By John Alsedek
Nutrafig's Ron Schmeer is one of those cyclists who has managed to find a balance between riding a bike and having a life. He's also been a contributor to cyclingnews in the past.
Attaining a level of excellence in any sport requires a great deal of self-sacrifice, and cycling is no exception. Even for most of us 'weekend warriors', there is a high price to be paid, and in multiple currencies: the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears given forth in the act of training and racing; the time taken away from other leisure activities and devoted to the bike; the monetary cost for equipment, licenses, entry fees, and travel. The demands of cycling often lead to a certain single-mindedness which in the short term, may lead to success, but for many can lead to disillusionment and burnout. Most racers who fall into that trap never recover, and end up abandoning the sport. Others use the experience to re-order their priorities, to find some sort of balance in their lives. Nutra-Fig's Ron Schmeer falls into the latter category: an up-and-comer who quickly realized that there are a lot of things worth doing in life that don't involve two wheels, and that such an understanding actually helps, rather than hinders, his cycling career.
Of course, that might be because of the 'late' start Schmeer got in racing. In a sport in which many top riders are already grizzled veterans by their eighteenth birthdays, Schmeer didn't even do his first race until age twenty. Sure, he'd been a fan of the sport since 1984, when he had seen the U.S. Olympic Trials take place in his hometown of Spokane, Washington, but until 1988, he'd never given much thought to racing himself. No, Schmeer was a serious middle distance runner, both in high school and college, and the bike was strictly for fun and some cross-training.
Then, in the spring of '88, he suffered a stress fracture of the tibia that ended his track season, and decided to concentrate on cycling while he healed. After spectating at the '88 Olympic Trials - again held in Spokane - he decided to try his luck at racing. During the rest of that year and 1989, he only did a handful of races, but the seed was planted. In 1990, while still attending the University of Washington in Seattle, he and his college roommate began going to most of the regional races. Schmeer soon found that, while he was not a particularly strong time trialist or sprinter, he could climb pretty well, and by the end of 1991, his riding had earned him a spot on the brand-new TCBY amateur squad for the '92 season.
It was to be a bittersweet experience for Schmeer. On the plus side, he finally had the financial and team support to do races outside of the Pacific Northwest, such as the '92 Olympic Trials, where his TCBY teammates Tim Peddie and Dave Nicholson shocked the cycling establishment by making the team. He was also finally earning a regular paycheck for racing...at least in theory. In practice, it seldom went so smoothly: "I lived in Seattle and the team was managed locally, so on the fourth or fifth of the month, when my paycheck didn't show, I'd camp out at the manager's office until he'd show up and write me a check. He seemed put out to do it, and I thought it might be bad for my chances (of being retained by the team for '93) but I'd just finished college, didn't have any savings, and needed that money for rent."
Ultimately, despite management assuring him that they were satisfied with his riding, Schmeer was not retained for the 1993 season: "I talked to other riders during Christmas, and they'd signed contracts in October! The manager never called me to tell me I wasn't on the team...he made the mechanic call me from Arkansas and break the news." After that experience, as well as never receiving his last two paychecks, Schmeer decided to roll the dice and race in Europe in '93. It was a move that nearly ended his cycling career.
After making arrangements to race for Velo Club Gundeli, a modestly budgeted team based outside Basel, Switzerland, Schmeer used his anger over the snubbing by TCBY as motivation to train very hard all winter ("too hard, as I'd find out later"). Upon arriving in March, Schmeer soon found himself comfortable in his new surroundings. The long, hilly road races suited his strengths, and the team was supportive, driving him to races and covering his entry fees. He won several races in March and April, including the Kaiseraugst Grand Prix, and performed well in the famous Rund di Rigi amateur race. His results were good enough to get him an invite to join a larger team sponsored by Mavic, but by May, overtraining had left him in dire straights both physically (bronchitis and the flu) and mentally (the dreaded 'burnout'), and he returned to Seattle in June.
For the rest of the season, Schmeer recuperated and reflected on his future in the sport, ultimately deciding to go back to his original philosophy on the sport: "I still raced hard, but focused on making sure I was having fun, and not investing all my money and emotions in cycling." For the next two years, he raced, mostly locally, with the occasional trip to California or Colorado- for a small regional team sponsored by Thomas Kemper Gourmet Rootbeer. Schmeer still had some success, winning the District Criterium ('94) and Road ('95) Championships, but balanced it with other things: working (his uncle owns several drive-in restaurants in the Seattle area), hobbies (fly fishing, hiking, cooking), and spending time with his girlfriend, Kristin. It was a comfortable status quo, albeit one in which he didn't really have full opportunity to learn his capabilities. However, his career was about to get a boost from a most unlikely source: the local team he had ridden his first races for back in the late 1980's.
