Go ahead, ask Curtis White about his tire pressure.
Walk up and shoot the breeze, maybe share a New York Curtis Cyclocross Pilsner, named for him by a brewery in the Finger Lakes region this year.
“Like, you can’t go up to a Tom Brady and shake his hand and say, ‘Hey, tell me about the game. How many PSI do you have in the football today?’” the Duanesburg High and Union College graduate said with a laugh last week.
“You can do that with cyclists. You can come up to our Cannondale trailer, give us a high-five, ask for an autograph, you can get our opinions about the course, you can ask what tire pressure we’re running today.”
White, who turned 27 this week and lives in Beverly, Massachusetts, increasingly has become the face of his sport in the U.S., ranked No. 1 in the country and No. 17 in the world heading into his second race on the current pro circuit last weekend. He’s an engaging presence who started a podcast called “In The Red” in November, and represents everything that’s fun about cyclocross.
That means he represents everything that isn’t fun about his sport, too, which requires grueling training for races that force the cyclists to tackle courses built for their discomfort, usually in public parks.
The pro season runs well into winter, so cyclocross racers will face mud, snow, ice, sand and gravel pits, soul-suckingly steep grassy inclines, hairpin turns and railroad-tie staircases that can only be traversed by carrying the bike on your shoulder.
The 2021-22 domestic race calendar kicked off two weekends ago in Roanoke, Virginia, and White won both days of competition, but had a setback in Rochester last weekend when equipment failure hampered his chances of getting to the podium again. But the grind continues, as does White’s aspiration to elevate his standing not only in North America, but beyond, while serving as an active voice for his sport.
“I do want to be the national champion and the best American, but my sights are a bit higher up,” he said. “I want to be one of the best in the world.”
For the last three years, White has been ranked around the top 20 by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body of cycling, finishing the 2019-20 season at 15, and most of those ahead of him are from countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. He has finished second twice at the U.S. national championships (2018-19) and was the 2018 Pan-American champ.
The sport is huge in Europe, but is relatively obscure in the U.S., certainly in the long, deep shadows of the mainstream pro and college sports.
As White’s father, Tom, the long-time crew coach at Union, points out, “The issue is competition. The Bills were playing [last weekend during the Rochester race], the Jets, the Patriots. There’s no NFL over there [in Europe], no baseball. It’s Formula 1, bike racing and soccer.”
So races in Europe, a circuit that Curtis White is well familiar with, can draw over 50,000 spectators to cyclocross races, which are contested on courses about the size of an 18-hole golf course and can accommodate huge food and beer tents and put the spectators within arm’s reach of the athletes as they’re racing.
Tom White estimated that the race in Rochester last weekend, at Genesee Valley Park, drew a few thousand fans, including he and his wife Chris, who have four other children, Emma — fresh off a bronze medal for the U.S. in track cycling team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics — Sarah, Anna and Harrison.
What the fans experienced was a typically fun cycling race with all the bumps and bruises that the cyclocross version brings, but also a rare equipment meltdown for Curtis that cost him in Saturday’s race and had lingering impact in Sunday’s, as he tried to make up for lost placement, Tom said.
“He had three rolled tires on Saturday, which shouldn’t happen; the tires came off the wheels,” he said. “He was leading, it put him back to about 10th, he got a new bike, he made it up to seventh, it happened again, he went back to 12th, then it happened a third time. It was heart-breaking.
“He’s got six bikes, 24 sets of wheels, and everything was freshly glued. You shouldn’t be able to pull it off with your hands, and half the tires came off the wheels. It was just a bad batch of glue.
“It happened maybe once or twice when he was 10 or 11 and I was gluing the tires. It was kind of an embarrassment. I think it was a matter of pride, but he went way deep and got himself back up to seventh, but I think he burned a few too many matches on Saturday.”
As unusual as that particular circumstance was, it reflects how vital a good equipment set-up is in cyclocross.
Curtis White compared a cyclocross athlete’s race-day camp to something you’d see on pit road at a Formula I race, with an RV camper for pre-race meals and preparation, and an attached tent for the mechanics.
The bike takes a beating over the course, for example, of eight 3.2-kilometer laps that the Roanoke race entailed, and you need to be able to repair or replace on the fly to maintain position.
“Sometimes the conditions are so muddy to where we’re getting fresh bikes every lap or sometimes every half-lap to just get clean equipment,” he said. “So there’s a lot that goes into the equipment and component side of it where we have a full service course of equipment, parts, bikes, mechanics, etc.”
