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Interview: Daniel Lee

Belgian Hammer author Daniel Lee pops into the Café for a chat about Belgium, nurturing talent and the next generation of American cyclists.

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Belgianhammer_mediumPodium Café: Let's begin this with a bit about you. You're a reporter who's been there, done that and worn the jersey. Tell us a little bit about how you got into cycling and came to do your own stint in Belgium.

Daniel Lee: I graduated from high school in 1987, so my teenage years were a great time for US cycling with the 1984 US Olympic team, Team 7-Eleven and Greg LeMond all making history. I always loved riding my bike and around my junior year discovered that cycling was not just an activity but was also a competitive sport.

One summer a good friend and I rode our bikes from our homes in suburban Pittsburgh northeast to my grandparent's house to Bradford, Pa, which is almost to the New York state border. I was wearing cut-off sweatpants, a t-shirt and bulky helmet and riding a Schwinn World Sport. It was a two-day, 188 mile journey with just the two of us pedaling across rural and hilly Western Pennsylvania roads. Our parents were worried but realized it was a very important challenge for us as teenagers. That trip remains my favorite high school memory and really helped spark my interest in cycling and eventually racing.

I raced throughout college and for one year in graduate school. My trip to Belgium came from seeing an ad in a cycling magazine from Athletes in Action looking for riders who wanted to be part of a Christian team that would race in Europe. In the summer of 1992, our team had a camp in Ohio and then went over for a short stint of racing in Belgium and Germany. It was a quick trip but deeply impactful. Racing in Europe had been a dream, for starters. The speed and aggressiveness also really made an impression on me. I was in over my head! The trip also sort of marked an end of my days as a student when I spent a lot of time training and racing. I did a few more races that year but soon was focused on looking for a job to start my career.

PdC: You say Belgium over this side of the Atlantic (and the near side of the North Sea) and you usually get smiles. Belgium, the country that's famous for its lack of fame. Belgium, a swear-word Douglas Adams used in Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy so as not to upset the BBC censors. Does Belgium figure at all in American culture?

DL: No, I guess Americans don't give much thought to Belgium. If you say Belgium they may think about beer, especially with the boom in craft brewing and beer in general. I've given a few talks to promote my book, and I always show a map of Belgium so people know where it is within Europe. I also point out fun little facts, such as it's the birthplace of actress Audrey Hepburn.

But among many American cycling fans Belgian means something. People have heard about Eddy Merckx as a cycling legend, the greatest ever. People also have a specific image of Belgian cycling - rain, mud, cobblestones and just generally miserable racing conditions. The huge amount of coverage of the Tour of Flanders on the web and on Versus has helped Americans learn about some of the famous cobbled climbs and also showed the popularity of the sport in Belgium. So American cycling fans, I think, do see Belgium as a place with a deep cycling heritage.

I live in Indiana and have, since I first came here for college, always loved this state's basketball heritage and tradition. I don't think most Europeans think much about Indiana, but this state over the decades has been home to some great basketball moments and figures, from inspiring the movie Hoosiers to producing legends such as Larry Bird and John Wooden. Indiana is deep rooted in basketball just as Belgium is in cycling.

PdC: Sean Kelly's An Post-sponsored academy is based in Belgium. British Cycling have recently relocated their academy from Italy to Belgium. Belgium is the base for USA Cycling's National Development Team. What's the attraction? It's not the weather, and I doubt it's the music. It can't just be bier and frites, can it?

DL: Belgium seems to be the international proving ground for young cyclists. The kermis races are a great entry point to come and race as an individual even if you're not part of a team. They're cheap and there are plenty of races. That's a huge draw. Also, I think geography is a big factor. For national cycling teams, Belgium is a nice location because it's close to other cycling countries such as France and the Netherlands.

There also seems to be a good infrastructure of cycling there as far as training and perhaps finding people to help as support staff for teams. Belgium, I think, has made itself open to foreign riders. There are simply a lot of races and riders who want to do them.

PdC: Looking at USAC's Belgian House in Izegem. A lot of the benefit of that I guess is the access to a busy racing schedule. In terms of actual coaching at Izegem though, what's the story there?

DL: I think exposing young riders to good coaching is a huge challenge in cycling. Some young Americans spend a good bit of time at the house in Izegem while others are there for shorter periods. USA Cycling has coaches such as Ben Sharp who seem really tuned in to helping riders adjust, prepare and learn how to be bike racers as well as well-adjusted young people.

But Izegem, I think, can be a sink-or-swim place where people can burn out or not be invited back. When I was writing the book the Izegem house was in a definite stage of transition with the departure Noël Dejonckheere, who had been the long-time director of the US under-23 development team. He was the big boss in Izegem. So, the team seemed to miss his authority and racing insight in 2010. I think it's also important that the coaching and instruction these young athletes receive at home also mesh with what they get in Izegem.

