Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why You Should Take a Fast Chick Out for a Ride
Women's Competitive Cycling

By Kathryn Hunter

You don't know she's fast. It's just a guess. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes – stocky, narrow, short, tall, skinny legs, big legs. The best indicator is not a single physical characteristic, but a mental one. She's the type of woman who'd dive for a ball, jog through the rain, sacrifice a happy hour to fit in a workout, wake up for practice at five in the morning... In other words, she's the type of woman who likes to, or can't help but, test her physical limits.

And she doesn't know cycling is out there. It's like not knowing there's an underground wine cellar in your backyard, or never having heard of marshmallow fluff and peanut butter sandwiches. Do the fast chicks you know and the cycling community as a whole a favor, and introduce them to each other.

The challenges, and a few words of encouragement

While there are more Cat 5 men than ants in an anthill, their movements similarly erratic, women are in short supply at local road races. Often men's Cat 5 will start out at 40 or 50 riders, or sometimes 100 split into two groups, but the women – all the women, from Cat 1 to Cat 4 – can be lumped into a single field of 10 to 20 riders.

It's a strange phenomenon. Today athletic women are the social norm rather than the taboo, and there's no shortage of female marathoners, triathletes, and runners. Cycling's an endurance sport, too – so where are they?

One reason is that, regardless of gender, cycling is something you tend to stumble upon by accident. Most people start in their 20s or 30s. Many female triathletes make the switch when they discover their strength on the bike. Other women find the sport through a boyfriend, husband, or friend. To be honest, this tends to make getting started much easier, especially since (not to stereotype, but it's true) women seem far less likely to delve into the world of gear and strategy on their own. They just don't, as a rule, have the Cat 5 bravado and instant obsession with parts reviews. That comes with time.

Some say women aren't aggressive and competitive enough for the sport. One male cyclist I know went so far as to blame the scarcity of female cyclists on an innate lack of bike handling skills . I don't mean to villainize him or the other naysayers – it's true that women are generally less aggressive. But in some ways that's more of a pro than a con. You could say that women are simply more familiar with and honest about their limitations.

For example, men are four times more likely to die an accidental death. Even in the 75+ age group (I'm quoting a rather gray area of statistics here, no pun intended) when they're considerably outnumbered by the sweeter sex, men are still twice as likely to die as a result of an accident. When surrounded by a group of his peers, a man can be convinced to zap himself with a cattle prod, or do a triple somersault off a roof. (Evidence A: the movie Jackass; Evidence B: the fact that there's a sequel.) A woman, in a similar situation, would simply say, "No thanks."

So, while it's true that women may take more time to become comfortable with pack riding, it doesn't mean they're incapable of it. And if, as a woman, your fine-tuned safety meter is what's preventing you from signing up for your first race, there are a few pros to the Men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus conundrum that you should know about. A women's race is just plain different. Beginning men are overzealous, often bordering on dangerous. This balances out as they get more experience, or in other words, when they actually know what they're doing versus pretending to know what they're doing. But for women, especially since the field is usually much smaller, races are far less hair-raising. And you don't have to be extremely aggressive to do well. Once you get a feel for how it all works – and don't worry, it's intuitive, to a large degree – you'll know how to maneuver around in the pack without ever having had to elbow anyone in the gut, Cat 5 style.

That's not to say it doesn't take hard work, or that, coming from another sports background, you'll have instant success. You will get dropped. (Don't worry, it's good medicine.) You will suffer humiliation. (Learn to change a flat now, so you don't have to play damsel in distress.) And you'll have good days and bad days. But that's just the sport training montage leading up to total domination. Right? Right.

Tips for riding & racing

When I asked her what tips she would give a female cyclist just starting out, pro cyclist and coach Jen McRae said, "Be patient in learning your strengths, and have a friend or expert show you some secrets about bike handling and pack riding. If you do this right away, you'll enjoy the bike much more."

