PEZ Talk: American Track Great Erin Hartwell
The stats – Olympic kilometre bronze ’92, silver ’96, Worlds kilometre silver ’94, bronze ’95 and ’98, Worlds team sprint ’95 bronze, three times Pan Am kilometre silver, six times, straight US kilometre champion, US pursuit champion, US team pursuit champion? Erin Hartwell is a track legend, one who deserves an in-depth sit down. Of course, Ed Hood was there to do the honors.
PEZ: Have I got your palmares right?
Yeah, it looks to be all there. If I’d add anything, it’d be the tandem sprint national titles I won with Marty Nothstein in the early 90s. Talk about a life-affirming event! Talk about putting your future in someone else’s hands! I don’t think there is anything that puts you on edge like stoking the tandem. I take pride in those tandem wins!
Let’s put my world cup win in Canada up there too. Finally, I took a major win in the kilo against the world’s best in 1998 in Victoria, British Columbia. It felt good to stand on the top step for once!
PEZ: Why the kilo ?
I think the better question is, “Why would an athlete choose track cycling?” when road racing is the far more popular route. For me it was exclusively about the Olympic Dream.
As a teenager growing up in the 80s, I seriously thought my Olympic experience would be realized in track and field. Fortuitously, a pole vaulting injury put me on a bike for rehab in 1986. That time in physical therapy combined with watching Greg Lemond grinding it up those far away mountains in the ’86 Tour de France—fighting tooth and nail in this mysterious and wildly engrossing sports event—sold me on cycling as an alternate path to the Olympics. A surprise win at the 1987 junior nationals in the individual pursuit earned me a spot on the national team for the worlds in Bergamo. There I was, a young midwestern kid, representing my country in international sport and I didn’t have a clue to what was going on around me. I may have been as greenhorn as it got, but my eyes were open.
A very young Erin on the individual pursuit podium at the 1987 Junior US Nationals.
That same year, Indianapolis hosted the Pan American Games. One of the world’s biggest sporting events was being held in my backyard! As a spectator taking it all in, it was a loud and raucous spectacle that further reinforced track cycling as a viable choice for me. Importantly, the velodrome reminded me of track and field—a point that influenced my decision to choose the track over road racing. It was a natural, comfortable fit. I wanted a test of my fortitude in an event in which I would have full control. I chose the kilo. A race against the clock, man against himself. No heats, no second rides, just you and your one shot. It’s beauty is defined through its simplicity. No gimmicks, just a single-speed bike race over the world’s standard unit of measurement. A Siren-song of 1000 meters. A race that scared the hell out of most sane bike riders. I also liked that politics weren’t much of an issue; the fastest guy makes the team. You can’t hide in the 1km and the watch doesn’t play favorites.
Erin readies for his start in the 1991 Pan Am Games.
PEZ: How did you find the motivation to win 6 straight US titles ?
My goals have always revolved around the top international competitions. I was never motivated to “win the nationals,” per se. Whilst there was great pride in being a national champion, winning it was typically a stepping stone to other senior objectives like the world championships. Chasing the Olympic title is what motivated me to get up each day to train. Cycling in America is less competitive than more traditional sports such as football, swimming, track and field, and baseball, to name just a few. For me as an athlete, I defined my true sporting worth against cyclists from nations where the sport was popular and thus drew a good percentage of its top athletes. I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond just feeding an ego. I wanted to challenge the world.
Erin after taking bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
PEZ: Hindsight – should/could any of those Olympic/World bronzes/silvers been gold ?
Oh man… I’ll admit that I had a good run. However, I do harbor some genuine disappointment in not having won it all at least once! Six times on the podium… six times watching someone else pull on the jersey. I literally left it all on the line, year in and year out, at great personal expense. To walk away with a broken body, just drained, without that reward to show for it… man, it stings a bit. Eventually you pick yourself up and move on.
I had a legitimate shot at the title three times. The first time was in Palermo, Sicily in 1994. That season, through an agreement between USA Cycling and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), I arranged to train with Charlie Walsh and his squad after a disastrous 1993 world championships left me dazed and confused. I needed some guidance.
I trained with the Aussies for about six months that season and ultimately found myself on great form for worlds. Race day, Florian Rousseau pops a 1.03.1 on this big 400m outdoor track. I set a personal best outdoors of 1.03.7, just ahead of training partner Shane Kelly’s 1.03.8. In kilo terms, Rousseau had given us both a beat down. I’m wondering, “How do I make up a half second?”.
Later that night I walked in my hotel room said to Nothstein, my longtime friend and big-event roommate, “Beat that!” while slapping my silver medal down on the table. Well, he went on to win two world titles… and I had to eat some good-natured crow all week long as he pointedly draped the world champions’ rainbow jersey over the chair each night.
I thought there was a chance in 1995 after I set an unofficial world record of 1.01.825 about ten days before the world championships.
At the worlds in Bogota, I rode another national record of 1.01.740 that stood until Taylor Phinney broke it last year. But, it was only good enough for third behind bride’s maid Rousseau and Kelly’s scintillating world record of 1.00.613. Incredible!
I believe my last good opportunity to win was 1996 in Atlanta at the Centennial Olympic Games. The Atlanta Games were critically important for USA Cycling due to the media blitz around the Project ‘96 Superbikes and program. Failure to perform would be disastrous. We all understood what was at stake. In the kilo, start position is based from the results from the previous year’s world championships. I am third to last to ride. Off I go… a good start followed by a strong float and finish. I looked up at the scoreboard and up flashed 1.02.940—a New Olympic Record! Fans are going crazy, I’m pumping my fist…. It only took three short minutes for the Dream to be dashed. Rousseau rocks a 1.02.712 and takes my record and any shot at the gold medal. Second again with Kelly still to go. As has been well documented, Kelly, the last to ride, pulls his foot at the start and isn’t given a reride. I get the silver medal. I am heartbroken for Kelly. As an athlete, you never want to succeed because of that kind of failure—you want to win against the best at their best.
