An interview with Marty Jemison

Adapting to Civvy Street

Marty Jemison talks about a decade in racing and making the switch back to civilian life

By Chris Hulse

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2000 US champ
Photo: © Tony Szurly

In the early 90's, after graduating from the University of Utah, Marty Jemison decided that he liked cycling enough to try his hand at it full time. The Utah native quickly worked his way up through the ferocious ladder of amateur and then professional cycling. His hard work culminated with rides in the Tour de France in 1997 and 1998 for the US Postal team. The decision to devote his life to cycling led to an odyssey that would take him to the sport's peaks and in his last season – when his team to be fell through – the sport's lows.

Arriving in West France in his early 20's Jemison soon found his feet with a small but very well organized and 'family-like' team, C.C. Chateaubriant. In 1992 he won 11 races and made the top ten 52 times. That statistic should give pause to anyone who has tried their luck racing in Europe; many have returned home disillusioned by the whole experience. Marty went on to ride in the professional ranks from the 1994 season, beginning with WordPerfect and ending with U.S. Postal after a 2000 season that included working tirelessly for the team's bigger stars.

He intended to continue racing domestically for Noble House in 2001 but that 'phantom entity' team never came to be. One year on from that disaster, Jemison is doing what has to be done to provide for his family. I caught up with him over the phone to hear his thoughts on a career that involved over 1000 European races and winning both amateur and professional U.S. National championships.

Adjusting to life outside the world of professional cycling is a difficult task, especially when things take a turn for the worse. "Officially my retirement started the week before my daughter Atlas was born on February 23, 2001. I prepared similarly to previous years for the upcoming season. When my team-to-be failed over and over I decided that enough was enough and that my family came first. I wanted to race stateside for another one or two years, helping aspiring riders and to help build another team, but the program never materialized. I spent the next six months at home with my daughter, trying to re-invent myself. My only exercise consisted of the daily hikes with Atlas in the Baby Bjorne front pack. We live at 8,000 feet in the mountains and these hikes gave me the much-needed time to think."

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Americans at the Tour de France. 1997
Photo: © AFP

Having to reinvent himself required complete focus and as a result it has been over a year since he has slung his leg over the top tube of a bicycle. This in itself is hard to believe, since for the last 10 years Jemison was logging upwards of 23,000 miles a year. He soon found himself asking, "What do I do now"?

At first it seemed logical that a man with such an intimate knowledge of the sport would stick with what he knows and so he did. "I did some online training but the economics did not make sense although I would like an opportunity in the future where I could help athletes if the situation presented itself."

One such opportunity where Jemison thought he would fit well would be would be working for a former US Postal equipment sponsor. "Armed with my achievements in cycling and BS in Economics I applied for a position at Trek. I later received a letter stating that I was not qualified."

Ultimately Jemison found a position that did want him but also allowed him to remain in his native Utah. Marty landed a job working in a sales/marketing capacity at a local resort. "Promontory is a very high end second home community that is under development. We will have 47 miles of mountain bike trails that I will be endorsing and we are approved for up to five private golf courses." For now, Jemison is happy where things are headed. He is a family man now and there is no mistaking that that is the most important thing in his life.

Looking back over his years in the pro peloton, Marty recalled his unusual training regimen that was custom fit to the Utah environment. "Oh I was on my bike in November but yes I think my winter preparation may look a bit different to some. I would try to stay in Park City as much as I could riding on the dry, cold roads. You have to keep in mind that the weather here is arguably better than in Boulder or Colorado Springs. When the weather turned I shifted my training to incorporate long snowshoe hikes in deep powder and skate skiing. After these sessions I would ride indoors, sometimes before and after. Also, St. George is only a 4.5 hour drive from here and offers a much warmer climate, so when I felt my cycling volume suffer, I would drive south or fly somewhere."

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At the 1997 Tour
Photo: © AFP

The time spent training paid off with a contract with WordPerfect. The arrangement with the team was the culmination of many years of hard work, sacrifice and the all-important good luck. First-rate results on C.C. Chateaubriant as well as taking the amateur U.S. National Championship title in 1993 all helped seal the deal. "In 1992 with Chateaubriant I won 11 European races and was in the top 10; 52 times. No crits! All were 100-mile road races. In 1993 I spent time with the US National Team. With the help from the Wasatch Sports Fund I won the US National Championships that year. With my new jersey and European success I worked the phones hard and I felt that I had a chance with the American-sponsored WordPerfect (now Rabobank) team that Jan Raas ran. They responded favorably and I found that team to be the most professional I would ever ride for."

Jemison is quick to point out that he won the right races at the right times all thanks to the ability to work hard and less on genetics. "I believe that my success was due more to my hard work and commitment, my body did respond well to great volumes of training and racing. My body only responds to extreme training. I do know that mentally I was strong and efficient in the referenced training environment and I think that outweighs my lack of genes. There are those who have an abundance of better genes, I was not one of them. I look at my years in France as the monk years 'exponential'."

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Roubaix, 2000
Photo: © AFP

With his racing career over, Jemison notes his hardest efforts sometimes went unnoticed. "What is recorded is what counts so I would have to say that taking the 1999 US Professional Championship jersey was my best performance. Personally though I think I put greater efforts in 2000 Paris-Roubaix, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne- Liege. Going farther back, the 1997 and 1998 Tours and in many other races where I usually rode for others."

Marty notes like many others who have worked for Lance Armstrong that it brought him to a new level. "I rode harder for Lance than I thought I was capable." One such race that Marty enjoyed most during his career was the 1999 Tour of Luxembourg where he did exactly that. "Little was ever mentioned about this race but I really enjoyed the last day of the Tour of Luxembourg when Lance won G.C. Lance had our team line up leading the peloton into a narrow, 14-16 percent climb. Tyler and myself went over the top with L.A. in our wheel and the two of us proceeded with a 60km time trial with six riders in tow. Frankie was in the break and won the stage. This was Armstrong's first victory after cancer... I liked riding hard."

On the subject of U.S. professionals who are likely to surprise in Europe the way Armstrong did back at the 1999 Tour de France, Jemison is quick to point out that this is not the first time he has handled this question. "Bob Roll asked me this same question several years ago and I said Tyler Hamilton." Now it seems that fellow Utah native Levi Leipheimer is one to watch as well. "I have known Levi Leipheimer a long time as he used to live here in Utah and I would see him while we were both living in Belgium."

Marty still keeps close tabs on Levi's progress "I called him just this past weekend and spoke for nearly 40 minutes." Friendships Marty has forged during the years will most likely remain strong despite the fact that he has exited the sport. It's those friendships that are usually what riders miss the most.

One aspect of cycling that Jemison surely will never miss is the drug debacle that was documented by the Festina assistant Willy Voet. "I do not have a personal copy of Willy Voet's book but did flip through someone's copy once. Those were hard wheels to hang on to, especially during the 1997 Tour."

Clearly the transition from cycling to everyday citizen was abrupt, yet Marty Jemison has handled it seamlessly. Not that this should surprise anyone who understands the effort required to succeed at one of the world's most intense sports. And so, after hanging on to Richard Virenque's wheel in the '97 Tour everything else should seem easy in comparison. Marty Jemison will most likely rise handle the rest of life's challenges with the same determination and resolve that made him so successful in the world of cycling.

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