Jen got her start as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She was a swimmer in high school and did some triathlons in college. The university bike club encouraged her to try bike racing because they thought she might do well, and they were right. She did her first race in 1989, and was hooked. In 2007, she came in second at the US National Crit Championships, and in 2008, won the USA Crit Finals in Las Vegas, placed third in the US Crit National Championships, and placed fourth in the US Road National Championships . "And now, 20 years later I find myself loving the sport just the same," she says.

Jen has made a life out of cycling. She and her husband, Chann McRae, own their own coaching business, and still actively compete. She regularly comes in at the front of the Cat 3 men's race. "Competitive cycling for me is one of those things that just gives me the opportunity to feel completely alive," she says. "Whatever sport it may be, it's when you can feel your adrenaline kicking in, your eyes wide open with a bit of fear, and your heart beating out of your chest to outperform the competition."

As a newbie, what you should know going into the sport is that no one feels completely at ease, and if they seem like they do, well, most of the time they're bluffing. There's an element of excitement and suspense to every race for every rider, because in road racing you're not out to set a best time. In fact, time doesn't matter much at all - rather, it's how you stack up to the rest of the field.

Jennifer Mix, recently upgraded to Cat 2 and member of 787 Racing, has the reputation of being a tough competitor. And yet, she says, "I still learn something at every race, whether it be tactical or something about my physiology. And I'm still very anxious at the start of the race, often in awe of the talent I'm among. I still feel like that five-year- old little kid trying to play with the big girls."

Jennifer, originally from Boulder, Colorado, was a competitive gymnast from the age of 7 to 16. Later, she dabbled in weight-lifting and running, then when she was 28, started taking spin classes. Just before her 30th birthday, a friend suggested she go for a ride, borrowed a bike for her, and took her out on the dam loop. Two weeks later, she bought her first bike, and has been putting it to good use ever since. She began racing competitively in 2009.

She admits it can be an intimidating sport. "For most women I know, they use cycling as a way to 'stay fit,' not compete," Jennifer says. "Women's racing is generally not promoted and there's a lack of awareness of a competitive side for women in cycling. Thankfully, Austin promotes cycling and racing for women."

"As for someone entering the sport," Jennifer says, "it takes time, patience, and enjoyment of the process. A successful cyclist does not happen overnight. Going to The Driveway and meeting some of the racers, finding a local cycling club, or going to a bike shop and asking for help are all ways to get started." The Austin Flyers, an all-women cycling team, regularly puts on a women's racing clinic at the Driveway.

While it's true that most female cyclists are competitive to the core, when you're new and you have a question, nine times out of ten they'll answer it, even during a race. In fact, they seem to like giving advice. Note: it's best not to expect that level of friendliness the last 500 meters if you're sitting at the front. And get a bike computer if you want to stay abreast of the distance remaining – sometimes your neighbor will tell you, and sometimes she won't. It's all part of the game.

Free bike fit

So if all you're lacking is a little experience and general instruction, let us help. Austin Tri-Cyclist is offering free bike fits for beginning women until May 31. You can bring in your own bike, or get set up on a new or used bike at ATC. We won't give you a hard sell on anything unless we truly think you need it (most employees actively compete themselves, so a dirty drive train or rusty chain ring will pain their souls), and you don't have to come in with the intent of racing the next weekend. You do, however, have to have two X chromosomes (no exceptions on this one). Just walk in any time during normal business hours and ask for Adam.

And now, straight from a newbie's perspective, a completely unsanctioned and inexpert step-by-step guide to getting started:

  • GET A ROAD BIKE – You don't have to have an expensive bike to start with. Steel, carbon fiber, aluminum – it doesn't matter. A fancy bike won't make a difference until you're fast already. If you want to go all out on the equipment (this is what a man would do) you can, but starting out the most sensible purchase is a good set of tires, along with a proper tuning. That said, pay attention to components (we'd recommend at least Shimano 105 or SRAM rival components), or your bike won't shift right for long, and the parts won't be compatible with common upgrades and replacements. Spending at least $600 on a bike will save you money in the long run (this pricing is meant for new bikes, not used). Great bargains are available on the used market and previous year's models.
  • GO ON SOME GROUP RIDES – For beginners, the most important skill in road racing is simply being comfortable and safe riding in a group. Join a "no drop" ride, and you won't have to worry about getting lost or left behind, and you can get a feel for pack dynamics. Jack and Adam's bike shop has a ride that leaves at 8:30am every Sunday, and the Austin Flyers cycling club has women-only rides. There are many other options around town, sponsored by local bike shops and/or bike teams. The ATC ride is on Saturday mornings at 8:30am, but the best cyclists and triathletes in town show up for it on a regular basis, and the pace is brutal. Punish yourself with that one later. Making the ATC ride your first group ride is like cooking your first-ever omelet on Iron Chef.

    Triathletes, this tip is for you: Don't bring your tri bike on a group ride. And if you must bring it, stay out of the aero bars. A tri bike is fine for riding on your own, but in a group, you'll be the squirrely one making everyone else nervous, especially in the aero bars, where it's harder for you to reach the brakes and to see what's going on ahead of you. Besides, you can't use a tri bike for a road race, so you might as well practice on the right equipment. Again, you can get a decent road bike for around $600, and it's great for tri training, too – a good road bike will make long rides safer and more comfortable, not to mention easier on your back and neck.

    When you're riding in a group, here are a couple of things to pay attention to and experiment with:
    • Follow close, and notice how much easier it is to ride behind someone than out in the wind. When you're going into a headwind, stay just behind the person ahead of you, but slightly to the left or right – this is safer if the person suddenly slows or stops.
    • If there's a strong crosswind, it may make more sense to ride to the left or the right of the person, parallel but a foot or two behind. (See this video for an exaggerated and entertaining example) When you're riding with a pack, most of the time you can just follow other people's lead on this. The pack will fan out in a staggered row, or echelon (like birds).
    • When you're going around a turn, always put the outside pedal down. If you put the inside pedal down and take the curve, you're more likely to clip your pedal on the pavement.
    • Most importantly, try to stay relaxed – if you're holding your arms stiff on the bars, that interferes with your bike's ability to "roll with the punches," so to speak. Jenn McRae explained it this way: "Keeping your upper body relaxed and remembering to exhale helps keep you rolling smoothly. Also, it's more our reaction to things that causes us to crash – so trust your bike, let the tension go, and enjoy the ride. One thing that helps you have this relaxed mindset is to know the riders around you and trust in their skills."
  • SIGN UP FOR A RACE – You'll start out in category 4, a group of newbies like yourself. Some races will have a "Women's open" category, as well, which anyone can sign up for. A rider "cats up" by scoring points at races – the number of points depends on how you finish and how many people were participating in the race. (Visit USA Cycling for more information on scoring and categories.) Since women's races are often small, sometimes all the categories will start out together even though they're not scored together.

Types of races:

  • Criteriums (aka crits) – The course consists of loops, and is defined by time rather than distance. "Prime" prizes are often awarded for the first person who crosses the line on a given lap - sometimes you won't know which lap is a prime lap until the officials ring a bell, which tells you it's the next one. Crit racing involves a lot of high speed turning and the course is often crowded, which can make it challenging for newcomers. (Try a road race, too, for comparison.) The Driveway offers a great crit series every Thursday night from March 17 to October 20.
  • Time Trials – Triathletes and duathletes, this is familiar territory, and you finally get to use that tri bike. If you don't have a tri bike, don't worry – it's still fun, even if it is much slower. Your position is very important on a tri bike, so get properly fit at a shop. Do get in the drops if you're on your road bike. In a time trial, you'll get a specific start time, and you'll need to line up just before it. Each rider starts out individually, and there's no drafting out on the course. Often you roll out from a small ramp (that's not as bad as it sounds, and you can opt to start out flat if you want), which means you can get going without having to shift up. Someone holds your seat while an official counts down to your start time, then the person lets go (no pushing involved), and you pedal down the ramp. From there, you just follow the course and go as hard as you can. Unfortunately, while a TT can help you win overall at a stage race, a TT alone won't get you points to cat up. Road races and crits do.
  • Road Races – Distances vary for road races. A standard distance might be 30-60 miles, with the higher end of the range at 100 miles or more. Road races are usually calmer than the crits – more open, often slower, and with less turns. At the start, you tend to roll out "neutral," meaning no one gets to take off from the pack until you've passed a certain landmark. From there the contest is often who can do the least work for the longest amount of time, which you can play along with, or forego completely. If you choose the latter, be prepared for the pack to let you go, then slowly reel you in and spit you out the back. It's an educational experience, either way. Keep in mind that 5th or 6th position in the pack is ideal – you get more of a draft, but you can still chase down a break if you need to, or stay with the lead pack if there's a sudden acceleration. Often the best place to attack is on a hill. Keep this in mind both for attacking and for staying with the attack. Your No. 1 goal in road racing is to never, ever let the lead pack get away from you. Once that happens, you're toast without the draft, and if you're not toast, you will be by the time you catch them again. So go ahead and kill yourself to keep up – the fast parts are usually brief, and you can depend on having a rest soon. Stay on that wheel.
  • Stage races – These involve multiple races. Sometimes you'll have a road race and time trial in the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and then another road race the following day. GC means "general classification." You're scored by total time with a stage race, so the more time you can get on your competition in any of the events, the better you rank in the GC. Keep in mind that if you finish with the main pack at the line, you'll get the same pack finish time. Stage races require extra stamina because of their duration and the strategy involved, but they're a lot of fun, and you get to pretend like you're in the Tour de France.

Some terminology:

  • Center-line rule – No one's supposed to cross the center line of the highway, and if they do and they're seen doing it, they're disqualified. Sometimes riders will sit right on this line so that the rest of the pack can't draft, and if the crosswind is coming from the opposite direction, ditto with the right side of the road.
  • Neutral – If an official in a car tells you that you've been neutralized, it means another race/category is coming up behind you, and you have to let them come around without interfering (i.e., getting in front of them, jumping into their draft, etc.) Once they get out of the way, then the race is back on.

For more info, visit these websites:

You don't have to compete to enjoy cycling, but it does keep you from getting complacent (i.e., lazy). You're always learning, always challenging yourself, and always pushing your training a little bit harder because you know it'll be put to the test. Plus, it's fun.

Email us at with questions or comments. And don't forget the free fit for women!! (See above.) This is open to beginning cyclists of all stripes – triathletes, cyclists, and weekend riders. Read up on how it works here.

Copyright 2011 Kathryn Hunter

Friday, April 8, 2011

Local Austin Pro Matt Russell
By Brandi Grissom

A year ago, Matt Russell didn’t know how to swim. Now, the 28-year-old New York native is starting his second season as a professional triathlete.

“It keeps the mind really fresh,” said Russell, who moved to Austin in October, after three years as a professional duathlete, to perfect the swim stroke he taught himself. “It gives me a new challenge.”

Russell is among the newest professional triathletes to make Austin home. He’s quickly becoming a fixture in the triathlon community, training, racing and coaching – and all with his contagiously positive attitude and ever-present grin. You might have seen both in action at the Blue Norther Duathlon in Seguin last month. He was the male overall winner, finishing in 34:10.

Russell grew up in rural New York on a small farm. There were just 40 students in his school, which included grades K through 12. That’s where Russell said he discovered his passion for running. His tiny school only offered three team sports, so he commuted 20 minutes each way to another campus, where they agreed to let him run with the cross-country team. “I never had my true colors shine until I found individual sport,” he said.

But Russell’s youth wasn’t all shiny. When he was 8 years old, his mother, a kindergarten teacher, was diagnosed with Lou Gherig’s disease. She died when he was 13.

“It was tough, but God has a plan for everything,” Russell said. “I’ve learned a lot in the growing process.”

His mother’s motto – never give up and always try your best – has stuck with Russell and guided him.

