Sam is on the road to somewhere, he just doesn’t know whether he’ll be riding a bike to get there.
“Obviously, I love cycling. It drives me so much,” said Sam, 17, an avid cyclist with aspirations of becoming a professional. “But I try to keep all doors open. That’s why I work to get good grades, too.”
His parents tell Sam, a St. John’s senior, he was introduced to bicycle racing when he was four days old, watching the annual Amstel Gold Race on television, sitting atop his father’s stomach. Several years later, Sam and his father made their first of now five treks to watch the Tour de France in person.
That was when Sam, not yet 10 years old, received his first road bike. His first ride did not go well. It lasted about 150 meters. Sam careered across the street, swerved in front of an oncoming car, hit the curb and pitched over his handlebars. “I was so small, I couldn’t reach the brakes with my hands. And they were too weak to pull the brakes,” recalls Sam. “It made me super scared.”
But watching the riders go past at the Tour de France lit a spark inside Sam. That flame grew when, years later, he pedaled up a climbing stage of the Tour de France in a youth road race.
Sam played football until a couple of years ago but has since focused on cycling with an eye towards a spot on a professional cycling team. He hasn’t looked back, but realizes his in-season, February to October schedule – 1.5 hour to two-hour daily rides, four- to five-hour rides on Wednesdays, capped by a three-hour, 140-km race most Sundays – isn’t for everybody.
“Cycling is, in my opinion, the hardest sport,” Sam says, with a smile. “You have to be on your bike for hours and hours and hours. We don’t have halftimes.”
Training can be lonely. Typically he is pedaling by himself, though some sessions his father does accompany him atop a motorbike.
“But when you’re racing, I say it is more of a team sport than football,” Sam opines, with every rider on the team doing his all to help the team leader win. “It really is. More than people may know.”
Sam’s dream may be to sign a contract next year and take his spot as a domestique on a road racing team, with designs on one day earning his spot as team leader, but he isn’t putting all his eggs in that bicycle basket.
Maintaining his grades while keeping up such a rigorous and timely training schedule takes dedication and concentration. That means strict limits when it comes to regular teenage pursuits, like texting friends, perusing social media, or watching the latest shows and movies on Netflix.
“We all have the same number of hours in the day. I try to stay really focused,” says Sam. “It’s really about knowing what you want and knowing what to do to get there.”
No complaints or regrets. Just being rigorous when it comes to finding enough time to do homework, carve out some time with friends and still get the sleep he needs. Working on holidays, finishing reading and projects ahead of time, finding blocks of academic time between training and racing sessions are what is required.
“You need to do a lot of planning ahead,” Sam recommends. “There’s always going to be time if you make time.”
Sam plans to apply to universities later this year. He took the SATs. A gap year may be in the offing, to spend time concentrating on cycling before attending college. Or maybe not.
“The truth is I don’t know what’s going to happen in cycling,” says Sam. “I think I’m just trying to keep all the doors open as long as possible. There’s no need to close them right now.”
By Blake Dickinson, St. John’s volunteer writer