At just 27 years of age, American Mike Creed of the Rock Racing team finished up his ninth year as a professional with his last road race of the season, the Tour of Missouri back in September. While coming through the ranks, Creed was crowned U.S. national champion 20 times and was a member of the world championship team 6 times.
Creed has had ups and downs in his pro career, facing illnesses with relapses of Epstein-Barr disease and back problems while racing for the Prime Alliance, US Postal and Discovery, TIAA-CREF which became Slipstream teams, and now with Rock Racing.
I sat down with a relaxed Mike Creed, the evening after the time trial at the Tour of Missouri where our conversation meandered starting from this year, to his outlook on suffering, his recommendation to USA Cycling for its endurance track selections and finally his goals.
You’ve had good year so far. You finished sixth at US Pro Time Trial, you were strong at Mt Hood finishing fifth overall. Talk about your year and what’s different this year.
Mike: Personally, it hasn’t been a great year as far as results wise but it hasn’t been a bad year at all. It’s been a really consistent year, obviously this race I’m really tired, the legs don’t feel great but you know I’m a lot more relaxed than I have been for a long, long time and part of that is due to just the way the team operates, in that there’s not any of the old school cycling tradition and that’s very, just very refreshing, it’s taking an approach that you show up and do your job and there’s no questions asked, just do it. Whereas with other teams there’s a bit of… you know you have to do x, y and z, you have to wear your warmups and… there’s just so much that goes into it, it was always hard for me, it was always hard.
So lets talk about Rock Racing. Did it changed the way you train, the way you approach racing?
Mike: It definitely changed the way I approach racing because when you have guys like [Oscar] Sevilla, Tyler [Hamilton], [Victor Hugo] Peña and [Santiago] Botero, these guys, they are the outright leaders and so for me it just made my job really clear. I have to race the first two hours and I can relax two hours and that’s what expected of me. If I can hang out and feel really good, you know they’ll work for me but in general, this is my job, I knew I could do that, I knew I could, even on my worse day, I can be there for two hours and get bottles and chase breaks and do everything so those guys can relax.
And before that, weren’t you clear about your role on your team?
Mike: You know the last couple of years have been plagued with injury and sickness and all this but … it was also, maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself to win a race or to do well in a race or to feel one hundred percent in this race and if any of that went wrong, maybe I kind of talked myself out of it. Whereas this, I know I could do my job day in and day out and it just brings a lot more confidence and mental tranquility.
You seem a lot more centered than the old Creed.
Mike: Yeah very much.
Is it because of the team, or is it wisdom that comes with age? well not that you’re old.
Mike: (chuckles) That and that I’m not going to Europe and I’m not spending five, six months at a time away from my wife and I know that I’m going to come home in a couple of days. And you know racing in the States is a little more gentlemanly, it’s just not as cut throat as racing in Europe, so you can just… you race in Europe and it’s just so dog eat dog whereas here there’s a little bit more respect for each other. It just helps mentally that you’re not going to some race in France, a 200K where everybody is afraid for their job, these guys fight so much harder, it’s different being on the start line in a race in Europe than here. It’s definitely always hard to win a race no matter what race you’re in, it’s always hard to win in the States and it’s getting harder but as far the attitude on the start line, it’s worlds apart.
There are a lot of guys fighting for jobs here though this year.
Mike: There are. At the end of the day, it’s the States and things are going to happen. Health Net is coming back as a different team and there are rumors that are other things are in the works.
Multiple rumors are flying. Except that it seems later this year.
Mike: It’s a lot later this year.
So what about you next year?
Mike: I’m with Rock Racing next year.
So you had a two year contract?
Mike Creed working hard to help teammate Santiago Botero win the overall at Redlands Classic
When you were coming up as a junior, you were hot stuff, you had some great results and then you seemed to have a bit of trouble in the pro ranks. Looking back at those years now, what was going on? What is too much pressure?
