PEZ Talk: Aaron Olson
He was a big winner in the US, rode two Giros for two different Division One teams and was a team mate to some of the sport’s most famous (and notorious) recent names – so how come we’ve forgotten about him ?
Aaron Olson is the man in question; his take on the sport is different to most, pointing out the obvious – but that which many have forgotten and paid the price for. Here’s his tale.
PEZ: How did you get into the sport, Aaron ?
Both my father and uncle were into cycling. My uncle raced in the 60’s in Oregon where I grew up, my father helped him and others out with support. I grew up racing BMX from the age of six and at about age 10 I switched to riding/racing the road.
PEZ: Tell us about your amateur career, please.
I started racing road bikes when I was pretty young in Eugene, Oregon where I was born and raised; it turned out to be an incredible place to ride and in all conditions – just like Europe throws at you. I went to my first National Championships in Seattle, Washington area in 1994, I was fortunate enough to place second in the junior individual time trial.
The following year (1995) I qualified for the US Junior National Team for the following season. I was racing as a 17 year old in the Pro cat. 1/2 races in Oregon and Washington, placing high up and learning a lot from talented riders we had when I was growing up.
Season 1996 was my first on the US National Team having qualified the year before. It would be my first taste of travel ling to Europe, as the Junior National Team went on a three week trip to Germany and Austria. I loved it, Austria was incredible, we raced a Junior World Cup Stage Race, so beautiful, challenging and I knew this was the sport/direction I wanted to go in.
The following year was a bit of disappointment, I tried to break into Europe with the $1000 I had saved, moved to Spain to live/race (similar to another rider did who was 10 years older than myself) from Oregon, but not having a team lined up when I arrived I was unable to stay but for a few weeks in January. I had to turn around after a very unsuccessful effort.
During 1998-2000 I rode for the U-23 National Team under the guidance of then National Team Coach Noel Dejonckheere (Ex-Belgian pro roadman-sprinter), where the US team had it’s National Team headquarters in Flanders. I gained so much experience riding in the wind and cobbles of Belgium; this couple of years proved to probably be the best’ spent learning – riding in some bigger races with really good pro’s. I watched many U-23 riders that were better than myself, come to Belgium, only to realize the weather, atmosphere and how tough it was, wasn’t for them. It definitely wasn’t for everyone, but I was determined and the weather reminded me of growing up in Oregon which has similar weather to Belgium/Northern France.
PEZ: Fourth in the Omloop van het Houtland Lichtervelde behind the legend that is’Rambo’ Eeckhout before you turned pro – tell us about that one, please.
Wow, good research. This would have been one of the first races that I truly realized I had the experience/level of fitness to compete with top professionals. I was in a finishing group with four really good pros – down from the 20/25 guys in the original echelon and we stayed away all day for 200km (it was incredibly windy). I started to realize the years previous in Belgium had really started to put me in a position to succeed.
PEZ: And second in the TT in the Monts & Chateaux to Devolder – did that one get you any interest ?
Funny, I didn’t know who Stijn was at that time. I was leading the prologue TT the whole day until Devolder arrived, if I remember he beat me by a fraction of a second. At this point in the U-23, I was placing top five in almost every TT; technical prologues were good for me – having grown up riding technical criteriums.
PEZ: Tell us about iteamNova – ‘the team to be funded by the fans.’
iteamNova.com was a disaster. The team started to fall apart mid season, they were running out of money and Sean Yates (our director) left, I left along with others. I was back in the States by end of May I believe, after four months in Belgium. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess.
PEZ: Colavita in the US to Saunier in Europe, that’s quite a jump – how did you get the ride with the team ?
I raced two years with Colavita and as my fitness improved I started in 2005 to really gain some top results in the domestic US scene. At that time, Chris Horner was on Saunier-Duval and was leaving to go to Lotto, I believe it was. Scott bicycles was the bike sponsor and wanted an American, so with help from my coach at the time, Max Testa sending emails/phone calls, and Chris Horner mentioning my name to the team, I was able to achieve one of my life long dreams of riding for a top level team in Europe.
PEZ: You had some interesting team mates – Riccardo and Leonardo among them.
