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With a lap to go at the 2017 Fat Bike Nationals, Cole House wasn’t thinking about where he’d come from or the peculiar journey that had brought him to that moment—he was looking ahead at the guy he needed to catch. On the day he was born 29 years ago, House’s mother had given him the Indian name Tekastoslunti, which roughly translates as “floating feather.” And it would be accurate to say that the bike racer had spent a decade drifting through the sport of cycling: ripping up BMX and mountain bike races; crushing cobbles in Belgium as an under-23 road talent headed for the top; and then doing circuits in America as a dispirited crit racer before rediscovering himself on dirt. None of that mattered in this moment, on a cold winter day in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All that mattered was bridging to Jamey Driscoll’s rear wheel.
Words: Peter Flax | Image: Gary Smitts: Extreme Photo Unlimited
House, who is almost certainly the first Native American to make it as a pro cyclist in the modern era, was born and raised not so far away from that national championship on a golf course in Grand Rapids. His home was with the Oneida Nation, on a reservation located on the edge of Green Bay, Wisconsin. His mother was from the Oneida tribe and his father was half-Indian, half-Belgian. “We were homeschooled,” House says. “But my mom always took us off the reservation to get diversity. It was a pretty normal childhood—we weren’t super poor or anything.”
His dad brought him to his first BMX race when he was 9. A couple years later he got serious about mountain bike racing and won his first race at the age of 12. Kids on the reservation benefited from a grant that funded collaborative fitness and featured mountain bike competitions between the Oneida, Blackfoot and other regional tribes. When asked if cycling ever was a popular sport on the reservation, House just laughs. “No, it wasn’t a big deal then and it’s less of a big deal now,” he says. “Kids on the reservation are suddenly into lacrosse, which I find quite hilarious.”
House started riding on the road in earnest in his teens. “With the weather in Wisconsin, you can get on the road earlier in the season, and other juniors were doing it,” House recalls. “I didn’t take it too seriously. I just thought of it as training.”
But he had big talent and he put in the miles—and results started coming. When he was 18, House won a stage at the Tour de l’Abitibi, a prestigious race for juniors in Québec (where riders such as Steve Bauer, Laurent Jalabert, Bobby Julich and Andy Hampsten raced before launching their pro careers). That got people’s attention.
Before long, House was on the U.S. national team and based in Flanders. “That was one of the cooler experiences of my life,” House recalls. “I would go out for a ride and in an hour I’d be on the Oude Kwaremont and the Koppenberg. Most races I did included those climbs so I got to know those roads really well.” House is a big guy for a cyclist—about 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds—and one-day races in Belgian seemed to suit him.
Some eye-opening results quickly backed up that assessment. At the 2008 U23 Tour of Flanders, for instance, House finished seventh. A year later he was racing as a stagiaire at BMC Racing, and he became the first American to win the Grand Prix Waregem on a nasty March afternoon, beating to the line Jens Debusschere and Jens Keukeleire, Belgians who’ve gone on to successful WorldTour careers. House was doing training rides with guys named George and Cadel, sharing a room with a young Alexander Kristoff (“that guy was always funny”) and being mentioned in articles alongside rising American talents Ben King, Taylor Phinney and Andrew Talansky.
But if you go back and study the results sheet of a decade-old elite U23 race, you might notice that less than half of the top finishers went on to forge successful careers at the highest level of the sport. The rest? They suffered bad luck or crashes or injuries; or faced hurdles or distractions—one way or another, their lives took them in a different direction.
It’s not easy to pinpoint what happened in House’s case. At the 2010 U23 Tour of Flanders, he got a flat at an inopportune moment and never got back to the front (he finished 34th). House says that season was full of punctures, crashes, DNFs and bad days. But he did finish 34th at the U23 Paris–Roubaix (won by Phinney) and took a top-10 in a stage at the Tour of Berlin.
He came back to the States in 2011 to regroup, and even though he had a plenty-big-enough engine to compete, he’s quick to admit he didn’t go great. “I don’t like crits, and stage racing isn’t my thing,” he says. “I like hard one-day races, and with U.S. racing it’s not really there. I was doing a lot of California crits and for the first time in my life I started to hate bike racing.”
Thankfully, this is not the story of a bike racer who got disillusioned and quit. This is the story of a bike racer who got disillusioned and figured out how to have fun again. “I just started riding mountain bikes a lot,” says House. “And things started falling into place.”
He says he was lucky to meet Doug Zell, the cofounder of Intelligentsia Coffee (himself an avid racer, supporter of the sport and now an investor in American bike manufacturer HIA Velo). “Doug texted me and asked who I was riding for. I wrote him back: ‘no one.’ But soon I was on his team and making the transition to mountain biking.”
A scan of House’s results page on USA Cycling shows the efforts of a hardscrabble bike racer competing and finishing well in Pro/1/2 races in nearly every discipline—cross-country, road racing, cyclocross, criteriums, fat-bike races…. “I like having that flexibility,” says House, who presently races for Door County Brewing and Broken Spoke Racing. “I can switch it up, and I think I’ve got good enough skills to succeed on the mountain.”
In 2016, he started to put extra attention into his fat bike racing. “Fat biking and mountain biking are basically the same thing depending on the conditions,” he says, mentioning how he got “annihilated” at the 2016 national championships at altitude in Utah. “In soft snow, it’s like a muddy mountain bike race.”
But the 2017 national championship was nothing like a muddy mountain bike race. “It was the weirdest fat bike race I’ve ever done,” says House, recalling the race this past January. “There was no snow. It was frozen grass on a golf course. It was like a ’cross race with different tires.”
On the final lap, Driscoll—who clearly still had the form that had propelled him to finish second at ’cross nationals a couple weeks earlier—attacked and got a 20-second gap. “I was suffering,” says House. “But I thought if could close it near the end that maybe I could get him in the sprint.” With less than a mile to go, on a false flat with multiple steep pitches, House started to claw back. “On that last pitch, I went all in. If I’m going to catch him, this is where it has to happen.”
He made the catch right as the pair hit a gentle right turn before a short sprint to the line. House and Driscoll were shoulder to shoulder the whole way. At the line, both racers threw their bikes. House won by an inch or two. “It was super-awesome,” House says, recalling his first national championship in any discipline. “I made a perfect bike throw—I guess all those crits were good for something.”
House says that he’s proud to be the first Native American to make it as a modern pro cyclist, but he’s also proud that he’s no longer the only one. He points to the success of the Axeon Hagens Berman squad’s Neilson Powless, 20, the current national U23 road champion, and his older sister Shayna Powless, who races multiple disciplines for Sho-Air Twenty20, and who’s also won a national U23 title. Like House, the Powless siblings are members of the Oneida tribe, but they grew up outside of Sacramento, California. “Once I got to know them, we discovered that we’re actually relatives,” House notes. “Their grandfather is related to my grandparents—how weird is that?!”