|Photo by Scott Schaffrick
Jamie Paolinetti has been racing a bike for 17 years. What started out as a casual spin on a borrowed bike when the waves were too flat to surf became a passionately pursued
career, and Jamie has been part of teams that have won every race on the American circuit, including the now legendary Chevrolet/LA Sheriff's team, where he raced with the likes of Jeff Pierce, Steve Hegg, Malcolm Elliott, Bobby Julich and Jim Copeland. Most recently, he led the Schroeder Iron team to a very strong inaugural season in 2002, scored a second consecutive victory in the Shelby Criterium, and won the California Criterium Championship at 39 years of age.
This year, Jamie retires for the second time in his career - the first was in 1995, and it didn't take. This time, he hangs it up for good, due to injuries sustained in the crash that took out half the field at the USPro Criterium Championships in Downer's Grove. Leaving active duty in the sport he loves is not without sadness, but he looks forward to putting the energy that drove him with so much strength on the bike to the pursuit of his creative passions. Manager and coach of 2001's NetZero, Jamie has made a documentary about professional bike racing in America as experienced by the riders on that team, and aims to make it available this spring. He's also written two screenplays and continues to study filmmaking and theatre.
In this three part interview, Jamie talks about what it's like to climb out of the saddle after so long, looks back over his long career on the bike, forward at what lies ahead for the sport of cycling in the US; and gives us a glimpse of his film, and intentions for life after cycling.
What year did you start racing?
About 1986, at around 22 years old, I think. I was just out of college, and I started right in the middle of a season. My first race was in May or June... something like that. That was the beginning.
So you're retiring after almost 17 years, and due to injuries you suffered in a head on collision with a fence at the USPro Criterium Championships in Downer's Grove last season. Tell me about that.
I'll tell you, one of the most sobering moments in my life was when I woke up after hitting that fence in Chicago. I couldn't feel my arm or my leg, at all. It was just totally gone. Nothing. There was no feeling. It was terrible. All I could feel was this 10,000, bazillion volts of electricity running through my neck and trap, and I just thought "oh that's it. I'm paralyzed." That's what I thought: "I'm paralyzed. Forever."
Luckily, within a few seconds, the feeling started coming back in my leg, and some of the feeling started to return to my arm. The doctor said it was like a "stinger," which is an injury they get in football a lot with head-on impact, and they wouldn't know how serious it was or how long it would take to come back for a couple of weeks. Most of it did come back within a couple of weeks, but not all of it did, so we got the MRI done, and we were able to see the damage.
The problem is that now I have this Achilles heel - there's a disk in my neck that has bulged and killed a bunch of nerves. In my MRI, you can clearly see how it pushed through, and either impacted the spinal cord, or came very close, and did some nerve damage. Now it's all about assessing risk, because the next time I fall - and if you're one of the 15 or so guys who actively competes in the end of these national calendar criteriums, one time every year you're going to crash, or be crashed by somebody who doesn't belong there and makes a mistake, like in Chicago. If you look at the rosters, and find those guys, you'll see that every one of them has crashed at least once. It's dangerous. Anyway, the next time I crash or get crashed and hit my head, or jerk my neck in such a way that that disk gets any pressure at all, there's nothing protecting the spinal cord anymore; so the risk is great.
I'm in pretty good shape now, though. There's nothing wrong with me, other than that my right triceps isn't as strong as it was, I've got some numbness in my elbow and one finger on my right hand, and I have these weird neurological things with the arm, where it will start burning or twitching really badly and there's no stopping it, and nothing to do about it. Last time I saw the doctor he said "Look: nerves heal slowly." So, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
But, sitting there on the ground after that crash was just... really bad. Even now, I'm sick at the thought of it.
Still, you won Schroeder's last race of the season, and the last of your career, with a long solo break a few weeks after that crash - I've seen that you have a lot of strength left! Do you think you'll ever make a comeback?
I don't think I have another comeback in me. I would love to keep racing, but there would have to be a miracle. If I were cured completely, and the ideal situation arose, I could definitely still race, and I'll go to the training ride this weekend and kill 'em. On the bike, I'm back to 100%.
