Eight years ago, Nate Sheetz, who stands about 5-foot-8, weighed more than 400 pounds. Last June, at 30 years old, he finished the 40K TT in 54 minutes and 44 seconds as the Cat 3 Texas State Time Trial Champion.
Nate’s path, particularly fraught with difficulty, is inspiring not only because of his accomplishment, but because of the unique patience and grace with which he weathered the worst obstacles along the way. Cycling is his passion, but not his job. A more ordinary person, after getting hit by a car—twice—and breaking almost as many ribs as are found in the human body, might have begun shopping for a new hobby.
In the Saddle
When I ask him whether he had any indication of this aerobic talent growing up, Nate just says, “No, not really.”
Every answer he gives me is to the point, matter of fact. I never get the sense that Nate is impressed by himself, which is strange even apart from his life story—the typical roadie is an irrepressible peacock. Nate has always been public with his quest to lose or maintain a certain weight, but he doesn’t wear his history like a badge or a chip on his shoulder.
Nate played team sports in YMCA programs as a young child, and then baseball and football in middle school. Outside of PE, however, that was the entirety of his experience in athletic competition before he began cycling. He was essentially sedentary after 10th grade. “I gained the weight steadily through my entire life,” he says. “I was a little bit of a fat kid and just got fatter and fatter for 25 years.”
“What I’ve often said about the entire weight loss project,” he says, “was the hard thing was deciding to do it.”
He began by counting calories and doing light physical activity, like walking up and down stairs. Some months later, he started lifting weights at the gym, followed by half an hour of cardio on the machines. He found the elliptical trainers tedious, however, and that’s when he began substituting time on the bike. He rode to and from the gym, adding on to make it a total of 8 or 10 miles.
It all spiraled from there, he says. Living and working in Berkeley, California, at the time, he began riding with a local group called Grizzly Peak Cyclists. “I found that I enjoyed cycling for fun, never mind the exercise,” he says.
|Tour das Hugel 2012|
When he heard about the Driveway Series, he told himself some day when he was faster he would think about racing it, but friends convinced him to bite the bullet. His first race was the Driveway 4/5 crit late that summer. He got dropped the first three weeks but found himself enjoying it, and eventually he began to hang on for the duration of the 30-minute race.
By 2011, he was somewhere between 200 and 230 pounds and was still steadily losing weight, but was working very hard to balance his diet with what he needed to fuel his workouts. He says his training at that point consisted mostly of group rides and riding around with people who were faster than him.
He tried a couple of different diets—for about five years, high protein, high fiber, and low fat being the key—but for the most part he was still counting calories. “That’s really the beginning and end of it,” he says. “You figure out what to eat that keeps you from being hungry all the time, while eating as few calories as you need to be able to lose weight.”
“Once I got to what would for a normal, non-insane person be a healthy weight and wanted to get down to race weight, that wasn’t working anymore,” he says. “I was just hungry all of the time.” Eating more carbs helped him feel better on the bike. By spring 2012, he’d hit a low of 168 pounds, and give or take a few pounds, was managing to stay there.
In the Hospital
Early on in his training, just after he’d moved to Austin, Nate had his first serious bike accident. In September 2009, when he was commuting to work, a car turned left in front of him. With no time to stop, he smashed into the side of the car, breaking his left collar bone and completely rupturing the left AC joint. His injuries required surgery, which kept him off the road for three or four months. The recovery period undid much of his hard work.
“I gained a lot of weight,” he says. “I’d dialed back the food, but not enough.”
Eventually, however, he got back to where he was and then some. Training hard at the beginning of 2013, he was looking forward to the early season stage races and was as slim as he’d ever been. From his conversations with my husband, I knew that he was also hitting some of the best power numbers he’d ever seen. Having once gone on an incredibly tough 100-mile ride with Nate that had become 120 miles after a wrong turn, I knew what that meant. I felt sorry for the guys who’d be chasing him.
And then in February, he was on a training ride, going downhill on Veteran’s Drive toward the pedestrian bridge when a car pulled out of a parallel parking spot directly in front of him. In an instant, he went from roughly 25 mph to zero.
|"Poster Child for Rule #5," February 2013|
I ask him what it felt like to have gone from the best shape in his life to that state. In his typical, somewhat terse fashion, Nate says, “It sucked.”
But with a little prodding, he elaborates, talking about how he'd moved on. “I find it pretty easy to take an attitude of not crying over spilled milk,” he says. “I laid in the hospital and I knew my plans for the year needed to be radically altered, and I was pretty much at peace with it. I’m in the hospital one for two days thinking, you know, I bet I have time to be ready for the State TT if I just don’t worry about anything else before that.”
I was pregnant at the time of his accident, my due date about four months away. I remember thinking, given the extent of Nate’s injuries, that he was going to be back on the bike around the same time as me, and probably in worse shape. But one or two weeks after he went home from the hospital, Nate was on the trainer in his neck brace. He started with a 15-minute spin the first day, and then 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and so on, ramping very quickly back up to real workouts. When the collar was off in mid-April, he immediately got back on the road. His first ride outside was the 8.2-mile AllSports Mopac Time Trial, with a very respectable road bike time of 19:13 (25.6 mph). He returned to racing at the Driveway the following week. He was also at an all-time low of 160 pounds.