PEZ: 2000, pursuit and team pursuit – a big jump from the kilometre, why ?
I tore the lateral meniscus in my left knee right after the 1998 worlds. My orthopedic surgeon, one of the best in Dallas, said it was one of the worst tears he’d ever seen. While he was confident that he could repair it well enough to ride again, he felt that the injury’s severity would not support weight lifting at the standard required by sprint cycling at that time. My knees buckled at the thought.
I had just taken another third place to Kelly and Arnaud Tournant who ripped an incredible 1.01.8 to win in Bordeaux. The bar had been reset even higher. We’d now have to push harder. With the knee injury, I wasn’t confident that I would be able to train at an intensity that would put me in a position to win the world championships or the upcoming 2000 Olympic Games. It was a watershed moment for me. I had already stood on the podium six different times… it wasn’t about participating, it was about winning. After that diagnosis on my knee, I felt that I couldn’t win in the 1km. The Dream ended. It was time to move on.
I had a good relationship with Rene Wenzel, then the DS with Saturn, a UCI Division II trade team based in the U.S. He, in concert with Tom Schuler, gave me a shot for 2000. Saturn’s support gave me some much-needed motivation to keep my cycling career—which was in real jeopardy at the time—intact. I saw my ride with Saturn as a springboard to both a road career and an opportunity to chase a team pursuit slot at the Sydney Olympics.
Yeah, yeah.. I can hear it now: The audacity of a kilo rider! But, seeing former kilo specialists like Rob Hayles of Great Britain make the switch gave me inspiration. Throwing all of the eggs in the basket, that summer at the Olympic Trials I managed to win the individual pursuit and then take the team pursuit omnium that was part of the national team’s selection process. Those results secured my position on the USA Olympic Team for a third straight time.
PEZ: Your road career, just two years, but some good wins.
That first year, it took about six months to become comfortable with the domestic racing circus and to get my legs back underneath me. I red-lined a lot of races. Eventually I adapted to the rigors of the road, taking a solo stage win at an NRC event in Dayton, Ohio, finishing second overall to Davidenko. Won the Joe Martin Stage Race. Did a lot of work for the guys when it was my turn to give back. Made the Olympic Team. It was a good time. In hindsight, the Olympic push in my first year could have backfired as the competition for trade team slots was so fierce that being “out of sight, out of mind” might have scuttled my chances for 2001. Even though by the end of the season I was an Olympian and had a couple of good road results, I was worried for a new contract.
Fortunately, Saturn saw what I was capable of and gave me another shot for the upcoming season. With that second contract, I was committed to being one of the fittest guys on the team at the first training camp in Solvang, California. To get some road miles in that winter, I went to Hamilton, New Zealand for a couple of months in December and January. Everyday, I woke up and looked at the map, chose a five-to-seven hour loop, and got on the bike. My longest week was 42 hours over six days. Seven hours a day solo at 32-36kph on real chip and seal; some tough roads.
On the last day of that training block, my host family was having a barbecue in the front yard while I was out training. It was a hot, tough day. As I approached the house after a final three-hour stint driving it into a monster headwind, I jumped off and ghost rode the bike into the front yard while grabbing the first cold brew I could find; I think it was a Speights. No amount of sports drink was going to quench that thirst! I was so blown.
But I got fit during that trip. Finished eighth overall at the UCI Tour of Wellington; a hilly and windy stage race around the capital of New Zealand. It had a few big climbs. As a sprinter, you still get a fright looking up at a big hill, hoping you’ve got the gumption to stay in the group!
In Solvang, I had a great training camp, kept pace with the boys in the hills, and earned a little respect as a track sprinter turned bona fide roadie. Bodyweight was down to 165 lb. I felt the part.
Unfortunately, it was short lived. After camp, I made a small change to an orthotic in my shoe – I always had problems with foot comfort on the bike. After a couple of weeks in the new footbed, I developed a severe case of sheath tendonitis in my left Achilles. It literally happened overnight. A real WTF moment. I was off the bike for weeks, unable to stand the pain at the rear of my foot. I ended up in an immobilization boot. I could tell the end was near for me.
Getting a ride for Saturn was no fluke.
PEZ: Why quit road ? you weren’t old.
The Achilles injury woke me up to a few things that had been brewing in recesses of my mind. I began to realize that I was racing professionally more for the wage I was being paid and less for the passion that brought me to the sport and almost to its pinnacle. I made a respectable salary as a pro but it was no longer an investment in my future. There was little to save after the bills were paid and I was at an age where I wanted more stability and a clearer future for my family.
Little things began to take their toll… I was tired of host housing. When you start thinking, “I could have had a Ph.D. by now,” that’s not good. It makes it harder to get out the door in the rain and cold.
Additionally, my body was becoming unreliable, breaking down, much more unpredictable. The foot injury really brought me to my knees. All the form I had worked so hard for was gone. Mentally, the injuries drained me.
I needed to forge a future that showed greater promise to my wife and two young children than that of an aging bike rider. I decided to go to school before it was realistically too late to reap the value of a degree. I didn’t want to get up one day and ask myself, “what the hell just happened?”.
Be sure to tune in tomorrow for the conclusion!