What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: American Track Great Erin Hartwell, Pt.II

After taking a look at the storied career of Erin Hartwell, we move past the racing and into life after pedal pushing. Erin discusses the state of track racing, what he’s working on, what’s to come, and sure, there’s time for a few more stories as well. Read on!

PEZ: Your opinion on kilometre being axed from Olympics ?
It has long been a fear of mine that the IOC would move away from traditional Olympic sports to a more X-Games-oriented approach that rewards inherent risk and television marketability over established—maybe more staid—tests of physical strength, skill, and endurance. As Aerials, Ski Cross, BMX, et al. made inroads into the Games to satiate those whom had grown up with more flamboyant and stylistic sports, I knew the end was near for certain specialities. However, with its well established Olympic history as a legacy track cycling event dating back to1896, I was surprised to see the 1km removed from the program.

It’s strange that I’ll have to explain to my boys that what defined my life for so many years, the 1km at the Olympic Games, is now defunct and no longer worthy of Olympic competition. I don’t know if I would have chased it the way I did if I knew that it would eventually be removed from the program. I feel bamboozled.

PEZ: Opinion on pursuit being axed from the Olympics.
Another great loss of a grand cycling event. This is the same event that brought us Chris Boardman and the Lotus, Gintautas Umaras, the Superbike, Wiggins, Ekimov, Jens Lehmann, Hegg, Knudsen, Bartko, Orsted, others. An event which is the physical equivalent of the Mile in athletics, gone… Sacrebleu! I understand the political machinations between the UCI and the IOC and I can read between the lines. I appreciate the need to keep participation numbers at the Games in check. However, the removal of this historic event chips away at one’s unconditional support of the sport.

PEZ: Has the fact that there are so few riders who can actually win these events, influenced the decision ?
Clearly there are individual athlete favorites and certain nations or world regions that come to dominate select sports and events. Look closely enough and you can find pockets of superiority everywhere. In the pursuit’s case, I don’t think that a small number of potential winners should have negatively influenced the event’s positioning when there’s an underlying large international pool of participants.

What’s odd here is that track cycling is competitive in many countries—much more so than a number of other Olympic sports. Yet, it’s being downsized. As a sport, we’ll have given up a lot this quadrennial cycle.

I understand the concept of legacy sports like swimming and athletics in the Olympic Movement. They are the foundation. Unfortunately, a number of us probably assumed that cycling was part of that short list. We were wrong. Moreover, while I wholeheartedly support the gender-neutrality goals of the IOC, it’s distressing that it comes at the expense of our own legacy races. Two venerable events are gone from the Olympic program, just footnotes to history.

The one silver lining in all of this is that sprint cycling will become more popular and better supported because of these decisions. Sprinting wins in this case. The fast twitch crew should be celebrating like its Y2K.

PEZ: The ’95 US kilometre champs – a controversial day.
Yeah, I finally lost after six straight years at the top! Shook me up a bit. In 1995, as the Atlanta Olympic Games loomed in the foreground, this was not the time to put my support and funding in jeopardy. Don’t forget that in the mid-1990s only one kilo rider per nation qualified for championship events. Subsequently, the national team typically supported only a single rider. There was little room for second place.

That season, a young American rider, Sky Christopherson, began to bare some teeth in the kilo, posting respectable training times and putting up incredible numbers in testing. Visually, he really looked like a world-class athlete—had the body of Adonis. You build programs around people like him. I was impressed. That summer, with the national team throwing some support his way and he encroaching further onto my turf, we prepared for a showdown. I sensed that some folks in the cycling community wanted to see an upset at nationals. Everyone dug in. The stealth build up of our respective camps over the course of a few months in preparation for nationals reminded me of Rocky IV—he was Ivan Drago and I was Rocky Balboa. Well, I was born in Philly. I cranked a lot of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger on the CD player that season.