Then there’s the physical and physiological toll.
White provided a GoPro ride-along view of the course prior to the Roanoke race that’s on YouTube and can put a vicarious strain on your knees.
“Typically in cyclocross, you have to be prepared for anything, whether it’s barriers that you run over or hop over, or a staircase, or sometimes a hill that’s too steep to ride,” White said. “There’s all kinds of variation, and that’s the beauty of cyclocross. It’s a real honest effort.
“You need to compete as a whole athlete, you can’t just focus on your climbing or only on your sprinting, you need to be a complete athlete that can run, sprint, have good tempo, good thresholds … and catch yourself when you fall sometimes.”
White and his younger sister Emma, who is also a Duanesburg and Union graduate, had been cycling prodigies from an early age, Curtis so much so that he had a chance to sign a pro contract before he had even gotten out of high school.
Instead, he went to Union and settled on Classics as a major, with a minor in Law and Humanities. His senior thesis, for which he missed the 2018 world championships, focused on the connections between ancient Roman law and the U.S. Constitution, specifically the Sixth Amendment and due process.
Three days after he received his diploma in 2019, he was in Bogense, Denmark competing in the Cyclocross World Championships.
“He certainly didn’t start college thinking he was going to be studying Latin and Greek, and he dabbled in Arabic, too,” Tom White said.
“When he was in 11th grade, I think it was right around Christmastime, he had had been on the podium at a couple of huge international races, and he was offered a contract on a professional team. He was 17 years old. It would’ve required him to leave high school, move there, they would set him up with housing, there would be a meal plan, salary, the whole bit.
“And they gave him 10 days to think about it.”
Curtis White’s next race was in Rome, on the Feast of the Epiphany, appropriately enough.
He turned down the offer.
And consistent with his habit of “training weaknesses” — that is, targeting what he needs to get better at rather than leaning on his strengths — he later picked a major when he got to Union that ultimately would help him develop better reading and public speaking skills.
“Cycling was my passion,” he said. “My family valued education and wanted me to pursue a degree. That was an opportunity we had, and they pushed me in that direction, and for that I’m very grateful.
“I always liked just learning something for the sake of learning it. What Classics and those fields taught me were more about training a weakness more than anything else. … In thinking how that helps me in cycling, giving interviews, speaking publicly, coaching at clinics, I have my own podcast series and being able to articulate with that, it doesn’t directly translate over exactly, but there were a lot of skills I was able to take from those fields.”
Those skills have served him well as he’s gained exposure through his podcast, which he started last year as a platform to chronicle his trip to Belgium for viewers back in the U.S., while most cyclists were stuck in neutral because of the pandemic.
“It was cool to try something new,” he said. “And I’m not a journalist, I’m not in the media, I’m not trying to interview people, but I like teaching people about cyclocross and sharing my passion, and if that’s through talking about results or tactics or teaching them about equipment or just having fun conversations with people who inspire me, that was what the podcast was about.”
“He’s absolutely taking a leading role there,” Tom White said. “I think Curtis has taken a serious approach of peeling back the layers of the sport. I know it’s work and he’s attracted a couple sponsors that like what he’s doing and paying him for not necessarily what he’s doing on the bike.”
What he’s doing on the bike this fall are races in the U.S. through Oct. 23-24, including events in Waterloo, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Iowa City, Iowa that are also designated as part of the World Cup series.
The World Championships are back on the Fayetteville course at the end of January, and White expects to be there and to make his presence felt. For him, that means not just competing, but being approachable to the fans and being a positive influence on those who are younger. Even — especially? — if it’s a sibling.
“If you see them now, they do nothing but butt heads and are critical of one another,” Tom White said with a laugh, of Curtis and Emma. “But the fact of the matter is she followed strictly in his footsteps up through the various development channels. I don’t know. I guess as much as Emma likes to think she created this all on her own, I think Curtis was a big influence on her when she was younger.”
“The way we were raised was to never forget our roots and to always give back when we can,” Curtis White said. “I know there’s a picture on Emma’s Instagram where she did a mountain bike ride with a young mountain bike team from the Capital Region [after the Olympics].
“But that’s the nature of cycling, and cyclocross takes it to another level, where you’re in a park setting, you can bring your entire family to run around, interact with all the athletes. You’re right in front of all the athletes as they’re competing, you’re face to face, you can see the struggle, the drive, the commitment and the energy.”
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