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Erik Saunders Interview: Part Three
By Staff
Date: 9/10/2004
Erik Saunders Interview: Part Three

By Charlie Melk

Read the previous parts:
Erik Saunders Interview: Talking Straight
Erik Saunders Interview: Part Two

Okay, back to road. Whatís up for the rest of your season.

Well, Iím just going to hang out for another couple of weeks and then Iím going to track nationals.

Are you doing the San Francisco Grand Prix?

Yeah, Iím doing San Fran. Iím going to do the Points Race and Madison Thursday night and Friday night, and then Saturday morning Iím going to fly to San Francisco. It should be good. Iím really motivated for San Francisco again. Last year I did seven laps, and I want to do all of the big laps this year, and then Iíll try to finish. Once you finish all of the big laps there are only about 20 miles left to go. I donít know . . . maybe itís a lot more than that, and Iím mistaken (we both laugh). Itís not that far to go if you can make it through the big laps. I just have to go out front really early again. That worked out well for me.

Just so you could ride your own pace?

Well, yeah, so I donít have to ride hard on the hill - thatís the bottom line. Last year it was looking good. We had two or three groups converging on each other to catch the group up front - but a lot of the guys wouldnít ride the flat parts hard, and then theyíd drill it up the hill! Weíre about to catch the leaders on Fillmore, and Iím sayiní, ďThis is not happeniní for me.Ē I mean, thatís not the time that you want to be catching the leaders. And then three or four of the guys got across to the leaders and the rest of us never saw the front of the race again. Now, if we would have caught them on the flat, then we would have been this huge group up front - we would have had everybody in there with a much better chance.

Iím not scared of that race because, realistically, I know that I have no chance. So, whatís there to be afraid of? Some of the other guys didnít want to take hard pulls. Iím really motivated for that race.

You just have a good awareness of your strengths and weaknesses and see how you can best use them in that particular race, right?

Yeah, thatís exactly right. If youíre going to realize how absolutely horrible you are and realize that you have absolutely no chance (I start laughing, not trying to have implied this line of thought), then there is no illusion! Itís at that point that you know - you can think about things unemotionally. You can be really rational about what youíre doing. You can say to yourself - ďMy one small opportunity is to do this, this, and this.Ē - know what I mean?


So, yeah, youíve gotta really know how bad you suck [Iím pretty much laughing nonstop at this point]. Thatís the bottom line. Youíve gotta know how bad you are.

Man, I think youíre being too hard on yourself!

No, itís true, though, because in a bike race the whole thing is about getting everybody else to play your game.

Knowing what your game is is good, but really, when you get good, you realize what your game isnít, and you know when other people are somehow getting you to play a game thatís not your game.

That makes a lot of sense.

Your only option is ďDONíT PLAY.Ē You have to be rational enough, and have not a lot emotionally invested. You have to be willing to quit - to just say, ďThis isnít my game - I quit - Iím not playiní.Ē Then the tactic changes! Then the ball is in their court. What are they gonna do now that youíre not being a sucker anymore? Theyíre not getting you to do more than your fair share of work. Theyíre not getting you to ride too hard on the hill. Whatever their thing is, theyíre not getting you to do that anymore. Then itís up to them!

I lot of times, guys get so emotional about it - thinking that theyíre doiní you - they donít realize that youíre not in their little game anymore, and they still think theyíre puttiní it to you (Iím really laughing again at this point). Because theyíre totally emotional about it - theyíre like, ďYeah, I got Ďim, I got Ďim, I got Ďim!Ē and they havenít had you for like an hour!

Yeah, itís a huge advantage to realize that - to be able to apply your thinking to a race instead of riding as hard as you can for no reason - to be able to apply your brain and muscle power exactly where you need to, and no more.

Yeah, totally. Thatís exactly the bottom line. Some guys are really good at that. Like John Lieswyn is really good at getting everybody else to do whatís best for Lieswyn. Heís a guy who doesnít win very many races but when he does win a race he has the legs to do it, and he wins because heís strong. But a lot of times heís able to narrow down the opposition just on mind games - on suckering you into doing stuff thatís not in your best interests!

And at the top end, things are just so tight - unless youíre Chris Horner and you can just ride everyone off your wheel - there are usually any number of people who can win, and itís not always a matter of the strongest guy winning. Anyone who knows cycling will tell you that itís not always the strongest guy who wins. And I donít think very many people actually understand why that is. Sometimes people will say, ďWell no one else will take a pull!Ē (in a hilariously whiney voice) And Iíll say, ďWell so! - thatís why you shouldnít!Ē

My thing is - Iíll tell the guys in the team a lot: ďNever pull - only attack - never, ever pull.Ē Unless youíre in the breakaway thatís making time on the field and itís absolutely necessary for you all to be working together. Otherwise, never, ever pull - only attack!

