This is the first in a series of interviews with professional cyclists. Â These riders will be sharing theirÂ journeysÂ to the professional ranks and the unique turning points that led them there.
Stephen Ettinger rides for the BMC mountain bike racing team. Â Stephen has been pro since 2009 with extensive national and international race experience. This interview is paraphrased. Â
Derek: Tell me the story of how you got to be a Pro mountain biker.
Stephen: I started racing when I was 14. Â At the time I was XC skiing and running cross country in high school. Â My dad started mountain bike racing also so that we could both go and do the same races. Â After doing well at a couple NORBA events early on, I started to realized I might be good at this. Â The summer before I went of to college at Montana State University, I had the opportunity to race at the Junior worlds in Scotland. Â I continued going to Europe in the following summers with USA Cycling and directorÂ Marc Gullickson. Â It wasn’t untilÂ 2010 that IÂ foresaw myself actually making cycling a profession, thenÂ I was invited to join theÂ BMC Mountain Bike Development Team USA for 2011. Â 2011Â was my breakout season, and it ultimately led to my promotion to the BMC Mountain Bike Racing Team based in Switzerland.
Derek: What were the key turning points in yourÂ career?
Staphen: When I first went to Jr. Worlds. Â I was on the podium of a race at Mt. Snow, Vt. and the other guys on the podium asked if I was going to North Carolina the following to qualify for the world championships. It was a great opportunity, so my dad helped arrange for me to stay with a bunch of different people and then do the race, while he went back to Washington. Â I ended up getting a podium in N.C. and qualifying for the team. Â All of us Americans got schooled at the race in Scotland, but it was a great experience. Â Racing at the worlds put me on the radar of USA Cycling, and I was able to travel with the national team to Europe and race the following few summers.
The other big break that I got was being asked to ride for theÂ Â BMC Mountain bike Development Team USA. Up until that point I had been relatively “self sponsored”, even taking a couple spring semesters off from school to train and race. Â I had some great support from my family and bike shops, such as Arlberg SportsÂ in Washington, but being on BMC was my first time on a team with mechanics, soigneurs, the whole deal. Â It really put me in a place of much less stress, and I was able to concentrate on doing my job: showing up and performing well at races. Â And it showedÂ â€”Â I ended up 4th overall in the US Pro XCT rankings andÂ 8th in the U23 World Cup Overall.
Finally, being named to the US Olympic Long Team in December of 2011 and then having the Olympic selection come down to Sam Schultz and either Todd Wells or myself was pretty humbling. It was confirmation that I had made it and all the hard work really does pay off. I’ve now shown that I can be the top American in big events like the World Cup, and mentally that is a big hurdle to overcome; knowing that you can be as good as anyone else out there on a given day. I think that will prove to be pivotal as time goes on.
Derek: What is the most and least glamorous part of being a Pro?
Stephen: Â I still am getting used to having 40,000 screaming fans watching at some of the world cup races that I do. Â Or having a crowd of people watching me warm up on a trainer and ask for my autograph. That is pretty cool.
The hard part is being alone in your apartment, away from your friends and family for such a long time. I was living in French-speaking SwitzerlandÂ for 6 months (and away from home for about 8 months this season).Â I only speak a little French so communicating was challenging. Because you are so focused on training and recovering you miss out on the little things that can enrich your life in other ways. Â For 2013 I plan to have longer stints back home in the US between racing blocks in Europe.
Derek: What advice would you give riders seeking to become professional?
Stephen: Make sure you are doing it because it is fun for you. Â It is a long process, so enjoy it. Â There are not a ton of doors opening, with limited jobs in professional cycling, but eventually a good opportunity will arise. Going to a few big national events as a junior rider was also an excellent experience.
Some closing thoughts. Â Stephen was lucky to have good support,Â especiallyÂ from his family, before he became a pro. Â This allowed him to be flexible and take risks (going to N.C. for the race that led to his jr. worlds selection, going to race in Europe with USA Cycling in the summers, or taking semesters off from University) that ultimately paid big dividends. Â Stephen emphasized that his enjoyment of the sport fuels his work ethic.Â