Above: Chris during the 1988 Race Across America. Photo by David Nelson.

The Romantic Life of a Professional Cyclist

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in ULTRA Cycling, Winter 1995

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For many years, I passed the time as a professional cyclist, which is to say that I tried to make my living by racing bicycles. Like any career, this one has its ups and downs, but in this case the ups are very high and the downs are very low. I guess this is not unlike the sport itself: I'm either battling a headwind or grinding up a long grade or hammering with a tailwind or down a fast descent. Unfortunately, it's usually very distinctly one or the other both on the bike and in the professional realm. Feast or famine, as they say.

1987 was a feast if there ever was one. I had major sponsorship which enabled me to train and race how or wherever I wanted, I enjoyed great success in competition, and I received extensive media coverage. I raced in dozens of events, and was a top finisher in nearly all of them. I broke two long distance cycling records, one for Trans-California and the other for the Death Valley Double Crossing. I also placed ninth in the Race Across America (RAAM) and went down in the record books as the youngest finisher ever of this annual transcontinental gruelathon, cycling the 3,127 mile course from San Francisco to Washington D.C. in 10 days, 23 hours, and 58 minutes (photo at left). Media-wise I scored it big, including a major network prime-time feature along with an additional local t.v. interview, and large spreads in the LA Times and several international magazines. My publicity success also included several celebrity appearances, a host of presentations and slide shows, and numerous cycling-related articles published. To top off an excellent year, I also came out ahead in the financial department. Yes, '87 was a feast, and it looked like more of the same was yet to come in '88.

Looking ahead to '88 during the Fall months of '87, I made an early start on my training and my sponsorship work. I expected an even more successful and lucrative season and began lining up new equipment sponsors, working out my calendar of events, and began negotiating a new contract with my major financial backer, Imperial Savings. Having proven myself on a national level as both a top competitive cyclist and as a saleable product to my sponsors, I negotiated with Imperial and my other sponsors for more substantial backing. I expected more financial support, greater usage in marketing and advertising, and also a more dynamic and personal rapport between us all.

As '87 drew to a close, I felt I was in great shape and that the sponsorship work was moving along well ahead of schedule. I even considered continuing with my studies at U.C. Berkeley, rather than once again taking off the Spring semester to devote all of my time and energies to cycling. As it turned out, I did take leave of school and moved to the warmer climes of SoCal to continue with my training. My plan was to have my major sponsorship worked out by the end of February so I could concentrate entirely on training and racing for the rest of the season. This was not to be.

My first race of the season was a 200 mile mountain bike race called the Iditabike on the snow-laden Iditarod Trail in Alaska. This is was in mid-March and, although I had not yet finalized my major sponsorship for the year, I thought all my bases were covered to race this event. A few days before the race, though, Alaska Airlines reneged on their commitment to fly me to Anchorage and I was left with a $750 transportation bill. Assuming I'd make it back in prize money and later sponsorships, I went ahead and paid it myself. The race itself was very exciting and unusual, but mechanical problems relegated me to the middle of the field for most of the race. I eventually began to move up through the ranks, but it was too little, too late. I ended up placing eleventh, respectable for most, but not good enough for me. I didn't know it at the time, but the problems I encountered were to set the tone for the rest of my season.

As time dragged on, I still couldn't nail out a contract with Imperial and I still didn't have much of my new equipment, but I kept training full-time and racing frequently. My average day included two to four hours of riding, an hour in the gym, and several hours on the phone and in front of the computer pounding out sponsorship proposals and product requests. April came around and I still had no financial backing, but I pressed on "knowing" everything would come together. I saw no reason why it shouldn't, since in '87 I had done so much better than either my sponsors or I could have expected. My racing and public visibility were hugely successful and Imperial had realized significant, visible gains through my efforts. Unfortunately this was also when the S&L industry headed into that famous slump and Imperial specifically was also enmeshed in a multi-million dollar relationship with a fraudulent car dealership chain. This was all unknown to me, though, and my main contact with Imperial, Tim Harris, remained all smiles as we pressed on closer to the June 19 starting date of the Race Across America.

As time passed I continued racing, training, and working on sponsorship, and out of necessity I financed it all myself. The bills grew larger and larger and seemingly more and more frequent and in the back of my head I started worrying about my plight. I was soon to realize how true it is that stress builds upon itself and eventually manifests itself in a physical manner. Unfortunately I had no alternative to my situation and so I remained as optimistic and determined as possible.

Time went by and I really started worrying. I also spent an increasingly greater amount of my time on the phone or computer and less on the bike. I tried to fit it all together, but my training definitely began to suffer. I also had to back out of numerous races because of time and financial constraints. This was not good and I knew it, but I kept hoping for the best. I also started looking for other sources of cash flow to support my career.

I approached a previous major sponsor (UNIPRO Performance Nutrition), explained my situation, and requested financial backing. We had had an excellent relationship over the years and they promised to consider my proposal adroitly. I also worked harder to secure my various component sponsors which were donating the hardware, bikes, clothing, and other necessities. This also included vehicles for my RAAM support team and, fortunately, FORD came through again with a van. I still had another vehicle to find as well as a motor home. But approaching May, I was getting farther into debt and increasingly frantic and was finding it even harder to fit my training schedule into my business schedule.

