When journalists go to interview professional cyclists, they usually rendezvous in a hotel lobby, a restaurant, or perhaps the athlete’s home. Not so with Craig Lewis, the 27-year-old South Carolinian who rides for the China-based Champion System team. He asked me to come to the Boulder Wine Merchant, where he was working the afternoon shift, stacking shelves and learning a little more about the wine trade from storeowner Brett Zimmerman. Lewis also helps out at Frasca, regarded as Boulder’s No. 1 restaurant, whose owners, chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, often go riding with their unusual apprentice.
When I asked Lewis why he is taking a different approach to pro cycling, he alludes to the extended recovery times from serious crashes that have marked his career: a near-fatal, 40-mph collision with a car that strayed onto the time-trial course at the 2004 Tour de Georgia when he was 19; and another high-speed impact, this time with a traffic sign at the 2011 Giro d’Italia, with Italian teammate Marco Pinotti. Lewis came back from that first accident with the TIAA-CREF development team to win the U.S. national under-23 road and criterium championships in 2006 before graduating to the high-profile Slipstream squad and a four-year spell with the HTC-Highroad ProTeam.
Three months after last year’s Giro crash, in which he suffered a broken left femur, he made a premature comeback to finish the first USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. But he needed more time off, and eventually had bone-graft surgery, before starting from scratch this year with Champion System, a sports clothing manufacturer headquartered in Hong Kong. Lewis said he made a good choice to ride with this ProContinental squad after five years at the sport’s highest level because it has enabled him to find more time for non-cycling activities—especially after he moved from the East Coast to Boulder, Colorado, a year ago.
Our wide-ranging interview began with a question about his new approach to being a pro cyclist.
Craig, what do you mean when you say you want a more-balanced life?
Obviously, I’m probably not now going to reach my full potential in cycling, because I’m not going to be focused 100 percent on it, but I have so much going on outside of racing. I’ve been taking time to focus on those activities as well as still training as much as I can and having fun racing. I had two bad accidents that I came back from, and I had some successes afterward, but I really sacrificed a lot to come back both times. This third time, I just didn’t want to risk…. I didn’t want to have those same sacrifices and put my wife or family through that.
What are the other things you want to do?
I’m really passionate about wine and food, and I’ve met some great people here in Boulder that are very knowledgeable in those areas: Brett at the Boulder Wine Merchant, Bobby and Lachlan at Frasca. So just working with them, and they all ride as well, so we share the same passions. It’s just been huge for me. It’s been a great break from talking about racing all the time. It’s just opened up a lot of other opportunities. At some point, I see myself doing that…. You have to move on to something different…so I’m just gonna take the next few years to keep racing and figure things out.
Would you like to work in or own a restaurant?
I don’t know about owning…. The restaurant business is tough. I’ve only done a few brief nights working at Frasca, and it’s way beyond…it’s a high-stress situation. I’ve lived enough of that in the past, so I haven’t found the exact thing I want to do yet.
Most riders move to Boulder because they want to intensify their cycling experience. That doesn’t seem to be your reason….
Yeah, I guess in the end it was the opposite for me. I moved because my wife took a job out here with Isis, a women’s outdoor clothing company. And it was a great fit for me racing a bike. Since moving here, I’ve focused a lot more away from racing. I’ve noticed that when I leave town I get a lot better, a lot quicker. If I go to races for three weeks I’m going a lot better at the end. That’s just the fact that there’s so much else going on for me here in Boulder.
But you’ve still been doing some pretty intense stuff here, like you did this past summer in Taylor Phinney’s pre-Olympics training camp that Allen Lim ran….
I’m not being lazy by any means. I’m on a full training program, but it means that I’m not just going home [after training] and lying on the couch and fully recovering as I normally would. I’m going out and trying to help out friends at the wine shop or see what’s going on at the restaurant. It’s a little more activity and a little less recovery that keeps me for reaching that last few percent…but I plan on doing the same thing next year, before certain events, to tone down the rest [of the things] and focus on the cycling….
And you did win a race this year, a solo stage victory at Canada’s Tour de Beauce. How did that feel?
It was huge. I mean, I’ve never won an individual pro race like that before. So it was big for me. I’ve been part of a lot of wins (including the team time trial with HTC at last year’s Giro), but it’s just not the same feeling as when you do it yourself. I felt good but never really expected to win the race. I was super-excited and couldn’t have been happier. It was a long time coming…especially after all the setbacks coming up to that moment.
How do you cope mentally coming back from those horrible accidents?
The mental part is like we’ve been talking about…finding a balance. Mentally, I was just focused on coming back to where I was before the Giro accident. Who’s to say I could reach that level or how long it’s gonna take…so it’ll be a lot more challenging. But I think just the fact that I’ve got things going on in my life, that progression kind-of happens on its own. And throughout this year I’ve gotten stronger at every race. I think I was in a breakaway or in a potential race-winning move in every race I did from the Tour de Beauce (in June) to the Tour de Hainan (in late October). I was way more active, and it wasn’t like I was forcing it or putting pressure on myself to do those things. So having that balance has allowed my body to refuel and my mind to heal.
Is racing on a ProContinental team a lot different from the four years you had at High Road, where a dozen guys were winning big races all the time?
If you look at the roster we had the first year, it was insane when you see that every one of those guys is leading his own team right now…. It was a special team and a special organization. It was great for where I was in my career at that point, and I think Champion System is perfect for where I am right now. I’m not as wrapped up in the sport as I used to be, as far as wanting to be on a WorldTour team and wanting to do the biggest races. I just had to look at what I wanted for myself, and for my family, and create that lifestyle around it. And Champion System has been the perfect fit for me. I’ve had a whole lot of exciting moments, like at the Tour de Beauce and watching the Chinese guys progress through the year—they’d never raced in Europe or raced here [in the U.S.]. It’s been great to see them ride as well as they did in the Tour of Beijing at the end of the season. It showed how well the program’s been doing.
Do you see China becoming a power in cycling, with a team in the Tour de France?
Yeah. I definitely think they’ll be up there. I think it’s maybe where America was in say the 1970s or early-’80s. Now they’re starting to race outside of China a little more, and they’re starting to bring bigger teams into China to do their own races. I don’t see any reason to believe they’re not gonna be in the Tour de France, maybe in the next five years. We’re making a very strong case for doing a grand tour in the near future, and we’d obviously do that with some Chinese riders. This year was the first year I’d ever raced over there, and I’d heard, just from years prior, that it’s so nice to race in China, the races are really relaxed, no stress, you don’t have to be fit coming into ’em…. But they are some of the hardest races I did all year. They’re super-aggressive and hard to control, and the Chinese guys are strong and motivated.
You hear a lot from the UCI about expanding cycling worldwide. Seeing it from a different angle, as a bike racer, do you think that the sport expanding on all the different continents is a good thing?
For sure. It’s great for the growth of the sport. The world powers change quite a bit through history, right? China could be the next world power…so they need to have riders in big races and get that support from the fans. And it’s happening in smaller countries, too. In Malaysia, they love cycling; they’ve had the Tour de Langkawi for a long time. We’ve taken a couple of Malaysians and brought them to Europe, and I think we’re picking up a Korean and a Japanese rider, and we’re doing the same thing with them. It’s just gonna continue from there. There’s no reason for cycling to be locked up in Europe. There’s so many other people out there that should enjoy it.
One of the arguments that has long come out of Europe is that, bike racers can’t travel all over the world to do bike races and keep up their fitness because of jet-lag and all the disruptions to their routines. What do you think about that?
That’s bullshit. I’ve traveled 150,000 miles this year, and still done 70 race days, and still been consistent at all of them. Maybe not at 100 percent, but 97 or 98 percent. I flew over to the Tour of Beijing, got there a day and a half before the race started, and I was in the breakaway the first stage. And if every team’s doing it, everyone’s gonna be on the same playing field. I think the sport needs that for growth. It’s not in a position to be picking and choosing areas that they should race in. You go where the money is to build the sport, where the enthusiasm is. I think cycling should totally expand and do more races everywhere.
