We’re a fortunate gang we are – here at The Bonebell. We have had great luck and good friends who have helped us spotlight the positive virtues of dirtbaggin’ both at the amateur level and at the professional level. We got one of those great opportunities in early November to interview Barry Wicks, professional mountain biker and cyclocross racer, in his own home in Evanston, IL. Barry has without a doubt been one of the most affable and approachable dirtbags who is more than happy to talk about all things dirt related, and sometimes even enjoying a cold brew with you. He is most well known as one half of the two towers of power that rock the Kona World squad. He gives powerful performances as a force to be reckoned with on the course, in addition, to being the winning clown at the singlespeed world championships wearing nothing but a golden speedo. Barry invited Stiggity and El Maya to his humble abode on the northshore campus in downtown Evanston, a stones throw away from Turin Bicycles that proudly showcases his flagship race model in the windows display in an almost homage-like fashion to their pro neighbor. Barry was incredibly accomodating offering up strong ale to help us imbibe the vibe of a great conversation.
When did you have the specific ‘aha’ moment that you knew you wanted to be a professional bike racer?
Probably the first race I ever did, I dunno (laughing heartily)! I think when I was a kid, I had aspirations to become a professional athlete, soccer was my big sport, I actually played for 15 years and I was in Europe playing in this youth premier league team. While I was over there, I picked up Mountain Bike magazine and that was sort of the game changer for me. I had ridden my mountain bike a lot and then sort of just read this magazine cover to cover about ten times, reading up on all this stuff. While I was there (Europe) I saved up all this money, so I can buy things while I was there, and I ended up keeping it all because I wanted to buy a mountain bike! So, I got home and I bought a mountain bike and as soon as I did that I just got into mountain biking in general.
They have the state games in Oregon, which is a whole bunch of different types of sports – they always give you the booklet that had all the different things they were doing for state games, and one of them was a mountain bike race. That was my first ever kind of race. I ended up racing this dual slalom race and I won, but I was the only person in my category (13 year old category). That’s how I got into mountain biking. Once I started racing, the first races, I was terrible! I first started cross country racing, I’d get lost, and I’d get massive bicycle failures, all that kind of stuff ya know. There wasn’t ever any doubt in my mind that I was going to become a pro mountain bike racer. I don’t think there was ever any singular moment where I was like, “Oh I can do this!”, I just always thought I could.
For me the biggest influence and sort of the reason why I stuck with it and I went down the path I did with it, was this guy Erik Tonkin from Portland. Early on in my racing career, he sort of spotted me and singled me out, and mentored me along the way. For him, [he] basically showed me that I could be a pro cyclist. He kind of picked me up and was like – this is how you do it. Certainly, Corvallis (Oregon), was an environment that was conducive to this, especially mountain biking. I appreciate what I had back then, I could ride out my back door and be on the singletrack in five minutes!
- At this point, Barry had elaborated about Erik Tonkin, and his eyes filled with pride as he described the masterful motivation provided by an elder dirtbag that took him under his wing to provide him the guidance to have the right attitude for competing at a professional level – his most notable statement summed it up incredibly well about Erik Tonkin “If you can’t go there and do it by yourself and be successful, than you can’t do it – you have to be able to do this by yourself on your own, and once you can do that, then you can get onto a pro team.” That was Barry’s summation of how Erik presented a pro career path.
Do you consider yourself a professional bicycle racer?
Yeah, it’s always weird, everytime I tell somebody what I do, it feels weird – it almost feels like not a legitimate profession, but that is my job, I get paid to race my bike, it’s my only source of income I have, so yeah, I’m a professional cyclist.
I think there is a lot of misperception of what a professional cyclist does with their life or how they act or what it takes to be a pro cyclist – because – there is all this information, and I think cycling lends itself to be this sort of geeky endeavor. People are really into training, and the bike tech, and all this stuff, and I’m into all this stuff too but also to me, I still have that same sense that I’m thirteen years old and I’m in the woods and shredding with my friends having an awesome time! For me it’s an important balance to strike, because if it was only the geeky technology and stuff, I would hate it. – Cycling is such an awesome way to interact with really cool people and see the world, experience new cultures, new people, and in different areas. To me there is a lot more layers of being a professional cyclist, than just “I live like a monk and I train and whatever”, to me the racing in of itself isn’t enough, I have to experience the lifestyle of cycling in general.
Yeah, it’s great, I’m a pro cyclist, and it’s fucking awesome!
Stiggity gets served another brew and curiously asks how the ‘towers of power’ came to be in the Kona World
I think it was an easy thing for Kona, we have these super tall guys we have racing! Us being so compatible, our personalities, being good friends, and having sort of that physical stature! It’s good to have recognizable figures in cycling and so if we can create something to make people stoked, that’s good. Cycling benefits from having those rivalries.
- Barry talked about having met Ryan Trebon for the first time as a competitor in the U23 field in California racing, specifically in Napa. He described Ryan as this anomaly who showed up out of nowhere from the southeast and first showed no real challenge in the first technical race they went head to head on – but in a second race at Napa, Ryan surprised him and the field with a vicious amount of power and attacking that caught the attention of all the top pros in the field as well. It was at this time that Ryan’s rise to the front pack had initiated. Barry was signed on to Kona first on the mountain bike squad and then to the cyclocross squad, Ryan Trebon was signed on one year later and together they solidified a great friendship sharing a tour of the CX circuit in the US and eventually a Worlds competition as well in Europe. Despite the two pros being different racing personalities to the public, Barry assures us that their bond is strong and deeply rooted in their respect for each other and the sport.
Sarah, Barry’s wife, made the decision to go to Northwestern University for her studies, and it opened up the possibility of the move from the west coast – Barry had good motivation to move to the Midwest thanks to friends already made on the race circuit and thankfully chose Evanston, just outside of Chicago.
I was excited to move out to the Midwest, and I had a met a lot of people in Portland from the Midwest. Even before I moved here, I put the word out I was moving here. First person that actually contacted me was Ben Popper. I’ve been really stoked, I met tons of cool people made tons of friends really quickly – I feel like it’s been a lot better than it could’ve been or what I thought it would’ve been.
Out here you really do cherish the rides you do, when the weather is good, it’s a cool ride. The first time I went out and explored the Des Plaines river trail, I was like, “oh my god, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen” because I was riding up and down Sheridan and I was so over it! I rode it [the DPR Trail] and I was on there for six hours! There was dirt, it had corners, it had trees, it was bitchin’!
People don’t really understand that you can go out and ride your road bike on the dirt and it’s not going to fuck anything up. It’s super fun, and it’s important to open up people’s eyes to that. It totally opens up the possibilities of what you can do, for riding.
What have you been impressed with about the local cross scene coming from Portland?
I heard a lot of the Chicago Cross Cup before I even came out here. I knew that going in, that there was a cross scene – I came from the Cross Crusade, when I started racing it was smaller than the ChiCross is now, so I’ve seen it grow to what it is now, I can definitely see the potential here to make that similar leap to being the phenomenon that the entire city embraces and recognizes. Obviously, Portland is not as big as Chicago, and there is sort of a cycling culture that is a bit more ingrained than it is here, but it’s definitely the potential to have that similar type of experience here – it’s maybe a few years behind the Portland scene, but I’m pretty impressed. Every area has to define their own experience racing cross, whether it’s the way the course is setup or the way the crowd interacts with the racers. Every scene has its own flavor, it’s sort of important to not copy what others are doing, it’s important to take cues from that but to embrace your own style. I think it’s cool that the last race of the day out here is the Cat 4s and people go crazy for it and do crazy shit. That’s awesome because in Portland the last race of the day are the pros and everyone is blown and go home – around here, everyone hangs out and just heckles people! That’s pretty killer and I’m stoked on the racing out here and I think it’s only going to improve and get bigger – It’s one of those things that there’s this balance that develops between people taking it seriously and people that are heckling doing beer hand ups, there’s always going to be this kind of conflict between the two groups but those things are not mutually exclusive, you can have it both ways and still have it be awesome.
I’ve seen that in Portland, it started really serious about the racing, then it became like “oh its not cool to be serious, it’s cool to ride singlespeed and drink beer”, and then now it swung back all the way back the other way, it’s cool to be fast again! It just has to make this transition, people have to mature about in their cycling knowledge and be experienced with it, at a certain point it’s still a race and you want to challenge yourself. It’s important to keep those things in balance. To have intrinsic value, something has to be difficult, because otherwise it’s not rewarding, there’s no return unless you do it– where you have to challenge yourself and make an effort and maybe do something your totally uncomfortable it makes it that much more valuable, because when you accomplish it, it’s a way more satisfying thing.
