On the rivet: Interview with Rahsaan Bahati

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Rahsaan Bahati has been winning bike races since he was a kid. Including a national elite men’s criterium championship in 2008, he has won some of the biggest crits in America, including the Athens Twilight Criterium (2008). Rahsaan turns thirty-three this year, and after feeling the pain from a couple of his leg-searing efforts out on Westchester Parkway, I called him to find out what’s in store for 2015.

CitSB: What are your racing goals for 2015?

RB: I’ve put together a schedule of twenty-one races and would like to win five of them. There are no particular ones I’ve targeted, but of course Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and Dana Point Grand Prix I normally go pretty hard at because those are local races and I’m a hometown rider.

CitSB: What’s on your non-racing radar?

RB: In 2011 I began a business that has really developed. With my partner Anthony Reguero, we’ve put together a project similar to Costco; customers buy a membership and get bicycling products at a significant discount. We offer nutritional products, apparel, and bike products that you’d find in a bike shop. The web site is www.bahatiracing.com.

CitSB: What are you doing differently this year for training?

RB: First off, I’m cross training at the gym or at the park with a personal trainer. I’m doing pliometrics, box jumps, resistance training. I’m doing it for two months until March, it’s very similar to circuit training; I can already feel a big difference. I hit it hard, it’s a hour workout and feels like I’ve finished a hard bike race when I’m done.

CitSB: What particular aspect of your racing are you trying to improve?

RB: I’m trying to improve my snap in the sprint. The first 5-second burst is what you start to lose as you get older. It’s that high explosive kick that you need in crits because of those short, explosive sprints.

CitSB: Where are you in your career now?

RB: From an outside perspective it may look like I have a lot of career left, in terms of age and ability I’m still there. But after twenty years of racing at a certain point there aren’t many big crits that I haven’t either won or finished in the top five. And even with the prestige of nationals, perhaps it’s possible to win again, but then what? A big contract from a pro team? The reality is that I’m promoting my own brand and a sponsor is thinking “How do I get this guy’s efforts if he’s got his own business?” I’m in a good spot right now. I get to ride, my business is growing, I need to think about the future — I’ve got a wife and three kids.

CitSB: It’s pretty unusual that a guy of your caliber takes the time and makes the effort to ride with beginners and weekend hackers. What’s the motivation for that?

RB: I don’t take myself too seriously. I’ve been around, and I can ride with anyone, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re just starting out. When I was young and you did something wrong there was a lot of yelling and pushing, people told you you were screwing up but didn’t tell you what you were doing or how to correct it, they just called you an idiot. I may yell too sometimes, but I try to educate and help riders work on their skills. It makes it safer for them, safer for me, safer for everyone.

CitSB: What was it like to be the first African-American cyclist of a national caliber since Nelson Vails?

RB: When I was young I didn’t realize the impact. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized it was a big deal, and maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t realize it earlier. When I raced for Saturn my job was to represent my sponsors and race my bike. Realizing that I represented other people who looked like me, and that that could help people who, like me, had also come from tough circumstances, it changed the way I look at things.

CitSB: Is cycling more diverse now than when you started racing?

RB: Racing isn’t, but there are more cyclists. At the highest level down to the local level there are about the same number of riders who look like me, but there’s not one black female racer I can think of. There were a few on the track; we have a long way to go, but kids will eventually get into the sport and get hooked. I want those kids to have that support so they can succeed, the money, the mentoring.

CitSB: What was your first pro race?

RB: I think it was in 1998, the Merced Road Race. It was held in the pouring rain. I was a junior, but they let me ride it.

CitSB: How has the sport changed since you started racing?

RB: There’s less money in the sport, and there’s only one giant team — UHC — dumping money into it. They hire riders who race full time, that’s their only job and that makes it difficult for the guy making $12k from his team and holding down a part time job to make ends meet. When I started there were six or seven teams, Saturn, Mercury, Navigators, all with the same budget. Anyone could win. Now it’s lopsided; UHC is guaranteed to be on the podium, or to sweep it. You have guys like Holloway who can break up their train and win from time to time, but it’s just different.

