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Erik Saunders Interview: Talking Straight
 
By Staff
Date: 9/2/2004
Erik Saunders Interview: Talking Straight
 

By Charlie Melk

The night I talked to Erik Saunders, he was just about running out of paint. His bathroom was almost done, but, luckily for us, he had time to talk.

Erik has a reputation for speaking his mind, which, to me, is something that is refreshing and easy to respect, especially in an election year. Certainly, I found his sincerity admirable when we spoke. Heís also known as a funny guy. This description of Mike Creed on the ďLinksĒ section of Erikís website might give a small hint of his skill: ď... mike is a stupid looking dude as evidenced by the photo on the banner of this site... he looks like a monkey or a silly cartoon dog...Ē. But Erik doesnít cut anyone any slack - not even himself.

In one of his reports from Redlands this season, Chuck Coyle, fellow Daily Peloton contributor and professional cyclist for the Vitamin Cottage Cycling Team, related another snapshot of Erikís personality - ďI have to mention what a character Ofotoís Erik Saunders is. Whenever I am in a group with him he runs the show. He turns into the Pit Boss of whichever group you are in. I have been in breaks with him at Altoona, The Heritage Tour and in groups here at Redlands. He is the one who keeps everyone motivated and working; if you are not pulling your weight in whichever group you are in, he will be the first one to call you out about it.Ē

The thing that stuck with me most from our conversation, along with Erikís deadpan sense of humor, was that he struck me as an independent thinker, and consequently, an original one. He is definitely a man with a plan, yet he knows how to have fun too. He is also unafraid of hard work, as his habitual presence in the key breaks in practically all of the premier events on American soil during this season, and the past few, as well, will attest to.

Before we spoke, I knew that he was hilarious from what Iíd already read - I also knew that he was a hard working and dedicated pro from following the races - you just donít end up in the key break, on the podium, the top 5, or the top ten as much as Erik has this season without working your butt off. What I didnít realize, however, was that he has an amazing conceptual grasp of what the professional cycling scene in the United States is right now and could be in the future. He is full of remarkably well considered ideas, and it would do the powers that be at USA Cycling well to take notice.

Erik is currently the road captain of the ever-aggressive Ofoto-Lombardi Sports Cycling Team. Also, do yourself a favor and check out Erikís personal website. While youíre at it, you should check out the hilarious MONKEY-ASS SPANKED-O-METER and buy your very own MONKEY ASS SPANKED-O-METER t-shirt at http://www.eriksaunders.com/monkeyshirt.htm. He designs a hell of a t-shirt, as you can see. But check out his palmares - even more impressive.

Selected Palmares

2004
3rd - Captech Classic
3rd - Nature Valley GP, stage 4, 4th North Jersey Cyling Classic (Park Ridge)
6th - Redlands Bicycle Classic, Sunset Road Race
7th - Redlands Bicycle Classic, Salton Criterium
8th - Nature Valley GP, stage 2

2003
1st - US National Track Championships Madison

1st - Stage 4 Heritage Tour, SC
1st - Tour of Basking Ridge, NJ
1st - American Velodrome Challenge Points Race
*Represented the USA in the second round of the UCIWorld Cup on the track

2002
1st - Stage 5 - The International (Tour de 'Toona)
1st - Temecula Classic
1st - LAX Circuit Race
2nd - Valencia Gran Prix
2nd - Ontario Criterium
6th - Schlitz Park Challenge Criterium
8th - Tour Of Holy Hill Road Race
18th - First Union USPRO Championship (10th Placed American)
21st - First Union Invitational

2001
1st - Stage 1 Tour of Slovakia
7th - Memorial Andrzeja Trochnowskiego (Poland)
7th - Time Trial Tour de L'Ain (France)
8th - Stage 4 Tour de L'Ain
10th - Stage 4 Tour de Slovaquie

2000
1st - Challans-Challans (Les Circuits des Plages Vendťennes)
1st - Le Circuit de VallŤe de La Loire
1st - Tour de Loire Atlantique (TT)
1st - Deux Jours de Machecoul (TT)
1st - L'Aiguillon sur Mer
2nd - Prologue, Circuit des Ardennes
2nd - Saint Hilaire de Riez (Les Circuits des Plages Vendťennes)
4th - Prolougue Tour de Sienne et Marne
6th - Chrono des Herbiers

1999
1st - L'Aiguillon sur Mer
1st - Stage 2 Jours de Machecoul
2nd - Deux Jours de Machecoul
3rd - Tour de la Porte OcŤane (TT)
3rd - Tour de Loire Atlantique (TT)
3rd - Deux Jours de Machecoul (TT)

1998
1st - 2 Stages in the Tour of Peru
1st - Tour de Moore
1st - Virginia State Road Race Championships
7th - US National Criterium Championships
9th - US National Road Race Championships
10th - US National Time Trial Championships

Palmares courtesy http://www.peakscoachinggroup.com.