The nationals were held in my home city of Indianapolis. We raced. I lost. Sky rode a 1.05 on the slow outdoor track. I pulled up in a mid-1.06. The dragon has been wounded. According to national team guidelines, we’d now have to race for the worlds team spot. The road to Atlanta just got much rockier. All of a sudden, after a breezy couple of rounds, I was on the ropes, fighting for my cycling life. The tide had shifted. After a number of forlorn years in which only a single athlete was capable of competing on the world stage, the United States now had two competitive kilo riders whom would fight it out in a ride off only days before the late-September world championships. It made for an intriguing story. It would ultimately be winner takes all.

Leading into our showdown, Maik Malchow’s long-standing world record of 1.02.091, set in Colorado Springs in 1986, had just been broken in Quito, Ecuador by Jose Antonio Escuredo in a 1.01.945. Our match up was only a day or two removed from Escuredo’s record-setting ride.

It’s mid September in Colorado Springs. Race Day. Sky is on the home straight and I am on the back. The tension could not have been more pronounced amongst all involved. A pall of nerves hung over the track. We were a couple of gunslingers stepping into a dusty street at high noon.

Eye of the Tiger… my entire career on the line. I wouldn’t have the resources to go a year on my own. I needed to win. I put on a 50-14 gear, tightened the toe straps, and lashed out. All I see is red.

When the dust had settled a little over a minute later, I had ridden an unofficial world record of 1.01.825 to Sky’s 1.02.6something. There was dead silence followed by a few muffled congratulations and handshakes to go around. We had both just ridden the two fastest times in American history and nobody knew about it. We felt like spent gladiators in an empty arena, blood spilled by both sides. I don’t recall why the world record wasn’t ratified; we had officials and drug testing. Maybe it was the hand timing or no UCI commissaires, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. Kelly smashed the world record anyway on September 26 with a 1.00.613.

Erin enjoying the good life in Trinidad and Tobago.

PEZ: Is the road too big, now – no room for the track ?
No way… the world’s a big place! The track world cups are highly diversified and routinely host riders from dozens of nations. Internationally, track cycling is well represented not only by the traditional countries but also by emerging nations such as Malaysia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and China. The real issue is total participation numbers… there just aren’t enough tracks in the world to promote serious growth and interest. There are millions of roads. Borrowing an old line from Field of Dreams, my philosophy is, “If you build it, they will come.” I’d like track cycling to look more closely at the growth model that soccer used to build its profile about two decades ago in the United States. Playing upon the success of the 1994 Soccer World Cup, communities built soccer fields—a lot of ‘em. Track cycling is a sport in need of a physical presence. Like the earlier need for soccer fields to boost participation and relevance, we need more velodromes to increase exposure and interest. As long as you have limited access to tracks you’ll have limited participation.

However, I am not a fan of building white elephants that financially can’t stand on their own. I just don’t see enough commercial or community interest in the sport in the United States to justify the building of more indoor velodromes… palaces of grandeur. The numbers just aren’t there. I don’t need Cowboys Stadium (home of the Dallas Cowboys) in my backyard to play flag football. I simply need a field. In cycling, we’re going to need exponentially more tracks to see serious growth. With access will come interest. I’d like to see more outdoor, shallow banked, and inexpensive-to-construct asphalt or tartan tracks at 400-500m in length. They need to be accessible and maintainable with limited overhead.

Additionally, these tracks should not be blueprinted with a priority to host world cups, six-day races, pro leagues, or nationals. Too many vapordromes are being pitched to potential investors around this mindset. Instead, sell track cycling and the velodromes as an attractive fitness and wellness alternative with viable and highly accessible racing programs. Create some standardized programs with the national governing body. Clearly show the path from rank beginner to Olympic Team. Minimize confusion. Most importantly, get rid of the elitist tag.

