Dylan McNicholas: Apprentice to Podium, in no time at all
When the jackets peel off and the game faces set seconds before an elite men’s cyclo-cross field takes off, who’s got the advantage? Is it the guy that has stared down start lines since his teens, or Dylan McNicholas who began racing cyclo-cross at age 28 and straddled his first real bike a year before?
Now 31 years-old, McNicholas claimed a national championship, seven victories, and fourteen podiums while competing predominantly in the northeast in his fourth cyclo-cross season. McNicholas trains hard from his home in Stratham, New Hampshire. And natural talent must have contributed to his progression from cat 5 to cat 1 in a little over one season. But a few extra years in the game of life have helped too; he’s spun that experience together with support from family and team to achieve rapid results.
McNicholas is proving the path to bike racing success doesn’t have to begin with a racing license at age thirteen.
McNicholas skate-boarded and roller-bladed as a kid. He also rode BMX bikes a lot, “just like every kid has a 20 inch bike and rallies around,” he said.
He took up motocross, a sport that has supplied him with important skills. “I’m pretty strong at starts,” he said. “They can be intimidating, but a cyclo-cross start is tame compared to motocross, which is very aggressive with elbows and bumping, and I enjoy that.” At the 2012 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships he won the hole shot in the men’s elite race ahead of Jeremy Powers and Ryan Trebon. Other motocross skills like reading lines and surfing mud and ruts in ever-changing course conditions also enhance his cyclo-cross performance.
One August day in 2007, friends who owned a motorcycle shop in Portsmouth, NH asked him to join them on a non-motorized bike ride. Pedaling to build fitness for motorsports seemed like a good idea to a guy who had won some novice motocross races but hadn’t won events yet as an intermediate.
He said “yes” and it changed his life.
He borrowed a bike that he described as six or seven sizes too big. Wearing tennis shoes, he rode about forty miles. “I was blown away. Forty miles now seems like not that big of a deal but at the time it was monumental,” McNicholas said. He borrowed a bike once or twice more.
Then he bought his first road bike, a Fuji, which he rolled out a few times a week. He worked for a high-end landscape construction company at that time and built massive boulder and stone walls that took shape over a year. McNicholas learned masonry as a union apprentice when he was twenty years-old. He described the physical work of the profession: “It’s similar in a way to some of the feelings you get from bike racing. You’ll work really hard and then you have that kind of exhausted, tired feeling at the end of the day that’s kind of nice.”
The next spring he bought a mountain bike and entered a local mountain bike race. In his first road race that April, the Turtle Pond Circuit Race in Loudon, NH, it seemed to McNicholas that the field set off on the first lap uphill at a leisurely pace. “So I rode away,” he said. “I think they caught me at the bottom of the hill on the final lap and I managed to still take the sprint up the hill. That sort of is what got everything rolling. I was eager to go to the next race.”
McNicholas won that next road race, and the one after that. He stopped motocross racing. His results inspired him to train harder while continuing to work forty hours or more a week. But his only objective at the time was to progress through the categories. “I didn’t know anything – I just did the races and tried to win or do the best that I could. I was asking questions and reading a lot of stuff and just trying to figure out what it is you do when you’re a bike racer.” He just rode hard, like he does now.
Success in cyclo-cross arrived as easily as it appeared on the road. At his first cyclo-cross event, day 1 of the Gran Prix of Gloucester in the cat 2/3 race, he rode on a collage of a ‘cross bike he assembled with an old frame purchased from a training friend and the cheapest parts he could find. He started at the back of a field of over 100 and pulled out a tenth place finish. The next day he came in sixth.
Since that initiation year in 2008, McNicholas has consistently upped both the number of ‘cross races and his results, according to crossresults.com: from twelve races in 2009 to twenty-two this season, from one win and three podiums to seven wins and fourteen podiums in the 2011 season. He’s progressed from local to bigger teams and now rides ‘cross for Cyclocrossworld.com and with CCB International on the road.
Support for strong performance
Leaping across racing categories as an amateur and chasing down a salary from bike racing require a bottomless well of focus and commitment on the athlete’s part. It takes time, which becomes a scarce resource while balancing racing with raising a child and making a living. His Cyclocrossworld.com team supplies bikes and equipment; McNicholas pays out-of-pocket for many expenses such as travel, and still does some masonry work.