At the University of New Hampshire, he walked onto the track team and wound up with a scholarship to run the steeplechase and 5K. He was on the cycling team, too. After graduating with a master’s degree in occupational therapy, he moved to Colorado in 2007 and started working and racing duathlons.

Turned out duathlon and Russell got along very well. He quickly earned his pro license and in 2008 won pro nationals. Until last year he was on the world duathlon team. He traveled the globe: Scotland, Colombia, Switzerland and Italy – racing and gracing the podium.

But last year, Russell said he decided he wanted to learn to swim. He moved back home to New York and taught himself. In July, he visited Austin for the Couples Tri. Apparently, “Quadzilla” didn’t ruin his impression of the place. “I was thinking if I’m going to pursue this, I need to go somewhere to work on my swimming,” he said. “So I ended up moving to Austin.”

Shortly after moving to Austin, Russell met T3 Head Coach Maurice Culley through fellow tri pro Natasha Van Der Merwe. Russell started swimming with Culley just about the time some coaching positions were opening up. “I was looking for job,” Russell said. “He offered me a position, and I started working in January.”

Now, he’s coaching spin and run workouts and leading long weekend bike rides and runs with T3 while he works on that swimming technique. And he said his swim is improving. His time in the 1.2-mile swim, he said, has fallen from about 36 minutes at the Longhorn 70.3 in October to about 29 minutes now. “I shaved off some time, but I still have some more time to shave off,” he said.

For the season ahead, Russell said his plans include five half-ironman races, including the Lonestar 70.3 in Galveston this Sunday, and three full ironman races.

“My goal this year is to consistently place in the top 10 or top five in races,” Russell said. “Hopefully I can get on the podium next year a little bit.”

Though he hasn’t yet been through Austin’s sweaty summer, Russell said he’s enjoying training here so far. A lover of the outdoors, who spent a summer living in a tent – technically called a “yurt” – in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Russell said his favorite training venue in Austin is the Greenbelt. He runs there about three times a week. “It kind of feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It probably keeps my sanity.”

Russell said he enjoys most the diversity of training that triathlon offers and the balance it requires for success. He may not be the most talented at each of the sports, but he said what sets him apart is his determination to work for improvement.

“I pretty much try to live every day as my last,” he said. “I learned a lot of life lessons from my mother and I don’t take one day for granted.”

(C) 2011 Brandi Grissom

Monday, April 4, 2011

The (Real) Life of the Pros, Part 3:
Tristan Uhl & Mountain Biking

Life's trajectory is simple - you grow up, you go to college, you get a BA, and then maybe an MA or MBA or MD, you meet someone, you get married, you get matching dishtowels, you have kids...and then you die. Right? Isn't that the way the game is played?

Not for some. Tristan Uhl, 22 years old, has been a pro mountain biker since he was 18. In 2009, he started working at ATC as a mechanic. You may have seen him behind the counter, though he's easy to miss - not the blustery type, he's usually got his head down over a bike or a wheel, more often than not painstakingly gluing a tubular. At first glance, you'd think he was just some college kid earning beer money. But then that's you seeing him in street clothes, not on his bike beating the field by 10 minutes (Miles of Discomfort Marathon, Comfort, TX, Jan 2010).

At 17, Tristan won the national series in Texas, qualifying for and competing in the world championships in Italy. And at 18, after a repeat performance at nationals, he went to the world championships in New Zealand, as well as the continental championships in Brazil. In recent years, he has continued to perform well in regional races, and already has a string of top finishes in 2011

A native of the small town of Smithville, Tristan says his interest in cycling peaked at 16, when his success meant that he had the opportunity to take off on cross-country trips with his parents' approval. "Town was boring," he says, which makes him sound like he'd been a normal-enough teen. But Tristan's training had begun well before then.

Paul Uhl, Tristan's father, says that Tristan took his first spill at one year old. Paul and Tristan's mother, Diane, had rented mountain bikes in Colorado. It was their first ride ever, and Diane had wiped out in a creek bed with Tristan on the back. No damage was done, Paul says, but he and Diane were hooked on the sport. They began competing, and not long after, started organizing races themselves.

