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Julian Kyer finds his way back to the top

August 23, 2012

Julian Kyer in Boulder

Securing a spot on a cycling team at the professional level isn’t easy for any rider. Neither, as Julian Kyer knows, is returning to that level after dropping back to an amateur team.

Form wasn’t the only thing the Boulder resident had to rebuild after learning anemia explained the sub-par performance that likely separated him from a professional contract for the 2012 season. He also had to rebuild team directors’ faith in his talent.

Early promise stalled

Kyer called the Rocky Mountain Cycling Education Foundation his first “real” team. At 18 years-old he competed outside of Colorado for the first time, traveling to races in the Midwest. “I really looked up to all these guys who were local [category] 1, 2 guys,” he said. “I’d just get my teeth kicked in doing all these twilight crits.”

He earned a place on the Trek-Livestrong development team in 2009, where, paid to ride his bike, he became a professional athlete at the age of 20.

“It was a great team environment,” Kyer said, speaking about Trek-Livestrong. “Really great staff, riders got along.” He loved traveling with teammate Taylor Phinney, who together with soigneur Reed McCalvin entertained the team with their humorous commentary. Kyer has stayed in touch with the team’s sports director Axel Merckx; the two visit together over coffee when they attend the same races.

In the summer of 2010 Kyer’s racing suffered. Getting through training proved difficult and the fatigue he experienced stole away his motivation to train. At the same time several Trek-Livestrong teammates enjoyed a very good season and drew more attention.

When it came to landing on a professional team for 2011, Kyer felt he had fallen through the cracks. “I didn’t look hard enough for a team the next year and I kind of thought that more directors would approach me or be interested in me than was the case, and so I didn’t start building those relationships with directors.”

Anticlimactic 2011

Nearly without a team for the 2011 season, a late offer from Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth Pro Cycling team ignited Kyer’s motivation. He moved to Santa Rosa for the winter. He trained hard with Levi Leipheimer. “I was just stomping that winter and…throttled everyone in Kelly Benefits training camp,” he said. ”That’s unfortunate because generally if you win training camp you don’t do anything else the rest of the season.”

He started a vegan diet to lose weight and followed it for two months. “I’d probably been bordering anemic for a while and that was just the nail in the coffin and threw me overboard. I started going worse and worse and worse all spring.” Kyer’s friend Alex Howes encouraged him to get a blood test to understand why he wasn’t riding well.

“It was three days before US Pro that I found out my iron was super low, my hematocrit was super low.” He told the team who said, “Just get better.” Kyer believed he could address the anemia and return to the performance he knew he could deliver.

Criteriums filled out his racing program for the remainder of the season; this contributed to what Kyer labeled an “anticlimactic” year in 2011 as he wouldn’t call himself a criterium rider. An offer to continue with Kelly Benefit Strategies for 2012 didn’t materialize.

In fact no professional team showed interest in signing him for 2012. Kyer didn’t know what to do. Quitting the sport just wasn’t an option. “I thought I would just race for some Colorado team and try and get a big race or two,” he said.

An amateur team named juwi solar saved Kyer’s 2012 season. Juwi couldn’t pay Kyer, but they got him to races and supplied him with road and time trial bikes. “They really went above and beyond what any other seven person team in the U.S. really would be capable of as far as I know.” [juwi is pronounced like “ uv” – ed.]

The road back

After learning the reason for twice, as he described it, “falling to bits,” Kyer changed several habits and his diet.

He eased up on training and shuffled sleep to the top of his priority list. He studied nutrition, in particular how to maximize iron absorption, like taking iron with orange juice and vitamins D and B. He cut way back on coffee because it reduces iron absorption. He called that decision “a killer for me because it’s my favorite thing in the world.”

In addition to a plan to reverse anemia, he needed results; he needed to stun pro team directors like he had once stunned his dad.

When Kyer was in his mid-teens, the two set out on a mountain bike ride to discuss his desire to start competing in a sport. At the time Kyer wanted to race on skis. His dad ski-patrolled and Kyer started downhill skiing at the age of three. But his parents didn’t relish the idea of shuttling him to ski practice on the nearby Eldora Mountain.

“We were talking and I just started racing him uphill and beat the shit out of him,” Kyer said. “It was the first time I had ever really beaten him at anything and he was really kind of stunned.”

His dad said he’d buy him a new road bike. Kyer could take himself training and they would drive him to races. Until then Kyer rode around on a borrowed family friend’s Bianchi with downtube shifters and toe-clips.

Kyer grew up in Boulder where he attended bilingual elementary and middle schools. He started racing in high school in Lyons, Colorado at about 16 years old. The school didn’t sponsor a cycling team but Kyer found his own way to focus on training, completing senior year primarily through independent study so he could train in the afternoon. “I basically wrote my own syllabus for PE credits and they waived me having to take PE.”

He went on to the University of Colorado to study Spanish and Portuguese for two years. “When I turned pro it was not a hard decision to stop going to school,” he said. “All I wanted to do was race my bike.”

Building a case

In 2012 Kyer set about scoring an A in road racing so he could return to a pro team.

He surmises that after 2011 people in the sport assumed he had peaked during his time with Trek-Livestrong and couldn’t achieve results since leaving that team. “I don’t think a lot of people realized how bad it was for me last year and they had written me off, and so this year I really think even at the races where I didn’t get a result, I showed that I was up there.”

Only Kyer responded when race favorites attacked on the last climb of Stage 1 of this year’s Tour de Beauce. Kyer seemed guaranteed a top five that day when a crash took him down 500 meters before the finish line.

Even though he flatted and didn’t finish Battenkill, Kyer rode strongly there. Team directors spoke with him after the race; they had noticed he was going well again. Battenkill fits Kyer’s preferred kind of racing; he likes hilly, selective races. He also prefers stage racing, but has recently been getting his arms around the mindset of a one day race.

Julian Kyer in his first race with Bissell Pro Cycling Team at the Tour of Utah

He placed second in the prologue at Redlands where he lost just three seconds to the winner. “It’s an uphill prologue, you can’t bullshit that,” he said. In Kyer’s mind, those performances demonstrated he had redeemed himself and could succeed at the top level of the sport, “at least in the United States for sure,” he said.

When Kyer won the road and time trial races at the U.S. elite nationals this past June, his value soared. He received an offer from Bissell Pro Cycling Team who raced him right away in the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, followed by the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.

Fulfilling a need

In Kyer’s opinion only a certain kind of athlete can accept the not-so-fun aspects of a career in pro-cycling – frequent travel with inconvenient schedules, separation from friends and family, next to no job security, and sometimes less than enjoyable locations and accommodations.

“It has to be something that you really are in love with, and it has to be a need for you to do,” he said. “You can tell the guys who don’t have that need because they don’t last that long.

“One question I get a lot is, ‘What do you want to do after cycling?’ That’s never something that goes through my mind. The only answer I can give is, ‘I don’t know,’ because I’m not close to being done with cycling.”

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