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An interview with Chris Eatough
Engineered for endurance
This weekend, Chris Eatough headed to the Canadian Rockies in search of his fourth consecutive world championship title in solo 24-hour racing. Ray Easterling caught up with him just before the race to find out what takes to be the best in this all day, all night-long discipline.
Cyclingnews: How long have you been with Trek?
Chris Eatough: This is my seventh year with Trek, pretty much since the beginning for me. This is really my first sponsor, my first team.
CN: Having been with the team for so long? How does it feel - is it like a family?
CE: Yeah. Yeah, it definitely is. The team gets along very well and I've built a really good relationship with a lot of people at Trek, even the engineers. You know, I do a lot of work providing feedback on the products and testing new stuff. That's something I enjoy doing, the product development part.
CN: Do you feel that your engineering degree helps you a lot with that product feedback?
CE: Yeah, I think so. I think I understand the technical aspects more than some other bike racers do, and of course I've got the riding experience, so I understand things just from a riding and a feel perspective but also I do have some technical background so I can actually understand how things work and why they work, what doesn't work. So, yeah, I think that helps.
CN: You've won the World Championship for the last three years, proving that you can ride farther than anyone else on a mountain bike in 24 hours. The big question I think everybody is dying to know is: Are you actually a robot?
CE: [Laughs] Definitely not. None of those races have been easy and they're not getting any easier. I think everybody that's ever done a 24-hour solo race really knows what it's like to suffer because that's what it comes down to every time. Why I've been able to deal with it better than most of the other people, I'm not sure. Maybe I'm a little more motivated, maybe I'm a little better prepared - or maybe it's just a combination of a few things like that - but I've definitely had my rough moments and it's just a matter of trying to go through them, and work them out.
CN: So you're sure you're not a Trek black box, top-secret sort of project?
CE: No. I sweat and bleed and I feel pleasure and pain just like everybody else.
CN: How do you go about sitting on a bike and riding a couple hundred miles in a day? What sort of training are you doing?
CE: Most of my training is probably not that different than a regular mountain bike cross-country pro. A lot of times I am training for cross-country races because with 24-hour solo races, I only do a couple a year, sometimes only one or two a year. But I do a lot of cross-country mountain bike races in between that, and that's kind of my background and that's still pretty much the way that I train.
So, it's typically three hours a day of training which doesn't sound like that much, but I'm quite consistent with it and I pretty much train every day or at least six days a week. If I was to be doing ten or twelve hour training rides - some people think I do that; I really don't - and if I did that I'd pretty much would only be able to ride one or two days a week and I like to ride every day. So, it's more often averaging around three hours.
Then there are times when I'll do longer rides but I won't do it very often. But maybe one or two rides, kind of preparation things, before a really big endurance race. That day might be longer, like maybe seven hours or maybe even a little longer than seven hours on the mountain bike. But that's about the longest I ever really train is seven hours and I probably only do a couple of those a year.
CN: Would you say that in the three hours that you are training that they are pretty high intensity?
CE: Yeah. I do quite a bit of high intensity riding. Again, if I was only training for24-hour solo stuff, I might do longer rides and a little less intensity, but I still like the cross-country stuff and I still like to train that way and prepare myself that way, so I do a lot of short, hard efforts.
I still those things; even you're not riding that hard in a 24-hour race, I still think there's a benefit to being able to push yourself that hard and then if I train myself to be able to ride at a higher level of intensity and if I just back off of that intensity - maybe five or ten percent down to more of a 24-hour pace - I'm still going really fast, but I'm used to going quite a bit harder than that - around ten percent harder, so it's still actually fairly easy. I think that's why guys like myself and Tinker [Juarez] that come from the cross-country mountain bike background, we still do well in these endurance races because the pace almost feels easy to us. People think we're going out super-fast but it's actually not; that's slower than we're used to riding.
CN: Having been passed by you last year at [The 24 Hours of] Moab, that just makes me all the more depressed.
CE: [Laughs] Moab is a tough race. We definitely go fast there. I usually do that with a team and that's a really competitive team relay event, so we're zipping around there pretty quick.
CN: Can you tell me a little bit about your nutrition? Can you basically eat anything you want during the course of a season or are there certain things you won't touch? When you it gets to a specific race, are there certain must-have food items during a 24-hour race for you?
