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Fli Bye Racing: Stars and Stripes Cycling Material

October 26, 2011

Most people need a fantastic prize to entice them to enter something like this.

But not Steven Thompson, Ian Sheppard, Todd Shaffer, and Andy Dukes. They took turns riding a 13.5 mile loop all day and night in Palmer Park under the amateur Fli Bye Racing team at the 24 Hours of COS (Colorado Springs), the venue for the 2011 USA Cycling 24-Hour Mountain Bike National Championships. They rode hard over sandstone and dirt trail even though they couldn’t hope to win the event’s top prize, one of the most coveted in bike racing: a national champion’s stars and stripes jersey.

USA Cycling national championship medals and jerseys at 24 Hours of COS (Mary Topping)

Fli Bye Racing competed against 21 other teams in the non-national four-man open class at the event, which took place during the first weekend in October. Non-national teams were not eligible for a national championship title. “The open category is more competitive,” Steve Thompson, Fli Bye Racing’s leader said. “I would rather get 8th place out of 25 than 5th place out of 5.” The open class carries no age restrictions except a minimum age of 18 years-old. Solo men and women, duo and junior teams, four-woman teams, and four-man age 35+ and 45+ teams also raced for stars and stripes on the same course.

It’s about having fun

Fli Bye Racing didn’t arrive with high expectations. “Trophies are cool, but it’s more about having fun with a bunch of guys,” Steve said, while mixing a chocolate protein drink to fuel his 6’1” tall frame after his first lap. Tattoos of Thor and Aphrodite color his left arm red, yellow, and blue. “We all understand we’re not getting paid [to race], so putting on pressure isn’t necessary. We all have jobs. This is just a hobby.” Hobby? OK, three of them don’t race frequently. While practicing a hobby, Steve, Ian, Todd, and Andy were the only non-national four-man open team that came close to the performances of guys who race bikes professionally and were qualified to become national champions at the end of the race.

Steven Thompson, Fli Bye Racing, resting after lap 1 at 24 Hours of COS (Mary Topping)

What did four guys having fun look like at the 24 Hours of COS? At the end of his first lap, Ian leaned his head forward and pressed his helmet to his forehead. A stream of sweat spilled onto the ground. When asked about the most challenging aspects of the race, Steve said, “We don’t know what we’re getting into. I’ve heard the wee a.m. hours are hard – staying alert – you don’t want to make a mistake. There are rock drop-offs, rocks that stick out. There’s a field of cactus.” At 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, Todd said the 24 hour race experience was like a marathon. “1 a.m. to 4 a.m. was just survival,” he said.

Priorities

Only two four-man open class teams qualified to race for the stars and stripes, Pro Cycling and Honey Stinger/Trek. To qualify for a national championship title each rider must hold an annual USA Cycling license and be a U.S. citizen or in some cases a permanent resident. Only Steve on the Fli Bye Racing team held an annual license.

Steve’s realistic. He knows that his team members can’t call bike racing their first priority – jobs or family own that spot. Yet while Steve works at his private athletic training facility, and refrains from pressuring his teammates, he harbors ambitions. Prior to the race, Steve wrote in his blog on flibyeracing.com: “This will be my first ever 24hr event and should be a great experience, so after a couple days off I will re-mount one of the trusty steeds and have the top step of the box in my vision come October 1-2.”

Fli Bye Racing began to take shape in the summer of 2009. After two years of racing, Steve realized he needed a team and sponsors to support his passion for competition. He said, “If I went alone, the chance of attracting sponsors was minimal. Plus it’s more fun to race with others than by yourself.” Team members participated in their first races under the team name in 2010. Currently the team counts ten athletes, including one woman.

Andy Dukes (middle) and Ian Sheppard (right), Fli Bye Racing, 24 Hours of COS transition area (Mary Topping)

Amateurs, but like professionals

Despite the physical and mental challenges ahead of them, Steve, Ian, Todd, and Andy remained calm and confident before their first laps. The 24 hour race is one of the USA Cycling national championship events where riders of different abilities can compete on the same course at the same time, even if they can’t all qualify for stars and stripes glory. Steve took the Le Mans start and rode the team’s first lap. How did he do it? He said, “I just got behind Dejay Birtch and stayed with him.” Birtch is a multi-national champion.

The amateur Fli Bye Racing team shares many characteristics of professional mountain bikers whose work is to ride. They have to ride their bikes. They enjoy competition. Sponsors like Tomac Bikes, Smith Optics, SRAM, and others supply Fli Bye Racing members with materials they need to compete well.

Having team members who represent sponsors in a professional manner ranked high on Steve’s priority list when he started Fli Bye Racing. The name Fli Bye means a combination of performance, speed and style, a play on the expression “fly.” Fli Bye Racing athletes don’t have to win all the time, “as long as they ride hard to finish as high as they can,” Steve said, and carry themselves with pride on and off the race course.

Steve races frequently and has finished in the top ten at nearly two dozen races. He rode the six-day Breck Epic this year. A silver medal he earned at the USA Cycling 2010 Mountain Bike National Cross-country race hangs in his home. The team’s first place result in the four-man open non-national category at the 24 Hours of COS is due in no small part to Steve’s “do as I do” approach to managing the team. “It’s funny, the other day we were talking about how we wanted to approach the race. The question of who would ride first came up, and no one stepped up. The other guys said, ‘it’s your team, you go.’ They didn’t want to deal with first lap congestion. Anyway, I’d rather lead the team out and set the tone.”

A winning tone

Set the tone he did. Steve sped into the transition zone after a first lap in 64 minutes. He completed the team’s last of 21 laps just before noon on Sunday, powering across the finish line and skidding to a stop. After a couple of minutes of breathing with his arms and head draped over the handle bars, he walked his Tomac bike to the grass, removed his helmet, and lay on his back. The four-man open teams competing for the national championship title each logged 23 laps; the next best non-national four-man open team after Fli Bye Racing finished 19 laps.

Steve Thompson, Fli Bye Racing, near finish of the team's last lap, 24 Hours of COS (Mary Topping)

No pressure. Yet Ian, Todd, Andy and Steve all delivered their best, with not one guy skipping a single turn during 24 hours of racing. Maybe they did want something. After the podium ceremonies, Steve, wearing a Smith Optics logo cap, said, “All four guys rode well and did solid laps. Plain and simple, we just rode hard. We wanted to show what the locals can do.” If Steve and three guys who ride their bikes more than most can perform this well, what about next year? “I’ve already made it clear to the others that they need to get a license,” he said a couple of weeks after the race.

Ian, Todd, Andy, and Steve would have stood on the third place podium step and received USA Cycling bronze medals if their four-man open team had met the national championship criteria. Instead they stood in the sun on the top non-national four-man open team step and received a red, white, and blue ribbon with a golden bullet shell pendant, the prize awarded by the 24 Hours of COS event that reflected its support of the Wounded Warrior Project. In the end, a fitting symbol to commemorate their speed.

Fli Bye Racing after 24 Hours of COS: Andy Dukes, Steve Thompson, Todd Shaffer (l to r, Ian Sheppard unavailable)

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