The Mountain Journal
Riding Down the Dollars
by Chris Fisher
Yesterday dumped about a foot of fresh crystal from heaven and if I didn't
see my training and general health as huge investments for this coming race
season, I'd be waiting in line at Winter Park for the first chair. Man,
I'm jonesin'. Because of this snow, I can sum up my training for the next
week in four words: rollers, TV, boring week. So insead of trying to make
something bear fruit that is drier than the Great Gobi, I will talk about
an aspect of pro mountain biking that not a lot of people read or think
about, namely sponsorship, chasing the all-mighty, evil greenback.
But before that, I really feel an altogether random
tangent pulling on my brain.
O.K. back to the main subject. I'll go back to when mountain bike racing
became central in my life and distant dreams of racing as a professional
danced in my head like sugar plums or something. The winter of '93 marked
the second of my knee surgeries, both due to alpine ski racing. As anyone
can guess, the recovery process from one of these reconstructive surgeries
was not the portrait of fun, and I knew that at the level at which I was
racing, it was not unlikely to happen again. I opted for knees with only
one surgery apiece. So while going through rehabilitation and simply trying
to get my leg to quit looking like something a local rancher might use to
clean one his teeth after a nice big, juicy, corn-filled meal, I thought
about my options in terms of life paths. Most of the things I came up with
Since 1987, cycling has played a significant role. Be it for training and
racing in the off-season of my skiing, or simply as an outlet for stress
and meditation (see tangent). I saw myself
speaking foreign languages I never studied if I chose a job involving the
numbers 9 and 5 and a desk. I had to figure out what costume I would wear:
lycra smattered with sweat and blood or the not-quite-as-exciting uniform
of a company rep.
Obviously, I chose the path of the athlete. What is not so obvious is how
I reached my current situation. I left Park City, Utah for Michigan in the
spring following my last surgery. The idea being that I could live at my
mom's house while getting my strength back racing on much less treacherous
terrain offered by the Wasach range, rocks, crags and nature's own version
of the "punji trap". The last thing I needed during recovery was
to crash and land with my knee losing a battle of "chicken" to
a young, cocky recently shorn boulder. I opted for the forgiving mud and
sand of northern Michigan.
This is when the game of chasing down the sponsors began in earnest. My
resume was not ultra-impressive owed to the fact that my best finishes were,
ah, ski races. I sent out one résumé to Mongoose requesting
factory team level sponsorship which consists of a bike at below wholesale
cost, free clothing and an incentive program--if the rider places in the
top three, he gets paid. I really did not expect to receive the sponsorship.
Somehow I got the thumbs up a couple months later from them, and my season
was underway. My left leg was still about half the size of my right, but
I managed to have some good results in the MMBA (Michigan Mountain Bike
Association) Pro/elite class. By the end of the season, I was ranked in
Michigan and decided it was time to head back to the mountains. My final
race of that season was the Utah State Championships in Park City. It was
a grueling, three hour climbing freak show. If I did well there, I knew
I was on the right track. If I failed, I needed to find a new pursuit. I
finished 13th out of 75 starters--I was back.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado where I still live.
I moved in with my brother, David, and did nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe
cycling. Never before had I concentrated so intensely on one thing, year
round. I was in the off-season until the beginning of March, and all I did
was train. I did everything I could to make myself faster. I switched my
riding to almost 90% on the road, putting huge amounts of miles in my legs.
I went to a hypno-therapist to carve images of winning in the insides of
my skull. And finally, I arranged a trip to Europe, the motherland of bike
racing, where I would race and train (on the road) for a month before the
NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) Series started. The purpose
of the trip was to put an enormous amount of speed and fitness into my legs
before the U.S. season started. It worked.
I returned to take part in the National Series #1 mountain bike race in
Spokane, Washington. This was an interesting race because I was just coming
off the best fitness of my life from racing in Europe and at the same time
was very nervous because I had never raced at this level, one step away
from professional status. The race would set the stage for all the rest
of the season. If I was to get my pro license, I had to finish consistently
in the top 15.
