This year, Jamis/Hagens Berman's Tyler Wren is riding his 12th season as a professional. His time in the professional peloton started soon after graduating from Princeton University, where he obtained a degree in Economics, finishing his thesis in a hotel room during a weekend of racing in his senior year. For twelve years, Tyler has raced for the same team (through its different iterations), one that has always relied heavily on Latin American talent (including Janier Acevedo who now rides for Garmin-Sharp). I spoke with Tyler about his latino teammates, racing in South America, the Rensselaerville Cycling Festival and Gran Fondo, and also about his take on professional cycling's current business model.
2011 Vuelta a Chile
Your interest in athletics started with track and cross-country. What prompted the change to mountain biking, and eventually to road cycling?
Running was my first endurance sport passion. I lived and breathed for track and cross-country when I was in high school in the late nineties, often waking up at 5 a.m. to get in workouts before school. I raced and rode mountain bikes over the summer breaks to complement my running training regime, and also to spend time with my father. Eventually my body couldn't keep up with my enthusiasm and I developed knee and shin issues.
So I bought a road bike to stay in shape while I was injured during the summer before my freshman year in college. I ended up joining the collegiate cycling club instead of the track team like I had originally planned, and I fell in love with road cycling very quickly. The qualities of the bike riding and bike racing—the speed, the distances one can cover, the tactics, the differing race distances and
, the technology, the history—all ruined running for me.
Racing with Princeton Team Captain and Mentor Patrick Zahn at Williams University Criterium 2001
You're a graduate from Princeton University, and hold a degree in Economics. It's rare that a pro cyclist at your level holds a degree, let alone one from an Ivy League school. What drew you to economics, and to Princeton in particular?
My four years at Princeton University was an exciting time in my life. I wanted to attend an elite school, and it was Princeton's engineering program that initially attracted me. When I enrolled, I didn't envision an eventual career in professional sport. During my time there, I took classes from some of their all-star professors like economist Paul Krugman, but the people on campus who had the most lasting impact on my life were my fellow cycling team members. Student-athletes like Patrick Zahn, the cycling team captain and president when I arrived, and Alistair Sponsel, a graduate student star-recruit during my senior year, taught me the valuable life lessons that come from learning the sport of cycling.
Through my experiences with them and the rest of the Princeton Cycling Team members, I came to understand teamwork, steadily working towards long-term goals, motivating and supporting others to achieve collective goals, and above all the value of hard work. This is the Ivy League pedagogy that I carry with me.
With Patrick Zahn at Princeton in 2001
You signed your first pro contract as a senior at Princeton—a school whose cycling team's motto is "Study to pass, race to win"—and finished your thesis in a hotel room during a weekend of racing. Was it difficult to make the decision to pursue being a professional, instead of working in your field of study?
Upon graduation, many of my peers at Princeton pursued financially rewarding careers at companies in the financial industry like investment banks, and consulting and private equity firms. My choice to instead move into my Mom's basement and pursue a career in professional cycling was so easy that I didn't really consider it a choice at all. I didn't attend a single career fair or career services appointment because my determination by my junior year to become a professional cyclist was so unwavering.
My salary on the Colavita—Bolla Professional Cycling Team in 2003, my first year as a true professional, consisted of a paltry monetary component, and a nearly unlimited set of gift cards from team sponsor Olive Garden. So that year I was eating at the Olive Garden two or three times per week, training and racing as much as I could, and thinking that my old classmates living the high finance life in New York City were the fools.
Racing mountain bikes for Princeton University
With your academic background in mind, what do you make of the economic model that pro cycling presents to sponsors, riders and race promoters? As an outsider (and one with no education in economics) there would appear to be numerous flaws in how the sport operates (both in the US and abroad). What do you think could be done to make the sport more stable in financial terms, and thus more equitable to riders?
I'll preface my response here by saying that the real-world applicability of my academic background is modest and that my professional experience is limited to riding at the Continental level of professional cycling. But I have often thought about this question as I have seen teams and events come and go during my career. If you ask enough riders, team managers, and race promoters about his or her prospects for the coming year, it will soon be clear that the economic model of our sport is not overly secure.
My understanding is that marketing departments at big corporations care a lot about the return on their marketing investment (ROMI). That is, when marketers consider potential advertising methods, like print ads, television ads, NASCAR sponsorship, professional cycling sponsorship, etc., they try to understand their effectiveness and bang-for-the-buck. They spend money to track and analyze their promotional investments, and it is difficult and expensive for cycling teams and events to do this. How many people saw the logos on the team's jersey as it passed through a town for a race? How many fans came to the side of the road to cheer on the riders in a race? How much are those impressions worth? These are important questions for the sustainability of our current model that are difficult and expensive to accurately answer. I believe in my heart that professional cycling has a relatively high ROMI, but I haven't seen this clearly and consistently demonstrated. This is a challenging problem, and I am glad that we have some smart people in the industry trying new models and floating new ideas.
Winning Collegiate National Road Race Division-2 in 2001
During your time as a professional, you've had several Latino teammates, including Colombians like Janier Acevedo and now Daniel Jaramillo. Have you noticed interesting cultural quirks or differences among your teammates, Latin Americans in particular?
I have a strong fascination with foreign cultures, so having Latino teammates during my time on Jamis – Hagens Berman has been personally very enjoyable. The Latinos have nicknames for all the riders on the team, including me and the other Gringos. I have frequently been called “Rubio” (blond guy), “Flaco” (skinny guy), and “Garrafa,” which, according to the Latinos, literally means propane tank, and refers to my ability always keep suffering in the races. I'm not entirely sure that this name is complimentary however, as some of the nicknames can be slightly pejorative, like my latest one “Viejo” (old guy).
I took a Spanish class at a community college one fall, and since then I've learned the language and the subtle differences in use between South American countries, like the strong Argentine “Y” and double “L” accent, and the Colombians' strong preference for the polite “usted” over the informal “tu,” even among friends.
My Argentine teammates have shared yerba mate and asados with me. My Cuban teammates have shown me how to make an authentic mojito. The Colombian teammates have certainly shown me how to climb at a world-class level, but that is one trick I haven't been able to emulate. The familial South American culture makes them all so warm and welcoming. Nearly all of my Latino teammates have invited me to visit them in their homes abroad. Janier Acevedo offered to put my wife and I up in Colombia for a vacation nearly every time I saw him last year.
Traversing a stream in training before the Tour de San Luis 2009
Similarly, what are some interesting or amusing differences that you've encountered racing in South America in cultural terms, or simply due to things being done differently there?
Well racing in South America means racing on South American roads, which I love. The Tour de San Luis, which is attended by multiple World Tour teams, contains multiple stream crossings. One can expect dangerous road furniture there and stray dogs sauntering onto the course. Riders down there tend to flap their arms like a chicken flapping its wings to point out obstacles instead of the US custom of pointing them out. We frequently race on the highways in South America, because smaller roads are unpaved or in poor condition. It's always an adventure racing down there, and I am grateful to have had the chance to compete multiple times in each Argetina, Chile, and Brazil.
With Janier Acevedo, Guido Palma and Guido's parents San Luis 2013
Jonathan Vaughters said that when Garmin-Sharp had Acevedo tested at a lab in Denver, his numbers were simply the best that they had ever seen, of any athlete ever. Was that obvious to you in racing and training with someone like Janier?
Janier Acevedo's immense talent was plainly obvious to me. Nearly every climb in training he would leave us all behind. My Jamis – Hagens Berman teammates and the rest of the domestic peloton were on a bell curve of climbing ability, and Janier was a clear outlier. My team director Sebastian Alexandre was at the lab in Denver when they did the test, which was the day after the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge in August, 2013, and he said that the astonishment and excitement in the room was palpable.
With a young JJ Haedo and Gustavo Artacho in 2005
Professional cyclists often have trouble planning for life after retirement. Is this something you put much thought into, and is your coaching business part of that plan?
I have seen many of my friends and former teammates struggle with life after racing. I know that I am much closer to the end of my professional cycling career now than the beginning, so I am thinking a lot about my future. Coaching has been something that I have enjoyed while I have been racing, but expanding that into a proper business is not something that excites me. However, I would love to stay in the industry somehow. Right now I am attending the University at Albany School of Business part-time and doing some freelance communications work for Jamis Bicycles, among a few other projects.
Another project you are pursuing is the Rensselaerville Cycling Festival, which includes a Gran Fondo. How did the project come about, and what else will it include?
I am putting a lot of my time and energy into organizing this event in Rensselaerville, New York, on September 28, 2014, which includes the Team Jamis – Hagens Berman Gran Fondo. This is the first cycling event that I have organized since a small circuit race on the Princeton University campus in 2002, and I am using this event and my studies at the business school to decide if the cycling event organization industry is somewhere I want to be.
The Rensselaerville Cycling Festival is going to be a lot of fun. We're going to have some of my current and former Jamis – Hagens Berman teammates there to lead out the Fondo rides, and most of the team sponsors are involved with prizes and sponsored aid stations. We are trying to celebrate the bicycle by throwing a big party around a thrilling ride with the goal of showcasing the beautiful rural area in Upstate New York and getting more people on bikes. Live music, a gourmet barbecue, cool t-shirts, kids' activities, and lots of activities and vendors will all be a part of the event in addition to the challenging and fun rides. More information can be found on the event website here. I hope that some of your readers can join us!
Photo: John Ferguson