Coming from a mountain bike background Neil Shirley, turned pro (as a road cyclist) in 2004 and joined the Jittery Joe’s team in 2006. The twenty-nine year old Southern Californian has been progressing in the years since, and it was evident in his 2007 season when he finished 3rd at the USPRO Road Race Championships.
I distinctly remember watching Neil on the USPRO podium where his intense but quiet inner joy shined through the chaos. And then to cap off a great season, Neil and his wife welcomed a beautiful baby girl in November 2007.
Jittery Joe’s Neil Shirley, 3rd place at 2007 USPRO Road Championship
Neil also coaches cyclists in the San Diego area when he can impart his knowledge and experience to riders that are passionate about his beloved sport.
I talked with Neil before the start of the Redlands Bicycle Classic race to learn more about the man, and his plans for the year.
Lyne: You came from mountain biking to road racing, how did that come about?
Neil: I raced mountain bikes since I was fifteen years old, I love the sport. It was a constant struggle every year trying to find sponsorship and it basically became trying to lose the least amount of money each year, there wasn’t much compensation although I love the sport. At the end of 2003, I was able to get in with some of the other guys that were coming from the Schroeder Iron team and they were putting together a new pro team in San Diego, where I was living, so I got my foot in the door with that and that became Seasilver, that was my first year on the road was 2004.
Lyne: So not that long ago.
Neil: No, and it was really strange because I’d never even ridden for a club team on the road and I’d always done road races on my own and I’d just recently gotten my cat 2 and then my cat 1 upgrade in 2003. It was really my first year on the road really having no idea what to do, I was fairly strong but I didn’t how to use it, I didn’t have any patience, so it was a big learning curve and I still find myself still learning as I go, I guess.
Lyne: What was the biggest shock when you started road racing?
Neil: I guess just learning what to do with my efforts. The biggest shock was to see that I was stronger than a lot of the guys out there but yet at the end f the day the results didn’t really show it, I knew I had to be smarter, I had to learn quickly (chuckles) if I was to go anywhere on the road, I couldn’t just ride guys off my wheel, I had to try to outsmart guys so. That was the biggest shock, the biggest learning curve.
Lyne: So how did you learn ?
Neil: By experience, by having knowledgeable teammates that will help you along the way. In the second year on Seasilver, I had some really good mentors, like Burke Swindlehurst was very valuable in helping me along, getting, finding good mentors and each year riding with guys like Trent Wilson on Jittery Joes for the last 3 years, he has a ton of experience so it’s all great.
Lyne: Do you think you have an advantage coming from mountain biking?
Neil: I think so, but only in the sense that maybe I appreciate what I have on the road that much more because I’ve slept in a bathtub in a motel 6, having people jammed in the room, I’ve roughed it. I’m in the sport for the right reason because I love it. With mountain biking if you didn’t have a true passion for the sport you wouldn’t stick around.
Lyne: I’ve heard that you are one of the guys that train the hardest, is that true?
Neil: I don’t know who said that, I think I train very smart, I don’t thing that I train the hardest out of everyone. I train how I think is the best. I feel that I’m very dedicated, with my training, I do everything 100% to be the best that I can be um so it’s usually very specific training, and make sure every ride has a purpose and that every day counts.
Lyne: You had a great in 2007 culminating with 3rd finish at the US Pro Championship Road Race. Were you surprised with that result?
Neil: Honestly, I was slightly surprised, I knew I had very good form going into the race. I knew my potential but then to put it all together, it was absolutely … I had an incredible day on the bike, the team rode incredible and everything just completely came together in one race. A lot of times, you have good team support but maybe you’re not feeling the best of day, or you feel good but the race just doesn’t play out your way but to have it all absolutely come together picture perfect in such an important big race, yeah it was big for me, it was stunning, putting it lightly. I was in a little bit of disbelief, but once it settled in, it wasn’t such a shock, it settled in, you know this is what I worked for for so long, I’ve known I’m capable of a ride like this. Now that I’ve done it, it’s a huge confidence boost, I had a great winter training with that in my mind, knowing that that’s possible.
Lyne: Did it change your approach at all to 2008?
Neil: It changed mostly my confidence. I did change my winter around slightly but that was mostly due to the birth of my daughter in November, so yeah I’d say that’s the biggest change. You hear so many stories about people saying ‘oh you’re not going to get any sleep, this or that, things are going to change’, it’s been absolutely amazing, it hasn’t even been a hiccup in my training. If anything I’m even more dedicated, it’s been absolutely been positive, it’s really enjoyable.
Lyne: You’re 29 years old now, do you feel that you are going into your prime?
Neil: Yes, I would have to say so. I don’t count myself as a really naturally talented rider, I’m not one of the guys that just comes out of the chute right away, for me it’s been a steady progression for the last 10 years basically. I just keep chipping away at it each year and the progression has continued, each year it’s the same thing and now I’m getting to the point where each one or two percent of progress every year is really getting me up to the upper elite level of the sport which is exciting.
