Pretty sure I picked it up at a grocery store after weekly piano lessons in The Dalles, OR, where my siblings and I used to go once per week. I was twelve years old then, wore coordinated nylon wind suits, and rode a 26″ Roadmaster MTB (you know, a plush department store bike!). That year my friends and I had discovered the thrills of riding dirt logging roads and cow trails around our hometown of Trout Lake, WA. We had already become serious riders, obviously. But little did we know about the larger world of mountain biking that existed beyond the edges of the valley. Needless to say, I was fairly captivated when I opened my first issue of Mountain Bike.
Fast forward about 17 years to a life that has been largely designed around cycling, and it’s interesting to see the extent to which I internalized many of those words I read as a twelve-year-old. It’s also cool to compare such a little time capsule to the present condition of the sport.
I was reunited with this dusty old rag while cleaning out an old folder of important docs. Somehow I had the foresight to save the thing while cleaning out my childhood room before leaving for college ten years ago. Flipping through the old pages was a blast-from-the-past of “e-forhks”, Briko glasses, Tektro V-brakes, Judy XLs, and Leslie Tomlinson riding a Kilauea.
I came across an article on page 76, by Marla Streb, titled “Secrets to Success, A Pro Racer Tells How to Make It to the Big Time.” It’s crazy, but I definitely remember reading Marla’s article. I remember being twelve years old and thinking about “being” a pro. I didn’t know what it meant to be “pro” at anything, but the people in the magazine sure seemed cool. To me being “pro” had something to do with riding and racing my bike a lot more than I already was, becoming really, really good so that my picture showed up in magazines, maybe qualifying for big competitions like the World Championships or Olympics…it was like this little secret campaign that began to materialize in my mind, I was always drawn to the idea of working hard on things, and this one was all mine to figure out. That sounded like fun to me. I probably read Marla’s article a few times.
At first, I didn’t realize who Marla Streb, the cyclist, really was. But after a few times pouring through other mountain bike mags, it became obvious that she was the real deal, one of the big timers, a “pro”… someone whose advice might inform my nascent cycling campaign. To this day, she remains an icon of the sport, and was even inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame last September. To the extent some of Marla’s words helped me, things have worked out pretty well, and I think she was worth listening to back in 1997. What’s really great is that despite the growth and diversification of the sport, I think many of her words are still relevant to twelve-year-old would-be mountain bikers today!
“So, you want to know how to be a pro mountain biker, huh? Okay here we go.
First, it helps if you don’t really have to be a pro mountain biker. By that I mean if being a pro mountain biker is the only option you have because you were barred from practicing law, you’ve dropped out of dental hygiene school, you’ve finally told the assistant manager at the Not-So-Fast-Food-Shack to shove it or you’re just tired of waiting around for the Millenial Rapture, then you’ve got a tough hill to climb. It’s a lot easier to become a pro if you don’t actually have to win and make money to survive.”
…well, I certainly wasn’t forced into becoming a pro mountain biker. There were plenty of other options for things to do growing up in a small town with 12 kids in my class and going to piano lessons every week. Actually, I jest, there were actually lots of cool things to do where I grew up, but mountain biking and racing seemed like an exceptionally cool option when I was twelve. I valued competition and sport from a young age, but I had no mind for career or finances when I was twelve. As things carried on, it was a pretty organic series of decisions and experiences that persisted through high school, bike-shop job, college, post-college, “paycheck” job…and I must’ve taken Marla’s words to heart, because eventually my focus was not just to continue being a racer, but to keep the show going in a fulfilling way without becoming completely hamstrung financially…more on this at the end.
“To tell the truth, turning pro is as easy as buying a hundred business cards from Kinko’s that proclaim “Pro Mountain Bike Racer.” (It’s really no different from renting a storefront in some strip mall and hanging up a sign that says “Natural Aging Consultant.”) It may not be entirely true, but who’s gonna argue? Besides, it’s not illegal.”
…I remember I “turned pro” in 2003. It involved filling out an application form after I won my first and only “semi-pro” race at Schweitzer, Idaho. It was so dusty that day I wore a surgical mask, and announcer Larry Longo gave me shit (much deservedly) for my getup every lap until I came through ahead of everyone else, having also avoided the black lung. After that race I applied to NORBA for my pro license, and it came in the mail a couple weeks later. It’s a similar application process today, but the title of “pro mountain biker” is still fairly ambiguous. It ranges anywhere from “elite amateur”, which defines most “pros”, to a paid, contracted professional.
“Another big factor in turning pro is to already have a rather cushy job. It should be one that pays well enough that you can afford all the initial investment – later to be called swag when it’s free. You’ll need a job with an indifferent boss who doesn’t care or won’t notice if you’re not around most Fridays and Mondays. And lastly – and this is super important – your job must have a great health-insurance plan. That’s basically how I became a pro bike racer – I got a job as a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and the rest is history.”
…probably Marla’s best advice, although could not be heeded until ten years later. At twenty-two I moved to Seattle in 2008 for a cool job as a GIS Analyst, basically a map-maker for a wind energy development company, and the rest is history. Racing was still very much on the docket, but I was more worried than ever about how I would keep it going out on my own in the big world. This new job put my college degree to use (phew), paid way better than a bike shop job, and I even got my own office and business cards! I’ve been there for 6 years now, and I am currently a manager of renewable energy and business development. The best part is that the work is enjoyable, and I now work remotely (from home). Working remotely affords me a balance which, thanks to technology, wasn’t even fathomable when Marla wrote her article. I work 40+ hours per week, bring lots of measurable value to my company, take pride in doing my work well and on time, and as long as that is achieved, precisely where and when I do my work doesn’t really matter. That means I can design a training schedule that fits with the responsibilities of work, and even take it with me on the road when I need to. My boss is also fantastic and a proponent of laissez-faire time management and simply executing the deal. It may not last forever, but there’s not a day I don’t feel fortunate for the situation which as been 10+ years in the making.
“To be a pro you’ll also need lots of support. You’ll need someone to ferry you back and forth from the airport. Someone stable enough so that you don’t have to worry about his or her losing a paycheck job as you soon will, and who doesn’t mind paying the bills for a while (at least until you make it Big Time). This person should be willing to shop for healthy foods and prepare them and serve them to you after while you diligently elevate your feet after a day’s work riding your bike along scenic mountain trails. He or she must be as proficient at basic bicycle mechanics as he or she is at massage. It’s especially important to find someone who will do laundry – mindful that race chamois do not go into the dryer and race jerseys are washed in cold water, and when folding that each pair of matching race socks should be pinned together and not rolled into a big ball. Lastly, this person will always be there for you to vent your frustrations on. I find that a boyfriend works out well.”
I’ve been privileged with getting lots of generous support and encouragement from my family and friends, not to mention many early-morning airport rides, but when it came to the paycheck job, I was keen on avoiding Marla’s forewarning of becoming helplessly reliant on anyone by “losing the paycheck job.” After settling into work in Seattle, I focused on a way I could have it both ways. Get work done and be fast. Plenty of the riders I knew and looked up to pulled off both things pretty well (my local road team, Keller Rhorback; Erik Tonkin, my racing mentor). At first, it seemed unlikely that I could simultaneously advance both careers in a fulfilling way, but thanks to getting the job done, having a progressive employer, and the engineers of telecommunications, the day of the office eventually became obsolete! The “office” was anywhere, anytime! I’m still lazy with the dryer, but I do have the best girlfriend anyone could hope for. She’s an amazing cyclist herself, she doesn’t do my laundry for me, and I [happily] work on her bikes all the time…
“Now, before you go getting all excited, you need to make very certain that you want to be a pro mountain biker. You must be more certain that you thought you were when you wanted to be a medical doctor, marine biologist studying El Nino’s effects on the world cetapod population, or a secret agent for a foreign intelligence organization. You won’t succeed if you’re merely succumbing to a fad, trying to impress chicks or wanting to get back your mother for all those years of figure-skating [or piano] lessons. The decision to turn pro requires a lot of soul-searching, reflection and realistic evaluation. One way to do this is by driving across the country in a polka-dotted ’71 VW camper bus with cattle horns on the front and bikes strapped on the back and a guy with a funny accent and shaved head beside you. Worked for me.”