PdC: When you spoke to USA Cycling's CEO, Steve Johnson, asking what it takes for a young American to get on abroad, he came back to you with two characteristics: ability and attitude. With the way the sport is developing, I was almost surprised to see him express it like that, to not stress wattage and the like. The impression given is that, when it comes to identifying talent, cycling isn't just a numbers game in USA Cycling. Would that be fair?

DL: Steve Johnson did talk about a rider's ability in terms of being able to put out a certain amount of power. But my impression also was that USA Cycling views it as crucial to expose athletes who have already shown they have ability to top competition in Europe, where the highest level of racing still takes place.

My primary goal was to tell people about this physical and cultural journey of making it in European pro cycling. Cycling - and most every sport, for that matter - has athletes who have incredible talent but for whatever reason do not have the success you'd expect them to have with such talent. Just because you can pump out a ton of wattage doesn't mean you'll enjoy living in Europe or want to be away from your family racing in the rain. When I interviewed one American pro who lives in Europe he said multiple times, "The lifestyle is (blanking) hard." He really wanted to emphasize that.

That said, I do think cycling is increasingly becoming a numbers game with the use of power meters - but the cultural side is still a huge part, especially for athletes who have to leave their home country to compete at the highest level.

PdC: Talking to all the young riders you did talk to, how much of a culture shock is Europe for them?

DL: The guys at the USA Cycling house in Izegem seemed pretty adept to a lifestyle of frequent travel. At their age, seeing and competing in different countries was a benefit of the sport. The process of travelling, delays and airports was something they dreaded.

It is much easier for this generation of riders because of the house in Izegem. It is a sort of small American bubble. Riders can rotate in and out of Europe instead of buying a one-way ticket. Also, at the top level of the sport, teams are becoming much more international with riders from many different nations on a single team. All of that, along with modern communications such as Skype, mean less culture shock. But it can still be a lonely lifestyle with sacrifices such as not having a girlfriend and going long periods of time without seeing family.

Many of the riders told me that motorists were more polite to cyclists in Belgium than the United States. Shopping was another difference the riders noticed - we just expect stores to be everywhere and open all the time here in America.

But I think the bottom line is if the racing is going well living in Europe is a lot more fun and easier. If you're struggling, things can get miserable pretty quickly. I think it's more about riders just getting used to living far from home with routines, food and a lifestyle that is different than what they are used to. Some people enjoy living overseas while others find it much more difficult.

PdC: In The Belgian Hammer, you split your focus between looking at the young Americans at home and abroad, in the US and in Belgium. Let's talk about the home front for a bit and the support structures that exist there. I was intrigued by the notion of universities - like the University of Colorado, Marian University, Lees-McRae College, Fort Lewis College - having active cycling programmes, treating cycling the way others do ball sports and athletics. Particularly in terms of women's cycling, this seems to be an important way of identifying and nurturing talent. How has it come about that these colleges provide so much support for cycling?

DL: Collegiate cycling is one of the best things the US has going for it as an emerging cycling nation. We're still a country where athletes tend to find a bike after growing up playing other sports. College is a huge time of discovery and cycling offers a wonderful alternative to students spending all their spare time partying or heading home for the weekend. Collegiate cycling is a club sport, not under the governance of the NCAA. The colleges you mention such as Marian and Lees-McRae are a small segment of schools that do treat cycling more or less as a college sport. At most universities it is more of a club sport that may receive some support but certainly the riders have to provide much of their own support and motivation to compete.

But those smaller schools such as Marian recognize cycling as a way to stand out and create a niche in athletics for themselves where they can compete against big and famous universities such as Stanford and Colorado. I wish the cycling media would give more attention to collegiate cycling... people in America love college sports, and many solid pros such as Ted King and Brent Bookwalter already have emerged from collegiate racing. Another huge plus for collegiate cycling is that it allows cyclists to pursue their sport and get an education. The trick is for the elite cyclists to find cycling programs at colleges where they can balance school with top-level racing. Top athletes need more than just collegiate races. For example, traveling to elite races or a visit to the Izegem house could mean missed classes. Some promising cyclists have chosen to put college on hold to pursue cycling.

But most of all, collegiate cycling is fun with a nice emphasis on teamwork. People are more likely to stick with a sport if it's fun. I look back on my own collegiate racing as some of my the best times I had in cycling but also some of the best times I had in college.

PdC: A difference you note between the men's peloton and the women's peloton is one of education. The boys tend to postpone education, the girls juggle the two. Do you reckon that's just down to the opportunities available, that there's money to be made in the men's peloton, while the women's peloton is - for all but a lucky few - practically indentured slavery?