Hey Erik - Youíve been having a great year, and I wanted to talk to you about it.

Not really, I havenít been having that good a year. I havenít won anything, so I guess it doesnít really mean that much for me, because I like to win at least one race.

Yeah, but isnít that just a part of being a road captain too? I mean, youíre putting in a lot of hard work. Youíre in all the big breaks, like at NYC, Manhatten Beach, and USPro.

Yeah, well, I canít sprint, so you gotta try to win a different way. But Iíve just had better form, and for longer, this year compared to last year, so that means a lot more. I just havenít been lucky enough. And maybe something is wrong with what I think about what Iím doing. Somethingís happening, you know what I mean? I havenít won anything, so itís hard for me to be excited about how well Iíve done.

I am excited about how visible Iíve been. I mean, Iíve been pretty dang visible, and thatís good. Iíd say Iíve been visible more than anything else.

Well, thatís good too. Iím sure your sponsors like that.

Yeah they dig on that. Itís cool, but itís kind of a good thing. Yíknow - so much of cycle sponsorship isnít results based - know what I mean? So much of it is being visible at the races. Yíknow - ďWeíre a winner.Ē Anyone who competes is a winner - kinda marathon mentality. That means a lot to a sponsor. So to be out ther, having an outcome on the event - having people talk about you and representing something to someone in the way that you compete is the most important thing. And obviously winning counts, and winning is still very important, but people like great performers too. So, if you do a great performance in the minds of everyone else, itís just as great as winning. And in a lot of cases itís even better.

Thatís kind of what I was thinking. When I said that youíve been having a great season, what I meant was that youíre always there at the races. I was at the Red Wing stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix, and you were right there! I mean, that finish sucked!


Photo by Charlie Melk.

Yeah, it sucked for me. (laughter from both of us)

I was right there - right when McCook came around you, I was right there! And I was just like, ďOh no!Ē (laughter)

(amused) Yeah, they came out of nowhere. I thought that there was no way that I wasnít going to win - know what I mean? I felt for sure that I was going to get it, but thatís just one of those races where I did everything that I could do and there wasnít one section where I sandbagged. If Iíd have been sandbagging the whole time, Iíd have been really upset with myself, because I shouldíve taken one or two more hard pulls when I didnít, but I didnít sandbag, and I definitely gave 100%--I canít be upset with that. And McCook won three stages, and if youíre going to get beat by the best guy, thatís the guy to get beat by.

Yeah, I think that was his third stage in a row.

Yeah, exactly.

When I saw that Wohlberg was in the break with you, I thought - ďOh, theyíve got it.Ē

Yeah, he was killiní me. Heís hard, because you canít draft off of him. I ride pretty low, but he rides as low as I do and heís like 5í6Ē or something, so relatively speaking, heís going to be smaller than me, even though we both ride really low.

You know, it was insane. I think we needed one more guy, but what can you do? You canít go back and analyze everything. You can, and it works sometimes, but with something like that thereís just nothing that could have been done.

Right - you laid it all out on the line and it didnít work out, but you still made the podium [Erik took third on that stage]. Thatís cool.


Photo by Charlie Melk.

Yeah, that was actually cool. Our team did a really good race there. But we always have bad luck. Weíre always the team that is usually there but for some reason something weird happens and we just donít pull it out. A lot of it has to do with always being outgunned. Rider for rider we have really strong guys, but when it comes to having eight strong guys - yíknow, we donít have eight strong guys and other teams do.

Yeah, at some of the bigger races, do you guys ever get to a point where you canít even field a full team? An example would be at USPro, where, I believe the team limit was ten riders.

Yeah, we had a bad scene there. We lost Zwizanski - he had a bad crash. And Zach Walker hasnít raced all year. He was really good at the beginning of the year. He was always breaking his collarbone, or something, or having some silly crash, or something. So, he hasnít raced past April. I havenít laid my eyes on him since Redlands.

Wow.

So, he got injured, and he was working on being a good part of out team for the USPro Championships. Then it worked out that Nieko Biskner was sick, and it ended up that we had eight guys in the race, but only three or four of them were really firing on all cylinders, so what can you do in a big race like that? Youíve got three or four guys who are riding and a lot of other teams have ten guys who are all ready to ride for that race.

Thatís kind of the story for our team, and a lot of other small teams are the same way. Itís one of those things where money really matters. I was talking to Dominique [Perras] about this during the Tour of Georgia. Here we are in a race. We all have, essentially, the same job. Some of us are millionaires, and some of us have to couch-surf to get through the bike race.

