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Finding Lucas Euser

Finding Lucas Euser

Photos and words by Caley Fretz

Photo: Caley Fretz

The champagne pops of New Years Eve separated a decade of dedicated athleticism from the decades Lucas Euser hasn’t quite figured out yet.

At midnight on December 31, Euser retired from professional cycling. But that word, “retired,” it isn’t right. It implies a life of leisure that this 32-year-old isn’t ready for. He didn’t retire so much as stop. He stopped racing bikes, fighting for contracts, and holding back in interviews with the restraint of a media-trained professional athlete. The clock struck midnight, Euser’s UnitedHealthcare contract expired, and he stopped being what he’s been since forever.

It wasn’t sudden, though. Euser says he started stopping almost two years ago, on May 26, 2014, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the day Taylor Phinney crashed and shattered his leg, nearly ending his career. Euser was just a few yards behind him, visible in photos with his left leg out, rear wheel locked, doing anything to stay upright. Since then, Euser has struggled with his emotions, which developed into struggles with his fitness and motivation, which led to a falling out with his team. He was benched for poor results. He says he battled depression as he tried to make sense of it all.

“I had to step away,” he says. “I had to do that for personal reasons. There were a lot of things that I lost focus on. There was a big mental and emotional element, largely stemming from the accident with Taylor. A lot of ups and downs, some stuff that could easily be translated to depression and to things that were probably not very healthy states of mind for me to be in while being a professional cyclist.”

The choice was his, in the end. A decision to stop chasing. As 2015’s last second clicked past, Lucas Euser stopped being what he’s always been and set off to find out what’s next.

Photo: Caley Fretz

May, 2014. Photographer Brian Hodes grabs Euser by the shoulders, stops his pacing, and tells him he did the right thing as an ambulance arrives to take Phinney and his smashed leg down Lookout Mountain. It speeds away all flashing lights and urgency as Euser stands—five seconds, maybe five minutes. A blur, he says, time that spins him like a top. Someone hands him a fresh wheel; his first is in pieces, smashed against a concrete barrier, its disintegration his buffer against serious physical injury. Habit pilots him down re-opened roads with cars flying past so much faster than they seemed to before. He rides out of the race, toward the team hotel, until he can’t anymore. He stops. He cries.

“In that moment, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know why these guys are still racing bikes. I don’t know what I just went through,” he says. “From that moment on, it kind of flipped my life, and more so my career, upside down. It started making me ask the more important questions.”

Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) serves on the board of directors for the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Caley Fretz
Taylor Phinney crashed against this barrier on the descent into Chattanooga. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Eighteen months later, as Phinney trains for his first full race season since the crash, Euser eases himself into a metal chair outside Biju’s Little Curry Shop in Denver. A pair of sunglasses from an old sponsor are the sole visible reminder of a former life that was, until just days ago, a current life. I’ve never spoken to Euser about anything but bike racing; he’s eager for other subjects now. He talks about his fiancé, Rachel, how they met like movie characters and how as his heart fell out of cycling it fell toward her. He talks about wedding planning; a spot in Boulder has their eye.

Euser had his own bad crash at 25, pushing him out of the sport for a year, but it didn’t shake him like Phinney’s. Perhaps it was watching it happen, perhaps it was the gruesome visuals of a compound fracture. More likely, he says, he was simply older, more tuned in to repercussions. It took him a long time to get back on the bike, and even longer to feel good on it. The sort of existential, risk-related questions that have no place in a bike racer’s mind fought their way in and stayed there.

“The crash with Taylor changed things. I love the kid, right? We’ve developed a really close relationship, but as much as he crashed and hurt himself, I avoided a crash,” he says. Then the question that runs on a loop: “I happened to slide into a concrete barrier as opposed to a guardrail. Why?”

“It left me with a little bit of survivor’s guilt, after I popped up. I was okay. My bike took all the impact. I see what he went through, thinking like, ‘Oh, I’ve been in that position. Why wouldn’t it happen again?’ I say this as a 32-year-old, not as a 22-year-old. The 22-year-old old Lucas would have said something completely different.”

Photo: Caley Fretz

In the weeks after the crash, Euser had difficulty simply going outside, as the emotional impact manifest as depression and fear, a combination that made it impossible to do what he had been hired to do.

“I was an emotional and mental wreck, to the point where I’m wasn’t even paying attention, physically, to what’s wrong with me,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out how to get out the door before noon. It was a struggle. It really was. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that, the better part of two years.”

Euser saw few race starts through much of the 2014 season. “If you’re not willing to put yourself there, you might as well not be there,” he says. With few races between nationals in May and the Tour of Utah in August, he was unable to match his top-five finish of the year prior. The USA Pro Challenge was no better; he finished a disappointing 16th.

A new season represented a fresh chance, but after moving to Girona in early 2015 to be part of UHC’s European stage race squad, Euser raced poorly and was ill frequently, the result of an as-of-yet undiagnosed blood infection from a bad tooth. He travelled to Australia and Malaysia and back to Europe, with no standout results. He raced the U.S. national championships, but he would never get another shot at Utah and Colorado.

“I didn’t prove myself to the team. I thought I had [before]. Maybe it was to my detriment that I thought I’d earned it, but I guess that wasn’t the case,” he says. Loyalty in pro cycling stretches only as far as a team’s budget, and riders have few protections, a fact that was made patently obvious to Euser over the last year. It’s now a problem he’s working to fix. “You commit so much time and energy to this thing, this entity, this team, that you want to see succeed, partly because you want to succeed yourself, but partly because you actually care. To then be looked at as just another pawn in kind of the bigger scheme of things. It was tough. It was a tough pill to swallow.”

