There is a chill in the air as the sun slowly starts to crack through the pine trees surrounding Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, New York, perhaps the first notable chill since spring has passed. The tents and RV’s adorned with sponsors’ logos line the gravel finishing stretch. Gas-powered generators hum as the morning’s first few races get underway. As the day progresses, the coolness of the early morning yields to the late summer sun. Riders begin to arrive and mechanics start the routine of readying the bikes for the afternoon races. The activity outside of the team tents picks up as young fans linger to catch a glimpse of pro riders, and perhaps get a rider card signed. It is the first weekend of September and the official start of the North American cyclocross season.
Tucked away under the shade of the pines, Richard Sachs sits spinning the pedals of his newly painted golden frame. His white mini-van serves as the center of the team’s parking area. Team riders Dan Chabanov and Brittlee Bowman sit in the grass, Chabanov fidgeting with a camera and Bowman opening the sealed plastic bags of the season’s new kits. Mechanic Dan Langlois makes the final adjustments to the handcrafted bikes, tightly wrapping the bars with the appropriate Richard Sachs logoed bar tape. The team chatters about the travels of the summer, and whether they slept enough the night before. Langlois makes a second or third cup of coffee on a portable camp stove, keeping the mood light while playing music through a small speaker. Sachs, with his trademark cluster of silver earrings, is content to pedal silently on a stationary trainer as he prepares to race for the first of many times this year.
For Richard Sachs, the cyclocross season started long before the opening races in Rochester. Most years, the beginning of the new season coincides with the end of the last. Sachs will begin to contact sponsors in hopes to renew their support of the team for the coming year. The bikes will be cleaned, re-cabled and sold in order to raise more money for the team’s travel and entry fee expenses. In the spring, once the team roster has been decided, Richard will once again begin the fabrication of the new frames in order to have them finished in time for the start of the season. The cyclocross program began as a sister project to the road team Sachs started in 1982, but it became Sachs’ sole focus by 1998. Based in New England, the team roster has always been compiled organically. Whether riders are friends of friends or young riders graduating through the ranks of the local clubs, it hasn’t stopped the Sachs program from fostering some extremely talented riders. Many of New England’s top riders have piloted the handcrafted frames of Richard Sachs to National Championships, to regional series wins, and even to represent the United States in the World Championships.
With the team competing against the best in the country week in and week out, Sachs knows that they have their work cut out for them. Brittlee Bowman, a designer by trade, is trying to erase the previous season from her mind. A crash late in the road schedule left her with an injured ankle that plagued her throughout the 2016 ’cross season. Having put together what was easily her most successful season in 2015, she is hoping that she will find the form in the coming months that helped land her on multiple UCI podiums and propelled her to some solid results in Europe.
Dan Chabanov wears many hats, trying to balance racing life between freelance writing, photography gigs, and his duties as a cycling coach. Chababnov just recently returned from Barcelona, Spain, where he was covering the latest round of the Red Hook Criterium Series, and is second-guessing his fitness prior to the start of the race. The former New York City bike messenger cut his teeth racing alley cats and fixed-gear criteriums. Having won the Red Hook Crit on three occasions starting in 2010, Chabanov began racing cyclocross for Richard Sachs in 2011. Chabanov will be the first to call out his own limitations in a stacked UCI field, but that has never slowed him from punching above of his weight class in the opening laps of a big race.
Bowman and Chabanov, along with teammate Sam O’Keefe, a Baltimore-based rider who has recently moved to Boulder, Colorado, will concentrate on racing the year’s growing list of UCI races. In a whirlwind of tollbooths and dusty tracks, the team will battle for UCI points and prize money, weekend after weekend, from September into early December. While most of the racing the team will concentrate on is located in and around the east coast, both Bowman and O’Keefe will race west of the Mississippi. O’Keefe will take on a host of races in the Boulder area before joining his teammates in his native home of Baltimore for Charm City CX, and Bowman will fly out to take part in the final edition of CrossVegas before the race relocates to Reno, Nevada.
As the team lines up in the starting grid, Richard Sachs acknowledges their position as the underdogs—a position that I believe Sachs revels in a bit. He knows that they are in for a hard battle, and it is in that battle that the spirit of cyclocross lives. Every corner, every lap, every season is a fight. The one thing Sachs demands of his riders is that they fight, that they never give up. “Never fucking relent,” as Sachs often says, an approach to life as much as it is an approach to racing. In the time I have spent around the team over the last few seasons, I have never witnessed a team member quit. I have watched them suffer, I have watched poor performances, and I have watched Sam O’Keefe be removed from the side of the course where he fell after impaling his arm on a stake, but I have never seen a Richard Sachs team member mentally give up.
As the season wears on into the winter months, the miles stack up. The weekends in remote motels, meals in diners—it all seems like a well-functioning dysfunctional family. Seldom is there serious talk about the races over meals; it’s mostly observational humor of the day’s events and deciding whose room will be dedicated to the after-dinner beverages. From the inner city of Baltimore to sleepy highway towns in Connecticut, the team throws themselves into oxygen debt for an hour at a time. Giving everything for a chance at a good result, a little glory, in a fleeting moment of luck and form before the season fades. “We are a team, a troupe, and a family,” Sachs once said, “and the range of emotions that follow us for five-plus months comprise the memories that carries us forward, as we let go of all of this until the next season begins.”