Career as professional cyclist has come full circle for Scott Mercier
Editor’s Note: Former professional cyclist Scott Mercier will be writing a column every other Sunday about one of Grand Junction’s passions, cycling. He’ll write about his time as an Olympic and professional cyclist, offer training and equipment tips and share some of his favorite rides in the area. His first column offers some background on his start in the sport. Bill Haggerty’s hiking column will run on alternate weeks.
When the U.S. Olympic Committee asked me to be the host of Olympic Day last Friday in Grand Junction, it helped me to reflect upon my time as an Olympian and my career in cycling.
I never dreamed of a career as a professional cyclist.
As a kid growing up in Telluride, my heroes were ski racers like Ingemar Stenmark and Phil Mahre. But when I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1990, my dad, Bill, asked me if I wanted to try a season of cycling with my younger brother, Blake.
He thought it would be a great way for us to spend the summer and to get some quality time together before I went off into the world. He gave us a van, entry fees and gas money; we had to earn prize money to pay any remaining bills.
I never thought much would come of it, but I immediately had success.
During our eight weeks of racing, I won nearly every race I entered and quickly moved from the beginners to the elite level of amateurs. In fact, my first race as an elite racer was on our very own Colorado National Monument.
My original plan was to race for the summer, then backpack around the world for a couple of years. I had gotten the cycling bug, though, and wanted to give it a shot. I cut my backpacking trip down to seven months and returned to the U.S. with about $10 to my name.
I moved to Los Angeles, working as a bus boy at night and training during the day. After the success of my first year, I figured it would be pretty easy to get back into cycling and win again.
Needless to say, it was not so easy in the elite ranks. I was racing with the professionals and I got dropped from nearly every race I entered. I had three horrible crashes, one in which I wiped out at about 40 mph and lost most of the skin on my legs and arms. I was depressed and moved home to Telluride.
The 1992 national championships were in Park City, Utah, and I told myself that if I could place in the top 20, I would continue for another season.
By the time the race rolled around, I had recovered my fitness and was starting to get some better results. The race was a circuit in Park City, with a total distance of about 110 miles and lots of climbing.
With about 50 miles to go, Lance Armstrong attacked the peloton and I flatted just as he went. By the time I had changed my wheel, I was with a small group of riders way off the back.
On each ascent, I would climb as hard as I could and catch the tail end of the next group. By the last lap, I was with the second group of about 20 riders, but there was still a relatively large group up the road.
I attacked this group and ended up in 15th position. I didn’t know it at the time, but this automatically earned me a spot on the National ‘B’ Team.
I had been racing for less than 12 months and had won a spot on the national team. I was motivated, riding well and ambitious.
In the spring of 1992, I was invited to the Olympic Training Center for a National Team camp with about 15 other cyclists. I learned that this camp was actually the Olympic Long team for the Team Time Trial, and that the riders selected for Barcelona would come from this group.
With my work ethic and ability to suffer, I got the coaches’ attention and earned a spot on the ‘A’ team. However, a trip to Barcelona was not assured; we still had to win the Olympic Trials to secure our spots, and there were more than 20 teams competing.
The four riders for our team were George Hincapie, Dave Nicholson (Stinky Dave), Nate Shaeffer and me.
The trials were on a hilly road in Altoona, Pa. Race day was very hot and humid, and near the end of the race I was starting to have stomach problems. I knew that as the new guy if I showed any signs of weakness, I would be dropped from the final selection for Barcelona.
I began feeling nauseous; eventually I vomited into my mouth. I did not want anyone to know I was feeling sick, so I swallowed it and then took the team over the next hill.
With about 10 kilometers to go, we were in the lead, and our mechanic was screaming into the loudspeaker, “you guys are going to win this race and we are going to Barcelona!”
The feeling I had at the finish line was one of immense satisfaction.
My dad had come to watch me finish the race, and I would not have been there if it were not for his encouragement.
I thought to myself, “I am an Olympian and national champion.”
I was 24 years old and had been racing competitively for less than 18 months. Nearly 20 years later, I still get excited thinking about the euphoria of that moment.