Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview With DVR's Tony Abate

If you've ridden the Hains noon, you've lost his wheel.  If you work in Congress, your schedule has probably been set by him.  If you hear a raggedy ol' motorcycle revving near Logan Circle, you've probably heard him.  And if you're an oral surgeon, he's paid for the custom Seven you really didn't need.

I know him as a founding member of my team, District Velocity Racing, a kick-ass bike racer with Midwestern roots, wearer of tight pants and fascist-style haircut, and like Putin, elected to his Presidential post (of DVR) with no opposition.

A conversation with Tony Abate.
"Poor Man's Cancellara" Good Enough to Be Among MABRA's Best

 1.  The first time I saw you you were on a single speed, possibly fixed gear bike, possibly hungover, trying to stay with the Bike Rack's Sunday morning ride.  I believe you may have, at one point, toppled over into the grass and taken a "nap." What got you on the bike in the first place?  Did it all begin in Illinois

It began in Illinois in the sense that I got a Huffy BMX bike for Christmas as a 5 year old, and we were the type of neighborhood kids who jumped off plywood ramps and rode our bikes to the woods to ride dirt paths. Normal stuff for anyone from the Midwest.

But it really began in Switzerland, near Montreux on Lake Geneva, where my family unexpectedly moved when I was 10. My dad brought a mountain bike with us, early 90’s era stuff, sized for an adult. As a really young kid, like 11 or 12, I started riding that oversized, overweight mountain bike as far as my legs would take me. Ancient vineyards, steep climbs, pre-Roman villages with narrow cobblestone alleys, along the lakefront to places like Chateau de Chillon. I was young, but I knew it was a rare experience for a Midwest kid, and now riding connects me to those memories. I’d kill for that scenery and terrain now.

Fast forward a dozen years, I moved to DC in 2005, via a stint back in Chicago and then LA. I was immediately in love with the bike messenger aesthetic, which was unknown to me before DC. I bought a Masi fixed gear, a mini u-lock to put in my belt loop, and a Chrome bag all in the same purchase from City Bikes. The unspeakable poseur-dom of that purchase was completely lost on me, but I was hooked on real riding from that point forward.

I started riding with the Bike Rack, and yes, I bonked crazy hard on an 80mi group ride to Poolesville on that fixed gear. Hardest bonk ever, after about 70mi of non-stop motion. I got off my bike, crawled onto the lawn of a fine Potomac home, and fell asleep. Bike Rack owner/ride-leader Chuck came back and convinced me to get off those people’s lawn and limp back into town.

2.  You had a great season in 2011, winning several races and wearing the GamJams Cat 3 leaders jersey (a now-defunct competition).  When you've raced, you've been near the top at the elite level for the past two seasons.  How do you see your evolution as a bike racer?
Slow but steady progress each year, and that’s been enough to keep me happy. I was never the phenom Cat 5, or fastest new Cat 4 or 3, but I plugged away and kept to a training plan from BJ Basham. I truly never expected to get out of the Cat 4s when I started racing, but winning Cat 3 Poolesville and then that 2011 season was a huge deal for me. I felt like I came out of the 3s with a lot of momentum and had justified my upgrade to the 2s.
Abate in the Leader's Jersey
Carrying that momentum into results as a Cat 2 has been more difficult than expected. The level of local talent on all sides is amazing, from climbers to sprinters to the amazing people who can do it all. I think we should all be proud to race in such a strong region, and with promoters and courses who keep things interesting.

It wasn’t until I started racing at this level that I recognized my strengths and weaknesses and started feeling like I had evolved as a rider. I have found I’m a breakaway rider, preferably on what I would call hard rollers, and I love dirt and gravel. Poolesville is the local race I live for, and one of these years I’m going to do Battenkill.

3.  Follow-up question--you didn't race this year after July.  Every time Rob and I rolled up to a race everyone asked, "Where's Tony?"  What happened? 
Actually I didn’t race a single race after early June, the Clarendon/Crystal City Air Force weekend, easily my shortest race season. All of May and going into that race weekend I thought I was coming into really good form. I had been on top of my training and getting enough rest to feel a peak coming on.

Instead, after that race weekend, my legs came out from under me. I went from flying to not being able to do 10mi at Hains without a muscle pain and whole-body fatigue. About a month after the fatigue started, I also got a bad ear infection, and then a persistent case of strep throat. All told I had three rounds of antibiotics between early-July and early-August, on top of the fatigue issue which became a constant.

It felt like I couldn’t catch a break. It was befuddling, frustrating, and then heartbreaking when I couldn’t even be there for races that you were winning, like Giro di Coppi. Those were special moments for us as a team, our first ever marquee Cat 1/2/3 race win, and I couldn't believe I wasn't there to share in it. We’d come such a long way to be there.
Sickness and Mustaches Refused to Let Abate Be This Summer
There’s no real explanation for what happened with me and the fatigue issue. I had good docs run my blood work and everything came up fine. Odds are “user error” of some sort, the doc says overtraining but that doesn't add up to me. Maybe it’s just an unlucky bug in my system. Either way, it’s slowly subsiding week by week and I've been able to start adding miles, but I definitely don’t feel like my old self yet and won’t for a while.

