Sheldon Deeny: From Pro Cyclist to Dishwasher
This year, he’s washing dishes in an industrial kitchen at a grocery store chain for rich people (I’ll give you a hint: it rhymes with “droll moods”). It’s a hard-luck story about the cruel world of pro road cycling that I find sadly compelling (Sheldon may feel differently).
Sheldon and I are pals, and he knows that I’m writing this. We’d planned to make a big joke out of the whole thing, at first. I’d write a story with quotes I made up about how Sheldon “can’t live a life where I apply my own embrocation!” or, “where do common people get inner tubes from? Well, they’re free for former pros, right?” or, “…I had the best legsa my life that day. I coulda been National Champ. Then, Hincapie crashed me out. Goddammit, George, I coulda been somebody!”
But it turns out the actual story is more interesting.
I met Sheldon Deeny in November 2008 on this blind corner of a popular local mountain bike trail – this singletrack corner through the trees where I’d gotten in the habit of yelling incomprehensible “blraaah”-type calls going in, since there’s always another hidden mountain biker coming the other way.
Well, technically, I’d already “met” Sheldon on the internet. The roommates and I put up some ridiculous Craigslist “roommate wanted” ad with this laundry list of demands.
Must be able to “bro hard”
Must listen to Girl Talk.
Suckers need not apply.
We were hoping to psyche out the squares, since the rent on the room was $247, and we’d surely have a million people applying.
Sheldon emailed us saying he was a pro cyclist, definitely not a sucker, loved Girl Talk, and was “all about broing down.”
We voted him in and we’ve celebrated his existence ever since.
Anyway, back to the mountain bike trail. I was riding around this blind corner, probably yelling “yaayy HUP,” and damn near rode straight into this half-Japanese, pro-roadie-looking, shave-legged dude in a US national team kit on an Independent Fabrications mountain bike.
It was Sheldon Deeny (I’d looked him up on the interwebs).
“Are you Sheldon?”
“I’m David. Your new roommate.”
Sheldon’s a little bit timid, and he sometimes comes off as being aloof to people. But he warmed up, and we got to talking about a few things there on that blind corner.
We talked for a bit on the trail about bikes, rent, and moving logistics.
“So where’s all you stuff?”
It turned out all of Sheldon’s stuff was at his parents house. It had been for years.
Sheldon, it turned out, hadn’t “lived” anywhere in years (unless you consider staying in strings of team host housing, then going to his parents house in-between “living”). Sheldon had only “worked” for a few months of his adult life (unless you consider racing bikes “working”). When I met him he was 24.
He’d spent a season traveling with Jonathan Vaughters’ TIAA-Cref team. He did three years with the US National team, living in Belgium, and traveling all over the world the rest of the time. And he’d just finished a season living in New York City, racing for the Empire Cycling team when I met him. He couldn’t move his stuff into our house yet because he was about to go to New Zealand to race one last stage race for Empire. The when he came back, he was starting a contract with Bissel Pro Cycling (with a salary!).
The roommates and I were all pretty fascinated by Sheldon’s glamorous, jet-setting life. But we were kind of surprised when he finally moved in and didn’t really say much at first.
“Sheldon is a pretty quiet dude, and at first you think he’s a weirdo.” Helen, our roommate said. “But then you realize he’s really interesting – and interesting in a lot of different ways. He reads Anna Karenina on cold winter nights. He likes to juice. He’s a killer cyclist (obviously) but one of the least arrogant cyclists I know.
He likes to dance (which you wouldn’t expect). But he can only dance really well if he wears sunglasses. But then he’s amazing.”
“Why do you think he can only dance well in sunglasses?” I asked Helen.
“Well, it seems like he’s too shy to dance well if other people can see him, so he pretends he’s invisible by wearing sunglasses, I think.”
Sheldon is pretty awkward sometimes.
Our friend Logan Garey told me a story about his first time meeting Sheldon.
Logan was persuaded by Dan Lionberg (Sheldon and my roommate) to deliver some race wheels to Sheldon at some race in Illinois or Wisconsin or something, since Logan was driving to the race in the Team Rio Grande van and they had extra room.
According to Logan, when Sheldon showed up at the team van to get his wheels (from a bunch of dudes he’d never met), his introduction was “you have my wheels.”
“Uh.. who are you?” the Rio guys responded.
Sheldon took his wheels and left without as much as a “thanks.”
“We were like, ‘what the fuck was that shit?!'” Logan said. “‘What an asshole!'”
Logan talked to Sheldon about it a few days later and Sheldon apologized, admitting that the interaction made him feel pretty shitty.
But the truth is: being an awkward, introverted weirdo is sort of what got Sheldon into bike racing to begin with.
Lil’ Sheldeeny Gets a Road Bike:
“My dad got this new inkjet printer when I was 13,” Sheldon remembers. “I wanted to see if I could counterfeit a $20 bill. I wasn’t going to use it or anything. But it turns out I did a pretty good job doing it. I gave it to one of my friends who was sort of a prankster and of course he used it. And of course it got back to me. I got in big trouble, went to the principal’s office. The principal threatened to call the FBI on me. He called my parents in and they decided that I was being bored after school or something and that was why I was a counterfeiter at 13. So they decided I needed an after-school activity.
I played football that fall and it was horrible – I was so bad at it.
I was going mountain biking with my Dad during the summers then, and I started reading Mountain Biking Magazine.
Then my 8th grade history teacher encouraged me to go road cycling. My neighbor across the street also encouraged me to ride road. He let me borrow his road bike and it was FAST. That spring I went and saw the New Belgium criterium in Old Town Fort Collins . There was some big olympian pro dude. I was standing on Mountain and Canyon, and just couldn’t believe how far they were leaning into the corner.
I definitely wanted to race after that, so my parents bought me a road bike and I raced two weeks later (age 14).”
“There were five starters [at my first race]. It was 8 in the morning, first race in the day. One of them was me. One of them was Bryan Merrit. One of them was Andrew Manart. I got third, and I won like $10.”
Sheldon started racing as a Junior at 14, and moved up the ranks to elite racing by 18.
“I never thought i was that good when I was a junior ’cause i was overshadowed by a kid who was better than me who was a phenom. I was good. But it wasn’t SUPER obvious – I wasn’t a phenom.”
“I got picked up by an elite junior team eventually, with the two dudes who beat me in that first race – Manart and Merrit, and that phenom kid, Chris Stockburger.”
“Holy shit, now that i think about it, no one from that team is still racing.
Andrew Manart is a male model now, living in Florence.
Chris Stockburger is in med school – just quit racing entirely. And he was good, man.
This kid who we gave the nickname ‘Penis’ quit after like a year.
One guy started stealing cars or something.
And the other guy was me. I was the last one.”
In 2003, Sheldon had his first big victory. He was 18 years old, a cat. 2, and just about to go off to college.
“It was the Estes Park Stage Race, the second stage. It was a road race near Masonville and it was super hot. I’d done like specific training to get used to the hot weather, since I knew I was bad in hot races. I’d go out and train at the hottest time of the day, and force myself to drink all this water. I was like training my stomach to take in this water. Finally I got to where I could race in the heat just fine.
There were some pretty strong guys in the race: Eddy Gragus, Andy Bajadali, Colby Pierce – all these guys who were like former pros or current pros. Two laps to go, I ended up in a break with these five pro guys. I worked, sort of, but they also kind of gave me a free pass because I was the youngest guy there. I know I wasn’t on their mind at all, tactically. This was like 70 miles into the race, and we had another lap and a half to go. But we stayed off until the finish.
I was like, ‘hey, sixth place, that’s pretty solid.’
I didn’t even think about winning, but I was like ‘fuck it, I’ll sprint anyway.’
I started from the back, started sprinting on this uphill finish, and just blasted by them all and won the race. I came around Eddy Gragus last, and I had at least one-and-a-half bike lengths on him by the line.”