Lyne: Are there any specific areas that you are targeting to improve this year?
Neil: I’m going into the season about 5 pounds lighter than I got last year so I’m hoping to hopefully, with that I’ll be able to just climb faster, that’s the goal with that. But also, I’ve spent a lot of time on my timetrial bike this winter, that’s been a weakness of mine and it is a big goal for me to win a stage race this year and I know that in order to do that I need to make sure that the timetrialing is at least I can hold my own, I don’t need to necessarily win the timetrial but at least limit my losses. That’s exciting, I enjoy working on my weaknesses, it’s fun going out there, putting the time in, knowing that I’m getting a lot of benefit out of it.
Lyne: After US Pro race, I assume that you were approached by bigger teams than Jittery Joes. But you chose to stay with the team, why?
Neil: It is a goal of mine to go, to race part time race in Europe, I don’t have any desire to do full time, but doing something part time was a goal, but with the birth of my daughter I had such big changes coming up in life that I really wanted to make sure that the timing was good for everything so I decided just to stay for the whole season and then Jittery Joes was just the natural fit. They’ve been an amazing team for me the 2 previous years and I get along with all my teammates really well, good group of guys. They don’t stick me out of the road for 3 or 4 weeks, they’re really flexible knowing that I have a family, and I’m in a team leadership role here on Jittery Joes, going into some of these stage races knowing that I’m going to be one of the protected riders, it’s good to know.
Lyne: What are your goals for 2008, both personally and with the team?
Neil: With the team, I would like to have a good showing, I would like to help the team have a good showing at Tour de Georgia whether that’s helping set up Cody Stevenson or Jonathan Cantwell for a sprint finish. It ‘s such a big deal for the team, in Georgia, it’s always great to do something memorable there. We have a really good sprint team this year, actually the team overall is very good, you might not look at it and recognize any names , but I think at the end of the year people are going to look and say ‘wow, you had some good results, a handful of NRC wins’. We have a lot of depth on the team which is something that lacked in the past so it’s exciting to see.
And then for personal goals, Redlands is really my first big goal, and I’d like, it’s like a hometown race for me coming from Southern California, I’d like to get a good showing there. I have a lot of supporters out there and that motivates me. You know ride well at Tour de Georgia and some more along the way, win a stage race whether, a Cascades or Redlands. I get excited for any tough stage race, I’ve done really well in Utah in the past so I’m very excited for that race, Mt Hood Classic, I’m really excited for that. And then obviously I want to go back to US Pro and have a good showing, the course is suited very well for my riding style for a one day race.
Lyne: But you’ll be a marked man this year
Neil: (laughs) I just have to be ready for it and I think I will be.
Lyne: You mentioned both stage races & one day races, which one do you prefer?
Neil: You know, I generally prefer stage races even though I’ve never had a lot of success in a week long stage race overall but I think due to my age, I really think that this year is the year. To put together for a 5 to 7 day stage race and be consistent and be good every day. But yeah I really do enjoy tough one day races as well such as US Pro or Redding or Philly, races like that, they really get me excited.
Lyne: What is about coaching that you enjoy?
Neil: I work with recreational riders and the highest level I work with are a cat 2, anywhere from recreational rider to cat 2, they have the same passion for the sport. They train hard, they just have families, they have 9 to 5 jobs but they put so much into it and it’s incredible for me to help to kind of express my joy for the sport and help people along the way, everything I’ve learned through the years. I find that for many people it’s not about a training program, a lot of people can write that, but it’s the race experience, the tactics that I’ve had to learn first hand, that so many people need help with and that’s really exciting.
Lyne: So how do you teach tactics?
Neil: When I can I watch a lot of the races and look at how it plays out. I work with one team based out of Redlands, the Possabilities team, so as a whole team I can talk to them how to organize the leadout, how to ride in breaks and play off each other as teammates um and they don’t usually get that from a pro level rider so it really makes the learning curve a lot less.
Lyne: Tell me about your role on the team and the style of racing?
Neil: I’d say we’re an aggressive team especially at a race like Georgia , we’re going to have to race that a little bit differently than say a Redlands. We do have enough depth on the team that we can race it maybe a different way that we can, we can wait for a sprint finish and be content with who we have to help at at the end and then we have a couple of GC guys that we feel can get the job done. It’s very well rounded for the first time in a long time.
I am a co-leader on the team, myself and Trent Wilson. Trent is the captain and then just depending on the situation and on the race, who says they have the good legs on the day, you know we communicate well, we’ll both ride for each other, we get along very well, it’s not a problem, I definitely have a lot of opportunities on the team.
Lyne: Is it true that you are a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan?
Neil: (laughs) Oh yeah, I’ve got the full season 1 through 7, the boxset, it was good. it kept me busy for most of the season, I’m going to have to find another, it’s going to have to be the Angel boxset. It’s a great show,you have to give it some time and watch it to figure out what going on, it’s very entertaining.
For the sake of complete disclosure, I too am a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan.