The Northern Michigan JournalNM LIVINGNEXT

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 weren't good.

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.
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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 the least.

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 Manitou Publishing: Quality web design at reasonable rates 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 battle time.

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