“It was my mom’s birthday and she was at the race.
That was the moment that I realized that I could actually be a pro cyclist. When I was in high school I used to dream about it, but then at that point I was like, ‘wow, I actually can do this for a living.”
Doing This For A Living
Sheldon’s win against the pros got him noticed by Jonathan Vaughters (now director sportif of Garmin-Transitions).
Vaughters recruited Sheldon for his TIAA-Cref developmental team.
Sheldon went to CU for his freshman year, but his mind was on racing.
“I did two semesters and got a GPA of 1.08. I never drank or partied, I just trained the whole time. I think I’m the only person in the history of the world who ever failed out of school doing that.”
“I was training so hard that winter. I finished this ride in Boulder once with like a hardened ice-plate on my chest – frozen like an Alaskan fishing boat. My bike would barely turn, the chain was covered in ice. It was ridiculous. I was always telling myself all those Lance Armstrong quotes and shit. ‘Physical pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.'”
During spring break, Sheldon went to San Dimas and Redlands for his first races with TIAA-Cref.
“I remember I was standing at the start line with all these pros, just shaking. I was looking at their legs, I was like ‘oh my god, oh my god.'”
Sheldon never went back to CU. He got an apartment in Boulder with TIAA-Cref teammate Tim Duggan and rode a season-and-a-half with the team.
Halfway through the 2005, Sheldon got a spot on the USA Cycling U23 National Developmental Team (thanks to his coach, who had some USCF connections). Sheldon got the news while in Ireland racing with TIAA-Cref. He emailed Vaughters (who was not happy) and told him he was changing his ticket, to join the national team in Europe.
“My first race with the national team, I got the highest result that I would get in Europe,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon’s first race was the Volta a Lleida in Catalonia, Spain. (here’s his race report)
“I couldn’t even believe how fast those guys were. The first day we were going up this 6% grade at 40k. It was this, like, three-lane freeway over this hill and I was on the back of this pack charging up it at a totally ridiculous pace. I remember getting to the top and thinking ‘I must be the last guy to make it over this climb,’ and I looked back and there were like 60 more guys behind. Like a 90-person pack made it up this climb. I couldn’t believe that something like that wouldn’t split the field”
The last stage was a 150k downhill stage with a sprint into Lleida. It was raining, and the roads in Spain turn to ice from all the diesel and dust. I came into the last turn fifth wheel, went through fast as fuck, did like a two-wheel power-slide and unclipped, downhiller-style, heard all this crashing behind me and was like, ‘awesome.’ Clipped back in, sprinted and got fourth.”
It turned out that sprinting at the end of long road stages (like his first big win at the Estes Park Stage Race) was sort of Sheldon’s specialty.
“Looking back, Europe was the best time. I wasn’t going to college so the national team house was like the frat house in Europe – but with no girls. Just a bunch of horny bike racers.”
“I think a lot of the males that get into bike racing in the US are kind of like dudes like me – kids that were sort of like isolated and weird. Not like the jock guys.”
“God, Europe was awesome. I was paid on the national team. I didn’t have to pay rent. I didn’t have to pay for food.”
The national team lived in a house in Flanders, had a cook, a director who figured everything out for them, a mechanic.
“I spent money on food because the shit that the lady gave us was so bad. We’d just go to the Wall (“the Wall” was a gigantic vending machine. Since the grocery store was only open during the daytime on weekdays, the Americans ended up going to the Wall pretty often).
We’d hang out, watch the Simsons, then go to the grocery store.
I had an Excel file with all of my stats – every race, all my times. I was weighing myself three times a day. I’d take my heart rate three times a day. I’d record how many hours of sleep I got. I’d rate my mood on a subjective scale.
That’s what you do in Europe. You watch Benny Benassi videos and do stuff like my Excel file.”
That and race bikes against fast-ass Europeans.
“Dude, your first races there are like shell-shock. I remember standing on the start line in Belgium, raining, 45 degrees, wind gusts, you just smell the smell of embrocation. Everybody there is about the Euro stink-eye, so you don’t look at anyone, and you can’t talk to anyone anyway. Then you start the race and it’s like 60k from the gun.
It’s like, ‘welcome to Europe, buddy.'”
Sheldon has a million stories about Europe.
There’s the “Belgian Crack” (the Crack of Doom) in the middle of most roads in Belgium that is 23mm wide and 23mm deep. “I’ve seen so many guys fall into the crack, crash, and cause a pileup,” Sheldon said.
There’s the phenomenon of the “grupetto” that Sheldon experienced in Spain.
“We were racing on these, like, goat paths roads carved into the sides of hills in Spain. There were three cat. 1 climbs in 60 miles in this one stage. I’ll never forget, this one guy just yelled “gruppetto!” and everyone started looking around, counting, and talking to each other. They had this rule where if a certain percentage of the people were in a group, they’d have to let them in the time cut, so as long as we stayed together, we could just ride in easy. Everyone was talking and eating and stuff, and I was the only American so I just watched the scenery, and then we descended this hill straight to the hotel – like this tourist hotel where we were staying. And it’s Spain, so the stages don’t even start ’til like 5pm, so it’s dark by the time you finish.”
Or the derny crit that Sheldon raced.
“It was raining and we were racing through these little streets, all of us behind our own derny. I was riding a disc, going like 65k on the flats, spinning out my 11 on the straights. It was so dangerous.”
“So then we raced the B-final of this race. Before the race, we were all sitting around a table in this like meat locker room or something, and this guy is like ‘we don’t race.’ It was just too sketchy in the rain to be doing it. So we split all the prize money and went out and fake-raced. We’d faked attacks. I remember my derny driver would have me attack and he’d yell ‘U.S.A.’ for the crowd.”
Sheldon raced for the National team for two-and-a-half seasons. He raced all over Europe, in the Bahamas, in China, missed his start in Japan, and probably raced a hell of a lot of other places he never told me about (I wouldn’t be surprised by pretty much anything at this point).
In 2006, Sheldon only raced one race in the United States.
In 2007, when Sheldon was on the best form of his life, he raced the Tour of California, and the Tour of Georgia with the national team.
Living in America
They let Sheldon race with the national team for a season after he turned 23, but he needed another team for 2008.
“I didn’t get on a pro team after the National Team like I thought I would. I came back and raced in the U.S. for an amateur team – Empire Cycling Team.”
“Those guys were great – New York Bike racers.”
Sheldon stayed in New York city and travelled with the team for the 2008 season.
Then he finally got his break: a contract with Bissell Pro Cycling for the 2009 season.
“I took a spot as like a domestique. I wasn’t getting paid what i wanted to but I was like ‘i’ll show them what I’m made of.””
And it went well at first. Sheldon won a stage at Madera County Stage Race in March, and helped his teammate Benjamin Jacques-Mayne win the GC. He beat Levi and Lance in stage 2 of Gila (although Lance and Levi did just fine in the GC). He did well in the Tour of Amanda’s Diaryland. But the team started sending him to fewer and fewer races as the season progressed.
“I just didn’t get to race as much as I wanted to,” Sheldon said. “[Bissell] paid me all the prize money that they owed me. They’re so well-run compared to other US pro teams. But I definitely think I got screwed over from not racing enough.
I was getting kind of frustrated with how things were working. It’s hard to make it as a racer, economically. I started thinking about going to school – thinking about what I’d have to do if I quit [racing].”
The “Pain of Quitting”
Watching Sheldon during the fall and winter, I found it difficult to figure out what the hell his deal was.
Sheldon was drinking a lot more, sleeping in until 11 or 12, and mostly just sitting around looking at the internet. It took awhile before he admitted to us that he wasn’t getting another contract with Bissell.
He wasn’t getting a contract with anyone.
We all sort of figured he’d race for Rio or some local team for a season and just be a local strongman until he got on another pro team.
But it didn’t happen. The disconcerting thing from my perspective was that he never really talked about it. He just started riding less.