DL: Based on the young guys I talked with, most of the guys saw cycling as a potential career. They saw this as the window of opportunity that they had to become a pro and that they had to make it the top priority over going to college full time or having another career. Most also did want to continue their education and also have good careers off the bike, but they definitely wanted to try cycling full-on first.

Many women, I think, start riding and racing at an older age, many times when they are almost done with or done with college. What's more, there are fewer opportunities for women to make a living on their bike. I do think many of the women who go into cycling also tend to be people who do strive to be high achievers in multiple areas, sports, career and family. It's certainly something to admire.

PdC: Comparing American cycling when you first got into it and now. Back then you had the likes of Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg making as much of an impact on the public consciousness as guys like Alexi Grewal and Davis Phinney and Greg LeMond. In The Belgian Hammer you write about Sinead Miller and Shelley Olds - profile-wise, how do you think they compare to the Carpenters and the Twiggs of the eighties?

DL: I think when it comes to American cycling it's difficult to compare riders of today with those of the 1980s. The 1980s was such a coming-of-age period for the sport in the United States. The 1984 Olympics, Team 7-Eleven, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten created all of these great moments that helped to raise cycling from obscurity. Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney together became the super-couple of cycling.

I certainly think today's American women, looking at teams such as Exergy TWENTY12, are furthering women's cycling in the United States. I think success this summer at the London Games would be wonderful for raising the profile of women's racing. I do think women's cycling has made huge strides from where it was in the early 1990s. As I tried to highlight in the book, the Philadelphia race has been great for having the men and women race on the same course on the same day. I give race organizer David Chauner's organization credit for doing that.

PdC: One of the things you talk about in regard to Sinead Miller is her problems with concussion. Head injuries seem to have become one of the topics of the year. In general, there seems to be a greater awareness of head injuries in sport - I'm thinking of the work done on this in American football and how that is now feeding out into other sports. From your own experience - as someone who has raced and someone who reports the sport - what do you think is going on: are there more head injuries in cycling today or are we just more aware of them?

DL: That is a great question and one I can't answer. I would love to see an academic study done on this. Certainly, cycling news sites provide all sorts of reports on injuries including training crashes that we probably never would have found out about before. In the United States we used to see just quick highlight shows of the Tour de France, now we get to see extended coverage of races where you can really see all of the road furniture and hazards along the course.

PdC: I'm not sure why, but I was mildly surprised to when you pointed out that only thirty-odd Americans have raced the Tour, starting with Jock Boyer. I know that the US only rediscovered cycling in the eighties, but it just seems like there should have been more. Based on just those thirty-odd riders, you've punched above your weight at the Tour, and I don't just mean Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong's victories. Guys like Davis Phinney, George Hincapie, Tyler Farrar, they've left their mark on the race. Even so ... were you yourself surprised to see the number of American Tour-men was so low?

DL: I was surprised. But I think that speaks to just how many barriers have to be overcome to make it to the Tour. Those who get there really want it! Also, if you think about it, many of the American riders have done a lot of Tours... Levi, Lance, LeMond, Frankie Andreau, Bobby Julich and, of course, George Hincapie.

I also remember some years in the 1990s between LeMond and Lance where there were just a small handful of Americans in the Tour. I think it shows the difficulty in non-Europeans breaking into the top-end of the sport. The Australians also have made a big impact with a limited number of riders. I certainly remember being a huge Phil Anderson fan when I was first getting into cycling.

PdC: A lot of what you seem to be doing in The Belgian Hammer is trying to identify the right support structure to help and support new talent. Ideally, how do you think such a structure would look?

DL: Actually, I think some of those pieces for a great support structure are falling into place slowly but surely. One of the riders I include in the book is Kiel Reijnen, who raced for Jelly Belly and then for Team Type 1. Kiel has given your question a lot of thought because he had worked and struggled his way through the ranks. He likened an ideal system to something like what baseball has in the United States - scholastic competition and coaches, high-level college and a sort of minor league all helping athletes reach the major leagues of the sport. The US system, though, is still fragmented. But there are some neat teams out there.

My club here in Indiana, MOB Squad, has helped junior racers. There also are great clubs such as Hot Tubes that focus on the development of elite juniors. We need those teams along with great U-23 teams such as Trek-Livestrong and Team Chipotle. I was very honored to have George Hincapie write the foreword for my book, and the reason I think he did is because he believes very strongly in the development of young riders. You see George trying to give back to the sport through development efforts such as his newly exapnded Under-23 team. Veteran pros can have a huge impact on helping young riders.US cycling is at the point where we're getting multigenerations of cyclists, such as with the Phinneys.