4. On our ride to Sugarloaf last weekend, you mentioned that you'd enjoyed your first apple in about a year.  Explain.
I have a sad history of crashing at low speed around town. I've broken 6 teeth. The first big crash was pretty painless after the fact, just four broken teeth and I was all patched up in a couple weeks. The second time, September 2012, things got far more complicated, medically speaking. It took until the very end of last month, a year after the crash, to again have permanent teeth (a term of art for me). Consequently, it wasn't until that Sugarloaf weekend that I bit into an apple, and that’s the story. Autumn riding and a full set of working teeth are my two favorite things currently.

5.  This marks the 5th year of our team, District Velocity Racing.  Tell us about what it was like starting out with no experience and forged an old but lovable band of misfits from a young but lovable band of misfits. 
I can’t properly describe how exciting it was to start DVR. We all had this amazing new hobby that we loved, which at the beginning was really just riding. We were encouraged to race, and instead of joining an existing team, a group of friends all became teammates under a new banner, in a sport none of us actually knew much about.

Not that we invented the space shuttle or anything, but from my time in the racing scene, it’s pretty unique for a group of friends to successfully start from scratch all together. From logistical hurdles with USAC and the IRS, to creating bylaws and protocols, and managing sponsorship and membership, it was all new to us. That’s to say nothing of training, actually racing our bikes, and tactics, where bicycle racing is like nothing else on the planet. Taking on that learning curve together, and feeling like we’re making it work, brings us all closer and defines our entire culture as a team.

Looking back on 5 years (6 years for those who trace back to the pre-racing era of 2007), and seeing how many of our guys are still friends, still on the team, still racing, despite all the newlyweds and first-time kids and career changes, etc., to me, really tells the story. We’ve kept finding a place in our busy lives for DVR and racing because of that shared sense of ownership and investment.

Taking a look around, there isn’t anyone in MABRA who used to ride for DVR. People have joined, and unless they quit racing or move away, they’ve stayed. That’s one of my favorite and proudest things about the team, and I hope we have many more years of it. (*Yes, there’s Tim Rugg, but he’s a unique case. On many levels.)

6.  Businesses talk a lot about their "DNA"--the traits that define their organization.  What is the DVR DNA other than being a bunch of middle aged MAMITS (middle aged men in tights)?  How has it evolved since 2008?
Our DNA is being the new guys, the underdogs. We rally around the DIY, grassroots spirit built into the team’s history. It keeps us fresh, open to new ideas, and unifies our members, from Cat 1 to Cat 5.

This is where I mention how important our new members are to the team. They’re our lifeblood, plain and simple. I’m spending a lot of this interview mythologizing the past, either the team’s or my own, but it’s really all about the new members and the excitement and fresh history they bring. When someone new to racing gets a big result, we rally around them just as much as when someone like yourself wins the elite field at Giro di Coppi, even more so.

As racers, anything we lack in numbers we try to make up for in punching above our weight. That’s the underdog spirit giving us a healthy chip on our shoulder. We don’t have the equipment or roster of other teams, but any win worth talking about is won by panache and heart, not an aero road helmet.

As people, I think we try to be as down to earth as possible. We want to be a team that is approachable, welcoming of unproven talent, and just plain friendly. There are a lot of people who we respect in MABRA, as riders, officials, and all around good people; all we can hope for is that the respect is mutual.

7.  Complete the following thoughts...
I have an almost erotic fascination with Lord of the Rings because...
I absolutely love how over the top Tolkien went. It’s the pinnacle of going all-in on a make believe universe.

I have near-autistic levels of interest in bike parts and can provide exhaustive encyclopedic advice to those considering purchasing anything because...
I’m an incorrigible know-it-all and all that energy has to go somewhere.

When my jam comes on I have to get on the dance floor because...
We’re approaching zen riddle confusion here. The dance floor itself is my jam.

8.  What's in store for next year for you and DVR?
All things on DVR are going to continue on their steady upward trajectory. We take care of first things first, so making sure our current members are happy and well taken care of is the first priority. We have a terrific relationship with our main partners, Bicycle Pro Shop, Filter Coffeehouse, and Level2 Development, and I expect you’ll see us working with them all again.

Our men’s Cat 3 roster for 2014 is shaping up very strong, and I think it will be a breakout year for us in both the men and women’s Elite fields. As always, we’re going to recruit completely new talent, adding some fresh faces to our team and the race scene. That’s our bag, doing a little of everything, and keeping it grassroots.

For myself, I’m going to buckle down this offseason and find the form I didn’t last year. This means more time solo, more time on the trainer, more structured training. I need to watch my exertion and fatigue, but I know I’ll get there. Simply put, I want the season Great Uncle Pappy had. 

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