary, sacrifice and incorporates a number of unconventional rituals that usually involve spandex and leg shaving. Little wonder, then, that many teens shy away from bike racing and move into more social sports such as football. Despite all this, some teens do persist and make their way into the local racing scene. Whether by accident or by an increase in domestic interest, bike racing is growing at the grassroots level and todays crop of junior riders represent the future of the sport.
A crucial element of success in bike racing involves a solid support structure. Without the support of family, friends or teammates, it becomes exceedingly challenging for a budding junior racer to excel in the sport. Often times, local grassroots teams utilize the bulk of their support for the elite amateurs in the category 1 and 2 ranks and leave little for the lower echelons, much less the junior ranks. This is not the case with the St. Louis based Mesa Cycles Racing Team. After two seasons of supporting some of the fastest 1's in the Midwest, team director Adrienne Murphy did an about face in her sponsorship focus for 2007 and threw the full weight of her support structure behind the development of a complete junior roster. Inspired by a week at the Olympic Training Center and the focus on junior development she witnessed there, she decided to drop the budget that was previously reserved for the elite squad and dedicate it to the juniors. The result is near unprecedented support of junior racing and development. Several of the category 3 juniors on the team are enjoying what amounts to a professional contract. Equipment, coaching and race day support are all part of the team's structure that is designed to get as many kids into racing as possible.
While this level may seem excessive to some, the results thus far speak volumes. The team recently took third in the Fitchburg Longo classic in Massachusetts and have regularly bested senior three's in several St. Louis criteriums and circuit races. Additionally, two of the members of the squad have spent time in Europe this spring racing with the US national development team. Murphy says that this experience "helps them to be better bike racers and better human beings". She also adds that "they come back and share their stories with the beginners and the rest of the team becomes inspired to improve their own results". Having this level of experience on a team which also incorporates many juniors new to cycling is a great benefit for all the team members because as Murphy points out "the bottom line is that they're all kids and they all have much in common" and adds that "my advanced group helps mentor the beginning group as peers and will often help keep the beginners in a race". This kind of teamwork is critical to success in bike racing and by providing an environment where up and coming juniors can learn this early on, Murphy is making sure that they won't have to figure it out on their own.
Nolan Froese and Joe Earsom are two of the members of the Mesa squad and represent the different ends of the junior spectrum on the team. Nolan is a category three racer who has been competing for years and routinely posts impressive results, including a fifth place overall in the category three field at the NRC Joe Martin Classic this spring. Joe is in the middle of his second full season and is hungry to learn and improve. Both Joe and Nolan developed an interest in competitive cycling through family members. While Joe had an uncle who took him to local critieriums and watched the Tour de France on TV with him, Nolan's father was somewhat of a local legend in Missouri. Ethan Froese, Nolan's father, still earns top placings in 1, 2 races and A level cyclocross races against riders half his age. His superior genetics have clearly been passed on to Nolan, as he has already racked up a series of impressive results so far.
Despite a passion for cycling, both Joe and Nolan are still teenagers in high school and must balance the demands of the sport with the demands of the day to day lives. While Nolan may "not think about it too hard" because he "was always a kid who preferred adventure over partying", Joe admits that "balancing cycling and teenage demands is hard, but schoolwork and family always come before training". Not surprisingly, both Joe and Nolan make a number of sacrifices for their sport, whether it is spending less time with friends on weekends relaxing or giving up all other team sports. Clearly both are traveling a less conventional path than many of their peers. However, Joe reveals that "all my friends are actually really supportive and even though they don't understand the sport, they are always behind me". He adds that "I have gotten a few stares at school for the shaved legs and no one understands how I can watch people pedal on TV for three hours a day for a month".
While both Joe and Nolan are at either end of the squad's level of experience, both are incredibly appreciative of the support they are receiving from their sponsor this year. Nolan recognizes that the equipment and organizational advice help him compete with top juniors and Joe is excited about being around older racers with deep levels of experience. He considers riders such as Russ Murphy and Lonnie Kennedy, both masters racers who have spent years racing with Nolan's dad, to be "encyclopedias of racing tactics" as well as being "awesome teachers". He adds that "now that I'm on Mesa, I'm more motivated to ride and the level of experience around the team is awesome". If Joe and Nolan's attitudes and enthusiasm are indicative of the rest of the junior roster, then it is clear that Mesa is providing a unique environment in which junior level racers can grow and progress, drawing on the experience of older riders while having a solid peer group of teammates to help motivate and support each other throughout this season and their further development as riders.
It is that level of support that will take them to the next stages of their careers, which both Nolan and Joe hope will be fruitful and long lasting. When questioned about their hopes for their future in the sport, both are near instantaneous in their proclamation of a desire to one day ride in the Tour de France. Additionally, Joe looks to the northern European classics such as Paris-Roubaix for inspiration and hopes to one day end up contesting it. He also has more modest goals for the immediate future including winning one of the four criteriums that make up the Gateway Cup in St. Louis, a race series that holds the highest status for St. Louis racers. Having already tasted success at the junior and amateur level, Nolan has his eyes firmly fixed on a professional career and is on track to achieve that goal.
It is encouraging and hopeful for the future of the cycling that teenagers still look to the sport with aspirations, especially considering the tough times that have befallen professional cycling in recent years. It is hard to ignore the doping situation that pervades cycling and poses a threat to its very existence, especially after this year's Tour and all of its controversy. Despite the current situation, both Joe and Nolan are hopeful for their future in cycling and for its future as a cleaner sport. Joe feels "the skeletons will always be in the sport's closet but if there are more rigorous testing and prosecution procedures for dopers, the sport will prevail and overcome these hurdles".
He adds that "I am now encouraged even more to be a clean rider and prevail over the phonies". This attitude represents the future of cycling and hopefully demonstrates that the right environment and the right support structure can steer fledgling riders to pursue their sport in a respectable and honest manner. Regardless, it's difficult not to be affected by the seeming persistence of cycling's doping culture but Nolan contends that "change is possible but change requires sacrifice", before adding that "I think humans will always cheat, the more advanced USADA and WADA become, the more advanced the drugs will become". Hopefully, the support Nolan receives from his team and teammates can nurture a cleaner future and encourage the more hopeful tone of his sentiments.
By giving junior riders an elaborate support structure and a positive environment to grow as individual cyclists and a team, the Mesa Cycles Racing Team is doing its part to put promising young junior racers on a path for success in the sport and developing an appreciation of an active and healthy lifestyle. As it moves forward, hopefully the program will be able to show more kids and teenagers that the sport of cycling can provide a basis for a healthy lifestyle and that the right level of dedication, support and camaraderie can provide racers with all the tools they need to excel in the sport and continue to grow as athletes and individuals.