PEZ: Tell us about life for Erin Hartwell, now.
It’s been good. Most recently, I spent three years as President and CEO to the Valley Preferred Cycling Center in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, affectionately known worldwide as T-town. During my tenure, my staff and I worked tirelessly to revive stagnating programs, develop new revenue streams, and launch some groundbreaking sponsorship programs, including selling naming rights to the property. We did some innovative stuff.

The naming rights agreement with Valley Preferred is the biggest sponsorship in the velodrome’s history. I am proud of that deal as it secured a strong six-figure sum coming into the velodrome for a number of years while concurrently giving us added legitimacy in the business community.

Additionally, we revamped the struggling professional racing program as the “World Series of Bicycling,” selling naming rights to Bicycling Magazine. We secured UCI Class I permits for many of the pro events and hosted a number of accredited International Sprint Grand Prix. These UCI designations in addition to heavily incentivized recruiting on our part attracted many international riders, radically improving the quality of racing at the facility. In 2007 alone, we had over 70 unique internationals from 17 different countries. We also procured capital improvement funds from local government to recondition the aging track surface and and we rebranded all exterior signage to reflect our new corporate partnerships. It was a much needed facelift that has proven very successful in polishing the image of the Valley Preferred Cycling Center. I took great pride in the work I did at a facility that played in huge role in my cycling career over the years. It was a good run.

I left the track at the end of the 2008 season to start my own sports management company, Athletics Cubed, Inc. Seeing a cross-platform niche that was under-represented in the cycling industry, I created three distinct programs of athlete services under a single corporate umbrella. Young Medalists provides U19 and U23 coaching services. Elite Athlete Services is an elite and masters coaching and consultation agency; and Race International provides intermediary services between event promoters and elite athletes. We recently launched phase one of our website, www.athleticscubed.com. I am now working on additional web content, a schedule of events, coaching services, and other ancillary products for Elite Athlete Services and Race International. We’ll rollout these other programs in the near future. Down the road, I’d like to include some event promotions.

I am trying to get in better shape for this summer’s masters track nationals. I think it’d be fun to toe the line again with some of the other “blasts from the past.” I don’t harbor any real dreams of winning—these guys are serious! Nevertheless, a good friend of mine, Don Walker, of Don Walker Cycles (www.donwalkercycles.com), is building me a couple of handmade frames to represent on… so, I had better get my act together!

Working hard at the Univest GP.

PEZ: Tom Zirbel – opinion; do you see an end to these situations ?
I don’t know Tom’s situation all that well, so I’ll reserve judgement until more information comes out. Regardless, with the limited press that’s been posted, he’s got a tough road ahead of him no matter how it turns out. The cycling community can be brutal and unforgiving on this issue. I wish him the best.

Regarding doping in sports, I don’t know if we’ll ever see an end to it. As long as there is something tangible at stake, people will find a way to skirt the rules. I commend the authorities in cycling for tackling this difficult issue with respect and not just white washing it like many other professional sports. They’re giving it the proper go.

I am also encouraged with the genetic passport program and with the tone of many of the world’s top pros, directors, and sponsors; there is an audible “enough is enough” chorus that is beginning to gain traction. It’s a subtle cultural shift that I hope can take root.

Erin working as the coach for the Norwegian women’s B1-B3 (visually impaired) track team in 2004.

PEZ: What’s still to do, for you ?
From a sporting perspective, I have nothing left to prove. My body is beat up. Cycling has been both a blessing and a burden. I’ve had amazing experiences in my travels… and I’ve seen real ugliness in this sport. But I am a lifer. It’s what I do. I still enjoy exploring new routes and adventures. I love the open road. I’d like to find a way to spend more time just riding my bike—coming full circle. Maybe throw in a triathlon or some kind of adventure sport on the plate for a little variety and to keep me fit. I want to use my pilot’s license more and finish my commercial certificate and instrument rating. Lastly, I want to develop my business, buy a good piece of land, build a house before the kids are gone, stock the wine and beer cellar, and spend as much time in the sauna as possible!

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