For the 1996 season, Schmeer rejoined his old club, now sponsored by Ray's Boathouse Restaurant. While not a big-money operation, they had a reputation for developing good riders. Among their 'graduates' were future Mercury rider Kirk Willett, '96 Olympian Greg Randolph, and Schmeer's ex-TCBY mate, Dave Nicholson. Following a solid early season, Schmeer had what would prove to be his breakthrough performance, at the late-April Vuelta de Bisbee. In the Stage 6 Bisbee Criterium, he broke away from a strong national caliber field in the company of ex-AC Pinarello pro Bryan Miller. They worked together perfectly on the hilly course, evenly splitting both the work and $500 in primes before Schmeer took the stage victory.
The next year, he turned that single-day performance into a whole series of strong rides. In Oregon's well known Tour of Willamette, he won two stages and had the lead going into the final stage, the treacherous Kill Hill Road Race. Forty miles from the finish, a small group attacked and gained 2:30 on the field. Schmeer's most dangerous rival, former Motorola pro Steve Larsen, used the break to his advantage. He bridged to them, then dropped them on the final climb to take both the stage win and first overall. However, Schmeer was to have some measure of revenge in the Copperopolis Road Race. Contested on an infamous 21-mile circuit outside Stockton, CA, the race came down to a four-man break: Schmeer, Comptel's John Peters, Nutra-Fig rider Mike Sayers...and Larsen. This time, Schmeer wasn't letting Larsen get away, and he attacked on the climb with 15 miles to go and won solo by nearly three minutes. His good form continued in early June's Tour de White Rock Road Race in British Columbia. Midway through, it didn't look to be Schmeer's day: he flatted, and then was directed off course. Still, with the help of Ray's Boathouse Restaurant teammate Rusty Beall, he regained the field, and then made the decisive four-man break, eventually dropping the others on the 19% Magdalen Hill to win alone.
His performance was good enough to make the local news back in Seattle, and combined with several other good results (a silver medal in the USCF Criterium Nationals, and fourth overall in the Tour of the Gila) earned him a pro contract with the newly restructured Nutra-Fig team for 1998.
Schmeer soon proved to be a good fit with his new team, and vice-versa. With a lineup of young neo-pros, the experienced Schmeer soon became the team's 'road captain', helping new team manager Mike Cooley run the show by example. Once they rode themselves into race shape - most of the team members had to work winter jobs - the Nutra-Fig boys began to come through with some good results. So did Schmeer: he won the British Columbia Classic Stage Race and the Mutual of Enumclaw Stage Race, and took a fourth overall in Willamette.
Following his first-ever ride in the prestigious First Union U.S. Professional Road Race where he finished 63rd, in the company of two former winners and an ex-Tour stage winner, he picked up fifth in the Nevada City Classic, and helped teammate Burke Swindlehurst win the Tour of the Gila. He then came up with a strong ride in Oregon's Cascade Classic. Competing in a field that included all the top U.S. pro teams, as well as a certain Lance Armstrong, Schmeer got into a strong six-man break in Stage One, the Bachelor Bitter Road Race. After picking up 1:42 in just six miles, the group began to unravel on the final KOM climb, but Schmeer hung tough to take third. He then spent the remaining stages working to support fellow Figs Swindlehurst and Adham Sbeih, both of whom finished in the top six.
It proved to be the prototypical performance for his role with the Nutra-Fig squad: he would both get the opportunity to ride for himself, while at the same time would help provide the on-road leadership so necessary for a team of fledgling pros. Things went much the same in 1999. After missing part of the early season during his recovery from knee tendonitis, Schmeer came back to have a solid season: he again won the Mutual of Enumclaw event, and also the Columbia Plateau Stage Race. Among his other placings were third in the KOM competition at the Grand Prix de la Beauce, second in the pre-Beauce Montreal Criterium, and fifteenth overall in the Cascade Classic. Along the way, he continued to help the development of his young Nutra-Fig mates, a role that seems to suit him quite well.
For 2000, Schmeer has stayed with Nutra-Fig, citing the comfort level as the primary reason: "I really enjoy riding for this squad. It's not a very high profile or big budget team, but all the guys are friends and it's easy to travel around together. I don't make much money, but both the organization and the ownership are there to help the riders." A prime example of this would be the location of the team's training camp at the ranch of the Jura's, the family that owns the San Joaquin Fig Co., makers of Nutra-Figs).
However, he doesn't appear to have designs on staying involved with the team once he decides to retire. Schmeer already plans to work for a non-profit social science research organization in Seattle (he majored in Political Science in college). However, that's a few years down the road. In the meantime, Ron Schmeer will continue to balance racing and the rest of his life, and continue to compete for the most elementary of reasons...because it's fun.