CE: I'm not super-strict, although I'm fairly strict all the time. I generally follow just a good, healthy all-around eating program. I generally eat fairly low-fat. I eat a little bit of meat, but not a whole lot. I eat a lot of vegetables and I eat just good, natural whole grains - bread and pastas. I don't eat much fried food [pauses]… I pretty much don't eat any fried food, and I don't eat much fatty food.
But apart from that, I just try to follow a fairly healthy diet and [it's] somewhat the same during my race. Some of the time I'm using traditional energy foods such as Powerbars and a few Powergels, but I don't rely on scientific food the whole race. I also eat real food. Again, it's probably typical stuff that endurance racers will eat: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, maybe a little bit of pasta, maybe some potatoes. It somewhat depends on what I have an appetite for during the race.
We have a few options ready all the time and then it kind of depends what I feel like eating and what I feel like I need and what's appetizing to me. Sometimes, you're not real hungry during the race. You have to almost force yourself to eat, so you do have to find things that are appealing to you but at the same time easy to digest and easy to handle. We also have to prepare all my food so that I can eat it whilst I'm riding, because I don't stop to eat at all. Everything I eat is while I'm riding, but you can pretty much eat anything while you're riding if you just prepare it the right way and package it up the right way. It can be done.
CN: The cross-country guys, the road guys, everybody else seems to get their own rainbow jersey for being a world champion. Do you feel like 24-hour racing is getting short-changed?
CE: Well, the rainbow jersey is basically a UCI thing. That's their jersey and 24-hour racing, at the moment, is not an official UCI world championships. I can understand that. The people at Trilife that put on the world championships, that's the company that runs that race, they actually do have a jersey that they give out. It's a really nice jersey for the world championships and it doesn't have rainbow stripes on there, but their colors are yellow, blue and white. It's their company colors, so it's kind of based around those colors and it does have stripes in those colors.
I would love to see UCI recognize 24-hour racing and give a rainbow jersey out, but it's a pretty new sport and especially the solo category has only really taken off in the last few years, so I think it's understandable that it's at the state it's at now. I think it's really doing quite well. I'm quite pleased with the progress of 24-hour solo racing, but obviously I'd love to see that continue and hopefully someday be a full, recognized world championship event.
CN: How much longer do you think you'll continue racing the 24-hour solo races?
CE: I think I can keep doing it for a long time. I think the longer the race, the older you can be and still be world class at it. For example, a hundred meter sprints, running sprints, on the track, you don't see many guys beyond thirty that compete world class at that. It's such an explosive, high-intensity event that generally the younger guys are the world-class guys. But the longer the race… I mean, your endurance just continues to build as you get older.
Obviously, Tinker is a good example of that, well into his forties and still going really well at the longer races. Then you can look at other, similar type events such as Ironman triathlon. A lot of the older guys still can be at the very top in that event. I think I can keep it going. I really didn't start cycling until I was 21, also. I came from a different sports background, so a lot of guys that start when they're 13, 14, 15, you know, they might peak and not do as well as they get older, but I feel like I'm still on the rise and still relatively new to it all. So I don't see any reason I couldn't do it well into my forties.
CN: You mentioned some of the other endurance sports. Have you ever considered doing some triathlons or some of the newer adventure races?
CE: Yeah, I have. Actually, I'm somewhat interested in that. The X-Terra triathlon, the off road triathlon, obviously is appealing to me a little more than the road triathlon just because of my mountain bike background and I can run and swim a little bit, so I think I might give that a go at some point, maybe even this year. I might jump in for an X-Terra race. Adventure racing, also, is something I'm interested in.
I did do a race like that, though. I think it was the year 2000. I went out to New Zealand and I did the five-day adventure race there called The Southern Traverse race. It's really one of the bigger, longer adventure races in the world. That was quite an experience for me. I wasn't really used to that stuff and I hadn't done it before but it went quite well and I seemed to do pretty good with the sleep deprivation. Because that was five days. Twenty-four hours is a little bit of sleep deprivation, but not much. Five days, obviously, you have to sleep a little bit but the better you can get by without sleep, the better you're going to finish. So, I seemed to do quite well with that. My feet seemed to hold up well with the hiking. You know that's a big issue for people in those races. It's just foot comfort, but my feet seem pretty tough. That racing does appeal to me.
