FFR Stories: The Three Year Upgrade

Remember when John Degenkolb got emotional after winning stage 9 at the Tour de France? It took six years for him to finally get that win. Then the next day, Julian Alaphilippe goes all in for a solo stage win and is in tears after crossing the line. His very first win at the Tour. Later, during the penultimate stage, I saw a video on Lawson Craddock unable to speak between sobs as he’s getting interviewed. Why is he crying? For just surviving until the final day after crashing on the very first stage. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I think the reason I am so inspired by these feats has nothing to do with the glory they achieved for one stage win or even the fact that they survived a three week grand tour. I am inspired because these riders have committed so much of their lives to arrive at that moment. They refused to quit and never allowed regrets to fester. The inevitability of the stage win or the accomplishment of surviving is like the inevitability of breathing or eating. These feats came to pass simply because of who they are, we the spectators are just seeing the fruits of their labor. On a much smaller, slower, and not televised level I also picked a goal years ago and in the pursuit of that goal, I’ve become the person I am today. I came to realize it didn’t matter how much time it required, only that grasping it one day was inevitable, as long as I continued striving for this goal. But like most things, it didn’t start out that way.

USA Cycling (USAC) is divided into categories starting with Category (Cat) 5, the beginner’s category, through Cat 1, where the next step is the Pro ranks. To become a Cat 4 you need to complete 10 mass start races. After that, the riders need to amass a certain amount of points by winning or placing well in races to move up to the next category. My goal for the last three years was to upgrade from category 4 to category 3 and required me to get 20 points. During this pursuit of points, I’ve gotten married, moved from Florida to California, had the crash of a lifetime on a bicycle, changed career paths, started working at Franco Bicycles, and helped build Franco Factory Racing. All the while, this goal has been ever-present. It starts getting heavy after a while, so I started sacrificing more and more to reach it. I saw many close friends who started racing at the same time move up through the categories quickly. There was this lingering feeling of being left behind. I also watched friends, who started at the same time, quit racing to pursue safer and, possibly, easier things. The grind requires everything you can give. I decided to stop tracking the time put towards the goal. The return on investment becomes hard to measure. Quitting didn’t feel like an option either. The time invested already demanded success and I was willing participate. Then comes the race reflection while driving back from a race where the effort just wasn’t good enough. Reflection leads to obsession, and an overdeveloped inner critical voice. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. There were races that made me want to quit bicycles; after a win I could smell the pro ranks. At the end of the day though–it’s just a bicycle right?

I remember my first Cat 4 race. It was February 2015, a day after my birthday, I finished well in my recent races before. In fact, I had won a race in the 5s the month prior and had some racing hardware. Now begins my quick venture into the 4s, to get to the 3s. Easy. The future me is still laughing at that thought. This first race was a famous crit in Florida, the Swamp Classic. The course is a counter-clockwise four-corner crit with a rise leading to a bumpy “lightly cobbled” section, and a downhill into a back-to-back 90 degree left-hand turns. I lined up with twenty-nine other racers. To my right was a skinny-kid with mutton chops who looked like he had fought in the Civil War when that facial hair was more appreciated. He would later end up being a great friend. For now I thought, there’s some character in this group. My goal was simply survive the race and measure my fitness for 40 minutes. From the whistle, I was holding on for dear life. I remember sprinting out of each turn in a stretched out field of 29 riders and barely starting to recover before sprinting out of the next turn. I didn’t know so many people could go this fast. The race finished with me in 11th place and a black mark on my right arm. Both were surprising. 11th place was surprising because I was sitting in 25th the whole race trying not to get dropped. It also helped that ten guys got caught up in a crash. That’s bike racing, you have to stay upright to place well and you sprint after dodging a crash. The mark was surprising because, as I narrowly missed the crash, a rear wheel that belonged to a flying bicycle hit my arm as I passed by. I went home feeling like a winner and if it was this easy, I was ready for the next race. I was about to spend the next year learning how a result does not tell the whole story.

