On Monday, we talked to Jamie Paolinetti about his retirement. Now we look back over his career and into the future of the sport in the US.
Looking back, what was the best time of your career?
Oh, I don't know. There were so many good times.
You've told me that you think of the eras of your participation in the sport in different ways...
Well, that's two things: first of all, back then, we were one of the dominant teams, and I was not the best rider on the team, so my role, then, as being one of the support guys on one of the best teams in the country was different, and so I approached the races differently. I had to. I viewed myself differently as a rider.
Fast forward to the past couple of years, and I'm in a leadership role; I'm one of the guys that has to win the races if the team is good enough to give someone that chance, and I'm in a teaching role... and you know, I wasn't doing a lot of teaching to Jeff Pierce and Malcolm Elliott.
They didn't need your help?
Oh no. They were doing just fine!
My experience, and knowledge came from them, and from riding with them. So I was purely a racer then, where I was just trying to do my best everyday. I wasn't in a leadership role, I wasn't making the race plan. I might have had a say in it, but it wasn't like now, where what I say goes. That's it. Shut up and do it, because that will make us win, and I can't explain it to you right now. It's different. It's a different view of myself.
Do you have a Best Memory of your racing years?
No... I really don't. Nope. I have lots of good little ones.
Like I say, I was in a different role when I was on the Chevrolet team than I was with NetZero and Schroeder: I wasn't the guy winning. I mean, I would still win races every year, but usually, in the bigger races, there was usually a better scenario that we were trying to work toward that gave us a better chance, because some guys on my team were just so damn good that we would keep manipulating the situation until it gave us our best shot, and that wasn't always me.
Later, when I started winning a ton of races, everyone said "Hey, you're better now than you were then!" but... no. It was just different, I had a different role. I think there are a lot of guys out there on the bigger teams where maybe you don't see their names that often, because they're not in the role... but, yeah, I have different memories. I was just as happy defending the leader's jersey in the Tour Du Pont, as I am winning races myself.
I've noticed that winning personally isn't always your biggest priority.
No. This past year there were many times when I purposefully did not win. There were times where I wanted my teammates to learn how to win. It's really important to learn that. There were other times where I said "We've got to win this race, and I don't have time to screw around with these guys. I can't let 'em make a mistake... this is important. We gotta win this race."
I'll just take care of this!
Right. So, different roles, different memories.
We had a really good time on NetZero. I have a lot of good memories. I don't have one that's the best. It's probably the type of person I am that the regrets stick out for me more.
What are your regrets?
Well, like any rider, I have lots of second places. Especially from before: from 1988-1994 I have well over 150 second places. That's a lot. Somebody was just better. I was better than the guy that got third.
I remember back in the earlier days where I might have said "That could've been my last chance to win a race!" There was a time in my career where that would go through my head, and I'd have to put it aside, and there was a time when I realized "I can win anytime I want, pretty much." I remember that, and there's regret with it, because when you're coming up, unless you're Lance, or somebody just phenomenal, you get so few chances to win.
Most guys coming up never get a chance to win. They'll never even get there to where they know what it feels like to be giving themselves a chance to win. So, when it's like that, and you blow it, you just feel like... "Fuck! I'm not going to get that chance again maybe this whole year!" That feeling kind of gets drummed into to you when you're coming up, but a few guys come to realize that it takes three or four years going through that before you're ever even going to be able to do it... before you can even begin to give yourself chance to win, and before you're on a team that can give you chances to win.
It takes a long time to build the confidence to say to yourself "I'm going to get another chance. I blew it... so what." And that's when you really start winning. I see that sometimes with guys, especially locally, where, they lose because they're afraid of losing. I say it in my film, too: you can't be afraid of losing. You have to risk losing to win. To win, you have to, at some point, take this big risk, and it doesn't always work. Most guys, if they even get into a position to take the risk, won't do it because they're afraid to blow it. You have to put yourself in positions to win a dozen times before you can win once, and that's if you're good, but once you get over that fear, that's when you really start winning races.
You have to put yourself in a very compromised position. Most times; it's an all or nothing thing, and if it doesn't work, that chance is lost. It's very rare that you just happen into a win by making the right moves...
And that won't happen in a big race.
