I think a lot of people that I know identify me with bike racing, even though it’s been almost three years since I last worked for a professional cycling team. While I still spend most of my time working within the cycling industry, being off the Pro Tour is and has been a dramatic shift for me. Dramatic because of the struggles faced by the sport, because of the unfamiliarity of navigating uncharted territory, and because change is hard, even when all the change is for the better. It’s something that I have a hard time admitting to – that the identity shift has been hard despite it being something that I’ve consciously forced.
I struggle with forcing myself to change – with feeling mostly insecure and uncomfortable as I try to learn, with my new team at Skratch Labs, how to steer and manage a growing business. Almost daily, I feel like a little kid struggling to learn how to play the piano for the first time. The only difference is that unlike a little kid the same amount of practice and attention isn’t changing my brain as quickly as a child’s or as fast as my adult mind would like. And unlike a child, I don’t have a decade or two to make carefully guided mistakes. Time is more limited now and failure has bigger consequences.
It was amidst this personal struggle that I received a call from Christian Vande Velde a few weeks ago. Christian, who rides for the Garmin Pro Cycling Team had just finished the Giro D’Italia and was still reeling from the struggle and insanity of this year’s race. He sounded tired. We spent a minute or two being polite. “How are you? How’s the family? How was the Giro?” To which he politely replied, “good, good, good.” Then I asked him, “Are you going to the Tour?” To which he replied, “I don’t know.”
I was a bit confused and I think Christian was too. He explained to me that the team was really deep and that this year there’d be no guarantee if he’d make the team – that he’d have to earn his spot on this year’s TDF squad, proving his worth just like he had to do earlier in his career – before top ten finishes at the Tour, before he was the old pro and de facto leader. My immediate reaction was that the situation was bullshit and I commiserated briefly with Christian manifesting my own sense of entitlement for him. But then he asked me a simple question. “Al, should I even give myself a chance?”
That question floored me. It had never occurred to me that Christian’s pro career was ever up to chance. More importantly, it never registered in my mind that his career and his motivation was also a choice. On a certain level, I’ve taken his identity for granted and perhaps he had too. Even though we were trying to have a deliberate and conscious discussion, instinctually, my reaction was that he had to give himself a chance – that there was no other option. I felt Christian trying to make a rationale decision, so for no rationale reason, I told him that I would help. Before really thinking about it or looking at my schedule, I agreed to help him make the team – to run a mini training camp in Boulder, CO to get him prepped for what is, for me and many, still the most magical race in the world – the Tour de France.
I guess it is hard to change and I guess I’ve always been attracted to the things in life that are unconditional. And for once in my professional career, I was in a place with the support and belief of my team at Skratch to be unconditional. Christian has always been first and foremost a friend. With so much seemingly on the line these days it’s hard to remember that at the end of the day it’s not our money, success, or possessions that make us happy, it’s our relationships – our friends and our family who matter the most. As cliché as that is to say, it’s ultimately true. And that truth is so easily lost amidst the little and big struggles in life.
For me, the magic in Skratch is that this company has been built on friendships. No one else would have given us a chance except for our family and friends. And the chance we have been giving ourselves this last year and half, as ignorant and as inexperienced as we all are, is the chance to fail. But that specter of failure doesn’t loom as a fearful or daunting shadow. Instead, it’s a daily fact. Every day we make mistakes. Everyday we learn and adapt from those constant failures. Whatever level of success we have today is built as much on our falls as it is our willingness to stand up again and to try again. Every sour note we hit on these new piano keys is feedback to try another more harmonic key.
So my gift to Christian for the last two weeks – the gift given to me by my partners and friends at Skratch, was the gift of failure. Training sessions so intense that he’d reach the brink every day and have no choice but to cross that line. Practice designed to induce failure. And each day, I watched Christian squirm out of his comfort zone. Each day he crossed the line. He struggled. He fought and he pushed and he suffered. By the second to last day of camp he literally couldn’t finish the workout, licking his wounds and turning home. Some days were better than others, but everyday, I watched Christian do something incredible. He put his trust in the struggle - an ideal lived and shared with us by seven time cancer survivor Woody Roseland who joined us for one of the days of camp. It’s the leap of faith that when you push pass the edge of failure, that the edge will eventually move – that the struggle is the only way to create a new line in the sand – a better line. A line that we can be proud of regardless of where it ranks relative to others because it’s a line built on trust. It’s the only way we adapt, the only way we change.
Everyday here at Skratch, I trust my team explicitly as well as our ignorance, intelligence, failures, and successes. I trust that whatever good or bad we’ve all experienced in life that we can always learn, adapt, and move forward. As we all tune in to watch this year’s Tour de France, I’ll be putting my trust in the collective struggle – hoping and believing that our true happiness and identity is and has always been in the effort, especially the effort made with our family, friends, and community.
Photography By Greg Erwin