I think about that all the time, I really do. I mean, when I look at the money that Armstrong, obviously heís an outlier, but the money that a lot of those guys make, compared to what the typical Division III domestic pros make, and, man, it just doesnít seem fair, or at least equitable.

Well, itís not entirely a question of the salary they bring home - you get more than that. Itís a question of the resources they have available to them. The amount of money that goes behind teams like US Postal or CSC is absolutely incredible compared to the kind of money that goes into our efforts. I mean, for me itís $60.00 out of my pocket to have a massage for an hour! And for Postal, itís like $60,000.00 to get Lance in the wind tunnel.

It is what it is - unfair or not. Itís just funny, you know? I mean, here we are doing the same thing at the same place, riding pretty much the same bike, the same clothes - everything is pretty much the same.

Yeah, so what was the Tour of Georgia like this year?

It was really hard. There were a couple of stages where there just werenít any flat roads. On that Brasstown Bald day there were just no flat roads. So itís not like the big day at Redlands where itís pretty much a flat day until the finishing climb, where itís six miles straight up. The Brasstown Bald stage was different - there was a big climb before Brasstown Bald, and in between there werenít any flat roads. You get stages like that and forget about it! The transfers were so long - youíre in the car for an hour and a half, every day, before and after the stage, so youíre spending three hours plus in the car a day - and youíre riding 100 miles a day, these hard routes - itís difficult.

Your legs must have just been fried. They must get so heavy when you have to sit in the car so much.

Yeah, not even, though - itís not even like fried, yíknow? I mean, with ďfried,Ē youíre still poppiní and squirminí and stuff. But youíre just dead! Thereís no ďfriedĒ to it.

Itís past that point.

Yeah, itís just a dull numbness - itís not even a pain. Everything is just blurry around you - know what I mean?

Yeah, like maybe youíre doing yourself some damage.

Itís like the air is thick, or something. I mean, you canít even get out of your own way. But then, you know, you make it past the first 15 or 20 minutes of each stage and youíre truckiní along real fast, and when the racing starts youíre able to pull it together and you feel good again. But the moments in between, especially on the really hard days, when youíre in the car, youíre just goiní, ďMan, forget this.Ē

But theyíre going to improve the transfer situation. Next year, they want to make the race more days, and they want to improve the transfer situation. Everybody complained about it, but the funny thing is that the small teams will complain about it, and they wonít pay attention, but then Postal and CSC complain about it and itís this real serious thing that theyíve gotta fix.

Yeah, if they donít get those teams over, then their race doesnít continue to grow, then they donít get the sponsors, and that kind of thing.

Yeah well, you know, itís funny that you mention that kind of thing, because itís an example of us all having the same job again, but some of us are somehow more important than others. You know, obviously having Armstrong and Postal being at the race is really important, because people know them. But I think that for the average fan or person that would be interested in the Tour of Georgia, thatís the only team they know! So these races in the United States have a unique opportunity to create stars. You know, having CSC there - whatís that? They want to tell us that they have CSC. Cycling people understand this, you know, but then how many cycling people really understand European racing - not that many.

So, the target audience for these big races isnít the Cat. 3 racer who understands everything about bike racing. And itís not even the recreational rider who maybe knows a little bit. Itís the average person, and itís a big, circus-like, event. If Armstrong is really big and popular - he has this big press-machine behind him, and heís a household name, his being there is important. But I donít know if youíre average Georgian really knew or cared who Mario Cipollini was. I mean, it created a lot of positivity toward the event within the cycling community, and in the beginning years of an event thatís going to be really important - youíve gotta get the base out there. Know what I mean?

Yeah, right.

Yeah, itís politics - youíve gotta work the base and get the base motivated. But for the long term success of an event like that itís going to require tapping into other demographic areas that donít already have an understanding of the sport. And for them, they know Lance Armstrong. They might know that he rides for the Postal Service. They might know that itís an actual team and not his sponsor specifically. But they donít care who CSC is. They donít care about Mario Cipollini. So, in the States we have a really good opportunity to create an interest in the domestic scene, with domestic riders and their personalities. A lot in the same ways that other sports have capitalized on this.

Itís a whole personality thing, so I hope that a lot of big race promoters start to say, ďOkay, thereís a worthwhile scene here in the U.S., with good teams and good riders who put on a really, really good show. And I hope in the future that there is less dependence on getting like Saeco to come. Because I donít need those guys to race, and I donít feel that a lack of European guys at a race makes it any less good. Hopefully, in two or three years weíll be there. And with the Pro Tour coming, who knows how that is going to change the calendar, and the place of these events, in the coming years?

Stay tuned for Part Two of Charlie's talk with Erik.

 
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