Yeah, Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli; other than training camp, about the only other race I did with the both of them was the Giro d’Italia. They both treated me kindly and with respect, they had incredible races in 2006, Leonardo won two stages (the most difficult ones). Crazy to think only a year or two later so much in their lives would change due to the choices they made. Those two could go uphill like gazelles. Now we know why.
But as teammates, they appreciated everyone’s hard work for them; I did what I could do to help the team by riding on the front leading into the climbs. We had a really good team in my first ever Grand Tour. Piepoli won two stages and we placed in others with Mori, Simoni, and Pinotti.
I was just blown away to be in the race, especially the opportunity to ride for someone like Simoni whom had won the Giro two times previously and alongside Italian TT champion and my roommate Marco Pinotti.
PEZ: What are your memories of the ’06 Giro ?
The 2006 Giro was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. That year (as are most years) the stages were brutal. But it was a dream come true to do my first Grand Tour, especially the Giro because Italy, the people, culture, food, language are all incredible.
I can say this; I did two stages that were seven hours each day, and another two stages that took me eight hours to complete. All four of these days took place in the Dolomites, some of the most difficult stages I have ever done, and previous to this Giro, I had never ridden my bike seven hours or eight hours in one day.
If I remember rightly we did two eight hour days back to back in the mountains (the winner would finish in 7hrs 30 min), I would roll in 30 min later. To make it to Milan was awesome, but seeing so much of Italy and its beauty was incredible. The promoters really know how to put on a spectacle and of course to participate was a legendary experience.
PEZ: Then T-Mobile in ’07, how did you get that ride ?
Bob Stapleton bought the team and wanted to build a drug free squad. I had a great reputation as a clean rider and my girlfriend Kim Anderson was one of the best women cyclists in America at the time and had been riding for Stapleton the previous three or four seasons. They asked me if I would be interested – of course I was – but had a two year contract with Saunier Duval.
I spoke with my Saunier boss, Mauro Gianetti, who said he always wanted to ride for T-Mobile during his career, so understood and told me I had to take the opportunity. He let me out of the second year of my contract to join Stapleton’s team which I was excited to be a part of since I was riding clean and was joining a team where the owner was trying to build a team with values that I believed in as well.
PEZ: With Cav ?
Cav was great; my first trip with T-Mobile was to Europe for three days for testing, in October I believe. Cav, Axel Merckx and I were three together for three days. We had a great time and hit it off well. I was fortunate enough to ride in Cav’s first pro win over Robbie McEwen in the Netherlands. It is funny, because after the testing and throughout the 2007 season’s testing of Vo2, physiology etc testing, they told Cav he didn’t have what it took to be a top pro. Axel and I still laugh to this day.
PEZ: What are your memories of the ’07 Giro ?
It was great to ride for six days on the front for my good friend and teammate from the previous year, Marco Pinotti who held the pink jersey for four stages. I roomed with Axel Merckx, he’s an incredibly great, generous, fun person to be teammates with.
I was really happy to be a part of riding for someone as kind and professional as Marco Pinotti, riding through Bergamo his hometown with him wearing the Maglia Rosa; those sorts of things you see on TV but not very often do you get to live it.
PEZ: But no renewal at T-Mobile despite third on GC in the Tour of Ireland ?
I only had a one year contract with T-Mobile. I did get a great result with second on a stage and third overall in Ireland. But if truth be told, I didn’t enjoy my year at T-Mobile nearly as much as with the family-like atmosphere that the Spaniards/Italians provided at Saunier Duval. I had a difficult time once Bob Stapleton started to realize that so many of the staff of this team with ideals of being build on clean sport, previously doped in their career.
It went against everything I stood for. I was frustrated. During the Tour, those of us that did not make the Tour team had to do a training camp in Germany. People would yell out; ‘EPO !’ as we would ride through villages. This after Erik Zabel and at the time, director/GM Rolf Aldag admitted to riding more or less there entire career using drugs. I lost so much respect and wondered if being surrounded by people who cheated to get where they were, was something I wanted to be around.
After all, I joined this team because I believed in clean sport and practiced it my entire career. I made the conscious decision, despite loving Europe and the sport, to return to the US to see how well I could do without constantly being surrounded by doping scandals and all that crap I didn’t want to be any part of.
PEZ: It must have been tough to adjust back to the US scene in ’08 ?
