Cycling used to be about personalities.
You don’t have to scroll back far into the sport’s rich history to find it’s characters.
Sagan, Cavendish, Wiggins, Armstrong – more on him later – Pantani, Cipollini… we could go on.
But in a time when social media brings us closer to our sporting heroes, the stars of the sports we love have become media-trained to within an inch of their lives, afraid to express an opinion in case a sponsor takes a hastily-posted tweet the wrong way.
There’s a few exceptions of course and it would be glib not to point out the role reputation plays with sponsors in cycling, especially given the damage drug scandal after drug scandal caused in the 1990s and early 2000s.
One cyclist who breaks the mould set by many in the World Tour is young American TJ Eisenhart, who races for George Hincapie’s Arapahoe|Hincapie p/b BMC cycling team.
After a stint on the US national programme and with BMC Racing, Eisenhart has steadily been gaining a solid reputation not only as a rider with Hincapie on the US domestic scene but also across social media where his ‘good vibes’ and stunning artworks give fans a peak into his world and refreshing outlook on love and life.
Allez! Allez! CC caught up with the Utah-born Eisenhart recently to discuss his love of the bike, his plans for the season and a certain Lance Armstrong.
Let’s start with Lance shall we?
The seven-time Tour de France winner (insert obligatory asterisk here) raved about Eisenhart on his Stages podcast during the 2017 Colorado Classic and even invited him on the show a day later where it’s fair to say the pair bonded.
But what of the endorsement? It’s something many a young rider would probably prefer not to have hanging around their neck. But not Eisenhart.
The 24-year-old says he has nothing but ‘mad respect’ for the Texan, who is currently serving a lifetime ban from the sport.
He said: “That was an awesome time kicking it and talking on that podcast. I have nothing but pure love and respect for Lance.
“Look at his mental strength, a lot of people would have broken down. But Lance came out of his fire stronger. I have mad respect.”
Armstrong is on a long list of heroes Eisenhart puts forward. Alongside Armstrong you have a who’s who of the last 20 years including Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador, Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini and his current team boss Hincapie.
Under the guidance of Hincapie – a man who took to the Tour de France start line on no fewer than 17 occasions – Eisenhart has really flourished.
He’s racked up a string of impressive results over the last couple of seasons, including fourth overall at the Colorado Classic in 2017 and a top 20 on GC at the Tour of Croatia last year.
Reflecting on his time with the BMC, firstly in the development team and then as a stagiaire with the WT team, Eisenhart admits that things didn’t click, although he sees it as a learning curve not a missed opportunity.
He said: “I absolutely saw it as my best path to the World Tour. That’s one thing I think is very miss communicated to these young athletes. I feel like your told it’s World Tour or nothing. But that’s not true.
“I enjoyed my time at BMC and I’m happy I chose to go there. I made relationships that I still have to this day and I learned a lot from my time on that team.
“It really helped shape to who I am today and what I don’t want to be. That’s why they call it development, but we forget that.”
Eisenhart has admitted in the past that at times during his stint with BMC he slipped into ‘lame cyclist mode’ – living and breathing the sport as an obligation rather than desire to.
He said: “It just wasn’t my vibe, it’s not how I function. I don’t ride and race because I love winning. I love that pure state of Nirvana or Ananda. Pure bliss, good with the bad. When you feel that balance out either in training or racing. That’s why I ride, to chase the vibe.”
A move to Hincapie’s team in 2017 helped lift the fog, although Eisenhart says his last race with BMC at the Japan Cup was the turning point.
“We went with probably the most legendary squad to this race. That’s where I started just purely living in the present,” he said.
“I carried this momentum through the winter and was terrified that I would show up to camp and everyone would be against my vibe and they would want to be way to serious.
“But I showed up to my first camp and instantly knew this is where I needed to be, and it has been ever since. Through the ups and the downs. But I was strongly encouraged to be myself.”
“It’s crazy, G is super chill and laid back. He’s welcomed me to his home many times. It’s been an incredible opportunity to learn from someone that has so much race advice.”
As with so many ProContinental teams in the last few years, a lack of sponsorship means Hincapie has had to scale back the ambitions for the coming season.
A drop back to Continental level means fewer opportunities outside a US domestic scene which in itself is struggling.
But Eisenhart doesn’t feel it will be a disadvantage to his development and says that he’ll train as hard as ever, the extra motivation coming from the fact he married his long-term girlfriend last year and has a baby on the way.
“I just won’t do as many races or as many higher-level races. But that doesn’t mean I do less training. It means you train harder so when you in the small moments you have.
“I’m on a new vibe with being married and having a baby. It will not slow my progression as a rider because I won’t let it.”
And of that domestic scene, Eisenhart says he isn’t surprised races are struggling to survive but believes it all comes down to mindset.
“I think our mind set is wrong. I feel as though we see the American scene as a stepping stone to Europe. What? Why? Why can’t we make American racing a new level a new standard?
“I think it would be awesome if we could have a level and schedule that there is in Europe in America.”
Whether Eisenhart gets his wish for the scene in his homeland to shake off the shackles and realise it’s undoubted potential remains to be seen.
But in 2019, we’d bet good money that Eisenhart continues to fulfil his… without compromising on the vibe, man.
Images courtesy of Arapahoe|Hincapie p/b BMC, with thanks.