By Scott Mercier,
US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist
Scott Mercier competed in the 1992 Olympic Games for Team USA and raced professionally for the Saturn, US Postal Service, and Navigators cycling teams. He will be contributing a monthly column for CTS, featuring stories from his cycling career and the triumphs and challenges of staying fit in the years since.
I first met Coach Carmichael at a Category 4 camp in Colorado Springs in the fall of 1991. I had started racing in the summer of 1990 when my step-dad, Bill Kees, suggested I race bikes for a summer with my brother, Blake. I’d just graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and my plan was to backpack around the world for two years. I’d bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok at the end of the summer, but I had about two months where I could ride and race with my brother. Blake was 15 and Dad thought it’d be the last time he and I would have a significant chunk of time together before I went off into the real world.
The First Summer
Dad said he’d buy us bikes, pay our race entry fees, and gas for our beat-up old Dodge van. He was a contractor in Telluride and Blake and I were banging nails every day from 8 to 1, then we’d have lunch and train. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, but we’d ride the mountainous roads around Telluride. I’m not sure why, but we also did intervals – tons of them. In fact, I’d do them 2-3 days/week until I’d puke. Our go-to hill repeat was an 8% pitch up towards the Telluride airport. We’d go as hard as we could for 3-4 minutes, over and over again.
We travelled all over Colorado and Arizona for races. The work from the intervals paid off, and in a span of four weeks I won nearly every race I entered and quickly upgraded from a Cat. 4 to a Cat. 3 to a Cat. 2. My last race as a Cat. 3 was in Flagstaff. I won the stage race, the prologue time trial, the hill climb, the criterium, and got 4th in the road race. My time on the prologue was faster than any of the pros, as well.
My results were so astounding that by the end of the summer, I decided that I wanted to give this bike racing thing a try. So, I decided that rather than travel for two years, I’d just backpack around Asia for seven months and then come back to the States in March to race again.
I came home with $10 to my name and moved to Los Angeles, where my biological dad lived, and got a job bussing tables. I figured it’d be easy to get right back into the swing of things, but I was sorely mistaken. I was a Cat. 2 now, which meant I had to race with the Pros. I was getting thrashed in every race. The low point was when I crashed on a training ride north of Malibu. I was 60 miles from home with an unrideable bike and road rash all over my body. I had no money and no insurance, so I didn’t go to a doctor. Rather, I made my sister scrub the gravel out of my wounds with a brush. She had tears in her eyes as I was wincing in agony and the water in the tub turned crimson red.
To make matters worse, my dad was not happy with my “career” choice. He’d spent a lot of money to put me through Cal and didn’t think a “Bicyclist” was a career at all. When I told him that I was going to the Olympics the next year he erupted and yelled, “Why don’t you just be an actor, it pays better!”
By this time, I was tired of my dad and tired of LA, so I moved home to Telluride. When I got home, my mom could instantly see that something was wrong with me. I was gaunt and weighed maybe 150 pounds. She took me to the doctor and we discovered that I had some sort of intestinal worm that I’d picked up in Asia.
My goal, at this point in my life, was to see if I could get my Cat. 1 upgrade. I knew that if I could get top-20 at the U.S. Road Nationals I would automatically earn an upgrade. Cat. 1 was a big deal, there were maybe 120-150 in the whole country.
I’d put in some huge miles in LA, but not much intensity. I decided to go back to what had worked the previous year: intervals. I would ride hill repeats over and over and over. I started getting speed and power back.
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The Nationals in 1991 were in Park City, Utah. I knew this would give me an advantage since it was at altitude. The race was 108-112 miles on a hilly circuit.
About halfway through the race, Lance Armstrong attacked to break up the race. I flatted just as he attacked. I was half-way up the climb, standing on the side of the road with my rear wheel in my handing waiting for neutral support. About three minutes later I had a new wheel but was dead last and way off the back.
I thought my “career” as a cyclist was over. But I got back on my bike and was determined to finish. Each lap, at the bottom of the climb, I’d see a small group of 5 or 6 riders up the road. The climb was similar in length to the climb where I did my intervals in Telluride. I’d ride as hard as I could and catch the riders. I kept leapfrogging from group to group, and by the last lap, I was in the main peloton. There were maybe 30 riders in this group. I had no idea how many riders were up the road but with about a mile to go before the finish, I attacked the reduced peloton and soloed to the finish line. When I saw the results, I was ecstatic to see that I’d finished in 15th place and had secured my Cat. 1 upgrade; not only that, but 15th was an automatic selection to the US National Team!
Now the Real Work Begins
It hadn’t taken long to go from a Cat. 4 to the National Team. I was strong and eager, but had a lot to learn. USA Cycling offered a number of Category 4 camps to introduce riders to the sport and to teach training techniques, bike handling, and racing tactics. Even though I wasn’t a Cat 4 anymore, I signed up for one in late summer because I knew I needed to improve my skills.
It was here that I met Coach Carmichael. Chris was a presenter at one of the evening sessions. None of us had any idea who he was, but he clearly knew what he was talking about. After the session, I introduced myself. He recognized my name from the Nationals and said that he was hosting a National Team Camp over Thanksgiving that I should attend. That was the beginning of a long friendship.
More on that next time…
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