Hoping to raise funds as well as present a better image to the media and the cycling world, another RAAM racer and a good friend of mine, Jim DeGraffenreid, and I approached the American Heart Association with a proposal. We would raise donations in their name, promote their organization as we would a sponsor, and in return we would receive a commission. The local chapter of the Heart Association enthusiastically agreed, various waivers and legal forms were signed, and we set out to fulfill our end of the bargain. We arranged for logo space on our clothing and support team and we sent out a mass mailing of some 3,000 pieces requesting donations, all at our own expense. We spent some $800 and after several weeks had only received the same amount in donations. We were still optimistic, but I called on a friend in the media to run an article on our project in the hopes of soliciting more support. This really backfired. It seems that what we had arranged with the Heart Association was illegal and after the organization's main headquarters caught wind of it, because of this article, our local branch was forced to break all ties with us. We were left with big bills for us to pay and also the sticky situation of receiving improperly solicited donations which the organization now refused to accept from us. This was a bad situation indeed, which left me not only poorer, but also more intensely stressed. The odds were definitely stacking against me, that was for sure.

Elsewhere in the professional realm of my sport, things were faring just as poorly. UNIPRO was wavering back and forth, Imperial was dragging its heels with more board meetings and redirected marketing aims, and components and equipment were coming in slowly and only after heavy provocation on my part. I was becoming very frustrated and very tense. I knew I was a saleable product, but somehow things just weren't working out. I had a hard time training, too. The sense of mental and spiritual cleansing which I usually felt each time I rode was not happening and I felt it hard to train effectively not knowing if I was even going to have the finances to support my endeavors. I pressed onwards, though, and called upon every ounce of reserve within me, used every ace up my sleeve, and cashed in every favor I had coming to me. Life was bleak and I was beginning to hate it.

A local chain of pro bike shops had promised to provide a motor home for RAAM, but they, too, soon backed out on their commitment. After leaning heavily on them, I was able to secure a mini van from them and some mechanical equipment. Without the RV and apparently the funds to rent one, I was forced to completely reorganize and scale down my support team. In '87 I had had a budget of $12,000, and a support team of 12 with two vans and a motor home, but with apparently only two vans and limited funds at my disposal in '88 I was forced to rework my plans and budget on almost a daily basis. My second entry into the Race Across America was proving to be a nightmare in every possible manner.

Two weeks before the start of RAAM, Jim DeGraffenreid and I broke the two-man drafting record from San Francisco to Los Angeles, cycling the 400 miles in twenty-one hours, thirty-five minutes. With this in hand to prove, or reprove, my abilities, I practically begged Imperial and UNIPRO to give me a reply. The UNIPRO folks left me hanging until two days before the race, then came through with nothing, while Imperial, just five days before the race began, came through with an amount less than one-third the size of their '87 support. This, combined with one other financial backer pulling out, and also still lacking critical racing equipment, left me in a real quandary to say the least. I had new bikes, clothing, equipment, two vans, and a willing support team, but almost no money on which to function. I desperately wanted to race, but could see no easy way to pull it off.

After all the effort and months of supporting myself with the goal in mind of racing RAAM, I insisted to myself that I must race regardless of my hapless situation. Knowing my plight, the local chapters of Kiwanis International, of which I am a member, elected to support my efforts and so, just three days before the race, presented me with $1,000. I then borrowed $2,000 from my parents and reworked my budget yet again in a desperate attempt to pull everything together. The parents of my ace support team member and then girlfriend, Julie Bolton, also elected to loan me a vehicle and several gas credit cards and this, too, came as a welcome surprise.

My new bike and complete wardrobe for the event arrived the day before the race (pictured above). So much for the break-in and get aquainted period.

Unfortunately, this was all too little, too late. By the time I rolled up to the starting line of the race in Crissy Field, San Francisco, I was completely stressed out and exhausted. All of my advance planning and training had been in vain, because in the preceding months my training, diet, rest, and mental state had been totally wracked with frustration. What with my recent successful record attempt and being picked by a major magazine as one of only seven competitors with the ability to win this event, though, I still clung desperately to my faith in myself and hoped for the best. However it was not to be, no way, no how.

The first twenty-four hours of the race went fairly well, although I was directed off of the course once, and as we sped our way across Nevada on day two I held onto a consistent fourth place. I had decided to ride at least the first forty hours of the race before taking a rest or sleep break, as I had done in '87, and so pressed on into the second night. During this night I experienced severe hallucinations, something which had never happened the year before throughout the entire eleven days. I was amazed by this, but ignored the warning signs and finally dismounted, after 650 miles and forty-four hours, in Ely, Nevada for a ninety minute sleep break. This proved to be disastrous strategy, for the other top racers had covered the same amount of ground and had already had two to four hours of sleep. My mental condition was simply so fried by the start of the race that I was now unable to read what was happening strategically around me. Also in Ely, the van donated by the local bike shops dropped its transmission and had to be emptied and left until after the race. By some stroke of luck, a Santa Cruz student named Pat Enright was driving along spectating the race and he volunteered to join my support team and donate his car to the cause. All this took place while I was sleeping, and as I headed east a too short ninety minutes later, my crew chief updated me on everything that had transpired. (Pat has since formed the International Support Crew Association and become one of the most sought out crew members in the world of RAAM.)

I continued eastward, but I was doomed. I encountered more hallucinations, total disorientation, severe lack of motivation, and also physical problems with my knees and left Achilles tendon. By day four I wanted desperately to withdraw, but my support team convinced me to keep racing. On day six, crossing Kansas, I developed pinched nerves in my neck which nearly paralyzed my left arm. This was excruciatingly painful and made controlling my bike difficult. I couldn't brake or twist my GripShifters (to shift my front derailleur) with my left hand. Finally, as the sun set on day six, I rolled into Smith Center, Kansas at mile 1691 and dismounted my bike for the last time. I had lost the race before it had ever begun and I could not go through the motions any longer.

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