The big topic in the sport right now is Lance Armstrong and the USADA doping case. How do you feel about that personally? When you were coming up, George Hincapie was a big inspiration for you and helped you a lot. Now he’s one of the guy’s who’s admitted he was cheating back then…. Does that hurt you at all?
It’s tough to watch. I hate it for all those guys. My personal opinion is that’s the way the sport was then. Obviously, there were [some] guys doing it the right way, but I think the majority were doing it the wrong way. It seems that the ones getting called out are the Americans…but I just have a hard time believing that the other guys in the Tour those years weren’t right there doing the same stuff. It’s tough to see those guys singled out. And it’s tough to see—I don’t know Lance personally, I don’t know how nice of a guy he is, you hear things one way or another, but he’s still done so much for the sport and for cancer. Who cares if he’s a bad guy or cheated, he inspired millions. He’s the reason I started riding a bike, watching him win his first couple Tours de France. Yes, I hate to see him make a bad choice, but it seemed a lot of people prompted it….
There were other teams, like Telekom, which had riders who became your directors at High Road. Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm both admitted they took EPO back in the ’90s. So it’s just coming out later with the Americans. It’s a shock….
It is. It was definitely a different culture back then. I think it’s much better now and it has a bright future. I don’t see any reason to resort to anything like that these days to finish races or get good results. I think there’s a chance for everybody.
The fear is that some new, undetectable drug will come out and the whole doping system will start again….
Can you create a test before you have the medication? It’s always gonna be ahead of the curve. There’s always gonna be those who say: Gee, where is there a clean sport or a clean business, or anything in the world? People are gonna find a way to get around something. It’s just the way it is. It’s not gonna change. But I don’t know if anyone has an answer to remove that. Is it putting everyone on the same salary? But then you still have the glory of winning the race to fight over.
With even more emphasis on training now, do you use a coach?
The closest guy I work with is probably Allen Lim. But he doesn’t full-on coach me. If I wanted to bother him, I’m sure I could get a coaching program from him, but I really just do my own thing. I’ll join some of his camps from time to time. He’s a brilliant guy, he’s a great resource, and I listen to his training philosophy and incorporate what elements I can. Same with diet as well, I use his Skratch Labs stuff, for sure, but like I said I’m not doing everything 110 percent for cycling. I’m staying flexible.
With this modified regimen, are you happier than you were racing on the High Road team?
No doubt. I was for sure a better cyclist then, and got enjoyment out of performing better in races. I only raced 60 days a year, and the rest of the time was not living a normal life. I’m sure my wife’s a lot happier with me now, I do more stuff with her. It’s just been fun to ride with non-professionals, my friends here in town, and see their enthusiasm for the sport. It’s refreshing and it gets me motivated to go out and do a couple more hours, do intervals or climb whatever mountains. That’s why I started riding, and sometimes you lose that when you’re just so competitive….
You mentioned that Champion System might eventually ride the Tour; would you ride another grand tour if you had the opportunity?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Longer stage races were always my favorite thing, and I felt like I performed best in them, just being a consistent rider. I’d love to be part of a grand tour team if we did it. We don’t really have any [other] guys that have done grand tours before, so I think I’d have to be there. I don’t see us doing one this next year, but there’s a good possibility in 2014. We’ve strengthened the roster a little bit with riders with European experience, and the Chinese riders have stepped up, so if they can make another step or two next year we’ll be ready.
So you can see yourself riding as a pro for several more years?
Yeah. I’d like to stay with Champion System as long they’re in the sport and as long as I’m still racing. Just the freedom and the role they’ve put me on is exactly what I needed; and not only am I benefiting from that, they are as well. I’m happy to be there to help the new guys and show them how to race in Europe. It’s a fun position for me to be in.
If you had the choice at some point, would you choose to go into the restaurant business or become a team manager?
I’d probably go with which one gave me a little bit more time at home. I see how much those guys travel—like our team manager Ed Beamon maybe home just one month this whole year. Managers always have to go a day or two before the race, and leave the day after, and they travel more than the riders do. I don’t see that being an easy job. I love to ride my bike. I don’t want to sit in a car and watch everybody else ride their bikes. So I’ll probably lean toward the restaurant industry.
# # #
You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson