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The Secret Lives of Professional Bike Racers

By Ian Dille | October 11, 2016 | Rally Health

Professional bike racers seemingly live aboard their bikes. Whether we witness them at an event, pictured in a magazine, or racing across our computer screens, they appear to us as perpetually clad in spandex, with tanned skin and honed physiques, sunglasses and socks arranged just so, an archetype of modern athleticism.  

Yet in the hours the pros spend off their bikes, they often inhabit completely separate identities. Whether out of necessity, to earn a supplemental income, or the simple desire to do something completely different, many members of Rally Cycling’s men’s and women’s teams live dual existences. For those of us who exercise regularly or even compete at the amateur level, how they blend the two can offer insights into balancing our own passion for sport with the demands of careers and personal lives.

Two team members in particular, Will Routley and Elle Anderson, spend their time off their bikes in a uniquely interesting manner.

On the Farm with Will Routley

Ever since he was a kid, Will Routley has harbored an entrepreneurial spirit. He’s stood atop the podium at some of the world’s biggest bike races, such as the Tour of California, but outside his life as a pro cyclist, Routley says, “I’m always scheming on something.” So, in 2013, when presented with an opportunity to purchase two acres of pristine farmland just an hour outside Vancouver, BC, Routley and his wife, Shoshauna (who is also a pro bike racer), made a bold decision.

Will Routley at the 2016 Philadelphia International Cycling Classic.
Will Routley at the 2016 Philadelphia International Cycling Classic.

“We’ve both long been interested in agriculture and nutrition, and knowing where our food comes from and how it was produced. And we had this dream of one day owning a hobby farm, and growing our own food,” Routley says. “Then, one fall we were shopping for a basement apartment, and we found this beat-up old house for sale on a road that we ride all the time in the Frasier Valley. We decided, let’s just make the future a reality now.”

 The property came with fully established fruit trees — blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, a couple different kinds of grapes, two different kinds of pears, three different kinds of apples, plums, cherries, and peaches. Not long after moving in, the couple’s freezer overflowed with food.

 Two acres may not sound like much, says Routley, but “the land is dead flat, and the Frasier Valley has the longest growing season and the highest-yielding soil in all of Canada.” They planted a large vegetable garden and soon they found themselves going to the grocery store  and just buying milk.

Routley at Shabby Farm with his goats.
Routley at Shabby Farm with his goats.

 During the hours they spent on the road traveling to bike races, Will and Shoshauna (who has an associate’s degree in horticulture) frenetically researched which crop to first plant commercially. The couple settled on garlic.

“Garlic’s really trendy right now,” he says. “There are dozens of different gourmet varieties, but at the grocery store you’re only ever offered one kind.” They decided to plant the garlic in the fall, during their off-season, when they’re at home and cross training.

Then, in the fall of 2015, Will and Shoshauna bought 10 young heritage pigs, which they raised for about seven months before sending to slaughter. Their pigs enjoyed ideal conditions (over 4,000 square feet of space per pig, compared to the less than 20 square feet required by the government), and they were fed the produce Will and Shoshauna grew. But raising livestock gave the couple new perspective on eating meat.

“It’s increased my respect and made me more mindful of what we eat. The pigs are ridiculously cute and incredibly intelligent,” he says. “To a certain degree, we’ve removed ourselves from the human experience of eating meat. In North America, everything is clean and sterile and packaged in Styrofoam. At a butcher shop in Europe, the poultry still has feathers on it.”

So far, his passion for farming remains firmly in the hobbyist category. The physical demands of farm work don’t necessarily complement the intense regimen of training, recovery and travel required of a professional cyclist. “But mentally, as a veteran racer, I crave that that diversion and stimulation,” he says.

Routley with some of the gourmet garlic grown on his farm.
Routley with some of the gourmet garlic grown on his farm.

Still, could farming truly be a future career, post bike racing? “On the one hand, I’ve already managed to take something that’s fun and a passion, cycling, and make it job. Do I really want to take another hobby and make it a job again?” he asks. “Everyone always says, ‘There’s no money in that, you’ll never make it.’ Well, I’ve beaten the curve once. Sometimes, it’s kind of fun just to prove people wrong.”

