Life in the peloton | SteamboatToday.com

Life in the peloton

THE TINKOFF-SAXO CYCLING TEAM works its way up a hill outside Steamboat Springs on Saturday as farmers work to bring the hay in from nearby fields.

— Kevin De Mesmaeker only dreams one dream at a time, so while visions of champagne on the Champs-Élysées and Tour de France yellow surely dance in the imagination of many cyclists, he's focused several steps lower.

"I hope to get into bigger races someday," he said, "and I hope to, one time, be in a grand tour."

That means the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España or, of course, the Tour de France.

His journey to get there includes so many things, he explained.

It includes airports and hotels, training days and gritty competition performances. It includes sacrificing his own results to help a teammate on some rides or catching up with a breakaway group on others.

It includes 200 days a year away from his home in Belgium and embracing every known form of technology — Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, you name it — to maintain a link with his girlfriend, still back at home.

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"The Internet is very important to a professional cyclist," he said.

This week, De Mesmaeker's journey includes a stop in Steamboat Springs, as he races for the third consecutive year in the USA Pro Challenge.

It was 125 different paths that led the race's riders to Steamboat. There's no "average" story of how they traveled those paths and not even a mutual destination of which they all dream.

Living the life of professional cyclists, however, they have much in common.

ERIK SLACK, 27, JELLY BELLY PRESENTED BY MAXXIS

Lucky isn't the right word. Erik Slack earned his starting spot in the USA Pro Challenge with good results not in a day or even a season but over the seven years of his professional career.

That paid off in June when he got a call from the Jelly Belly presented by Maxxis team, stricken with injuries, offering him a chance to ride out the season.

It was a step up, one that led him to the USA Pro Challenge for the first time since the race's inaugural running in 2011.

Fortuitous? Sure. Lucky? No, it took too much work to be "luck."

Slack's first big break in the world of cycling came at age 20, when the Idaho native was working through school at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He entered the USA Cycling Juniors U23 Elite Nationals race and finished second. That opened doors, and soon he was racing professionally.

He described the pro cyclist's lifestyle, with stints living in Europe and race dates around the globe, as "great."

"I lived in Normandy (France), being able to walk a minute away to the lily ponds of Monet, and I raced all over Italy," he said. "It was just mind-blowing."

He said he puts about four hours into training a day. He does whatever else the team requires, then he loves to take time for himself, segmenting his life into "cycling" and "not cycling."

It's the cycling that dominates his life, and it was a call from Jelly Belly that turned his summer from good to great.

He said racing last week in the Tour of Utah, close enough for friends and family to come watch, was a career highlight, and he expects this week's race in Colorado to be another pinnacle.

He's here to help the team's general classification threats, to do whatever he needs to do. That could mean hauling water bottles from the team car to teammates in the peloton, setting the pace or breaking the wind for those riders.

Seven years into his career, an admitted middle-aged man in the peloton, he's as thrilled to do it all — to play the role — as he was as a college student, making the big decision to pursue a career in cycling.

"On a cold, miserable day out on a bike you might think about a different path, but at the end of the day, it's pretty great," he said. "I knew opportunities like this don't present themselves very often in life, to be able to see the whole world when I was 21 years old. That's an opportunity you take advantage of when you can, and you see where it goes."

GREGORY DANIEL , 20, AXEON CYCLING TEAM

Greg Daniel surprised even himself in realizing his career highlight last week at the Tour of Utah.

His plan was ambitious but limited: get in a breakaway group and try to win enough King of the Mountain points in Stage 1 of the seven-stage race to wear that jersey for a day, maybe even two.

Unlike many race-day plans in cycling, it worked exactly as scripted.

He not only wore the King of the Mountain jersey that afternoon but he also earned the best young rider jersey and a fourth-place finish on the stage.

"At first I thought, 'My week is done,'" he said. "Then I started thinking, 'Maybe I can hold on to the KOM jersey. I worked hard."

It was another sign of what Daniel's friends, family, coaches and teammates see coming: a major breakthrough.

Daniel, just 20 years old, got into cycling when he was 13. He had ambitions to be a triathlete, but his inability to swim forced a change in dreams. He easily settled upon cycling and, he still hopes, a future at the sport's elite levels, with starts in the Tour de France.

He signed his first professional contract with a development team at 17.

Daniel was spending so much time on the road at races around the world that he dropped out of Cherry Creek High School in Denver and finished up school online.

That decision doesn't weigh on him now, certainly not with the success he's had. The support and understanding he's received from loved ones, however, does.

"I've had a lot of people help me get to this spot," he said. "It's not just for me I want to do well. I want to do well for them, the unsung heroes."

His team Axeon is dedicated to development, only hiring 23-and-under riders and focusing on sending them onto higher-profile, higher-paying teams. Daniel is excited to be working with the squad, although he's still trying to find out exactly how skilled he is on a bike.

Those friends and family, coaches and teammates have a pretty good idea.

"I have less faith in myself than a lot of my friends or my director," he said. "When I got the KOM jersey I was totally surprised. I didn't think in a million years I would have won it, but all my friends and director said, 'We could see this coming from miles away.'"

KEVIN DE MESMAEKER, 24, TEAM NOVO NORDISK

There may be no "average cyclist," but there's an average origin story, or at least close to it.

De Mesmaeker lived it, growing up in Belgium. He tried many different sports — soccer, judo and tennis. He was 12 years old when he gave cycling a crack, and it clicked, loudly, a sound familiar to many riders in the race.

"One time, there was someone at my school racing, and he said, 'Why don't you come train with me? I'll show you some nice hills in the Flemish Ardennes,'" he said. "So, we went up this hill, and I was dropping this guy. Suddenly, I realized, 'Maybe I can be a competitive cyclist.'"

That ambition was rocked years later, when, at age 20, he was diagnosed with diabetes. De Mesmaeker's team, Novo Nordisk, is stocked exclusively with riders with Type 1 diabetes. De Mesmaeker's diagnosis never threatened his career, as it did for some of his teammates, but it did open the door to his current squad.

His best day with the team came on Stage 4 of last year's Tour of California. De Mesmaeker got in a breakaway early, joining five other riders (including Daniel.)

The hope is always to stay away and win the race, De Mesmaeker said, but much like this year's USA Pro Challenge Stage 1, it was to be a day for the sprinters, and some of the world's best, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan among them, were eager to get a shot at winning the stage.

Everything changed as the breakaway group approached the finish, however. Just as the peloton kicked it into gear to track them down, a stiff and unexpected tailwind kicked up and pushed the breakaway when it needed help the most. With 10-kilometers to go, reality set in — the pack wasn't going to make it.

De Mesmaeker ended up sprinting to finish third, just behind Daniel.

He's a man who focuses on one dream at a time, and after he became a pro, his goal was to finish high in a stage at a big race. It happened that day, and he doesn't dwell on whether or not he could have won.

"History is history," he said.

Even sixth place would have fulfilled his goal. Third? That was gravy.

It's with that same attitude that he views his entire career, actually. And in that, too, so many of the riders in this year's USA Pro Challenge are similar.

De Mesmaeker's first dream was to be a professional cyclist. He is that — racing this week through Colorado's Rocky Mountains. And he's well aware that's a pretty awesome opportunity.

"When I have children one day, I can say I raced with riders who won the Tour de France," he said. "It's a dream to be in a grand tour, but if this is the best I can do, that's already a great achievement."