I was getting really excited about cyclocross in October and November. I was riding with Sheldon, and sort of surprised that he wasn’t eating me alive on our local pirate CX course. We raced a couple of local CX races, and Sheldon delivered mid-pack performances in his category (I got to race in the lower category and get good results).
There was one CX race where the weather got so wet and terrible that Sheldon’s Flemish subconscious must have turned on and he rode to second place against a bunch of elite local racers.
But mostly he seemed (from my perspective) unmotivated to “train” or to go out on group rides. It seemed to me that Sheldon had a little bit of the “Either I’m a pro or fuck cycling!” complex going on.
He bought a single-speed MTB and we rode trails, and rode snow riding on nearby single-track. But once it became “winter base training season” and I started riding my purple bike with CX tires on long dirt-road rides, Sheldon started to have trouble with his back.
After having extreme pack pain come back a few times, Sheldon got it checked out and found out that he had a herniated disc (right?) and that he’d have to really take it easy. Mountain biking was out, dirt road riding had to be easy, cyclocross was out.
“Dude, this winter sucked,” Sheldon said. ” I had the back injury, no job, had all these health things, I lost 20 lb between mid-season  and December, I drank too much. It sucked.
I was trying to hide my depression over the winter sometimes, but I don’t know if it worked.”
You could tell Sheldon wasn’t quite sure what the fuck he was going to do next. We’ve all been there, mostly, and it’s a tough spot.
“It finally did sink in last winter that it was done. I used to think that the day I quit racing would be the saddest day of my life, but it wasn’t just one day. Man, this is sounding so depressing.
“The thing I keep going back to is: ‘maybe I wasn’t good enough.’ All I had to do was win one big race. But I just wasn’t good enough.”
Sheldon was pretty goddamn good, though. Although technically on a string of amateur teams before Bissell, he basically raced as a pro cyclist for six seasons. He probably raced in more countries than most people will ever visit in their lifetime. Because of racing, he got paid money, given food and plane tickets, was handed countless bikes, learned Flemish curse words. Sheldon became who he is because of cycling.
Living with Leg Hair
That identity has changed now, but even though Sheldon’s no longer on top form as a cyclist, he’s still a pretty badass dude.
Sheldon had to give the Pinarello back to Bissell, but he’s putting together a new road bike – a celeste, lugged-steel Bianchi with Campy 8-speed (he hasn’t had to buy a bike since he was 15).
You can take the man out of the race, but you can’t take the racist out of the man.
“I’ll do some local races, I’m sure. But it’s nice not having all this pressure about performing and all this stuff. I can just let my leg hair grow. The last time I saw my leg-hair was when I was a pubescent boy. I can’t believe how thick it is.”
There was cool stuff about being a pro like jet-setting and free bikes, but there was also a lot of hard stuff that went with it too. When I was over in Europe and staying there, I didn’t have a girlfriend that whole time. I didn’t even have friends here. I didn’t really have any lasting relationships with anyone. If I go into coaching or something and I see someone else in the same position, I’ll tell them ‘don’t neglect having friends and girls and stuff.’
Sheldon’s getting back into normal life now. Going to school, buying his own tubes, going mountain biking, hollering at the honeys, repping team 400 Smith.
“I’m way better off being a dishwasher than I am a pro cyclist, in terms of financial security,” Sheldon joked.
“The guys who are smart and grounded in reality – they’ll figure it out. But if you retire from cycling and have no idea how to apply your skills outside of cycling, then you’re in bad shape. I was sort of bad at figuring out ways to get by as a racer. But I think most guys are fairly smart and they’ll figure it out after they retire. I don’t think any of them become dishwashers though.”
“I could look at it like ‘i raced my bike for 6 years and what did it get me?’ or I could look at it as a hell of an experience. The experiences that I had were worth it. Maybe if I never raced, I’d have a better job now and stuff, but I’d always think, ‘man i wish I’d have tried to race my bike full time.’ That would be a more painful thought than what I have now – knowing that I gave it my all.”