Wednesday, May 18, 2011

going part time

This whole cycling gig feels like it has entered a new realm. All the pieces from the last several month’s worth of planning are coming together. Last Friday was my last full-time day at the Ridgeline office until the end of the summer. After a warm and encouraging sendoff from friends, family and co-workers, I’m en route on my first trip to Europe and two rounds of the UCI World Cup.

Many of you reading are familiar with the storyline of the last year-or-so, but as the scope of my bicycling exploit expands, so too does the number of interested people, it seems. So insomuch as my version of elite sport pursuit is worthy of attention, it would be nothing if it weren’t for the key support I’ve received along the way. So, a little narrative of recent events which have led to this point…

Three years ago I started a job as a GIS Analyst with Ridgeline Energy , a small wind energy development company based in Seattle, WA. I was fresh out of college and had also started racing for the Portland, OR-based Team S&M under the tutelage of Kona Factory rider/NW cycling legend Erik Tonkin (a.k.a. “the Caveman”, “Wooly Mammoth”, etc.). For those who don’t know Erik, he wields, among many other talents, a remarkable flair for the ‘work-life-balance’. Explaining Erik’s life philosophy as it applies to competetive cycling is worthy of a volume by itself. But in short, his guidance and support helped me to hone my own raison d e’tre, and accept, among other things, that for someone in my position (not yet the fastest in the pack), mountain bike racing is a pay-to-play, “elite-amateur” sport, and the only way to make it work well for you is to make it work well with everything else in your life. After two years in Seattle I had raced well enough to be selected as one of seven to represent the US in the 2010 World Championships, all while managing a full-time professional commitment to Ridgeline.

There’s nothing remarkable about balancing a full-time job with an extracirricular activity like bike racing. Most people who can will do it. I’ll wait until I am a parent before thinking that I’ve really accomplished something! What’s remarkable about this balancing act, I believe, is the support I’ve received from my company. Since I began working at Ridgeline, I made it a point to treat racing with the same ‘get-the-job-done’ mentality that I used with work. This wasn’t so hard, since I love my work at Ridgeline. What I learned in the office informed the racing, and vice versa, and I valued both equally – the work is interesting, challenging, fun, deadlines are deadlines, be organized, turn out quality work, always think of ways to improve, etc… Sounds cliche, but I would have had a much harder time motivating to do well in either realm if I didn’t treat each with the same vigor. I received a promotion during the summer, and that, combined with success on the racecourse, created a feedback loop of high motivation.

I kept race travel contained to long weekends to keep from missing work and ration vacation, maybe missing a Friday or a Monday at the most. No-frills travel, in-and-out, custom-sized bike bag to save on baggage fees, sometimes flying in the morning of the race and leaving the same night…again, the way many people do it. The change came when my supervisors and company executives took notice of my performance at Nationals and qualification to the World Championships, realizing that what I had been running off to on the weekends was more than a little hobby. They asked what my scope was and if I needed additional support, and when I explained that I really wanted to pursue a campaign of the World Cup circuit and the 2012 Olympics, they encouraged me to draft a sponsorship proposal.

It was immensely flattering, and I didn’t hesitate to put together a detailed plan once the 2011 race schedule was published. In the midst of all this, I had received an offer from Kona Bicycles to race as a member of their Factory Team. Had this all been happening in the late 90’s, the offer would have meant that I could be paid a modest but livable amount of money to race my bike. For the last then years, however, elite mountain bike racing has become increasingly anemic in financial terms, and while the bike industry maintains health in other sectors, companies simply cannot offer the same financial support to their athletes, especially new-comers. Regardless, I accepted Kona’s offer. Personally, a spot on the internationally recognized team was significant, like a symbolic level of acheivement, regardless of financial compensation. It carried the possibility of a salary and expense budget, but I knew well enough that I could not depend on it for 2011. It was a classic case that many athletes face – if the job stops, so does the race funding, hmm...and ALL funding for that matter!…but if I don’t go for it…hmmm… I knew I wanted to race for Kona and to pursue a full-time race schedule, and working out a deal with Ridgeline was the best way to mitigate the financial risk and preserve my option of racing a full schedule in 2011.

Ridgeline and I arranged a deal in which I would switch to part-time-hourly beginning June 1st and return to full time after the World Championships in September (assuming I make it that far). Since I began working for the company as a contractor, I had already proven my ability to coordinate on discreet projects and produce timely, quality results while working remotely. The flex schedule would offer me the time to attend major qualifying events, and maintain a modest income to cover regular living expenses through the summer. In addition, our parent company Veolia Environnement , offered a bonus for me to put towards travel expenses to these major events. It’s an incredible situation and I’m thankful for it every time I get on my bike. I’m not embarassed that I do not get paid to race my bike. Maybe someday my tune will change, but for now, working out this current balance has been more satisfying than any paycheck.

So now…on the way to Europe. After all these months of planning and training, I wondered if the self-imposed pressure would get to me. Stepping away from my full-time status at Ridgeline felt big, like symbolically transforming this trip into one big culmination of the last few years, and therefore that it had better go perfectly! But that’s just my mind running. It is huge, no doubt, but in relation to what I’ve been doing for the last several years, it’s just a natural step forward, and I feel like I’ve prepared the best I know how. I could have the race of my life in Europe or I could double flat in both races. Point is, what I’ve learned and gained while getting to this point cannot be undone. When I think that way, the pressure is only positive.

Finally, the other essential aspect of this adventure is that it would be much less meaningful if I could not share it with anyone. I’m so motivated by the support and encouragement from family, friends and co-workers, so in recounting some stories along the way, I hope I can share the fun that you’ve all helped me to discover.
Thanks for reading.