Oh no! Never in a big race. It will never, ever, ever happen. There are just too many guys who are too skilled at what they do. Not ever. You have to practice like you play, though, so if you spend all the small races trying to happen into a win, you're never going to get anywhere in the big races.
Compare the bike racing climate in your earlier years to what's going on now in the US.
I think the levels we have now are really similar to then. The balance of power is more widespread now, and there are more good guys capable of winning on more teams. Back then, there were two or three teams who controlled everything - except during the Du Pont. Now you have 5 or 6 teams with guys who can win. We saw that this year. Lots of everybody winning. I think the level is actually higher now because of that: at any given time there are more guys who can win. The tactics are tougher, there are more scenarios, more guys winning, and the races are faster, especially at the end.
But there were more good races back in those days, right?
Well, in the early 90's (and all of the big guys now were racing then, they were just young), the thing we really had then and don't have now, is a world class stage race: the Tour Du Pont. The Tour de Georgia is just starting, but I think it will take years before it reaches the level of the field at the Du Pont. We would get multiple Tour de France teams coming to the Tour Du Pont, and they'd send their big guys - Bugno and Fignon... really top guys, and they'd ride it as preparation for the Tour.
We also had the Tour of West Virginia, which was a good stage race, and more one day events as well: Thrift Drug, etc. All of that went on in a six week period, so for that six weeks, the racing here was really world class, and we just don't have that now, so the big European guys don't come anymore.
And you think it's due to a lack of good events?
Well, I think it's all about the UCI points, too. It's such a battle to get into the Tour de France that they can't come over here and risk losing the points they'd make racing in Europe. There aren't enough available points here that they can afford to send the top guys.
What about the relative popularity of it? Do you think it got more attention then?
Well, the Du Pont really stands out in my mind, but throw out the Du Pont, and I think Threshold is doing a really good job at making cycling popular, with their big events in cities. Also, Lance has been such a phenomenon. He brings a following to the sport that even Greg Lemond never brought. I think the popularity is better now than ever, and they just need more of it.
What do you think the US needs to continue to grow the sport, and more importantly even, to let it develop its own character rather than being the poor cousin of Euro racing?
I think it really has done that; more now than when I was racing in the late 80's and early 90's. That was kind of the time when guys first started going to Europe, in masses anyway. I can't say much about European racing, though, I've never raced as a pro in Europe. I've raced other places; in South America, and here against European teams.
Did you race in Europe as an amateur?
Yeah. In Belgium a little bit, and in Ireland. I didn't really have much desire to do it then.
Well, everything was going so well for me here. I like criteriums, and I still do. It took me a long time before I could be competitive at 100 mile events because I was a bigger guy, but right away I was on the podium at National Calendar criteriums. I was good at it right away, even in my first couple years. By the time I was good enough to maybe do well in Europe, I was on a really good team here, making money. We were winning a lot of races and it's not easy to give that up to go start over at 28 years old.
I qualified for the worlds twice, because twice I was third American in Philly. Back then, that was one of the selection criteria - the top three Americans at Philly automatically went - but, both times there was no support form the US Federation to get me there, I would have had to pay for it myself. I wanted to go, and now I'm really sorry I didn't, just to have had the experience; but, at the same time, I know I wouldn't have been ready.
The only thing I can give a perspective on is that in 91, 92, 93, 94, the years that I was doing Du Pont, Thrift Drug, West Virginia, all those races, before I would go to Philly, over the course of April and May I would have raced 20 days over 120 miles, at world class level going into Philly. This year, for any domestic-based rider, it's going to be one time; maybe two, that they'd raced over five hours. Even San Francisco is only 4 hours! It's a really hard four hours, and if it's shorter, you go faster, so it's just as hard... but harder and easier aren't the right terms. It's just different.
The guys that are trying to go to Europe but are domestically based, it's not that they aren't good enough! they are! It's that you can't go do a race against guys that have done 100 races over five hours that year when you've done two! You can't train for that.
Do you think we need more longer races and stage races?
Well, if that's what you want! I don't believe that's what we want. I'm all for the four and five hour hard races here, and the criteriums. The world's road race is only one event: one guy, one day, it's not worth changing the nature of a whole sport in a country for that one thing.
