Happy to catch you before you head to Portugal for the season’s opening race, Volta ao Algarve. What makes the sport of cycling so special to you?
PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST TOM SOLADAY: I come from a family with six kids so to get us out of the house and give my mom some rest we were all involved in sports growing up. I tried just about everything at least for a summer or two. Once I finished high school I thought I wanted to run marathons. I wasn’t fast but I enjoyed it. I started bike racing for my collegiate team and realized it wasn’t just about talent and hard work but tactics come into play, like drafting. That changed everything for me; a team sport where one strong individual wouldn’t necessarily be the winner like in running. That’s why I fell in love with bike racing. There is so much involved, even explaining the sport to people. It’s high speed chess. You don’t have to be on your best day to be successful, especially if you have a strong team behind you.
Charles, you’ve been in the industry for more than 2o years. How did you find yourself as Optum Pro Cyling owner?
MANAGING DIRECTOR CHARLES AARON: In one word, it was freedom. I grew up in Minnesota. One day as a young kid my father came home with a bike and said, “Go ride your bike, quit watching TV.” I wasn’t really good at basketball or contact sports. I remember at 13 years old I called my father and said, “Hey, I’m on the other side of town, can someone pick me up?” and he said, “No, I have to work, ride home!” The freedom of the sport is really what attracted me to it. And here I am at 44, all of these years later, still riding my bike every day. I work in the sport, I’ve seen the world. I’ve been to places I would have never ever gone to. I think Tom can say that too. We’ve been everywhere. The freedom — that is really the one word. Also just the health and wellness side. I’ve always felt healthy and I like getting exercise.
You guys arrived here at Palihotel in your team car, the Acura RDX. What role does the vehicle play in the race?
CHARLES: The car is an essential part of what we do, it’s the command center. We have the director, the equivalent of a coach, who is calling the strategy and the tactics in the car. The directors have to be excellent drivers and they have to be great at focus. The car is the hub of everything that is going on during a bike race. Our staff of directors are skilled drivers.
How fast will the car go in a race?
CHARLES: Depends where. Going down Mount Hamilton or Mount Diablo up near San Francisco you’re going fast. I don’t want to scare you!
TOM: There are different groups on the road. You might have a breakaway, a small group of riders that has five minutes on the main group and then that main group may split. There could be three, four, five groups on the road. The RDX has to service riders in each one of those groups. If you only have one car to go from one group and close a two mile gap you have to get across really quickly. Those guys will go over 100 mph in those cars. The riders aren’t supposed to be in the cars when this happens because that means you’re out of the race but once or twice I’ve been in the car when these things have happened. I thought going down a mountain at 50 mph on my bike was scary but I didn’t realize the cars are going twice as fast as I am just to get from one group to the other.
What is something about the sport of cycling that the average person doesn’t know?
TOM: It’s surprising how many people don’t realize the importance of drafting on a bicycle. It’s the advantage of following another rider through the wind. If anyone has seen NASCAR or car racing, there is a reason why the cars drive so closely to each other because there is a draft. It actually pulls you along. It’s a huge advantage. People wonder how we work together. If someone has a mechanical [problem] or they’ve crashed or they are getting a bike change, [to catch up] you have to ride in the wind from the car all the way up to the group. Without teammates to do that you’re at a big disadvantage so the drafting really dictates what happens in a bike race.
So, why the Acura RDX?
TOM: Other than it looking cool and badass? One thing that I’ve experienced in the past with other team cars was that when they were underpowered you’re actually at a disadvantage. The cars are following in a caravan, you could have 10 to 50 cars following with the police and the support staff. There is actually jockeying for positioning so that you can help your riders when they need to be serviced for a bottle or a flat. With the Acura RDX you don’t have to worry about your car not making it over the hill. We go over these big mountains that no one in their right mind would want to go up. They can take us through any turn, any climb, any speed. We’ll be on that bumper at 60 miles per hour and we know we can trust that the car can handle the corner. Sometimes we’ll lose the Acuras around the corner. I’ll have to have my director slow down because he can hit the corners faster than me which normally isn’t the case … There is a huge advantage of having a car that can perform and that’s dependable and that’s what the RDX does.