In 2008 it took me about six months to re-adapt to the US racing style, races aren’t obviously as long but are more intense in some ways. Finally by June I started to ride really well. We had a good team and won a lot of great races in the US.
PEZ: Why quit when you did – you were still competitive ?
I didn’t quit but rather couldn’t find a contract. Once I came back from Europe, so many were interested. I was supposed to ride for the best US team in 2009, I had a verbal agreement, paperwork to be printed/signed but they never arrived. I got a phone call saying due to the economy, a couple sponsors pulled their sponsorship dollars and because of that, they could no longer offer me the contract.
I think so many thought because you raced in Europe, they couldn’t afford me. It was sad, because, I would have ridden for very little to do what I loved. It came down to too many good riders and not enough teams, much like it is in Europe. Had that not happened, I would probably still be racing today. I had plenty of passion/love for the sport, my level for cycling was probably at it’s highest level, I just couldn’t get that elusive contract.
PEZ: What are your best memories of your time in Europe ?
There are too many to say really; seeing so many great countries, meeting so many amazing people, pushing your body and mind to new limits, suffering in every condition, living in Belgium, living in Spain, living in France.
I believe it will be a place Kim and myself will move to again in the next five to 10 years, we both love Europe and I would love the opportunity to live there with her.
PEZ: Do you still follow the sport ?
I still follow it and love it. Great riders like Jens Voigt and Teejay Van Garderen were in our cafe in the past month. The Tour of California comes to Santa Barbara, California where we live and I get to see many familiar faces during that time.
PEZ: Tell us how the coffee shop came about.
Handlebar Coffee Roasters. After many years living in Europe and the cafe culture there, Kim and myself started to think the last couple years of our career, that when we were done, we would try to bring that same culture, passion for great coffee to Santa Barbara.
We opened our cafe – where we also roast all of our own coffee – in November 2011. It has been just over three years now, and funny enough being professional athletes before was very helpful – determination, hard work, persistence and passion have helped us become the top rated cafe in Santa Barbara. We just wanted to offer back some of the thousands of great experiences sitting in squares in Europe enjoying coffee and laughs together and with teammates for others to experience.
The name came about with reference to something we spent so much time with our hands on.
PEZ: Roasting your own – it must smell wonderful?
It smells great, you are correct. So many people working blocks away when they come in tell us how much they enjoy the smell.
PEZ: Any regrets about your time on the bike ?
No regrets, I have been very fortunate in my career; most importantly I met the love of my life in Kim Anderson; was able to achieve my goal of racing in a Grand Tour and we have a great business in one of America’s most beautiful cities. Life is good, and I still love to ride my bike.
I don’t get to with work as much as I would like, but that is changing and I find myself out more all the time. The bike, so long as I can ride it will always be a part of my life – there’s just something about the freedom with it. Cycling repays us with so much more than money, fame & fortune.
I was fortunate enough to not let myself get caught up in all of what was going on in the sport. That could be due to the fact that I was raised by hippies; where material things weren’t at the highest of the list. But I had work ethic and determination, so that came from within I suppose. I feel blessed, unlike most during my time, where I powered my two wheels with heart and soul, sacrifice and determination. My results were nothing like those of lots of my competitors, but I looked at it from another perspective.
Before I began cycling, I had been to just two states in the USA – Oregon and Washington. For me, cycling gave me a way to see the World (priceless), a way to hear and learn parts of different languages; experience different cultures and all along practice bettering myself physically and mentally. I believe so many got caught up in the drugs and “the way it was at the time”, by losing sight of the beauty of the sport. Drugs and cheating have and will always be a part of the sport, that’s just part of life.
While I never made mega six figure salaries – like many I grew up with – I chose another route and was repaid with so much more that I believe they overlooked. Being caught up in fame and small fortune isn’t what cycling is about. At least for myself; of course I wanted to win a stage of a major Grand Tour, but I can be happy winning small battles like making it to the top level of the sport and riding in some of the World’s largest races.
While I didn’t win a lot, I am reminded daily of how fortunate my life is. For those reasons and hundreds more, I have a lot of reasons to be more than thankful for what cycling provided me. Traveling alone to countries like Cuba, most of Europe, Asia and South America were all journeys of a lifetime.
# And if you want to know more about Aaron and Kim’s, Handlebar Coffee Roasters, check out: www.handlebarcoffee.com #
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.