His contract was not renewed at the end of 2015. There was a disconnect between himself and management, one that quickly filled with harsh words. He lost the fun, and the heart, he says. And so as the concept of retirement, a new idea to him, loomed, he steered toward it. “I would say it was my choice,” he says. “I came to terms with the fact that with the relationship I had with my former team just wasn’t a good one. It ultimately led me to have to make the decision of stepping away or going back to the drawing board.”

Photo: Caley Fretz
Photo: Caley Fretz
Photo: Caley Fretz

Professional cyclists are less careful, more open, when a journalist’s audio recorder is off. For all but a few, there is a dramatic change in tone when it’s on, a survival skill picked up quickly to keep both the press and sponsors happy. But as I hit the red button this time, Euser just smiles. Nothing changes.

It’s freeing, he says. This is his first interview as a retired—stopped— man. He doesn’t use the pre-packaged lines anymore; he doesn’t worry about angering a sponsor or a boss because he doesn’t have either.

“I just need to figure out why I’m doing something for myself, not for other people,” Euser says, leaning in and fidgeting with his napkin. “In cycling, you tend to base a lot of decisions on what other people want. Your team, your sponsors, your teammates, your peers, everybody around you. I lost focus on what I truly was after.”

The freedom to speak his mind makes these topics no less difficult. This isn’t the ending he planned. He never raced the Tour de France, or any other grand tour. He’s only 32. Much of the last few months has been about coming to terms with a less-than-grand finale. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been defined and I’ve self-identified as a bike racer,” he says. A decade as Lucas Euser, comma, pro cyclist, comma. That came with certain expectations, if not for achievement than at least for what he should hope to achieve.

In the months after the crash, as he felt his career slipping away from him, Euser was forced to begin a trying, and often painful, process of rethinking his own identity. The bike, something that always brought him joy and escape, was suddenly stressful.

Euser always thought his best moment as a pro would be a leader’s jersey or a Tour de France stage win. A dream, like they all have, of arms reaching for the sky, beaming on a podium. “Not because that’s what I believed, it was because of what people told me,” he says. “My whole career was, ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to do that. You’re this good, you’re that good.’

“It was all so quick for me, coming straight out of college, moving to Europe, going from not really having any intention of being a professional cyclist to, all of a sudden, being a professional cyclist. I just kind of tried to pick up what other people were saying. Ultimately it became my script.”

The importance of victory salutes and podiums declines in the face of context. Euser is now far more proud of a recognition for something on the intangible side of sport: The Jack Kelly Fair Play award from the U.S. Olympic Committee, given for his decision to stop at Phinney’s side that day in 2014, disregarding his own chance at a national championship to comfort a competitor from a different team.

“I don’t think that winning a jersey or winning a stage was something I truly believed was going to be the most important thing in my life, so trying to follow that script, it just started to feel less and less honest,” he says. “It was the accident that ripped me out of the script and made me face that question.”

That’s a heavy realization for a professional of any sort. If the goals put forth by the sport no longer feel honest, what can replace them?

An idea Euser kicked around for years has filled some of that space. In late 2014, he became a founding board member of ANAPRC, the North American arm of the CPA, the closest thing pro riders have to a union. It pushed for improved safety measures — which were of particular importance to Euser — and more accountability from race organizers, as well as an extreme weather protocol. Working within the CPA, ANAPRC won important victories on both fronts this year.

“I’m on this personal mission to figure out what’s really important for me. I struggled to find a purpose for a really long time. Maybe this is it,” Euser says of ANAPRC. He’s deeply, personally invested in the success of that organization, and sees it as a way to eliminate many of the trials he’s passed through since the accident. He wants riders to be more open, to be willing to ask for help, and to be better protected while they work.

But ANAPRC doesn’t pay his bills. The old platitude of finding value in one’s work is indeed true, he says, and he still needs a job. A college degree in industrial technology, a cross between business and engineering, doesn’t seem as relevant as it did 10 years ago. It’s now communications that interests him most. Left off the roster at the USA Pro Challenge last year, he spent a week as a TV analyst for CBS Denver. He’ll soon host the annual banquet for NICA, the high school mountain bike league. He’s good in front of people, charismatic, and wonders if he can turn that into something tangible.

Photo: Caley Fretz

We meet for a lunch ride the day after the interview. It’s his first ride in a few weeks, one of half a dozen outings over the past few months, but the fluid, round pedal stroke that marks any rider with tens of thousands of miles in his legs remains. He’s happy, almost joyous as we spin under unseasonably warm Colorado sun toward the smooth dirt roads north of town. He’s rekindling the flame, he says. Our conversation yesterday centered on events and emotions passed, but today’s for the future: A few good phone calls with major bike brands, chasing job leads; a renewed interest in Nordic skiing, since riding in miserable weather is no longer a job requirement; how nice is this Rapha stuff he can wear now?

As it has been for so many of us, the bike is an escape for Euser. He rode away from problems at home, problems at school, problems anywhere. It was a crutch, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. Two years ago, a left-hand corner on Lookout Mountain swept that crutch out from underneath him. He’s still regaining his balance, facing a future on two feet as much as on two wheels.

“I just want to know who I am,” he says. “Who is Lucas Euser, the not professional cyclist?”