Progressing in competitive cycling also requires a lot of support, and McNicholas can count on his family and friends for droves of it. McNicholas’ family enjoys spectating at bike races; they travel to watch them, even if he’s not riding. He said, “They’ll do anything to help me out really. They’ll help out with my daughter which is massive.” Just before 2012 ‘cross national championships, his step-father was heading to Chicago. He drove all of McNicholas’ equipment to Wisconsin, which freed McNicholas to fly to the event alongside his daughter Maeve without hauling any equipment.
Maeve, who is three and half years-old, always takes first priority. “I guess everything is sort of based around my relationship with her,” he said.
“Sometimes I’ll travel to a race and the head’s just not in it. But that’s time spent away from Maeve, so sometimes I use that as my motivation to try and do the best that I possibly can.” Forfeiting a chance to race well when he’s already forfeited time with Maeve would be wasting “the opportunity times two,” he said. But once it was the right thing to do. McNicholas has drawn strength from the challenges of balancing parenthood and daily life with racing, which can mean making difficult choices.
In 2010, in Sterling, Massachusetts, McNicholas fought to keep his head in the game on day 2 of Bay State Cyclocross, during his best season to date. He and Maeve’s mom had recently broken up. Out of loyalty to his team he started the race, his mind crammed with “the logistical difficulties of having a child, and figuring out how you’re going to manage all that and the repercussions that [the break-up] could have on your child,” he said.
McNicholas rode third wheel or close to it on the second lap. When he caught sight of his car in the parking lot, his mind connected with his wheels.
Dodging course tape, he sped off to his car and drove away. “I realized I was completely done,” he said. “I should have never even went to the race. I was just at a point where I didn’t have anything for it and my priorities were to take care of my situation and my daughter.”
A year later, in what McNicholas described as “somewhat of a personal victory, like a 180 this year from last year,” he won both Bay State day 1 and day 2 UCI races.
McNicholas came into the 2011 season with “a clear head” and better fitness. He also attributed his stellar season to fantastic support from his Cyclocrossworld.com team and sponsors such as Cannondale, Zipp, SRAM, and Lazer.
He rides ‘cross on the Cannondale SuperX and for the first time he’s had two bikes. “To have really good equipment that works great and is in good shape has made a massive difference,” he said. “And we have a mechanic who’s also a good friend and he’s unbelievable; his support has been huge. Every time I’ve had a great result he’s been a pretty big part of it.”
Speaking about longer term goals, McNicholas said he tries not to place any unrealistic expectations on himself. But he’d like to get a contract. He said, “I’ve talked to a couple of people already about next year and so I’ve got some things I’m pretty excited about.” And while he’s grateful to compete in the New England Cyclo-cross Series, he’d like to enter a few more Gran Prixs next year. “I’d even like to get over to Europe for just a handful of races next year. It would just be for the experience; I would set no expectations on myself obviously,” he said.
The pitch to a professional team is harder for someone who’s entered the sport at what’s considered a late age. Talking about starting at age 28, he said, “All around it’s a disadvantage. In terms of finding a team and a job it’s a disadvantage. You don’t have the experience that guys who have been racing ten years have – it’s the large base of experience teams want, not just the bike racing but also the travel and preparation.
“But the advantage is physically I’m strong. I’m starting at an age where my body is mature. The biggest thing could be I’m fresh – my head is fresh, I’m still pretty excited and motivated,” he said. McNicholas believes the maturity a few extra years of life brings helps as well. He can shrug off a bad day and move on, unlike younger guys who might get derailed by what he called “bike racing tunnel vision.”
He thinks he can improve in some areas. For example, he’d like brush up his technical skills. He said, “I have five good years of racing in me. I’m looking forward to that and expect to see some progression.”
McNicholas was happy with his season at the time of this interview a week before the 2012 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals. He subsequently topped off his season there with a national championship victory in the Masters 30 – 34 category and an eighth place in the men’s elite race where only 25 of 85 starters finished. He described his approach to those races before they took place as, “just to ride as hard as I can.” It’s an expectation he meets with honest effort, consistently.
While he calls cyclo-cross his focus, McNicholas will continue road racing. He enjoys it, his CCB International teammates, and the fitness it builds. He also plans on a little mountain bike racing, in between one of his favorite activities – going out to breakfast with Maeve.
[Special thanks to Dylan McNicholas for his time while preparing Maeve's dinner, and with gratitude to Roxanne King for permission to use her photos -- find them and more great shots on her flickr account, and to Melissa German for telling me I had to interview McNicholas.]