- We chat about the promotion of such events and Barry makes note that the promotion efforts of these events have widely changed in the course of the last decade. Especially the comparison of European racing versus American racing. In Europe, the races are spectator driven, they pay for their entrance onto the race course and to be part of the spectacle, in the U.S., it’s the opposite, the events are racer driven.
“It’s less about the big show and more about the challenge of the event”
Mountain Biking is not the Jeep King of the Mountain anymore – you used to win a Jeep for the series, and then it came down to national race winnings in the low hundreds of dollars. [The US Cup is trying to change that] It is making a comeback though and cyclocross is setting the example for promotion. It’s really good for pros to have a sponsored title event, you have to make it attractive to the average joe mountain biker.
That’s where cross has its draws – it’s fucking hard, but it’s totally rewarding at the same time.
- El Maya is now on a third brew quickly handed up to him by Barry’s kind wife, keeping the guests well served while she enjoys the conversation of Barry describing how high school programs are a great idea to get kids involved in the sport of mountain bike. This was a west coast initiative that has taken off in California where mountain biking is an actual sport supported by the high schools as a league. Barry doesn’t have a strong opinion on exactly how to attract young people to the sport but emphatically states that the tribe of friends approach is more nurturing to a young person’s interest than a parentally controlled environment – the monkey see monkey do principal but on a more cool level. We share some stories about over involved parents and how detrimental parents can be to the process of keeping their kids interest in the sport when they for better or for worse, living vicariously through the activities of their kids. The example we laughed at but at the same time took a somber pause, was remembering the Louisville USGP race where several spectators witnessed a father yelling quite profusely at his son to come down the green monster – it didn’t sound very encouraging in the least – and we knew that approach, wasn’t going to win interest from the kid. Barry may not have had the magic answer, but it shows that no one really has the perfect answer, but caring and wanting to make the change by continual involvement in the sport is a great first step for everyone.
Do you have flexibility to write your own plans as a pro racer?
That’s the cool thing about Kona, I’ve been with Kona a long time and I really like their attitude towards business and how they deal with me especially. At Kona it’s all about defining your own role. They don’t say “you’re a product manager or you’re a whatever’, you go there and they recognize you’re a cool person and you have these skillsets and it’s up to you to define your role. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in that environment and say ‘this is what I want to do with my racing’ and this is my idea of a bike racer and they allow me to do that – rather than saying you have to race world cups or you have to go do that series, basically I can do what I want as long as I’m out there getting people stoked on riding bikes and representing Kona they’re happy. I can do basically whatever I want within certain limitations, but basically it’s up to me to decide what’s important. Case In Point: The CX Meeting. How do you say no to that? Bringing the movie back for people to see was an awesome thing to see. It’s important to do things to get people excited about cycling, at the end of the day, it is my job to keep people interested in bikes and buying bikes.
- We ask an inevitable question, which is the ‘what do you have planned for 2011′ for us dirtbags in Chicago?’ and we promised not to divulge the secret activity he is brewing up as fast as he was pouring up the Chicago brew we brought him (Goose Island Matilda to be specific in addition to Daisy Cutter for good measure, if in case you were wondering) We can tell you the following though:
I want to give something back to Chicago because I really feel like I’m welcome here and do something that is representative of my existence and how I feel about riding bikes. I want to share that with the people of Chicago because everyone has been super cool and totally embraced me.
With that last bit of conversation, we finished yet another brew as he shared a final hardcore story of living the dream at 20 years old – driving from the west coast to Alpine Valley for a NORBA race with a racing friend, where he and she camped out, unwittingly, next to the side of the highway in Wisconsin. Sometimes the conditions are never ideal for competing in a pro event, both at the event on the course, or just the travel getting there – and you just make do with what you have. This spirit that Barry Wicks has towards racing is a refreshing view for all those who suffer through the race preparations and nerves come race day. Everybody goes through it and dealing with it and making light of it, is a gracious attitude to go with, especially as you review your plans for 2011. Thank you Barry for the hospitality and your time – we look forward to heckling you and supporting you in your Chicago endeavors for the dirtbags!