"My parents actually built a lot of the bike trails in the town I grew up in," Tristan says. "They wanted me to be able to race, so they started a kids' series at nearly all the TMBRA races they went to. My Mom started promoting races, and made the whole kid's cup thing a reality."

Tristan competed in his first event when he was five, a kid's cup race in Warda. "I think it was three laps around a pond, maybe a mile and a half total," he says. (He doesn't remember if he won.)

He kept competing, of course. Paul says, "Around 12 or 13, he showed some really great signs, some really great races. Then John Kemp of the DEVO squad picked him up, and at 15 he did a national race in Vermont." The DEVO squad has brought up most of the nation's top pros, Paul explains, with no small amount of pride. "It was as close to a professional team as a junior could get."

Plenty of kids get the same level of instruction and encouragement. After all, what parent doesn't want his or her kid to be the next Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods (minus the controversy)? But not everyone who's given such opportunities makes it this far. One might argue that many, in spite of their promising roots, don't want to make it this far. Tristan may have gotten an early push, but there's more to it than that.

I asked him why he liked mountain biking, and why this sport rather than road biking. While road racing in Texas as a pro isn't a particularly profitable career, either, it does have the benefit of team sponsorship, and greater notoriety. Competing as a pro mountain biker is often, in more ways than just the one, a much tougher road to travel.

But at 5'6" and 130 pounds, Tristan excels with technical riding, or with very hilly courses, which are in short supply in Texas road racing. Crit racing is more popular here, he explains, and says he'd prefer not to race in circles every weekend.

Tristan describes himself as an outdoor person. Riding his mountain bike clears his mind, he says. "I'm a lot more sane when I ride my bike in the morning. And it's more challenging than road riding is – as opposed to just pedaling fast, you have to pedal fast and avoid obstacles. It's good to be out in nature, too, out in the trees. To play in the mud and stuff like that is fun."

He trains an average of 15-18 hours a week on the bike, sometimes spending several hours a day on the trainer, depending on the season. Nearly every weekday morning he rides his mountain bike, a Cannondale Scalpel, at the Barton Creek Greenbelt – Austin's mountain biking mecca. All hard efforts are done on his mountain bike, and his road bike he saves for longer rides, which allow him to spend more time in the saddle with less abuse. Depending on whether he has a mountain bike race or road race coming up the following weekend, he uses one or the other for his commute into work. And when he doesn't have a race scheduled, he often takes part in what might as well be considered a competition – the Saturday morning ATC ride.

The toughest thing, Tristan says, is time-management. "You have to train on the road enough to be fast, but ride your mountain bike enough to be technically good, so there's a really tight balance there. You can lack the training on the road that you'd need for speed at some crucial point, or you can ride your road bike too much and run into trees, and the speed wouldn't matter."

Another challenge that pros, in any sport, face is the daily wear and tear on their bodies. The pros who "make it" aren't just the fastest or most talented or most stout of heart – they're the ones who, whether by benefit of luck or good genes, have bodies that can withstand hours and hours of practice and racing without falling apart. Of course, being stout of heart doesn't hurt anything, either – even the most chromosomally fortunate have their share of injuries, many of which, for the normal soul, would be more than enough reason to change career tracks.

Tristan's biggest setback occurred a little over a year ago, a result, not of over-training or a bike crash, but of a bad car accident. He fractured his back, collapsing several vertebrae. He was in a back brace for two months, and completely out of commission for most of the race season.

Following the accident, after a few days in the emergency room and two weeks in bed, Tristan could walk, but walking was painful. At the time, he had a job at a restaurant, so was no longer able to work. "I didn't have much I could do," he says, "so I just sat on the trainer and watched movies." A lesser or perhaps more reasonable individual might have stayed in bed, but Tristan biked on the trainer for hours, still in his back brace, like a stationary Robocop.