CitSB: I watched your video from the 2014 Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. That was hairy beyond belief.

RB: Last year I was just going through the motions, racing on five or six hours of training a week. I was doing it just to do it. This year I’m going to put the effort into it. Maybe if I’d been a little more trained I could have been in the top three or even first place. That was a turning point race for me last year, getting fourth at an NRC race, realizing I can still go pretty well. I’ll be a lot more focused this year. I won’t be putting in the 18-20 hours that my competitors will, but 15 hours a week should be enough for a 90-minute criterium.

CitSB: What’s the hardest thing about winning an NRC crit?

RB: UHC is a well-oiled train. If you’re not in the exact right position you will miss out. They have it down to a science, and it will be interesting to see this year if other teams try other tactics from 2014. Smart Stop and Champion Systems have good teams but they tend to sit back and let UHC do their thing. Will they try to disrupt the UHC leadout in 2015? I’m a one-man band and I depend on other teams to disrupt the UHC leadout. My first race this year is in Florida, we’ll see how teams react to the blue train. It will be interesting.

CitSB: What’s the difference between racing at a masters level and at the NRC level?

RB: There’s a huge drop-off in talent and ability. The differences are graphic in the pro peloton. It may be the same ten or fifteen guys fighting for the win, but their teammates make the races so hard. Masters racing is very good and very fast, but the ability to maintain intensity drops off compared to the younger guys, the energy level is just different. Look at a guy like Holloway — he’s in his 20’s, bouncing off the walls, filled with energy. Ultimately it’s about top speed and how long you can hold it that differentiates the NRC from masters racing, and the same is true comparing the European peloton to the US peloton.

CitSB: What are the differences in cycling skills between domestic pros and masters racers?

RB: Domestic pros have no fear, bigger will, and they can control their bikes at faster speeds. They have better skills cornering, maneuvering. A lot of masters racers don’t like Brentwood Grand Prix because it’s a hard course in that it’s more technical than a four-corner crit and you have to sprint out of the turns.

CitSB: Is contact a part of pro racing?

RB: Absolutely. The spaces are a lot more narrow and there’s a lot of contact.

CitSB: Does it scare you when people slam into you?

RB: In 2014 I over-thought crashing, and that focus overcame what I wanted to do in races. Once it’s in your mind it holds you back. You can’t fear crashing and losing skin.

CitSB: Is there a pecking order in the pro peloton?

RB: Hell, yes! There’s a pecking order on the local rides, so just imagine at the advanced level. Looking back I wonder why no one ever explained it to me, but there’s definitely an old boy network. Hilton Clarke and I can go at it pretty fiercely but we respect each other and he’ll give me a push if I need it, and vice versa.

CitSB: How do you move up in the pecking order?

RB: Results. You have to earn it. You can’t talk your way into it or buy your way into it. It’s what you do on the bike.

CitSB: Are there riders who take unnecessary risks while racing?

RB: Yes, there are guys like that, but you know, I’ve taken plenty of risks. Corey Williams posted a video that showed a guy coming up from the inside, and you know some things you don’t do, but this guy was from a BMX background so maybe it’s okay in BMX, and sometimes you have to take risks. There’s a very fine line between a necessary risk and an unnecessary one, and at the time it’s not always easy to say which is which.

CitSB: What aspects of your cycling have improved with age?

RB: Endurance. And I suppose you may think too much, but on the other hand that can also mean being a little bit wiser and more strategic with your efforts. That helps when there’s a lack of training, which explains how I won four races last year.

CitSB: What aspects have diminished with age?

RB: My snap and my sprint. It’s that first five to ten seconds of acceleration. I can still hit 40-42 mph in the sprint but it takes a tad longer to get there.

CitSB: Who are the riders you’ll have to beat in 2015 to achieve your goals?

RB: Hansen, Keough, Myerson, Holloway — the usual suspects. I can give them a run for their money if I don’t make any mistakes. To beat guys like that, things really have to fall into place.

CitSB: Good luck this year, Rahsaan.

RB: Thanks!

END

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