The injuries... as far as just riding my bike goes, the injuries I have don't effect it. I'm back to 75% strength in my triceps, which is plenty to ride a bike. I mean, I can't do as many push ups as I could before, but you don't do push ups when you're riding your bike. Riding-wise, I'm fine.
I know you're still training, though... and shaving!
I don't know that I'll ever be able to stop shaving my legs. I mean, could you stop shaving yours? After 17 years I don't think I could handle it.
As long as you're still riding, hairy legs look pretty bad with the costume...
Yeah. I just don't think I could do it!
I'm still training. I still ride hard. I need it, so that's what I'm doing. I also think it's really good therapy for my arm: that repetitive motion, without a lot of weight on my neck. The doctor says I should definitely keep doing it, and I've always thought that that kind of hard, repetitive, high heart rate stuff is good for healing anyway. I have no basis for it, but I just think that. It speeds everything up.
So anyway, I'm still riding hard, and training hard, and I'll probably still do some training rides with the groups. That's not too dangerous. Really, it's just the last few laps of those criteriums, or the errant car that you have to worry about. Things I can't predict, so I don't know. I could be paralyzed. I just don't think I want to risk that, and my doctor says that if I crash again like that, it's a real risk that that disk could slip, and then I could be... that's it.
Are you glad to be retiring?
Yeah. I really want to move on with my life. That's the main thing: I have other things I want to do, and it's really difficult to do anything else when you're racing, let alone something big.
What makes it so hard to do other things?
It just takes over your whole life, and even if you try not to let it... just, physically, it still does. It affects your body and your mind. It's draining both mentally and physically. Even though you'd think it wouldn't be, it's just really hard to do complicated, creative things when you're tired, and when you're racing, you're tired all the time. Even when you're going well, you're still tired.
Because of the constant need to train?
Yeah, and the traveling. Even on a limited schedule, it's still very disruptive. Racing, training, traveling, the schedule... So, I'm happy, but also, I know from retiring before, that I'll always miss racing. There's no replacement for it.
There's nothing else I've ever done that's so totally physically and mentally consuming, and I don't think there ever will be. It's just all-encompassing. You have to be so totally dedicated to it. No matter what other job I'm doing - and I've written two films, that it would be my dream to make either one - and if I got the funding, I know I'd be excited to do it; but even if I'm writing a movie, or directing a movie, whatever, I can be done with the day and go play around at golf, or go workout, or do whatever! Stay up all night, go to a party... whatever I want to do, because no matter how much you give to that, you're not going to be so totally exhausted and just empty, like you would be after racing a bike for 5 hours. It just doesn't take the same level of total dedication physically and mentally.
You told me once that racing had a meditative aspect for you - that it was quieting for you and gave you a sense of rest, like "taking a nap."
That's all true. I can still get that now when I ride and train, but it's not the same; it doesn't serve the same purpose.
What purpose do you mean?
Well, it was just really grounding for me. It was really a way for me to just get to a place where everything was real, and I knew what was and what wasn't and what I could count on and what I couldn't count on. There were elements of it that made me feel like everything, the world, was OK. Like it was real. So, when everything got too crazy in other parts of my life, or in other parts of the world even, there was this thing that I could count on to be there, with no baloney or surprises in it.
It was an escape - physically, mentally.
And you don't think you can replace that?
It seems like a huge loss. What will you do for that sense of grounded-ness?
It is. It is a huge loss... but you know, you can't do it forever, and it's no fun when you suck. The older you get, you have to start looking at life without.
What I did before, and that's all I have to compare it to, is become a total workaholic. I have so much energy all the time, I can't sit still, can't sleep. My mind never stops. Cycling was draining enough, and affected my mind enough, that it let me rest, and now I just can't. I've always had trouble sleeping, and it was only when I started racing seriously, which was really soon after I started racing at all, that I was able to sleep, and able to relax, both mentally and physically.
There will be no replacement for it. I mean, I could train myself into the ground for no reason, but I probably won't. I can't get motivated to do that, and even then, it's not the same mental challenge as racing or running a team.