In the Tech World with Elle Anderson

Elle Anderson was a former downhill ski racer and an Ivy League scholar at Dartmouth College when she applied for an internship with a new tech company called Strava. The company aimed to harness the GPS capabilities of phones and bike computers to map rides and workouts, and more critically, to create a virtual community that was both competitive and social.

Anderson started working out of the company’s satellite office in New Hampshire, near her home state of Vermont, alongside the co-founder who developed Strava’s “segments,” a core element of the software application that automatically ranks a user’s speed over a given section of road. Just a junior in college, Anderson suddenly found herself on the ground floor of one of the fastest-growing companies in fitness tech. (Since 2009, the company has raised over $50 million in investment funding and has tens of millions of members in more than 180 countries.)

“After the internship, they offered me a full-time job after I graduated,” Anderson says. “It was one of those lucky moments. The right place and right time.”

Anderson at Strava's San Francisco headquarters. Photo by Ben De Jesus.
Anderson at Strava's San Francisco headquarters. Photo by Ben De Jesus.

As she saw her professional life blossoming with an emerging tech company, Anderson was also experiencing success in her athletic life — as a bike racer. Her best cycling discipline is cyclocross, a wintertime form of bike racing that combines grass, dirt, and concrete courses with obstacles such as stairs and barricades that racers must dismount and run over.

It’s the fastest-growing cycling discipline in the U.S., and hugely popular with spectators (read: beer drinking and light-hearted heckling are a large part of cyclocross fandom in the U.S.). By 2013, Anderson ranked amongst the world’s best, placing second at the U.S. national championships and 15th at the world championships in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands.

Rather than choose between her athletic career and her professional one, she decided to dedicate herself to both.

Balancing act: Elle Anderson is devoted to two careers, cycling and working at a fast-growing fitness app.
Balancing act: Elle Anderson is devoted to two careers, cycling and working at a fast-growing fitness app.

At Strava, Anderson is a manager of the company’s community forums, where users can suggest new features they’d like to see and seek advice for problems they’re experiencing.

“We’re working with everyday Strava users to solve their questions and problems. It’s so rewarding, because it’s like working with all my friends. Whether I know them or not, as a cyclist and athlete I can immediately understand their plight and relate, and help them use the product better” says Anderson. “First and foremost I’m a Strava user, so I love to read through all the requests for new features they’d like to see, and jump in discussions with them.”

More than any other fitness app, Strava inspires extreme devotion amongst its users — even a pro racer like Anderson might share a humblebrag about a recently claimed segment, or encourage a less competitive friend with a “kudos” on a recent ride. It’s that virtual community, based on real sweat and suffering and adventure, that Anderson believes makes Strava such a powerful force in people’s lives.

“On Facebook, you might log on and write about something that happened. But on Strava, you actually have to go out and ride your bike or run, or do some activity before you can make a post and participate in that social space,” she says.

Anderson with Strava engineer Chris Donahue. Photo by Ben De Jesus.
Anderson with Strava engineer Chris Donahue. Photo by Ben De Jesus.

However, as passionate as she is about her career with Strava, she’s constantly balancing her tech job with her continuing success as a cyclocross and road racer.  For the last two winters, Anderson has switched to a part-time schedule in order to live and race out of Belgium, the worldwide epicenter of cyclocross. And this year, as a member of Rally Cycling’s women’s team, she found herself catching Sunday evening red-eye flights back from national-level road races in order to start her 40-hour work week.

“I work at a company where there are so many athletically inclined people, but their Strava career comes first. They approach their Strava career as I approach my cycling career, setting specific goals to climb the corporate ladder,” says Anderson. “If you asked me right now, ‘Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I see myself working for a great company.’ But, if you ask me where I see my cycling career in five years? I’m like, ‘On a World Cup podium!’”

For now, Anderson counts herself lucky that she works for a company that supports and encourages her cycling ambition, and that she also gets to race for an equally supportive professional bike racing team.

“There are going to be sacrifices on both sides, in my professional career and cycling career. But, they’re sacrifices I’ve really come to terms with, and can respect and appreciate.”

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of The Cyclist’s Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).

 

Ian Dille
Rally Health