About 18 months ago, photographer Daniel Pasley and I were discussing plans for a feature story we were planning to do for Paved magazine’s sister publication, Bike. At some point during the discussion, the “Manual for Speed” project that he and business partner Emiliano Granado had been working on was brought to my attention—and I was immediately sold.
Granado and Pasley documented the hard-fought daily life of journeyman bicycle racers in North America with “Manual for Speed.” They captured bike racing beyond the podium—exactly the kind of story we wanted to tell with Paved, so we published some of it in our Spring 2012 issue in a story entitled Job Description.
For the project, the photo duo was primarily embedded with Team Exergy, gaining the trust of its riders—and undoubtedly making it a bit harder to watch them fail.
“The moment that stands out for me above all the others occurred at the last race of the year in 2012, the USA Pro Challenge,” explains Granado. “On Stage 4, the riders had to go up Independence Pass for the second time in 2 days. Indy pass is 12,000 feet and is gnarly. One of my favorites on Team Exergy, Sam Johnson, is a big guy. He’s 6’4” and super strong, but he doesn’t climb as well as the lighter guys. He’s basically in the biggest race on the biggest international stage of his life. We all know that he will struggle up the climb that day. He has a very serious chance of getting dropped and time cut.
“I’m in my car that day at the top of the climb. As soon as the peloton and caravan go through I drive to the overlooks on the mountain to try to get a really wide landscape of the race ahead of me. I notice the very last rider is none other than Sam! He’s a tiny spec in the landscape and I take that photo. I jump in my car because he’s probably going to get swept up by the broom wagon. I race down the mountain and pull up on Sam loading his bike into the broom wagon. I run out of my car to get photos of him dropping out of the race. He gives me the finger and then jumps in my car for the 3-hour ride to finish line.
“At this point, no one is certain of Team Exergy’s existence in 2013, so I think to myself, That may have been the last few seconds of Sam’s professional career. And as we know now, it was.”
The exquisite agony of bike racing in America
Words by Daniel Wakefield Pasley
Photos by Daniel Wakefield Pasley and Emiliano Granado
Somewhere between a mid-pack finish in a local Tuesday-night circuit race and the perfectly choreographed, raised-arm salute signifying a win in Belgium or France or Italy, lies years of racing. By racing, I mean work. And by work, I mean harder-work-than-many-of-us-can-imagine work on a Division 2 team in America.
It's a good job too, if you want to work for free. Or if you're lucky and physiologically gifted, you might work for cheap.
You'll work on your own bike—still. Sleep for three humid nights in a stranger's house in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a 12-year-old girl's purple bedroom on a canopy bed surrounded by stuffed animals, schoolbooks, homemade pillows and posters of unicorns and David Beckham.
You'll train on the sides of unfamiliar freeways. Race a nearly spectator-less criterium at night in a tropical thunderstorm in a dark, bankrupt town whose name you'll be quick to forget if you ever bothered to learn it.
You'll cross the finish line in 3rd, maybe, but probably more often in 17th—or 33rd. Stand around in a random parking lot, still dressed in your race kit, and shovel tepid spaghetti off a paper plate into your still-salty face, and call it dinner.
You'll sleep in motels with half-lit, buzzing signs and amenities like vending machines and coin-op laundry. Sometimes necessity will demand that you shower with your bike, so that its appearance is always pro.
You'll email, Skype, text and telephone, but will never really be 'home'. It's a great job because, above all—regardless of the personal, financial, spiritual, physical, mental or existential cost—you just want to race a bicycle.
This position is that of a Professional Cyclist in America—a Domestic Pro.
If you believe your qualifications match the description, this is your primer. Call it inspiration. Call it admonition. Call it enlightenment. The gutsy members of Team Exergy—and countless other UCI Continental, blue-collar bike racers—just call it making a living while pursuing their dream.