One hill at a time
Where does the road lead? The racer can’t say for sure. Right now he’s only worried about the next thing: Next race. Next training ride. Next prize check. Next chance to prove himself.Not that Alex Hagman doesn’t harbor big dreams outside of those immediate objectives. It’s just that he knows better. He’s not going to get where he wants without continuing to pedal, so it’s best to stay focused on the proximate – the next turn, the next climb, the next sprint – than to wonder what lies farther ahead, out of sight.”With each week I’m getting a little better, moving up the ladder,” says the 23-year-old Woody Creek native, calling from the road, on the way back to his current home in Athens, Ga., after completing the Commerce Bank Triple Crown – a trio of top-flight domestic road races held during the first week of June in Pennsylvania. “I don’t exactly know where I want to be in two or three years, I just want to continue to develop and live comfortably off racing the bike.” Now that he’s a sponsored rider, Hagman actually has multiple racing bikes, all of them top -of-the-line Jamis models – “the Ferraris of road bikes,” Hagman says – provided at no cost by his team, AEG-Toshiba-Jetnetwork. There’s also the vagabond lifestyle that comes with his pro contract; Hagman will compete amongst huge pro fields in Austin, Texas, and Rochester, N.Y., within the next two weeks. (The team covers the plane tickets, lodging and meals on the road; it’s not a five-star domestic tour – “We find a lot of places with continental breakfasts,” he notes – but it works.)”We’re not a huge-budget team, but we get by,” Hagman says of his team, an outfit comprising 10 full-time pro riders and four amateur fill-ins. “When I’m on the road, the team does as much as it can.”
Even with a stipend to help pay rent and buy groceries, Hagman readily admits that his affiliation with AEG-Toshiba-Jetnetwork doesn’t pay all the bills. He is pursuing personal-coaching opportunities with clients looking for endurance training, and also subsidizes his income by competing in lower-level races – or, as he calls it, “cherry-picking” races – to win easy prize money.”Through an endurance training network based out of Durango I’m working with a couple of guys to develop this coaching thing,” says Hagman, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in December with a degree in sports administration. “It’s pretty exciting. There’s hundreds of athletes who can use a little guidance, and it will help me get by.”With the cherry-pickers and everything else, Hagman estimates he’ll compete in more than 70 races this summer. It’s a grueling schedule, but for a kid who dreamed of making a living riding his bike, every day is a great day.”He’s living the dream,” says his mother, Kay, who with Hagman’s father, Tim, runs a Basalt-based architecture firm. “We’re absolutely in support of him in all of this. You always want to pursue your dreams as far as you can before you realize maybe it’s time to do something else … We’re just so pleased that he’s happy and productive and he’s doing what he truly loves. We want to see him take it as far as he can.”
Hagman’s road to Georgia and his current pro contract began when he started competing in Aspen Cycling Club races as teenager. His older brother, Jonathan, who still lives in the area, encouraged him to tag along to a mountain-biking race, and Hagman was instantly hooked. “The Aspen Cycling Club became his biking family,” says Kay. “They really brought him along.”Hagman quickly graduated to larger National Off-Road Biking Association races, and before long Mom and Dad were devoting their summers to driving Alex and assorted friends around the country to compete on the national circuit.”It was a lot of effort to attend bike races before he went to college,” Kay says. “We spent a lot of summers traveling around for the NORBA series, but we loved it. We really enjoyed watching the events and camaraderie within those races. We’d rent condos at certain places and bring Alex’s friends along, and have kids crashing on the floor. I was sort of the den mother. It was a lot, but we enjoyed doing it, and we were so happy to help Alex improve and develop his skills.”When it came time for college (he graduated from Aspen High School in 2002), Hagman was certain he wanted to pursue bike racing, and narrowed his choices to schools with strong club programs. He eventually settled on Fort Lewis in Durango, a mountain-biking Mecca where he honed his skills under cycling coach Rick Crawford. Hagman realized biking could become a profession when he signed his first contract with Cannondale years ago. At Fort Lewis, he continued riding with those goals in mind and grew into the mountain biking team’s best male rider and a repeat national champion. Before winning his second national mountain biking title in short track and his first cross-country title last fall, Hagman spent the summer in Europe learning the ropes of high-level road racing. He trained and competed with various teams in the United Kingdom, Italy and France, and got his first taste of stage racing while competing in the nine-stage, 1,233 km RAS Tour of Ireland.He finished ninth in one stage and 14th in another, and came in 25th overall.”I learned how to suffer,” Hagman said of his European summer, after dominating the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships and leading Fort Lewis to the team title. “It took me to a whole new level of being able to endure the physical pain of bike racing.”Once the college season was finished, Hagman began weighing his options, and considered offers from various teams before deciding on Georgia-based AEG-Toshiba-Jetnetwork.For a Colorado boy who grew up racing his mountain bike in the dirt, moving to Athens to join a road cycling team was more than just a change in latitude. Despite the hot and humid weather, Hagman says he has grown comfortable in his new surroundings. When he actually is at home, that is, considering his hectic travel schedule.”It is different,” he says. “It’s hot. That’s the first thing that gets to me, the heat and humidity. I buzzed my head just to stay cooler. The culture is different, too. People are really, really nice down here in the South – no matter what, they’ll take you with open arms and try to provide what you need. The training isn’t as good as the Rocky Mountains, but there’s a lot of pros in Georgia.””Really, it came down to where my opportunities were,” he adds. “Right now the opportunities are on the road. I’m getting better and better on the road, and I’m really enjoying it. Road racing compared to mountain biking, it takes so much endurance because the races are so long. It’s really testing me.”
A strong climber and technical rider, Hagman’s role thus far on has been to serve as a domestic (cycling-speak for pack mule) on a team of strong sprinters.Cycling is a sport that is rooted in a well-established hierarchy, one where newcomers must prove their worth the hard way – by cutting through wind while others draft, or funneling water and food from the team van to the team’s established riders – before being given opportunities. There is no moving up the ladder without putting in sweat equity.
“It’s a game of respect,” Hagman says. “To have the endurance where you can last for a whole week, it really takes time to develop that. Most of our riders are younger, but they’re all really strong. Right now I’m in a domestic role, but I’m starting to come on this year, and I’ve been developing a relationship with the team. “In cycling, if you’ve been doing it for years, and people know you’re good for it, they’ll send you to the front. It takes time to learn the game. It’s about being smart and rubbing people’s backs a little.”Really, it’s about focusing on each little step: Next day, next ride, next push.There’s no way to get over the hills farther down the road without getting over the one right in front of you.”It’s been a steady progression since the beginning,” Hagman says. “I don’t expect too much year to year, but each year I’d like to see a little more, and just make sure my progression continues. Hopefully next year I’ll do a little better and just keep moving forward.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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