I know the mental aspect is a big part of it for you...
Yes. The physical is a very small part of it for me. But, that's a chicken or egg thing in this sport that I always preach, even though I don't think people always agree with me: I think that cyclists cannot be made. You either have it or you don't. They just can't be made. I don't believe it. I think a lot of people that have it don't make it, but I don't think anyone that doesn't have it makes it. You can't do it on desire. You've got to have the body that can do it, and I've had that. But, I'll miss it most mentally.
The other thing I'll miss is that, usually at this time of year, I'm already getting ready. I've got races coming up in my mind. It's hard that those aren't there now.
When we were working on my movie, I did some interviews with Frankie Andreu, and I'll be paraphrasing him here, but he basically said that when you retire, you miss that excitement level generated by the next day, and by the next race. Graeme Miller says that in the movie, too.
I think we get our asses handed to us so often that in the end, you only really remember the good times. If you didn't, no one would race. You're always looking to the next day, especially anyone who's successful in this sport. You're always looking to that next race, and that race is always there. Even at the end of the season, next season is always coming. That newness is always hanging out there, you know? That feeling that this is going to be the year for me. This will be the race for me.
That looking forward?
Yeah. That's it. Not just the fact that you're going to a race, but that excitement of the upcoming event is just irreplaceable.
I would think it would be hard to replace the sense of committed physical action that is dictated by the exigencies of the specific race situations...
Yes, you can't replace that. You can't even do that training.
I think that's why cyclists are some of the fittest people on the planet; because the bike race makes you do it, and it's very hard to repeat that in training. Simply the technical side of how a bike race works is that you're making these huge efforts, and you basically have these people who are kind of helping you. After you make it, you get to rest. You can't do that training because you don't get the rest. Unless you train with a big group all the time you just can't duplicate that.
You've told me before that you have the sense that the physical actions of racing are physiologically addictive. Tell me what you mean by that.
I think that's true of any aerobic sport. I don't know what the science is, but there are things that happen to our bodies that we get addicted to. Whatever endorphins are released, it's a high. I'm not being original in saying that, but it's there, and that's irreplaceable, too.
If it's addictive, what are the symptoms of withdrawal?
The symptoms? Well, the greatest thing I noticed when I quit last time was that my body changed. That state of being really fit is a real, physiological state. Last time I retired, my body changed. I didn't gain a pound, and you'd never know it to look at me; I was working out all the time, but I wasn't FIT. That specific state, whatever it is, when you're fit, is something you only get when you're racing.
So, what does the withdrawal feel like? I don't know. I really can't explain it, except that you just feel like everything's moving in slow motion. It doesn't feel good have been so fine-tuned that you can feel every single calorie you eat, and you know exactly what you need for a three hour ride or a five hour ride down to the minute. I mean, I can do a three hour ride and nail what I eat to within five minutes of whether or not I'm going to bonk before I get to my driveway. How in tune with your body do you have to be to know that?
A good analogy is to those super high-performance, highly-tuned, highly monitored race cars, which I know nothing about, but they put just enough fuel in to make it to the line and then they run out of gas. They know exactly how much it needs. The state that that car is in, if you look at it like a living, breathing thing, is what it feels like when you're fit and racing. Whereas, if you're just working out and not racing, you're just like every other car driving down the road. You might be half-empty, you might be half-full, you might need a tune-up... who fucking cares! You just go.
Even if you're one of those souped-up cars that's racing around the streets, like in The Fast and the Furious, or something, you're still really just kind of out there screwing around. You're not that car that's going to win the Indianapolis 500. That's the difference.
Do you think that in time you'll forget that feeling?
No. It's just like anything, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.
You can't forget. It takes a certain level of passion to get to a certain place in that sport, and I think you never forget. It's in such control of your life when you're doing it. It's so much a part of your life on every level... I don't think anything else is really like that.
I don't think you ever forget the races. That's the part I'll really miss.
Look for part two on Wednesday, where Jamie looks back over his years in the saddle, compares the earlier part of his career during the Tour Du Pont era with what's going on today in US racing, and looks to the future for the sport in America.