CN: How did you fare in the Southern Traverse?
CE: We did okay. We weren't a really fast team and it was a team event, so you have to move along with your team. I think we were a mid-pack team. That's about what we were expecting. We weren't really there to try and win, we were there to survive and finish and that's what we did.
CN: Speaking team sports, how did you enjoy the TransAlps last year?
CE: That was a great event. Definitely one of the best I've done. It's very professionally run - obviously not as big as the Tour de France - but in terms of the organization, it's run in a similar manner. Very professional. Always on time. A really good production. Good crowds. And obviously just incredible scenery going right through the center of the Alps there, especially when you're on a mountain bike so you can really get up to remote places and you're not stuck on where they've decided to build a highway, you can go anywhere. We really saw some great things there. I'd love to go back. I'd do that race or the TransRockies also appeals to me. I'm not sure I'll be able to get to the TransRockies this year but I would definitely like to do that some day and I think there's a big future those kind of races, too. You know, multi-day, point-to-point type races. I think they have a great future and people are really going to enjoy doing those kind of things.
CN: Last year during the 24-hour world championships, the weather turned during the race. The wind swept in, the temperature dropped and it started sleeting. What was the night like? Did you ever think to yourself: "This sucks?"
CE: Um. No. Because I was leading. [laughs] I was thinking to myself, "I have to keep going. I have to keep riding well and if I do that, I'm going to be the world champion." That's the mostly what's going through my mind. And it does get tough at times, but I think it maybe is a little bit easier to deal with that when you're very motivated and you're leading the race with a championship on the line. I think that's the way to deal with it for me. And the weather was really only bad in the morning. Actually, it was probably around 8am I think. From about 8 till 10 that we had really bad weather, so that was actually a really small portion of the race, just two hours or so out of 24 hours. I was out there in it for quite a while… and it was very cold but I really didn't think about quitting or even stopping. I just thought about: "Man, I'd better hurry up and get back to the pit area so I can change my clothes and get back out again."
CN: So, no second thoughts about rather taking a desk job as an engineer?
CE: Um, not at this point. No. I rarely think about that. Even at the worst times of racing, I still think it's a great profession and I still enjoy what I do.
CN: You seem really calm and pulled together during the races, but I know that mechanicals happen during a race. Tires puncture, chains snap, sidewalls tear. And I know you've raced a lot. Have you ever just lost it during a race and chucked your bike in the woods.
CE: Nope. I've never chucked my bike in the woods. I've never done anything to harm my bike. Yeah, I've certainly had mechanicals. In the world championships last year, I had a chain break one time and I did have a flat tire at might one time, but these things happen. They actually happen to me a lot more in training it seems like than they do in racing. The equipment is so well prepared. I have all the best stuff and I have it all in the best condition when I'm racing that we don't seem to have a whole lot of mechanicals. I switch bikes every single lap when I'm racing solo, so I'm generally only doing about an hour each time on that bike. My pit crew checks over every single thing on the bike, every time. Obviously, that's going to catch most of the problems before they really happen. We take those kind of measures to make sure nothing's going to go wrong.
CN: Speaking of your pit crew, I know your father is your own personal mechanic at a lot of events.
CE: Yes. Usually at the last few events, I've had a team of two people and it's been my dad, Mike, and a guy who is the team manager for the Trek East Coast team. His name is Jon Posner. They're both really good friends and really good mechanics and very hard working and it's really the perfect team.
CN: I also know that your dad has done some damage of his own on the downhill circuit.
CE: Yep. He's also a really good cross-country racer and still races to this day. But, yeah, he was masters world downhill champion.
CN: So does he tell everyone he taught you everything you know?
CE: [Laughs] Actually, no. It's pretty much the opposite. He'd love to say that but I remember the first time I ever rode with him and it was one of my first bike rides. He was riding before me, but one of the very first times I think he was going out there with the idea he might show me few things, especially going downhill, but I was dropping him on the downhills the very first ride [laughs]. So, he really doesn't have that claim.
