"The fact that I didn’t quite fit in kind of made it more of a reason for me to remain in the sport."
***This is one individual's experience and not meant to represent a broader population***
I started with bikes as a little kid. I got my first bike and would ride it down the hill at my grandparents’ house and my favorite thing to do was to see how fast I could go. At four or five years old I would get into a super tuck on my tiny little BMX bike and rip down this grass hill. It sounds cliché, but my bike was the thing that set me free. I was able to go where I wanted and do what I wanted. I was like every kid – I played soccer, played baseball, played basketball; but, riding a bike was the most fun I ever had. Every day I would just be like “I’m going to go out and play bikes”.
Fast forward a few years and I raced on the track for the first time. Until then I had no idea that it was just something you could go do. I went out there and couldn’t not do it anymore. I was absolutely hooked. I started racing at the Encino Velodrome and I went through their Tuesday night programs and got pretty good. I started racing and then started winning State Championships. I went to my first elite Nationals in 2009 and got absolutely spanked and I realized ‘this is something that I could really get in to’; so, I started training. Up until that point I was just casually riding my bike around and relying on natural athletic ability and years of riding a bike for fun for doing well. I got in touch with the sprint development program at the LA Track and I started going there five days a week – I was there any time I possibly could be, doing everything I could. I ran a couple of sessions at the track. I worked part-time at a bike shop. I did everything I could to make myself be there and get every piece of information and talent that I could and it paid off. I have had a great time with it.
There is this amazing feeling as you dive down from the top of turn two on to the back stretch and you are going so fast and it feels like you’re not touching anything and it’s just incredible. Then, as you hit turns three and four, just feeling your entire body compress through the corner? It’s like flying a jet and just dropping out of the sky and then hitting this super hard bank. Also, I’m a big guy. I’m over 200 pounds. So going uphill was never particularly fun for me. Racing against anyone on the track – it doesn’t matter if you’re heavy, light – it is just an absolute equalizer which, being wildly competitive my entire life, it was fun and exciting that I could now stomp these skinny kids that would make me look silly any time we came to even the slightest rise on the road.
Now I am not really racing at the elite level anymore. I just don’t have the time or energy, and I’ve committed myself to racing as part of the para-cycling team. Specifically, to being a sighted pilot for blind athletes on the tandems which is super fun and really rewarding. That is the focus of my training now – on being a kilo and pursuit rider with a guy on the back of the bike who is just giving it. Racing on the track on a tandem is the most horrifying thing. There is nothing scarier. The bike doesn’t want to go where you want it to. Everything wants to flex and bend and I have to give everything I possibly can and not even think about it because there’s a guy on the bike that’s just giving everything he has to make this time standard, to win this race, to do the same things that I’m doing on the front and I have to take responsibility for him, and for me, and for anybody else that’s on the track with us. It is so fun and so scary and so hard. Controlling your own bike at 60-70 km/hour in aero bars – sure, that’s really hard. And then doing that with another person in aerobars, on a bike that’s bending all over the place and is twice as long is just wild. It is absolutely fantastic.
I remember the first time I experienced it. I was filling in at a camp and we were doing moto lead in 200s and we went full gas from the top of turn four and overlapped the top of the moto wheel because we came into the draft so fast and didn’t quite have enough. The moto was starting to drift out, we were starting to drift out, but I was doing everything I could to fight the bike down without coming into the moto’s rear wheel with my front. Oh man. It was eye opening. It was like the first time I sprinted on the velodrome and understood how you can make this feel like you’re totally flying, but also the most harrowing experience. It’s like ‘oh sure, if I come down too hard and get back into the lane too fast, I’m actually going to hit this motorcycle that I’ve been spending the better part of the last year chasing and not being able to come even close to,’ but with that extra person on the back and all the extra horsepower and all the extra weight coming down that hill so fast – it was something else.
I love riding tandems and I have never found anyone more enthusiastic about racing a bike than this blind athlete. The guy I’m racing with now – there is no person on the planet that gasses me up the way he does. He is just so amped and just so in it. Being able to help him pursue his goals and this passion of his is so fun. It brought out a whole new aspect to cycling for me. Elite racing can be really exhausting. There is a lot of anxiety with getting everything to a bike race, getting your warm up, your corral, making sure you’re pinned before your start time, making sure your start time is going to be when you think it is. While that does exist within para-cycling too but now I’m more of a piece of equipment that helps this person succeed, which is a really unique situation to be in. Helping someone else succeed in the sport is so rewarding. I have been on the receiving end of that too. It’s now my turn to give back to the sport. I hope that others will choose to do the same in the sport moving forward. Honestly, my hope is that moving forward the sport will focus on inclusivity.