At the pro level it makes a lot of sense, but for people who donít understand the sport very well yet, itís confusing - they just donít understand. I think thatís one of my strong points as a coach - experience. I donít do everything that I should do, and there are reasons for that. Thatís a big part of my development at this point - now itís 90% mental. Because, honestly, Iím 29 years old - Iíll be 30 soon. Physically, I can improve quite a bit - I see it in myself - but I think my greatest improvements will come with my experience and how I use it in my thought process.

And how I use it as a coach, especially for the up and coming guys, is to get them to the point where they, instead of just being at the front of the race riding, theyíre thinking about winning. There are a lot of tricks to it.

Yeah, there are so many tricks - there are so many things you have to learn before you get to the point where you can control things.

Yeah, if you can go back through your performance and think about everything you did, and ask yourself - ďNow, did that benefit me, or did that benefit the competition?Ē

Right - bottom line.

Exactly - bottom line - was that a move for me or a move for them. ďDid I end up making them go hard, or did I end up going hard and they didnít have to do anything at all?Ē Because you donít want to be the only idiot going hard! Like, a lot of times everyone will find themselves in this situation - youíre the only guy going hard and you should be thinking - ďWait a minute, Iím the only guy going hard. I should stop.Ē The secret is just to be aware of that and catch yourself.

Cool - so anything else youíd like to discuss.

I guess Iíve been thinking about whatís going to happen in the next few years, here. Iím starting to think of myself as someone who is at the end-of-the-middle of his career. That changes the way you think about whatís going on around you. And thereís a lot thatís going on in cycling in the U.S. that just isnít productive.

I think weíve finally gotten it to the point in the pro scene where weíve got a good product, and itís worth investing in - itís worth people coming out to see. I think weíve got our shit down - bottom line! We put on a good show. Thatís really, in the end, whatís going to be the determining factor in the success or failure of cycling in the United States.

But I donít see too many other people who have that same kind of mentality, where theyíre thinking of it as a product that needs to be developed and showcased. Itís still a little too much grass roots on one end, and then on the other end itís a little bit too much of trying to bring the Tour de France to the United States.

There needs to be a progressive group of people that are thinking pragmatically, and who are willing to develop what essentially would be a new sports property that would be not quite as mom and pop as the local parking lot criterium, but not super-big, pie in the sky, trying to get people to go out into Tour de France style bike racing, which, I think frankly, for the United States, is not going to be successful.

You can have some success at events like the Tour of Georgia, and things like that, but weíre never going to end up with a UCI Pro Tour type scene here. I mean, we have really good races - we have really good criteriums too. We need more people to be willing to work harder on that to try to tie everything together, because we have a lot going on, but itís just not tied together. USPro needs to be USPro again, and it needs to try to tie these races together - not a National Racing Calender, with 80 damn races on it. Not USA Cycling, who concentrate mainly on the U23 riders, and mostly trying to get money from the IOC to get money to go to the Olympics. It shouldnít be about having all of these corporate people, and everybody is just sitting around, trying to have a great time. It needs to be about bike racing. It needs to be about bike racers.

Yeah, we need to develop an identity.

Exactly, yeah, we need to develop an identity, and we can help that along by having 80k and 100k local races. And there needs to be more of a pipeline where people see that there is something going on. I mean, a lot of local bike racers donít even know that there is a really cool pro bike race circuit. I mean Category 1ís and 2ís donít even really get what goes on. They donít even get that there are 50 bike racers who do pretty much every race together all across the nation. They donít really get the nuances of what is going on. They have a really regional mentality.

There just needs to be something that happens here in the next few years, because the time is ripe for it. Weíre just at a point where thereís enough going on where if someone roped it all in and packaged it up, and included everyone from the riders to the promoters to the sponsors to the media outlets, and involved everyone equally, we could end up with a cool new sports league. And it wouldnít have to have anything to do with the Tour, or anything to do with the Olympics. It wouldnít have to have anything to do with USA Cycling and their whole thing. Somebodyís gotta do it.

Like you say - everything is in place and the time is ripe, but whoís going to take the reins, though. Itís a big job.

Well, if we had a governing body that thought along those lines then more would happen. I honestly donít know what USA Cyling is thinking about. I mean, the Olympics and World Championships are really important to them. I know that they bank a lot on the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service Team. But I donít think that they really have an end-game plan for cycling, and I think that they, for sure, like you said - having a goal thatís right in front of you. You know, having the short term and then having the long term - and, you know, thinking pragmatically - realizing where you are - what resources and assets do we have now? And there are assets and there are resources. There are short term goals and long term goals that you can formulate.

I see it in my head. What I lack is some expertise in trying to put this show on the road. There are a few people who are already trying to do some of these things, and a few people that are starting to talk about doing the right kind of things that I think would be beneficial, but ultimately itís going to depend upon a few motivated individuals. Thatís something thatís ultimately going to be something thatís for the good of the sport in the United States.

Well, it was great to talk, Erik.

Right on, no worries.

Good luck with the rest of the season.

Thanks a lot - take it easy.

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