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."
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 this...you 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."
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