…My style back then was Nylon windsuit meets Harry Potter with braces, so fads weren’t really a concern. There were like five girls in my school, three of whom I was related to, so not much to shoot for there either. Piano lessons weren’t so bad. Mom, I’m glad you made me do that, I think that’s allowed me to impress more chicks anyway…
“Of course, parents usually aren’t too keen about their daughters (or their sons, I guess) becoming pro mountain bikers. Remember that they’d always hoped you’d be a pediatrician and marry a well-mannered, sober, clean-cut insurance industry executive or supreme court justice, give birth to two boys and two girls, live in a nice cul-de-sac less than an hour’s drive away and do volunteer work at the town library. The best solution to this problem is to keep you parents in the exurbia of Baltimore County, and move somewhere far away and keep being a pro a secret until you’re on a factory race team and mentioned in the magazines. Then when you break the news to them, and after they’ve gotten over the shock, they can take all the credit and brag to their friends during the lulls in their Wednesday evening bridge games.”
…well, my folks didn’t fit Marla’s portrayal of the disapproving, overly-coercive parents. I was extremely fortunate that my mom and dad’s greatest concerns were figuring out how they could race, too, and how to prepare the minivan for yet another 500-1,000 mile drive on the weekend. Always encouraging, never pressuring. Without them it’s hard to imagine it would’ve ever stuck the way it did.
The family van packed up for another summer race weekend. Some of the best QT I had with my parents were on the long drives to-and-from races
“Another consideration before attempting to jump on the pro bandwagon is that it helps if you have some complementary experience from a related field. Many current pros are former roadies, BMX rats, motocross honchos, ski phenoms or snowboard sensations. I didn’t do any of these activities, but I was a bike messenger for a while until I was blind-sided by a police car – and the next day I was fired for getting hit too much. I also completed a couple of long, life-changing cycle-tours, but mainly I was just your plain-old run-of-the-mill down-on-her-luck adrenaline junkie.”
…the best part about starting when you’re twelve is that you’re made of rubber and steel, and learning how to fall systematically combines well with all those years as a cross-eyed Little Leaguer, scrawny track runner and soccer player. I think building model airplanes and playing with Legos complements the bike mechanic skills as well. What’s amazing nowadays is the number of twelve-year-olds who seem to be allergic to pedaling up hills, but are already pulling backflips and linking up crazy downhill lines on bikes that make the best 1997 equipment look like a Wal-Mart department store bike…
“Okay, there you have it – all it takes to be a professional mountain bike racer. Oh yeah, one final bit of wisdom: Most pro mountain bikers don’t make any money. It helps if you know that before deciding to become one.”
…indeed, money isn’t exactly the primary tool of exchange in mountain bike racing. Money is certainly involved, but mostly as an outflow, not an inflow. It’s important to appreciate that mountain biking deals in other tools of exchange which can’t always be equated to cash. One of the best things in mountain bike racing is that it’s all about connections, and is full of many great, like-minded people who are motivated to share and teach the experience. Some may be inclined to help youngsters transcend the financial profit issue, help them get experience racing and traveling, and perhaps even affiliation with a great company like Kona Bicycles. Early on, it’s people like Shane Wilson who managed Discover Bicycles who sold me my first bike and got me my first job turning wrenches, or John Kemp who ran the Devo Balance Bar team when I was a junior and developed several generations of talented racers, or Erik Tonkin who has fostered lots of gritty talent through his Sellwood Cycles Team S&M in Portland, OR. Besides…if you’re doing it mostly because you enjoy it, you’ll still find that mountain bike racing is immeasurably valuable (and creates immeasurable value) in other ways, mostly interpersonal and experiential.
But Marla is still right; while racing may offer some short-term financial perks, it would be unwise to bank on it as a long-term profitable venture. It wasn’t back in 1997, isn’t today, and won’t be in 2027, which is fine. Mountain bike racers create [institutional] value in the form of marketable content, which can be a mix of race results, photographs and video advertisements, stories, personalities, technology design and testing, all of which help motivate other people to purchase new mountain bikes and parts, which brings it full circle for the sponsors, and so on. Each of those things is measurable to a certain degree, but for better or worse, the institution of mountain bike racing is small within an already small sport (culturally speaking, i.e. compared to baseball and football), and it’s very difficult for a bike company to calculate their return on investment in a “professional” mountain bike racer. But don’t let the issues around institutional value get in the way. Especially if you’re twelve. Eventually, you’ll have to figure out how to make it work for you, but in the meantime, focusing on just riding, and maybe winning some trophies, is just fine.
But most of all, if you’re reading this and you’re twelve, put it away for decade or more, maybe make a little plan, don’t take yourself too seriously, have fun, find other people who make it fun, and see if any of this is worth passing on to the next set of twelve-year-olds…
oh, and thanks, Marla.