One thing about bike racing that I’ve noticed at most levels is there is a good deal of elitism and non-inclusiveness. Usually it’s based on economic status, but it’s also based on personal appearance and such. For example, I’m covered in tattoos and pierced and I would ride my crap bike to the track and swap wheels and race. People would look at me cross-eyed because I didn’t roll up in a fancy car and pull out a track bike worth several thousands of dollars that was clean and pristine. I raced on a crappy old steel bike. I wish that people were less exclusionary and were more willing to accept everyone that wanted to come and race a bike. Not just whether or not they are willing to spend this amount of money to have this amount of equipment, or pull on the right kit, or have the right sponsorship. There are a lot of people that are turned off to the sport because they just don’t feel welcome. and that sucks. The sport isn’t growing in the way we all would like to see it lately. It’s not the responsibility of anyone in particular, but the responsibility of us, as a community, to be more welcoming and less like a bunch of people that are only there to flex our privilege.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a cycling community, and it has some great features. One thing that I love about our community is the idea of people with a lot of experience and success want to help the people that are just coming up. A lot of them are really giving. So many people who were successful, experienced, and had skin in the game reached out to me when I was coming up in the sport to help me succeed. They had no obligation to help me, but they gave me their time and energy, heart and soul, to allow me get to where I was, to help me make the improvements, and be able to have the experiences I did. There are people who want to see the sport grow they tend to be the ones that have had a lot of success. They want to give back because they want to see other people have the experiences that they have had. I think that is a lot of what has pushed me to work with the para-cycling community. Not many of those athletes, especially the blind athletes, would be able to make it to events and have successes without a pilot. Being able to give back and use all of the hard work that I’ve put in for years for myself to help someone else succeed is really important and makes me feel really good. I’m helping the sport continue.
The fact that I didn’t quite fit in kind of made it more of a reason for me to remain in the sport. I don’t know if this was my direct thought when I was 28 and racing my butt off, but you can totally be a tattooed punk kid and race a bike and do really well. I want other punk kids to think this. I don’t know if that was my conscious thought, but I probably had some subconscious inkling of that. But also just having a few really supportive people in my life and just connecting with the right people at the right times has helped me stay in the sport and be successful and get a lot of personal reward from it and feel really fulfilled.
My advice to somebody that maybe doesn’t feel like they fit in, but is interested in cycling is this – there are a lot of people in and around the community that maybe aren’t as visible, but are super helpful and are going to be more accepting than the sport in general. You look at cycling and it’s overwhelmingly white, it’s overwhelmingly male, it’s overwhelmingly upper middle-class, but there are so many people that are becoming more visible. More people of color that are being successful. More women are being recognized. Reach out to your local, more grassroots clubs and organizations. The local weeknight racing scene, the people that organize your week night racing are going to be the people that can help you find the community that you will feel the most comfortable. The people that organize your weeknight racing and group rides – they’re not the $30,000 bike and super fancy luxury car kind of guys. They’re the person that pulls everything together and spends half their grocery budget to make sure this event happens every Wednesday. Those are the people that are going to help you stay connected to the sport and the ones who will help you find the people that you can really feel comfortable with. I’ve never had more fun than when I’m riding a bike and I just want to keep doing that forever. Cycling is something I can do my whole life. Cycling is something anyone can do their whole life and be competitive at whatever level they want to be based on the amount of commitment, time and energy they have to put in to it. There’s no reason that anyone who is just coming into the sport can’t aspire to race at whatever level they want or have whatever level of community they want within cycling. There’s so much that’s not racing, now especially. There’s so much variety within cycling that you can find something that’s going to light your fire if you want to be involved.
About the Contributor
Jack Flameqvist started racing in 2005, shortly after being introduced to amateur track racing by the VeloCity Tour, put on by PUMA, to get bicycle couriers to ride their track bikes on the track. He raced at the elite level for 12 years moving from endurance bunch racing to training with Jamie Staff and the US sprint development program, and now pilots a tandem for Justin Sutton in hopes of qualifying for 2020 Paralympic Games.
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