Collegiate cycling also fits right in with its ability to provide young cyclists with support along with solid coaching and competition. This is particularly true of high-level collegiate programs such as those at Marian and Lees-McRae. The US domestic racing circuit also can be a great springboard to Europe. It's crucial that races such as the Amgen Tour of California remain on the calendar to give the American teams a chance to compete at that higher level.

We also need innovative ways to help young cyclists. One great example is the new Bissell-ABG-NUVO team, a regional elite amateur team in the Midwest. The team was created to be the official feeder team of the US domestic Bissell pro team. The idea is to have a team of older accomplished riders competing alongside younger still-developing rider. The team even had a recent team-building weekend here in Indy with bike rides and adventure activities such as canoeing. US cycling needs these sort of networked together opportunities that create a path of advancement for promising riders.

Overall, we all need mentors in life, and cycling is no different. Older or more experienced riders can make a huge difference by taking a little extra time with younger people. That was another theme I tried to bring out in the book - the importance of mentors.

PdC: What's your general take on USAC today? Do you think they handle the sport as well as they can or do you think they even today they still have room for improvement?

DL: I really like a lot of what USA Cycling is trying to do. I think we are seeing the fruits of their efforts in many of the promising young pros racing today. USA Cycling was very smart to change its focus from fielding an Olympic team to helping to prepare Americans to race at the highest level of the sport, the European pro peloton. Tyler Farrar's stage win at this year's Tour was great - Tyler is a perfect example of a rider who really benefited from USA Cycling's program.

USA Cycling, though, is a service organization. Master's racing is big. Many of USA Cycling's members are middle-age working professionals who race for fun and fitness. That's great, but it's a very different form of racing than developing teenagers into pros. USA Cycling members pay their license fee and deserve races and other benefits in return for that.

That means the USA Cycling Foundation is left with the mission of helping to fund rider development. It's challenging, given the high cost of the sport and of travel. In a small country like Belgium, it's easy to have young riders travel from race to race. The United States is huge, so travel is expensive.

One thing I would like to see USA Cycling do is find better ways to bring more young athletes into cycling. Think about all of the great athletes - cross country runners, swimmers, etc. - who graduate from high school. They then go off to college and pretty much give up competitive sports. Cycling offers them a great competitive outlet.

PdC: In the acknowledgements section of The Belgian Hammer you mention Peter Nye. One of the first cycling books I got was his Hearts Of Lions and I guess I'm familiar with his role as being one of the custodians of American cycling history. But for those not familiar with his name, would you mind if I asked you to explain for them who he is and why he's important?

DL: I am very happy you asked about Peter Nye. I went to college at Ball State University, which is where Peter went to school. I was in an American history class my sophomore or junior year and my professor mentioned that a Ball State grad, Peter Nye, had written a book on the history of American bicycle racing, which was "Hearts of Lions." I remembered his name and a couple of years later read the book.

My first job out of school was with race organizer David Chauner. Peter Nye was on our media list so I gave him a call and introduced myself. That was 1993, and he has been a friend and mentor ever since.

What Peter did with "Hearts of Lions" was create a vibrant and well-organized history out of scattered memories, writings and newspaper clippings. American cycling has an exciting legacy most Americans know little about. His work made me really appreciate riders such as Major Taylor, Art Longsjo and John Howard. There was an excitement and appreciation in reading about when cycling filled New York's Madison Square Garden a century ago, or later when road racing was a truly obscure cult sport.

Peter still continues to document and bring to life cycling history, as he did with the book and documentary on Six Day racing. On a personal note, Peter has always taken the time to encourage me, listen to me and offer me his insight. As I said just a bit ago, we all need mentors! Peter mostly has helped give US cycling a sense of its history. He's on the board of the US Cycling Hall of Fame. That historical perspective is very important for the long-term sustainability of the sport in the United States.

PdC: Of the riders you've been paying attention to over the last couple of years, who should I be paying attention to, would you suggest, both in the male and the female pelotons?

DL: Hmm, well, I am going to throw two Midwestern riders.

One is a new pro named Eric Young, who rides for Bissell. He also is the current US pro criterium champion. Eric got into bike racing at Indiana University racing for the "Cutters" team (made famous in the movie "Breaking Away") in the Little 500. In a few short years he's gone from a novice racer to a pro champ. He also rode well in the Philadelphia race, which is almost 160 miles long. Eric is an example of a guy who was not part of that national team development system, but who is showing great potential.

On the women's side, Kaitlin Antonneau is showing great potential on the road and in cyclocross.

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Daniel Lee is the author of The Belgian Hammer (Breakaway Books, 2011).

You can find him on Twitter @DLeeHoss.

You'll find a review of The Belgian Hammer on the Cafe Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Daniel Lee for taking part in this interview.