I got married to my awesome wife Michelle a month later. She has been very supportive of my cycling, and I attribute any triumphs that come later to her. I could train harder and longer because she had my back and the results would eventually start showing. For now, I didn’t see a top 10 for months. When I finally did, it was so hard fought that I cramped when I hit the finish line. To put that in perspective, I’ve only cramped one other time on a bicycle ever. I’m not one of those chronic crampers that could use a lesson in nutrition—I earned that cramp. The kid with the mutton chops won that race. Fighting in the Civil War must have paid off because he won most races I entered and upgraded to Cat 3s later that year. I finished the 2015 season envying others for their wins. It was time to get serious. Queue the winter training montage.

The 2016 season started reaping results from this new dedication and the support of my wife. I had nine top 10s in 15 races that season including one win and 4 total points towards my 20 point goal of upgrading to a Cat 3. I even competed in a 5 day omnium called the Georgia Grand Prix and did fairly well finishing 10th overall. I thought, maybe one more year and I’m out of the 4s! Then I moved west and had a rude awakening.

In August of 2016, I moved to Southern California. My wife and I visited my uncle in May to watch the Tour of California and I ended up moving 3 months later. The goal was to get some experience working in a Physical Therapy clinic, apply to grad school, and be a Physical Therapist. I moved first leaving my wife in Florida for awhile. We saved up some money for an apartment, which we hated, and then I flew back to Florida to drive my wife, my cat, and all our belongings to Ventura, CA. It felt crazy at the time and it feels crazy retelling it now. The big thing I noticed immediately was the caliber of the cyclists in California was different than what I was used to in Florida. It’s not that the racers here are that much faster than anywhere else, but there are more high-caliber racers in each category. For example, there may be five racers that have a great shot at winning a race in Florida, while here there are 10-15 racers that could take the win. I joined a local group ride in Ventura and was dropped handily by the front group. I was dropped by people I thought I could beat, like an older man, some young kid, a guy who looks like he just got off the couch, and a guy who was way too chipper for the effort he was doing. I would find out later they all have done amazing things on the bikes for years, but at the time I was humbled. It was a psychological blow. There were no short group rides in Florida that I was getting dropped from so I knew that I needed to train before I raced again. Queue the climbing training montage.

The Three Year Upgrade: Moving

The Cross Country Venture

I have this philosophy about racing–I refuse to race with a team if I see the racers are only looking for their own interests. This was especially true when I lived in Florida. Looking from the outside it seemed like all the racers ended up racing for themselves in the end. Cycling rewards the selfish, there is no doubt about that, but I would rather race by myself if I was going to be that selfish. It should be noted that there weren’t any teams pursuing me, but I held on to my principles. Who would have thought I was only a year away from building my own team? To get to that point, I had to find a team that worked together. I went to what is called the Upgrade Series in Compton, which is a crit series put on by California Bike Racing, in October of 2016. The 2017 season was approaching and I was getting itchy to race and prove myself. I knew crits weren’t my forte as a traditional road racer, but when I got 15th place I felt like it was the 2015 season all over again. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and I found winning to be a necessity. So I joined a team. The team was called OTR, On The Rivet, and was made up of some good people. They took me through the paces of trying out and proving myself at the team camp. They also had quite a few Cat 4s that I was on par with. Overall, they stressed finding a way for the team to win. It seemed like a great fit. At the team camp is where I ended rooming with Michael Schanafelt, my future coach and teammate for Franco Factory Racing. I remember seeing his Repsol Balcom S sitting in our hotel room. It looked awesome, but I never heard of Franco Bicycles so I didn’t dwell on them much. How times change.  

2017 was going to be the year that I upgraded. I was starting to feel desperate, but now I had help. Fast forward to one of the first races of the 2017 season. I showed up with my new teammates to Rosena Ranch, looking to kick the year off strong and get some kind of result. I distinctly remember a friend of mine saying this course would be the worst course to have a fall. He was right; the road was like a cheese grater. Portentous omen. The race was underway and this course suited me. It had a tailwind on a short low-grade climb and featured a downhill going into the finish line. I like to climb grades less than 6-7% and I need all the help I can get going into a sprint. As we entered the midway point of the race I was getting excited. I was enjoying the course and, if it stayed fast, the sprinters wouldn’t have much left for the finish. I could taste the points. Then it happened. One of my teammates and I attacked the group on the climb. The main group started to chase us down. My teammate, who was ahead of me, looked back to see where the main group was and I was not paying attention as our wheels crossed. I don’t remember hitting the ground at 30 mph. I don’t remember being moved off the middle of the course. I do remember my wife’s face and how she tried to smile at me.

I remember her saying “It’s ok, we’re going to get through this.”

I must have looked pretty beat up because Michelle is a rock. That’s when I found part of a tooth in my mouth with my tongue. Pretty beat up was putting it mildly. About ten hours later, I checked out of the trauma center in San Bernardino. I had no broken bones, thank God. I did have a concussion, 16 stitches spread out in three different areas in my face, two broken teeth, bruising in the inside of my mouth, a slightly sprained ankle, and some decent road rash on my legs. My bike had a small scratch, but was totally fine. Apparently, I passed out on the way to the asphalt. If I hadn’t, I would have put my arms out in front of me and saved my face, though I may have broken a bone. Either way I was glad to be alive. I was reflecting on all this on the drive home from the hospital, but first I had to throw up in a perfectly sized vomit bag from the hospital. It even had markings on the side to measure the amount of heterogeneous liquid. Gross.

The Three Upgrade: Trauma Center

“Crashing is part of cycling as crying is part of love.” — Johan Museeuw, Belgian cyclist

The Three Year Upgrade: Post-Crash

Not Pictured: Broken Teeth

What do you do when you’ve had the crash of a lifetime? I could probably say with confidence my wife and family would have been fine if I quit cycling all together. Would I be satisfied? Finding a different sport wouldn’t be so hard, I’m sure there are plenty out there that don’t include car-like speeds and the thinnest clothing produced, other than lingerie. I don’t think I would have had any regrets if I would have quit at the moment. Feeling like I almost died is a good excuse. No one could judge me for quitting on my goals if I stopped now. I could imagine people asking me why I didn’t ride anymore and responding that I almost died would be sure to get a response in affirmation. The dilemma was whether or not I could live with myself.

My mom flew in from Florida to help take care of me for the first week, while my wife went to work. In between doctor visits, the most painful showers, and sleeping, something in me clicked. I decided this Puerto Rican was not dead yet. I wanted to keep doing this and if I didn’t get back on the bike soon, I might never get back on it at all. Two days after my crash I ordered a new helmet. Four days after the crash I signed up for the San Dimas Stage Race that was three weeks away. I didn’t tell my mom though. She worked as a nurse for a decade and knew in great detail how bad an idea this was. I studied Health Science in college, so I did too. The difference is I was young and stupid. Sorry mom.

Coincidentally, I had been in touch with Hector about working at Franco Bicycles. They were looking for riders for a photo shoot of their new Latigo RS1. It was a week and a day after my crash and you better believe I did it. I figured I might as well start a modeling career while I took two weeks off of work. I will say I was very nervous about riding a $13,000 bike on the steep sections of upper Deer Creek my first ride back, but it was just what I needed.

The Three Year Upgrade: Photoshoot

I didn’t move to California to be a model, but life happens.

The rest of 2017 season mirrored my 2016 season in Florida. I finished 15th overall at San Dimas, not bad for racing with head trauma. I didn’t see a top 10 until late in the season, where I got a 2nd place and a 9th place, but I was hungrier than ever. The results were starting to reflect the mental shift I had in my crash. There was something different this season compared to my last season. I had toughened up. I had about three more minor crashes that season, but every crash left me feeling me more motivated. It was as if the blood spilt on the asphalt was watering my desire to continue competing. Every painful shower seemed to clarify my goal. My determination was at a whole different level for my Cat 3 goal. Those crashes showed me something, it showed me how strong I actually was. There is this idea motivational speakers like to mention concerning someone’s “why”. Why do you do what you do? If your why is stronger than someone who is in direct competition for your goals, you will overcome them. We see this all the time in sport when a player’s family sacrifices everything for their child to have a chance at greatness. The child understands this sacrifice, and dominates all the way till they get to the pro ranks paying them back for that effort. Their “why” is very strong. Initially my “why” was more of a whim. I wanted to race with my friends. I thought it would be cool. Then I started getting anxious for it. Then I bled for it. I watched my wife sacrifice for me. It took a few years, but my “why” was strong enough to compete, to win.  

Franco Factory Racing is the direct result of a community of “why”. If someone told me two years ago I would be heading up a team as the race director at 27, I would say you’re crazy. Yet, when the opportunity arose last year, I didn’t even blink. It was just a natural progression of my drive to compete. Michael Schanafelt and Hector, one of the founders of Franco Bicycles, had been talking about this for years, but neither could manage it because of how busy they both were. The way I saw it, it made sense for me to jump in. Plus, I already had my first racer in Michael. With Hector’s help, we went out and found more riders and sponsors who believed in Franco Bicycles. Franco’s Chicago partner Rob, set out to do the same thing in the midwest - finding riders and sponsors that shared in our beliefs.  When all was set and done, we had two squads, one in California and one in Chicago with a total of 9 riders. Quality over quantity. It seemed like divine providence. It feels like what I am supposed to be doing. Bring on the 2018 season. Queue the winter training montage, with Eye of the Tiger in the background.

The Three Year Upgrade: Training

“Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” — Eddy Merckx

The 2018 season is the season I learned how to win. The 2017-18 off-season though is when I figured out how weak I actually was. I had a great off-season training with Jeff Cadwell, service manager for Franco Bikes and fellow Cat 4 teammate, Leo Bugtai, local Cat 1 soulcrusher, and of course Michael, my coach and a Cat 3 teammate. Jeff sprints faster than me, Leo can climb sustained climbs faster than me, and Michael can climb steep grades faster than I can. Also, Leo and Michael can out-sprint me without any problems too. Basically, I had a few servings of humble pie every ride for four months. After four months of this diet, I was strong. I had a new team in Franco Factory Racing with great teammates. All the pieces were in place for a stellar season and a Cat 3 upgrade.

Let’s recap. To upgrade from Cat 4 to Cat 3, a rider needs to amass 20 points by winning or placing well. The points awarded depend on the amount of racers and the type of race. I started the 2018 season with 11 points. One big win or a few top 5s would suffice. My second race of the season I finished 5th out of 20 in a road race. That’s two points! I was getting excited now. I kept the top 10 streak rolling into UCLA Road Race. I got 6th out of 25 in probably the toughest race I had done. It was 50 miles and more than 6k feet of climbing. I raced the whole time with my front brake slightly rubbing and managed to get another two points! I will always imagine what would have happened if my brake wasn’t rubbing. Maybe I could’ve been on the podium, maybe not. The devil is in the details and I learned my lesson: make sure the bike is working properly before a race.

I went to San Dimas Stage Race again looking to place top 10 overall. The uphill time trial is everything in that race. It is hard to gain time on others because the following road race and crit are hotly contested and attacks rarely get away. After my crash in 2017, I did a 20:23 effort on the uphill time trial that landed me 15th place. Anything under 20 minutes the year before would have been Top 10 and I was looking to finish 19:10 or less. The day came and I gave it a very well-paced effort, that left me dead. I finished with a 19:18. I was satisfied and certain I managed to get into the Top 10–and then the results came in. 16th place. I couldn’t believe it, I took a minute off my TT time and did one place worse. That’s bike racing sometimes, you can only race who shows up and the results don’t tell the whole story.  In the end I finished about 15th overall out of 73. Not bad considering the field was much stronger than last year, but I wanted more.

The Three Year Upgrade: Warming Up
Warm-Ups Are Crucial

Two weeks later I showed up to San Luis Rey Road Race with fast legs and big goals. In the last lap, the attacks were coming on the final climb that leads up to the flat sprint finish. The year before I jumped too early on the climb and fizzled out. This year, I sat in and followed wheels. Finally the attack came from the guys who finished fourth and fifth at San Dimas. I followed as hard as I could and watched as they opened up a gap on us. No wonder they did so well two weeks prior. I came around the rider who was sitting third on the road and the course started to flatten out leading into the sprint. I didn’t look back. I could see first and second crossing the line and could feel riders right on my wheel. I started to sprint, but had burnt too many matches trying to hold on. I finished 7th out of 39. I got one point and a hug from my wife and called it a race. I was disappointed, but the upgrade felt like it was inevitable since I was a handful of points away now. On to the next race.

Michael has had a great 2018 season. Multiple wins in the Master’s 35+ 3-4 category, as well as multiple top 10s in the fast Cat 2-3 races. I now had another reason to move up in category, to race with him and the rest of the team, that were mostly Cat 3s. This year’s Cat 3 state championship race took place at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and Michael is FFR’s best shot at taking the title. I had one more racing weekend before this coming race to get my final two points that allowed me to play a role in that race. It was the 805 Thousand Oaks Grand Prix that featured an omnium weekend. It was in my backyard. It was also the hottest weekend to date in SoCal. Temperatures for the weekend were well into 100 degrees and the course featured a punchy climb. The first race I chased after a solo breakaway and managed a 5th place earning a single point. 1 more point to go. I also thought I was going to melt.

The sun rose on the following day and I knew this was it. Here was my last chance to get my final Cat 4 point and race at the Cat 3 State Championship. It was a forty minute crit with a drawn out climb to the finish. I saved energy for the first half of the race knowing that any attacks would fizzle out before the finish. A two person attack went with ten minutes of racing to go. I attacked off the front and bridged the gap. As I bridged over, one of the duo in the break gave up, but the other decided to continue. I looked back and the main group was starting to chase, but we had at least 5 seconds. Game on. We worked well together, hit the short climb again, and then I saw counter attacks flying off the front of the main group. Our attack is over. I start to recover and two other guys break off the front. No one chases. We have one lap to go. I know I can attack on the climb for a top 5, which is all I need to get my last point. I decide to wait. The last climb comes and I’m sitting third wheel. We start accelerating chaotically into the climb with attacks coming from all sides. I start my sprint uphill early to hold on and now I’m sitting seventh overall. Everyone who jumped early starts to slow down and I kick again with two racers next to me. I come through the finish line in exactly 5th place. I got my last point. I had imagined it for so long. Would I cry? Would I have a party? I rode over to where Michael was warming up for his race.

“I got my last point! Fifth place” I say.

“Nice work man! That was a solid race.” Mike was all smiles.

“Thanks. I’m pretty excited.” I sat down heavily on our folding chairs. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how anticlimactic it all was. There was no Rudy moment, no epic Lord of the Rings finale. I didn’t even hear a glorious soundtrack playing in the background, just the preparation for the next bigger race in mind. My phone rings. It’s my wife.

“Hey babe.”

“Hey, how did it go?” She sounds hopeful, but my wife has been nervous about my finishes since she saw me get taken by ambulance to a trauma center. Understandable.

“I did it! I got fifth and my last point.”

“Oh my goodness! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you! We’ll make some calzones tonight to celebrate.” It’s funny because this isn’t a staple celebratory meal for us–just kind of random.

“That sounds great!”

It was in that moment of hearing my wife’s excitement that all the elation of completing this goal lifted me up like a wave. We started chattering about the race and eating something special later, and I realized life is whatever you make it. You can be satisfied with your losses or dissatisfied with your wins. I decided to be satisfied and had my Rudy moment with my wife on the phone and Mike buzzing along on his trainer preparing to line up and chase his own goals. I didn’t cry, but I felt like all the pressure was off of me. I was floating and feel that same elation as I write this.

The Three Year Upgrade: Podium

Cat 4 Overall Omnium Podium

But, our story isn’t over. Now our hero comes to the true test. My first Cat 3 crit would be the fastest and probably most dangerous Cat 3 crit of the year. I remember describing it to my mom on the phone and, while she cautioned me to be careful, I had flashbacks of her scrubbing blood out of my hair. Thankfully, I was only playing a role, like a domestique, so if it got too sketchy I could get out of the way. The day came and we checked in at Manhattan Beach. There were 90 riders in our category. This was definitely the biggest race I had ever done. Just to raise the ante, every race that day leading up to ours featured an ambulance and some kind of visit to the medical tent. Thankfully, there was a hospital close by and a fire station 10 feet from the course. Before the Cat 3 race, Michael raced the 35+ 3-4 category and finished 3rd, continuing his stellar season. Meanwhile, I warmed up and tried to get psyched for this race. I want to thank Aha Gazelle and his song Ionou Jack for getting me pumped up. I rolled to the line up and Mike was at the very front, with a sea of testosterone infused males going to war on their carbon steeds lined up behind. I had to go about 80 riders back to get in line. It’s hard to work for someone when you’re nowhere near them.

I had two objectives. First, get to Michael. Second, don’t let any breakaways stick. Michael has a great sprint so it made sense to let him duke it out at the end with the sprinters. If I could keep riders from getting away, I knew Michael would contest the final sprint. The whistle blew and I started trying to make my way up to the front. It took me five laps, or the better part of ten minutes, to reach him in the front. Once there, I followed an attack that went off the front. I remember feeling like I belonged while chasing the break. Once I caught them, I immediately felt like my heart was going to explode and fell back like 20 places while I recovered. This cycle happened about three more times until I finally started getting used to the efforts and wasn’t falling so far back. Meanwhile, Schanafelt held his spot in the first ten riders the whole race. I was, and still am, amazed.

The announcers yelled two laps to go. The tension filled the air as the riders started to look at each other, waiting for someone to make the first jump. The thing is, the first jump rarely makes it; the second jump usually is equally unsuccessful, unless you’re very close to the finish. At this distance to the line, it had to be one of the many counterattacks that would succeed. I started to drift back with tired legs, Mike was still on the front, but the whole group began to slow. The slowdown caused seventy racers to pack together across this two-lane road. The whole race up to this point had been extremely fast and stretched out, but we slowed down for the first time in 45 min. The last lap was approaching and the announcer was almost in earshot. That’s when it happened, the crash. Imagine going to a large stadium to watch a sporting event and some sanguine person stands up, yelling to start the wave. Now imagine the wave is made up of bikes flying, some guy’s tubulars popping, and the sound of bodies hitting the pavement. That’s what I saw in front of me as I desperately grabbed my brakes. I came to a full stop inches from the mayhem. I looked up and saw the front group sprinting ahead containing Schanafelt. Job done. I looked around and saw my other teammates Galen Burk and Mike Hatton, who had also evaded the crash. As a racer, I am looking out for myself, but as a race director I’m looking for the well-being of the team. I have to balance selfish ambition and the team’s ambitions. Thankfully, these usually go hand in hand.

The Three Year Journey: Manhattan Beach

Screaming Legs

The Three Year Upgrade: Manhattan Beach

Go Big or Stay Home

I finished in 30th place, averaged 27.9 mph, and was proud that I made an impact on our race. I eventually found Schanafelt who was glad to see the rest of us evaded the crash. He sprinted for 7th place and was disappointed. After the stellar season he’s had, it’s understandable why 7th would feel like a loss. It’s podium or nothing for him now. I juxtaposed this to my feeling of victory finishing 30th and this proves once again that life is what you make of it. You can be happy with 30th and disappointed with 7th. No matter how I perceive this result, I know I have a ways to go to catch up. Looks like I gotta queue another training montage.

I look ahead to the winter time and another big off-season where I’ll prepare to race one of the fastest Cat 3 categories in the country. I want to bolster this team with sponsors and riders. In the back of my mind, I know I will move on from this role and this drive of competition. The natural progression in my life will demand it and new goals will replace it. My only hope is that I can take the things I’ve learned from racing and apply them throughout my life. I am sure of one thing, I won’t have any regrets because I’m giving bike racing my best shot.

Written by: Jonathan Perez


Franco Balcom SFFR The Three Year Upgrade - The Grind

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