Well, but the point is, do you think it's important for US racers to be prepared to race in Europe at all, not just for the worlds?
Here's the way to look at it: when the guys from Europe come here, they don't win. When the guys from here go to Europe, they don't win. It's different. Is what we want in America a system hat prepares American athletes to compete in Europe, or do we want a system in America that supports itself? If we want a sport in this country, we should let it grow as it is.
If you want to race in Europe, go to Europe. Now. Find out how you have to come up, learn the ropes, prepare your body for that racing, and live that life. Otherwise, you can spend years preparing here, and then just have to start over.
By the same token, the guys who come here from Europe don't win because our style of racing is an adjustment for them. We go faster, and we go faster sooner. It's different. There's no question the guys there are fitter at what they do, but our guys here are fitter at what they do. It's just a different thing. If the ultimate test of fitness in this sport is the Tour de France, or winning Paris-Roubaix, then those guys are better, but I don't think it's that simple. If you want to win in Athens, you have to prepare here for that.
In 92, in Philly, when I finished with the front group, I had raced five hours, and I was still good. I felt good after five hours because I had raced over the five hour mark so many times already that year. You can try to train for that, but its just not the same as racing to prepare. That's why George and Freddy, and those guys come over and stomp 'em in Philly.
I say, let Europe be Europe and try to cultivate the sport here like Threshold is doing, with these big city events. They're great for spectators, and easy to understand. Those events are the best thing for the sport here.
What do you think is the first thing that can be done to bring cycling a bigger audience in the US?
I think we have to make the American cycling public more familiar with the racers. They need to have more personal insight to the guys on the teams. They need to have some kind of connection to them, so that they can follow it. In cycling, you have helmets and glasses on, and the announcing is not always good, and the reporting is not always good.
What they have in Europe, and it's taken a long time to develop, is that the fans are familiar with the racers on a personal level. That's important. We have here in baseball and football... people get to feel that they know them. It's the pre-game interviews, and the post-game press, it's the interview inserts for the games, the sports centers; all that.
Even the cycling press doesn't report it like that. Most often, what you get is just a race report, of even the biggest races! The press only gives you a blow by blow of what happened in the race, with none of the emotion or drama of it. There's very little feeling for what's going on in the riders' minds, their relationship to the other riders, or that whole world of it... The soap opera side of it. It's terrible, but that's what it is, isn't it? I mean, you need the drama, and the heroes. You need to have a sense of what they are experiencing, so that when you see it, you can go through it with them.
It's a bad analogy, but look at the popularity of the WWF! I mean, that isn't even a real sport! They admittedly tell you that it's not real. Still, millions watch it. It's so popular because they've gone over the top to sell stories, drama and characters.
So you feel like the presentation of it holds it back?
Yeah, but it's hard though, because unless it's a small criterium, there's no enclosed arena. If you go to a race, and it's a good race, you'll only see the guys 8, 9, 10 times for a brief period, that doesn't work, and TV presentations haven't been great, and then the press reports, when you read about it aren't great. I think people over here grasp onto the European culture of it so much, because they can connect.
Look at a guy like Jonathan Vaughters! He's got a huge following, and it's because he's made an effort to let people know him. He's a great rider, but there are a lot of riders like him that you don't know the first thing about. Or, look at Alexei Grewal in his time, maybe for all the wrong reasons, but he was a character, and everyone wanted to watch him! Davis Phinney was the same way - he was just so likeable and always had something to say. Steve Hegg was like that. He always had so much personality, and he wore it on his sleeve.
It's that personal connection that draws people in.
It's the human drama that people love.
Yeah... We could go on and on with this! But, that's what I think needs to be done. I think that's the first step.
I think there are, without too much optimism, millions of people whose interest has been piqued by Lance, and who would like to know more about the sport. If the average guy who went to the race in NY, picks up anything, and reads about a race in America, he's going to be bored to death! The reporting just doesn't make sense to them, and the sport is so complex that the laymen can't just jump in, but, if they understand the characters, they will learn it. That education will come along with the human interest. You can't talk to a cyclist about cycling without getting information about the sport.
But the thing that makes you listen, care and remember is an interest in the people, isn't it?
Jamie has made a documentary about professional cycling in the US, and tells us all about it in part three of this interview on Friday!