When the doctor told Tristan he could take off the brace, he also said it was "probably okay" to ride his bike (the good doctor had no doubt mistaken Tristan's intent for a streamers-on-the-handlebars pleasure cruise around the block). A week after the brace was off, Tristan did his first road race.

From the soft-spoken, but easy way that Tristan talks, you can tell he's not the high-strung, obsessive type. He looks and sounds like a skateboarder (he was, when he was younger), not like a guy biting his nails over his training calendar and evaluating the flatness of his abs in the mirror. Training, for people like Tristan, is simply like breathing. The draw is not the end so much as the process.

Tristan's younger sister Kara is going to college on a mountain biking scholarship at Lindsey Wilson. Tristan had received similar offers himself in Kentucky and Tennessee, but he'd turned them down. "I'd rather work full-time and spend it on me than spend it on school," he says.

You might cringe at that statement. I did. But then I started really thinking about it, beyond the "supposed to's" and "should do's," and I wondered if I was wrong. College is the right path for many, if not most. It's like a holding pen - you have the luxury of drinking beer and deciding what you want to do with your life in the relative safety of your peers, most as naive as you are. But if you know what you want, and what you want doesn't require a diploma?

What we're weighing with such a judgment is not simply the value of an education, but the viability of a career as a professional endurance athlete.

Paul admits it's not a very secure future, but as an artist, he himself chose a path less traveled. "I would love to see my kids have the security of a real job, but at the same time, you only have one chance to live your dream, and if you're good at something...and Tristan is good at can always go back and change your career at 30 or 35. He needs to go for it now while he's got the ability. I support him trying to do this."

Of his own career, Paul admits that there will be challenges ahead. The friends who've complained over the years about their office jobs will be coming up on their retirement soon, a luxury that Paul will not have. "But I've spent a lifetime doing what I love doing," he says. "I'll just continue making pots until one day I don't."

Tristan doesn't really have a plan for the future. He just wants to ride his bike. It's as simple as that, though the decision is not always an easy one to live with. He doesn't have company health insurance, and meeting travel expenses is often difficult. But he's got big dreams – qualifying for the Olympic long team this year, perhaps, and in the distant, rather rosy-hued future, living a life where he can race his mountain bike every weekend and get paid to do it.

When you start talking about payouts and odds, sacrifices and sprains, the "why" of it starts coming up more and more. But "why" is a silly question. Why does a man like Svein Tuft cart his 80-pound dog across the country, when there's no money in it, no sponsor, no charity or cause? Why do countless domestiques, without any hope of recognition, put in their most heroic efforts carrying water bottles to their star teammates? Why do you participate in the sport, when unlike even those overworked, lycra-clad pack mules, you don't get paid a dime for it – and in fact, have to shell out thousands of dollars yourself?

When you do it because you love it, because it's somehow a part of who you are, well then maybe that's reason enough.

Paul says he enjoys riding with his son, though his version of fast doesn't quite measure up even to Tristan's slow pace. And watching Tristan's races makes him proud. Paul says he's observed a new sense of determination in Tristan since the accident. "It let him know his own mortality," Paul says. "It let him know that if he wants to achieve things then he's got to do it."

At the end of last season, in his comeback after the accident, Tristan had finished second in a string of races. In Comfort, at one of the earliest races this season, Tristan leaned over to his father before the start and said, "I'm done with seconds. I'm going Ricky Bobby style – I'm either going to blow up and finish last or I'm going to win."

That day, his all-or-nothing approach worked. Sometimes life is a similar gamble – a person either succeeds or fails completely. But bravo to those who'll take the risk, who make a foolish decision, or a million foolish decisions, and experience the bittersweet taste of life beyond the safety net.

If anything represents the real life of the pros, it's that – a grueling walk on the wire that can only end, because of age or circumstance, in a free fall. But don't we all come to that same precipice in our lives, whether we're 200 or 20 feet off the floor? One thing can be said... People with the courage to take the high wire will at least have one hell of a trip down.

(C) 2011 Kathryn Hunter