Most people would probably say he was crazy, but for Nate, the training was instinctive. “It’s not like I was pushing myself to get back on the bike,” he says. “It was like, ‘I need to start riding again or I’m going to go insane.’ I couldn’t wait to get back on the bike, and I couldn’t wait to start racing again once I was back on the road.”
Even the “sharp object lessons” in how badly he could get hurt didn’t change his desire to return to competition, he says.
Now that his injuries have healed and his surgeries are complete (he recently had a metal plate in his shoulder removed from the 2009 crash), he says there are no lasting effects post-accident that impact his riding. That is, with the exception of a slight difference in the depth of one side of his rib cage versus the other. In true aeronerd fashion, he finds this annoying because he’s a centimeter higher in his TT position than he would otherwise be.
The State TT
|Driveway Series 4/5, August 2012: 2nd Nate Sheetz, 3rd Vince Dietsch|
“I went to the Driveway because it was fun,” he says. “I went to VOP because it’s fun. One thing I realized over the summer, when I was in Minnesota, is that I’ve decided it’s much better to have a 90% optimal training program that’s fun, versus a 100% optimal training program that’s no fun and you want to give up bike racing.” For a few months when he was in Minnesota, his home state, he spent much more time than he would have liked riding by himself on flat terrain.
He had more success at the end of the 2013 season than he’d ever had before. Racing for Austinbikes/Revenant in the cat 3 field, he won the Mineral Wells Time Trial on June 15, took second at Hotter’N Hell on August 24, and had his first mass-start win on September 8 at the Chappell Hill Road Race with a breakaway. But his result at the State TT on June 29 was the consummation of months of targeted hard work.
His intent going into the State TT was, of course, to win, but in the back of his mind, he was thinking a more realistic goal was to make the podium. However, after a refit on his TT bike from Sol Frost, he was more than a mile an hour faster having done nothing more than change his position. His confidence grew.
On race day, Nate viewed his biggest competition as Vince Dietsch (Austinbikes/Revenant), Ryan Coover (ENVE/Firefly Bicycles Racing), and Matt DeMartino (Team Yacht Club). Matt had missed the start time, Vince was his minute man, and Ryan Coover started just behind. Ryan passed him as early as 10K into the race, so was a concern, but Nate was holding him at a steady distance after, hoping to make a move at the end if Ryan didn’t blow up first. Then Ryan had a flat around 25K. At the halfway point, Nate could see that he’d made up some ground on Vince. Still behind Vince at the 5K mark, he hadn’t caught him, but it wasn’t a minute gap anymore. He knew he had it.
With a very fast time of 54 minutes and 44 seconds (27.2 mph), the State TT was Nate’s first major win (the breakaway at the Chappell Hill Road Race would come about three months later). His time stacked up well against some of the big names in Texas cycling. He would have been second in the cat 2s, only about 23 seconds off of Paul Carty (Austinbikes/Mobil 1); in the cat 1s, he would have been in sixth behind Gray Skinner (Big Sexy Racing).
This year Nate is riding for VooDoo Racing, in quest of a final four points for his cat 2 upgrade, and is being coached by David Wenger.
Nate’s weight loss goals have varied over the years— “race weight” is a horse of another color, to be sure. Would he have lost the weight without cycling? Would he have taken it quite so far?
“The gym was always a chore for me,” he says. “Without finding a sport to get passionate about, I don’t know where I would have been. I probably would have kept it up, but not had much fun with it.” He certainly wouldn’t have pushed himself to lose as much of the weight, he says.
For the bulk of the year, on top of his full-time job, Nate estimates he spends 20 or more hours a week cycling or doing bike-related activities. I ask him if all the time and effort he’s devoted and continues to devote to cycling seem worth it, if he ever has doubts.
“I love riding my bike,” he says, “and there’s a real sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in just trying to better yourself in general.” He says racing is the proof and the fruit of training, but the training itself, that process of striving to improve, is what he finds the most meaningful.
Everyone has their reasons for participating in a sport. Cycling is considered an unattractive pursuit by some because it’s time consuming, expensive, dangerous at times. It’s also very painful—day in and day out, whether it’s training intervals or the field sprint, you meet the weakest and strongest parts of yourself, the sane voice that screams for you to stop and the other one, the darker voice, that convinces you to keep going. But I think people do it because it’s that hard, because they think they can do something other people can’t, because those challenges become a part of who they are and how they see themselves. And that’s the thrill of it, more than the adrenaline rush—you’ve conquered yourself, molded yourself.
I admire Nate a lot. No, he’s not a pro tour rider, or even a cat 1. His weight is still a constant struggle. But his work ethic is something that I think anyone, athlete or no, can esteem to. It takes a lot of courage to do what he did, changing everything about one’s life and body, and in his case, doing it in the unforgiving realm of skintight lycra and coldblooded competition.
Nate’s story makes me wonder how many other people in the world have it in them and just don’t know, hiding huge aerobic engines that would put the skinny kids to shame. What I sincerely hope for them is, someday soon, an opportunity to get on a bike, as well as the ability to recognize and embrace the potential for more.