When I arrived at the airport, I called my sunglasses sponsor, Arnet Optics,
to find out where we were staying. Once at the hotel, Mark Vandivere, my
rep., told me that there was an interesting development with the race. The
course was changed from a medium length climbing festival to a long, rolling,
open, fast circuit on which we would make several laps. This was beautiful
news to my ears because coming straight from Europe, I had tons of power
and endurance but little amounts of climbing in my legs, a flat, open course
would be perfect where a climbing course could have been trouble to say
I was not ranked nationally yet and did not have a spot on the front line
reserved for me. I had to line up about a half an hour before the race actually
started so I could be relatively close to the front (which is crucial in
a mass start race involving on average 150 rabid, semi-conscious riders).
The starts are sometimes the most interesting part of the race and often
feature various limbs and pieces of metal reaching heights over ten feet
it the air. Even lining up as soon as I did, I was behind 50 or 60 others.
Our race was 30 miles long and because of all the Washington mud, it would
wind up being close to a three hour race.
The start gun, as usual, signaled the beginning of a pace that should not
be put upon anyone that needs to exchange oxygen as a primary bodily function.
After the first half hour, things began to settle into a rhythm and I got
to work. Halfway through the race, I was closing in on tenth place and felt
like I could hold my pace for the entire time. Going into the last lap,
I was in fifth with the fourth place rider in sight. I finally caught him
and was trying to pass on a quick, off-camber downhill section that had
a couple lines which could be taken for safe passage. Unfortunately this
is where I made my mistake and tried to take a different line than I had
for the entire race. My front wheel twisted underneath me and I went flying
head first into the woods scared out of my wits that a tree and my head
would meet in a stopping combination. Somehow I missed all the trees and
the stopping combo and ended up with an altogether too large sum of pine
needles in my mouth and my wrist bent at an angle less than optimal. While
I was trying to figure out if I was alive and pick up my bike at the same
time, two riders passed me. Stunned spectators were asking me if I was all
right and attempting to understand me through the pine needles as I realigned
my front wheel with my handlebars and resumed my chase. Re-stocked with
a whole mess of adrenaline, I soon caught one rider who had passed me but
the finish came too quickly for me to reach the others. I ended up seventh.
After that race, I became ranked nationally and for the rest of the season
was called to the starting line for my reserved spot (the top ten riders
are always called). This is nice because I did not have to fight for positioning
or waste valuable warm up time jostling for position. The rest of the season
went similarly. The races that I did not abandon due to technical failures,
I finished no lower than eighth. I finished the season ranked seventh in
my class. I was on my way to the Show.
I am still nailing down the final details on my pro contract. It looks like
I will be riding for Klein again this season. All my expenses paid will
be paid, including free equipment, technical support, and an incentive program
which pays me for performing well. My other product sponsors are Arnet optics,
PowerBar, Bell Helmets, and Spline Drive which is a company that makes nipples
for wheels (their motto is "twist our nipples" and I am not joking).
It does not appear that I will make a salary from the team which is why
I am currently searching for outside sponsors, anything from clothing manufacturers
to hotel chains who can pay me in return for national and international
exposure. I have sent out more than 30 resumes and have gotten back perhaps
14 responses, all of them either negative or, at best, future possibilities.
This is the most frustrating part of the current situation. I love the sport,
it is my passion and I cannot see myself doing anything else but to do well
at it. To stay competitive and reach my goals and the goals of the teams,
I have to train on average of 15 to 20 hours a week which does not include
travel and necessary rest for recovery. All of these combine to rule out
work on the side. Teams expect the riders at the professional level both
to perform well and to do so for very little money, especially at the entry
level. It is beyond my powers to fathom the contradiction of a professional
athlete expected to race and train at extremely intense and difficult levels
with no money in return. But this is what I do, so I spend at least an
hour per day every morning on the phone, chasing potential sponsors, then
jump on my bike for 2 to 6 hours and/or go to the gym, come home, check
my messages, eat, sleep, and do it again the next day. Probably the most
frustrating of all situations is when I cannot get someone to return my
calls, even if it is to let me know that they are not interested. At least
then I could look elsewhere instead of waiting for their reply. If you think
government has a bureaucracy problem, you should try dealing with the bike
industry's monster of red tape.
So there it is. A long story made long about me chasing phantom dollars
while trying to keep my head above water with the most rudimentary bills
around the house. Thank God for a beautiful and patient and supportive girlfriend.
It is difficult as it almost always is this time of year but it does not
compare to my love of the sport or my confidence that it will work out come
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