CHARLES: I also think the innovation in the car is really a big compliment to what we do. I’m in the team car during a lot of races. In a bike race we have so many different things going on and any given day you have to get ahead of the curve. You don’t want to play catch up because it’s winning and losing. That’s really what we do, it’s between winning and losing and we like to win as much as we can. For example, weather. The RDX has GPS innovation there, we know when weather patterns are coming and we can prepare for that while we are out 50 miles away from the town we started in.
How many bikes will fit on one car?
TOM: Seven fully built bikes.
What has been the most exhilarating ride of your career?
TOM: I hadn’t left the U.S. until I started racing my bike. So now I’ve been to Europe, Asia, South America and I’ve raced in all of these places in all kinds of weather conditions. That [question] is tough. Really, I think it was in Arkansas. We spent four or five hours in the hills and it was just rain and fog. You couldn’t see more than 50 meters in front of you, it was just hours of racing like this on closed roads. I remember being with the RDX through all of these rolling hills and all of this fog and I couldn’t see the riders in front of me. It was just me and the Acura. That was probably one of the coolest things I have done because it was the conditions you dream about as an athlete. It didn’t hurt we won the race there. That is part of the memory.
When it comes to preparing your body for the race, what do you do in the 24 hours leading up to it to get your best performance?
TOM: Every individual is different but I’d say on average we are usually getting a massage the day before. I’m going to enjoy it while these years of my life last. We have soigneurs. They do massages for us, make food and fill bottles. They cover the little things so we can focus on performing and getting results as a team but it’s really just putting your feet up, getting a massage and eating whatever you’re used to eating. You don’t want to try anything too foreign. It’s pretty simple, put your feet up, relax. We’ll do a one or two hour ride the day before just to loosen up.
Because the sport supports a fit and active lifestyle, if you could only do one healthy thing a day what are you sure to do?
TOM: Keep the refrigerator fully stocked. I make really bad decisions if I’m not regularly going to the grocery store. If there is one thing I do, it’s just having the right foods around because if I don’t, the chocolate chips that are usually just used for baking turn into dinner sometimes.
When you’re in that moment when it’s really challenging, how do you push through? What are you thinking?
TOM: Other people are depending on me. I can push myself further when I’m thinking about others. My team is depending on me or need me for a result. It’s not just the external pressure but the pressure I put on myself. And that’s just the kind of rider and athlete that I am. Some people are the ones who win day in, day out. They have to put more focus on themselves and guys like me come up and support them because they are so focused on winning and there is so much pressure involved they kind of internalize a lot of things.
As an owner, what is the toughest part of your job?
CHARLES: The hardest part for me, just like any sport, are the ups and downs, and the downs sometimes can last longer than you want. I’ve been doing this long enough where I know the ups and downs are going to come but when you have illness, it’s hard when things are out of your control. There are injuries in sports and sometimes you are there seeing it. I really struggle with that and question sometimes if something is the right direction or not. The hard part is when things just aren’t working out. Like any other sport, any given Sunday anything can happen no matter how good of a team you are. This is such a team sport that if there is a piece that doesn’t work and you see that it’s not going to happen and you expect it or you know that you can try and change it but it doesn’t, that’s always hard.
How will this season be different aside from brand new 2016 RDXs?
CHARLES: I’m really impressed with the athletes, I’ve spent a lot of time with them the last two weeks. The personalities are great and it’s not to say in the past we didn’t have as good of personalities but everything is gelling very well. Seeing it all work so well only excites me that much more. We win 10 races you’re going to want to win 11, I’m happy having those victories don’t get me wrong, but it means more to me when we have quality people and partners. The bigger picture is they are a team and they really work well as a team. If you ever come to a bike race you’ll see that. But this year in particular it’s across the board with men and women. It’s phenomenal.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
CHARLES: I’ve been thinking about it because we are in the area. I would love to sit down with a guy like Mel Brooks or Rob Reiner. I love that type of humor and we are in the neighborhood. I find those individuals absolutely brilliant.
TOM: Unfortunately it didn’t take me too long to think of this one. I think it would be Nicolas Cage.
CHARLES: I expect every one of you guys to watch TV this summer and know everything there is to know about bike racing.
TOM: If you could ever be at an event where our team is and get a ride in the team car it will change your life.
KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY / A DRINK WITH
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