But I think genetically, he's got some claims, you know, some things I've inherited from him in my genes, but as far as actual coaching on riding and racing, it seemed to be fairly natural to me and I seemed to pick things up mostly on my own. But certainly, he's a really good athlete and he has excellent endurance also. So, I think some of my physical talents I did pick up from him.
CN: I know you came from another sport, soccer, but when you got into mountain biking initially, who were the other riders at the time you may have looked up to in the sport?
CE: For me it was always the local guys that I started racing against and the guys that were winning races on the East Coast. I did read the magazine and did start to know who some of the top pro guys were and some of the top guys in the world, but I didn't see those guys, I didn't race against them, so for me it was just to be in the local races and to see the guys who were winning there and how fast they were going. I could compare how fast they were compared to me. I really looked up to those guys and it was a definite target for me to try to catch up to those guys. That's really where I got a lot of my motivation at that time; how good those guys were and to try and catch up. I could definitely remember the first time I was able to ride with them or hang with them and then beat them. It was always a really big deal for me.
CN: Chris, when you got into racing, was it initially just fun or were you always kind of looking at it as something you might be able to do as a career?
CE: I definitely didn't think about it as a career. I've always been competitive in anything that I do, so it was part fun and part enjoying the competition and enjoying getting better. I really had no idea that I'd be able to make a living at it. I was at college at the time and then in grad school and I really thought I'd be an engineer at that time. It was really only in my last year of grad school which was, I guess, '98 where I was starting to do better and I had pro license at that point to race pro and I was making a little prize money here and there. It was only really then that I thought maybe I can do this full time. Maybe I don't have to have a real job [laughs]. That was my weekend activity, and then during the week, I was back at school doing my research. It was kind of like a real job even when I was at grad school. So I was definitely enjoying my weekends more than I was at my job during the week.
CN: What advice or tips would you give to aspiring racers?
CE: I think a big part of it is you have to enjoy what you're doing. It has to be fun. I have seen a lot of people come and go. They may be very talented athletes and talented riders that were very motivated to do well and they were driven for a while and they were progressing, but a lot of times, after a couple of years, they fall off the scene because you are going to have some ups and downs. And when the downs come along, you have to be able to deal with that and remind yourself that the riding is fun and being outdoors is fun and being in the woods is fun. If it's just to try and win, it's probably not going to last because nobody wins all the time, especially in a sport that's as tough as this. Everyone is going to have their hard days. The guys that last and the guys that stick around for a while are the ones who really enjoy mountain biking and really enjoy the whole lifestyle.
CN: Do you still retain your citizenship in Great Britain?
CE: Yeah. The way that works is Great Britain basically always recognizes me as its citizen. It never disowns its people. So Great Britain still recognizes me as a British citizen even though I've taken American citizenship. But, the US kind of doesn't. They kind of expect and demand that you denounce any other affiliations. So it depends who you ask. Of course, it only really matters what the home country thinks. The US could not stop me going back to Great Britain and living there and being a British citizen if I wanted to, and they would gladly accept that. Great Britain still accepts me as a citizen for the rest of my life, so I do have both, basically.
CN: Do you have any thoughts or aspirations about the Olympics in 2004?
CE: I do a little bit and I think I'm eligible either way, for either country. Usually, the way those things work in sports is once you pick a country and represent your country, then it's difficult to move away from that country for sports and for sports representation. But, I haven't represented my country yet, either country, in mountain bike racing, so I think that's open to either one.
My career is moving a little bit more away from cross-country and more into the endurance. As I'm getting better at the endurance, I'm also finding it tougher to keep getting better at the cross-country. One does take away from the other a little bit. I'm not sure if I'm going to be at that level where I can be a real chance for the Olympics, but actually in 2000 I got fairly close to making the British team.
I was doing what it takes. I was traveling in Europe and doing the World Cups and doing the qualification races in the spring and I actually just missed out by just a few points in the end. I was the third placed guy on points where two guys got selected. It all came down to the last race and it was really close. So, it's not out of the question, but at this point I'm not sure if it's something I'm going to pursue. I would have to be on really top cross-country form to be a threat I think, and I'm not sure which team would be easier to get on. Britain has less riders, but their quality riders are really top quality riders. They're both about equally competitive for the top two spots.