Mike: I think I just ended up believing … the problem was in a way that the success as a junior just came too easy, it came really easy. I always tell people, you can see with some people a lot of the times, unless it’s somebody that’s a true genetic freak, you’ll see that somebody comes into the sport, they’re 22 or 25 and they got into the sport late and everybody’s like ‘wow how good is this guy. this guy is awesome. He’s only been racing for one year’. And you watch the guy for that first year and he’s just incredible because there’s this thing when you have no expectations upon you, where you can just allow yourself to fail over and over again. When you truly allow yourself to fail at its maximum, it’s never that bad especially if you have some gift and genetic predisposition because you just allow yourself to suffer for eighteenth place, seventeenth place, eleventh place and you look at that and people notice that and they are like ‘wow that was pretty good’ and you’ll get into the top 10 here and there but ‘wow he’s been really consistent’. And then what happens, you sign on for a pro team again, and now you have a little bit more expectations upon yourself and you have a reference point to your pain or how hard this was the year before and you have all these different reference points now that you start judging yourself against and you start thinking ‘well I didn’t feel this good’ and it’s almost always the second year for this where it’s always worst because now they have expectations and they have pressure and they are a little bit more afraid to fail.
And I find that sometimes, I think that’s what happened to me. When I was seventeen and eighteen racing in pro races, it didn’t matter if I failed, I could go out and just lay myself on the ground and no matter what place I got, it was decent so that allowed me to get some really solid results and it took awhile for me to just finally realize that no matter you just need to suffer. It’s okay to suffer, everybody is suffering. I think that was a bit scary for me, and I had these excellent results to go up against. And then I was kind of dealt a bad hand as far as illnesses and injuries, last year was a back injury and a couple of years before, once, twice I got an Epstein-Barr relapse so that hindered me one year at Prime Alliance and one year at Postal. I haven’t been dealt the greatest hand but I mean (shrugs)
Are you saying that you learned to suffer throughout those years?
Mike: What I learned is that you’re never too proud to suffer, never be too proud to suffer. No matter who’s hurting you, no matter what point in the race, it’s always better just to keep on going. Because people won’t notice much if you finish fiftieth spot, sixtieth spot but there are going to notice when you finish dead last. (laughs) It’s better to get lost in the middle than towards the end, that’s for sure.
So how have you changed as a cyclist, as a racer since you started as a pro? It was nine years ago right?
Mike: Yeah, Mike Carter followed me today in the time trial and he hadn’t followed me in a time trial since Junior World Championships in 1998, it’s been 10 years, we were laughing about that.
Do you think that maybe you turned pro too young?
Mike: No, because I mean there really wasn’t much else to do in the States. I went to Italy, you know it would have been better to turn pro with a domestic team than to go to Italy, I was way out of my depth there. I think I’ve changed in that I’m happy, I’m a happier person, I don’t put as much pressure on myself. I’m not afraid to go out and lose everything anymore, I’m okay with attacking at really early moments, and I’m not consistently obsessing about… because I have a very obsessive compulsive personality and it’s very easy for me to go off the deep end with stuff (laughs).
(laughing) I remember the Creed stories
Mike: I’m finding more middle range stuff, I don’t have to go full extremes. Right now, my only full extreme is equipment, I seemed to have acquired an amazing amount of bikes this year, I think I’m up to eight or nine bikes this year.
Mike: You know, this one’s a little bit lighter, this one’s more aerodynamic, that one….
Road or TT bikes?
Mike: I think I’ve got three TT bikes this year, I’ve got 6 road bikes. It’s just this one a little more aerodynamic, this one’s custom built, this one’s a little lighter.(laughs). I’ve got a track bike, I’ve used it once and I haven’t touched it since, that was in December.
Now that mention that, you used to race track a lot.
Mike: I did do track a lot, I did the World Cups. The Worlds Cups is a perfect example of me, you go into something with no expectations, no reference points, I just slaughtered myself and I got twice top 10 in the World Cups without ever doing this [before]. Now I get to go to a World Championship and I get almost dead last because it’s really painful and maybe it shouldn’t hurt this much and you start thinking about it instead of just getting on with the pain, you start to analyze it and you talk yourself out of it. Really, the demise of the track for me is really on USA Cycling’s shoulders. They’ve done such a poor job with their endurance riders, they have such a wealth of endurance riders. If they really got out of their own bubble they could see what’s going on and it’s just really a pity about how stupid and shortsighted they’ve been.
So what should USA Cycling do in your opinion?
Mike: It’s kind of a long answer. They had this thing with talent pools, the abridged version of it is that basically unless you can ride this 3k test, a 3k time trial really fast than apparently you’re not very good at track racing, this is their method. I understand that for them this [3k test] is basically taking the cheap way out, this is them saying ‘we don’t know, you can’t sue us, you can’t get mad at us because we told you whoever rides this 3k the fastest wins’ . And people thought about it and one guy was really smart and one guy took his whole year off, didn’t do much road racing, was lucky enough to get supported by his parents and didn’t have any trade team obligations and he went and he trained for the 3k test. And you know what? He went and he won. And you know what happened at the Olympics? He went really freaking fast for 3k and lapped the field at the Olympics and then the race went past 3 kilometers, it went to 5 kilometers and 6 kilometers as it has a way of doing that at every Olympics and he didn’t make it. I like Bobby Lea, he’s a good kid and he was smart and he went to the Olympics and congratulations but it was just…
(at this point, Jonathan Vaughters walks by) that’s like JV picking the Tour de France team by having all his team do like a 5k time trial uphill and saying ‘the first eight guys go to the Tour de France’. Well he would probably get some strong guys, he wouldn’t necessarily get the strongest team. The problem with me is that 3k is just not a good thing for me, I will openly admit that any day of the week, Bobby Lea, Mike Friedman, Colby Pearce, Brad Huff will beat me in this test, I’m not too proud to say it but I will say that if you put us on the track on a world-level event, some times they’re going to beat me, some times I’m going to beat them. I just think that I should be afforded a shot and there are a lot of guys that should have been afforded a shot.
So my suggestion, and I wrote a letter to [USA Cycling's director of athletics] Pat McDonough which he didn’t deem necessary to reply to me, even though I was the current National Champion and the only rider in the current year to get two top 10s on the men’s endurance side at the World Cups, I’m not good enough to return an email to, it was … long answer sorry, but basically to be in the long team, you had to be nominated to do a 3k test and they could nominate up to 10 or 12 athletes but they only nominated 4 even though they could nominate 8 more. They wouldn’t nominate me so I suggested why don’t you nominate guys like Tom Zirbel, Ben Jacques-Maynes, Dan Holloway, whoever and you tell them: look you’re nominated to the long team but we can’t fund you to go to these World Cups. However, if you go to these World Cups, and maybe say you take your best two World Cup Results, you add them together and the guy with the lowest score wins. Maybe do that, that’s fair, you’re racing on the world level, some people say riders would never go for that, funding their own way. I tell you what, if you’re giving somebody a shot at going to the Olympics, they’re going to find some money, they really honestly would really do it. And they didn’t even give riders that chance because they can’t do a 3k test fast, and it seemed ludicrous to me. This is something so huge in an athlete’s life and you’re just taking the cheap way out, they just really took the lazy way out, it’s really just too bad. For me, I’m fine, I’ve got a really good contract, I’ve got a great team, it wasn’t nothing beyond a mild… it was a pretty good annoyance that nobody thought it was necessary to call or contact me or be professional. It was just ‘wow, you guys are really bush league’ and it just continues to be that. They got what they wanted, they got a guy that can go 3k really fast so congratulations. (chuckles).
Not much else to say (laughs)
Mike: There you go, that Type A again (laughs).
Mike Creed going full out at the Tour of Missouri time trial
Back to Rock Racing, a lot has been written about your team, so what is it like from the inside?
Mike: It’s remarkably calm. Tour of California was messy for sure, I didn’t know if I was going to be riding until probably 12 hours before the race. I’m not going to lie, I was wondering what I got myself into at Tour of California. But you know, after that and even during it, after the start, everything calmed down one hundred fold and I tell you, it’s really amazing the amount of riders who looked at our team as if it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to cycling and the amount of people… I’ve been cycling professionally in the United States since I was nineteen, I know a lot of people and I have a lot of friends and it was amazing the stares and glares and the snide comments that I would get. When teams started folding and teams started to go away, it was pretty funny how many people have been my friend this past month, I have a lot of freaking friends. Between my wife working for SRM, and three teams disappearing, I have a lot of friends. It’s like wow you’ve never called me before and we’ve known each other for five years but now you’re calling me, that’s a coincidence isn’t it? I don’t think it’s because you’re in the neighborhood, I don’t think it’s because you just want to chat. I understand because people love cycling and just want to be in it but maybe next time… now Health Net is getting a sponsor and who brought that sponsor on? Now they are all quiet and now they are all going to take that money. Don’t get me wrong, I think Floyd should race again, I think he’s a great guy, he’s one of my favorite riders but it’s pretty different when the money is coming from somebody else, it’s pretty different when it happens in your camp.
So what’s it like inside the team?
Mike: It’s great. It’s a good team, like I said I’m really relaxed. Just the way the Spanish riders are. Spanish riders are very open, they are very family, everybody sits down and eats together, everybody leaves the table together. You just feel like everybody kind of has your interest… like in China, we did this race in China, I felt good a couple of days and Sevilla would bridge across the break and he’d ask me how I felt and I felt good and he goes ‘okay, today you win’. I was ‘whoa we’re here for you’ . There are not these domineering team leader, ‘this guy is threatening my spot’-type. Spanish people are very like this is good for the team, maybe it’s a little bit less pressure on me, go for it.
I’m sure you read in the media, ‘if they don’t win, they’ll be fired’ comment from Michael Ball.
Mike: Of course, I saw it, and I was ‘wow I just signed for this team’. But you know, I can’t speak for the team leaders, I can’t speak for anybody else, I can just speak for me, I haven’t had one hint of that. I mean we lost San Dimas by one second, everybody’s going ‘have you seen Michael Ball, he’s going to be pissed’, and he was upset for maybe thirty seconds and then he was [saying] ‘you guys did really good, we could have done this or that differently, this will never happen again because I’m going to do this and that’ and he had already planned out what different riders we needed and this and that. I think people underestimate what a cycling fan he is.
He really is [a cycling fan], it’s not just marketing and publicity?
Mike: He’s a real true cycling fan. I think people underestimate that. The guy is selling his clothes hand over fist and as long as somebody is getting a return for their investment, they’re never going to leave which is a lot more than you can see for most sponsors in cycling.
Has all this hoopla around the team impacted you at all this year?
Mike: It’s kind of the good thing of being under the radar so I don’t see that so much. I really don’t think that the hoopla gets to anybody, we hardly see it really.
You’re still young, only 27, where do you want to be at the end of next year and in three years?
Mike: You know I really want to try and win the Time Trial Nationals. We’ve got such a good crew of time trialists in the States, if there was ever a pipe dream for me that would be it. It’s the perfect day and everything is good, the stars align and I win the time trial championship. Beyond that, just more consistent on the bike, I’ve had this persisting back problem, if that could go away it would be great. I’m pretty happy where I’m at, I’d like to be a more consistent climber. I know how good I can be when my back is good, to have it consistently good would just be a really good thing for me. There are days it’s good and bike racing is really easy.
Well maybe it’s not supposed to be easy.
Mike: When it’s good, it’s freaking… I had bad back problems and got sick at the beginning of Tour of California and I was absolutely horrible, I couldn’t eat, my back was bad because I was throwing up which is like a double whammy, not only am I sick, I’m making my back worse ‘this is great, this is perfect’. Good start of the year, Michael Ball is probably wondering who the hell he signed because this guy is in last place overall. I was in last place overall the whole race, I would do better and than the guys in front of me would drop out. I was last the whole race and then on the final day, my back was good, I was just riding away from people on climbs, I was riding away from George Hincapie and Danny Pate, I didn’t even know I was riding away from them, I thought I was just pulling and then I’d turn around and I had a ten seconds gap on them. In a way, it makes you so emotional. I tell my wife, I almost hate it because you get so used to fighting, you get so used to struggling than when you see how good it is, [how good] it can be when your back is good, it makes you so upset like you can’t ever expect it to be this good again because you don’t know when it will be, it’s so hit and miss.
How do you handle that mentally?
Mike: I don’t man. People pat you on the back [and say] that was great and you’re just moping, you’re thanking them but at the same time you’re just really emotional because of how easy it is when the back is good and I wonder when I’ll see that again. You do your situps, you do your stretches and you do everything but still I haven’t figured out the magic bullet yet.
My last question. You’ve had some ups and downs, why stick with cycling? It’s pretty clear that you love cycling, what is about the sport?
Mike: I guess because cycling, as cheesy as it sounds, unlike a lot of jobs, in cycling you are a direct product of your own work, you really are. People can whine and bitch and say that they got pigeon-holed into a team helper role but at the end of the day, if you’re fucking better, you’re going to show it, and that’s just a beautiful thing about cycling. If you sit on the couch and you mope, and you don’t do your work, it’s going to show and you’re going to get called out on it. Whereas if you do everything right, it’s going to come through and you’re going to get rewarded, sometimes it doesn’t come through as soon as you want it but it’s going to happen eventually and there are not a lot of jobs that are like that. That and a couple of days after a stage race you get to sit around the house and not do a whole lot, and your wife comes home and asks you what you did and you give this BS story about how you did something in the garage and you went to the gym that morning, I usually wait about half an hour before my wife gets home and clean up the house really quick, make it seem like I did something (laughs).
All photos copyright Lyne Lamoureux