american pro; the true story of bike racing in america. jamie smith. velopress paperback 217pp. £15.95

american pro - jamie smith

in may of 2014, rapha kindly invited me to join their first foray into the world of cycling travel at le grand banc in provence, france. over the course of four days, those in attendance were treated to some incredible cycling throughout the surrounding countryside, including an abortive attempt to ride up the ventoux that changed into probably the finest day's cycling i have ever experienced along the gorge la nesque. i may have been the only rider there who wasn't disappointed not to slog my way up the giant of provence.

rapha had seemingly thought of everything; not only were we provided with pinarello dogmas, but there was a mechanic on hand to service and clean the bikes on our return each day. while out riding, even with yours truly taking on the daily mantle of lanterne rouge, there was always an accompanying guide, no matter how far back i was from the peloton. and behind us there was a brooding black jaguar xkf with spare bikes and wheels on the roof should any of us suffer a malfeasance en-route. there was even a renault mini-bus there or thereabouts, should anyone fancy climbing into the voiture balai.

on our return from the daily grind (probably for me alone), we'd leave our cycle kit outside the front door of our accommodations from whence it would be collected, laundered and waiting on the bed after the following day's riding. thor hushovd's masseur was in attendance to handout recovery drinks and, after our home-cooked sumptuous repast, would later rejuvenate those leg muscles, assuming we'd had the presence of mind to make an appointment prior to the morning's departure. in essence, we were all living the dream (as i believe is the colloquial terminology), being cossetted like the pros without the professional need to be particularly fast (though there were several who tried).

of course, if, like me, you've been brought up on a diet of 'cycle sport', 'procycling' and 'rouleur' magazines, you will have gained the (ultimately erroneous) impression that life as a racing cyclist was exactly the way rapha's travel programme asserted it to be. for the nairo quintanas, chris froomes and adam yates of the world, that may well be true, but cycling, like many other sports, has its own pecking order. those at the opposite end from the tour de france heroes might be a deal less likely to agree with our appraisal of the idyllic world we imagine them all to inhabit. some of this may be due to the use of the generic term 'professional cyclist', an all-encompassing description that author jamie smith cleverly, sympathetically and frequently humorously dismantles over the course of american pro's 217 pages.

i cannot lie; on receiving my review copy from velopress in boulder, colorado, the book's subtitle had me thinking this was mr smith's paean to the history of american bicycle racing. while that may well be a book that would also make for compulsive reading, the contents of american pro are far more insightful, entertaining and downright essential than i at first thought i held in my hands. for within its pages is a blow-by-blow account of the five years of existence suffered (frequently) by a lowly cycling team that spent most of its career sponsored by astellas, a large american pharmaceutical firm specializing in oncology.

the team arose as the brainchild of a young pharmacist named matt curin. lacking the physical ability to make it as a professional cycle racer, curin attended the michigan college of pharmacy, taking the path, as the author states, diverging from that of a pro cyclist. " leading to a comfortable bed, a full refrigerator, a car that starts, six fully functional bikes in the garage, a wife nad kids, medical benefits, a dental plan, and a steady paycheck." taking over the presidency of the university of michigan cycling team, he grew this from a low ebb of eight to almost twenty riders by the time he departed academia.

within two years of leaving college, curin began working at the swedish-american pharmacia pharmaceutical company, very quickly continuing to follow the cycling dream by persuading the pr department to free up $15,000 to fund a five person team consisting of four men and one woman. in smith's first referral to the less glamorous aspects of cycle racing at this level, the team initially raced as the 'detrol la cycling team', so named to promote a drug that treated the symptoms of urinary incontinence. so began curin's path towards stress, sleeplessness, worry, travel and many other joyous aspects of running a cycling team on a shoestring budget, while trying best to represent the sponsor by curating a professional approach.

"Even if there are only two riders wearing the (team) kit in a race, other racers will draw the conclusion that there exists somewhere a complete team of highly trained and well-supported riders, and that the rest of those riders must be racing elsewhere this particular weekend...thank goodness."

curin, however, was not content to remain at the first trading post and through dogged persistence was able to relieve pharmacia of an increased $60,000 budget for the team's second year, providing him with the financial wherewithal to include the team's roster and expand its race programme. however, before having even the luxury of spending this considerably improved largesse, pharmacia were absorbed by pfizer and the sponsorship deal was cancelled. curin left the company to join another pharmaceutical company called lilly where he was once again able to garner a budget equivalent to that promised by pharmacia.

by now, i think it likely you can see where this is heading; just what is likely to transpire over the next four years of american cycle racing at the incredibly humble end of the stairwell. but by this time, jamie smith has us all well and truly hooked. though the book commenced by providing the end, american pro is utterly compulsive in its narrative excellence; it's a very, very hard book to put down, even when there are more pressing matters to attend to.

the author fleshes out his true story of velocipedinal success, failure and everything in between, by providing a backdrop to all that transpires, such as how the uci hierarchy works and how usac racing operates within that framework. he is also remarkably clear on the realities of sports sponsorship, especially that relating to the lowly sport of cycle racing.

"Considering the net worth of a corporate giant, it's easy to assume that, [...] A measly $200,000 would not be missed. This is, for the most part, a fallacy. Large corporations may waste money in creative ways, but they have a team of accountants keeping close tabs on where their money is wasted."

subsequently working for astellas pharmaceuticals, curin realised that, if there was to be a cycling team bearing the company's logo, he would be unable to run it single handed and so contacted former pharmacia team member, andrew fray who agreed to come onboard. reprising his earlier incessant internal campaigns to garner an appropriate amount of money from with astellas to find a cycle team, he once again succeeded in receiving a budget of $60,000 and thus was born the astellas cycle team.

the remaining chapters detail pretty much every twist and turn of the next five years, a tale that is never less than fascinating and at its very best is brilliantly captivating. though i can hear sharp intakes of breath from the knowledgeable cycling cognoscenti, i'd be inclined to place this book on a par with tim krabbe's the rider, despite american pro being very far from fiction. by way of support for such an apparently outrageous contention, i might cite the author's almost insouciant ability to sweat the details, frequently with a smile on his face. describing curin motorpacing a rider back to the peloton after suffering a puncture...

"Curin slowly accelerated to 37mph and held it there until he reached the back of the caravan where he resumed race speed. [...] Jake jumped out from behind the car, sprinted ahead, and played leapfrog with the team cars until he reconnected with the peloton. Avis never intended for their rental cars to be used this way."

american cycle racing falls into two distinct camps: road racing (including stage races) and criterium racing, the latter is often compared to belgian kermesses, but played out over more angular, shorter and more repetitive parcours. making best use of the team roster in the latter years of the team's existence, along with an almost equitable sponsorship budget, curin and frey's astellas team pursued both channels to potential victory. achieving the latter in one of their first forays into street racing provided them with hard-won credibility with their peers. it's a factor that the author portrays as every bit as important as a matching professional appearance and attitude.

even when a british member of the team is involved in an horrific training accident, being sideswiped by a car while travelling at race speed, smith is able to bring his own brand of levity to a serious situation. "The medical report was horrific. He had broken every bone in his left leg. Twice. He had also broken his back, collarbone, and arm. His femoral artery was torn. And his hair was mussed up pretty badly."

long and frequent have been the discussions relating to the parlous state of cycling sponsorship. without any means of monetizing the sport through ticket sales, professional and serious amateur riders must rely on the benevolence of someone else paying the not insubstantial bills. unless that someone is less than concerned about a tangible return on their investment, attracting commercial sponsorship to cycling at the bottom end of the food chain is a hard sell.

"There is a sense that the sport is flawed and therefore impossible to correct. And a belief that it could be so much better of we did A instead of B. Or that USAC could be doing more, (the) UCI needs to change something. [...] There's nothing that an infusion of cash coudn't fix, yet the sport ambles along relying on a shaky revenue stream."

oddly, yet coincidentally given my own percussive proclivities, smith compares the unreliable model of funding cycle racing with the considerably more successful and even lucrative means of keeping afloat most of america's bugle and drum corps. "The glaring difference is that the top drum corps have operating budgets of $2 million with no reliance upon financial sponsors whatsoever." as a former band director, the author continues to explain that even the smaller corps have annual budgets more than triple that of the astellas cycle team, predominantly achieved by "grassroots fundraising", recruiting dedicated volunteers to runn their fundraising programmes.

pointing out that santa clara's vanguard drum and bugle coprs has existed for 50 years " from the woes of fleeting sponsorships...", smith does not necessarily promote this as the solution to all cycling's funding woes, but one that might well prove successful at the lower levels. though the book and narrative is american through and through (the title rather gives that game away), substitute the scarborough festival of cycling for milwaukee's schlitz park and the song remains the same.

the astellas team's swansong came after the title sponsor had informed of their intention to withdraw at the end of the 2016 season. a surprise invite to the chinese 'tour of fuzhou' led to a quick scramble to recruit six riders willing to travel and compete in a race that ultimately provided them with a stage victory, plaudits, yet no hope for a future. "The local media interviewed (stage winner) Eamon following the race. Even in the final moments, he told the gaggle of journalists that the team was available for sponsors.
"There were no takers."

every road bike sold should have a copy of 'american pro' zip-tied to the drop bars, with the condition that the bicycle cannot be ridden until the book has been read cover to cover.

jamie smith's 'american pro' can be obtained in the uk from cordee books and in the usa direct from velopress

tuesday 10 july 2018

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................