How to Make Cycling a Career with Stephen Bassett
The recent shifting of sponsors and the shrinking number of pro teams has meant that many talented riders have found themselves on the outside looking in. Generally, these riders transition to the next stage of life, desk jobs, and children. Sometimes though, these riders make a daring last-ditch effort to scavenge their cycling careers by joining an elite amateur team or entering races as a solo rider. It’s a risky endeavor which depends on a lot more than just rider talent, but with proper preparation, strategy, and determination, a career can be relaunched.
At the end of the 2018 season Stephen Bassett’s career was facing this dilemma. After five years racing for top teams like Hagens Berman, Jamis-Sutter Home, and Silber Pro Cycling, Bassett found himself on the outs. Bassett’s palmarès during the 2018 season had been limited by injury and when Silber transformed into Floyd’s Pro Cycling, there wasn’t any room for him on their roster.
During a recent conversation, Bassett told me that his career was at a crossroad. “I had to make the big decision about if I wanted to keep racing,” Bassett said. “At first, I didn’t even know if it was feasible to continue. In the end, I decided that I didn’t have anything to lose, which was kind of nice. I decided that I was going to go to school to finish my degree which gave me a chance to give a total effort towards cycling. The goal wasn’t to just do another year, it was to make cycling my career.”
First, Bassett had to find a team. Indiana-based First Internet Bank Cycling was at the front of Bassett’s mind after the last few seasons of watching the elite amateur team ride a wave of momentum. “I had a couple friends on the team and reached out to them,” Bassett said, “They connected me with Ryan Knapp, the team captain, and explained my situation. Ryan was immediately on board telling me, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll try our best to make it happen.’ On paper, moving from a Continental team to an elite amateur team might look like a step down, but First Internet Bank really knows how to stretch a dollar, compile a strong team, and compete at pretty much every event they want to target. In terms of getting all their bases covered, First internet Banks does a great job.”
After signing Bassett, First Internet Bank began to shift its schedule from the travel-heavy USA CRITS Series to a mix of stage races and some of the nation’s premier criteriums. It was an ambitious move for the small team; it was preparing to go up against the strongest Continental and Pro Continental teams in North America. It was also a lot of pressure on Stephen Bassett’s shoulders since he would have to provide leadership and get results in the season-long battle between David and Goliath.
Every season, numerous riders are in Bassett’s position of trying to resurrect their cycling careers. They all follow the same game plan: sign with a top-level elite team, get great results, and then get signed by another pro team. But with so many uncontrollable factors coming into play, strong results rarely materialize and careers peter out. What was the X factor that would make Bassett’s attempt different?
“I truly made the commitment,” Bassett said, “I knew that this could be my last year so I put all of my eggs in and really committed. My coach told me that I was going to have to do what nobody else was willing to do. So, last November, I was on the road doing long, hard intervals on my training rides when nobody wanted to put in the effort. I rode for six hours, did school work for five hours, went to sleep, and then went right back at it. Looking back now, it was kind of crazy! But when you’re buying into the process, you get a bit of momentum and it gets a lot easier. I think that I really benefited from the no-pressure environment where I didn’t have to worry about anybody else’s agenda. It was just me on my bike, trying to do my best.
The results were huge, the best in First Internet Bank’s history. “Every race we went to, we thought, ‘It can’t it better than this,’” Bassett remembers. “Then I win a stage at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. Then we thought it can’t get better and I win two stages and the overall general classification at the Joe Martin Stage Race. Then the team sweeps amateur nationals. Then I finish second at pro nationals sandwiched between two World Tour riders. It wasn’t just me either, the whole team was picking up wins all season long.”
And just like that, First Internet Bank transformed from an elite amateur team with a lot of promise to one of the top three teams in North America alongside Elevate KHS and Floyd’s Pro Cycling – teams with budgets that dwarf Fist Internet Bank’s. According to Bassett the secret to this success is the team’s cohesion and attention to detail. “All of the riders are at different points in their lives, some are in school and some have jobs, but everyone is extremely committed. Everybody is doing their homework; each rider knows what they’re doing going into a race. Sure, we love to joke around and talk trash to each other, but the total effort is there every single day.”
The team’s amateur status may have also presented unexpected benefits. According to Bassett, “In domestic pro racing, you’re not always able to tune your equipment up exactly how you want, but First Internet Bank were able to get us exactly what we needed. We had a fleet of excellent Specialized Tarmacs from Motion Cycling in Fishers, Indiana and they worked with our equipment to get it exactly where we wanted it to be.” That kind of control of equipment is rare, and it seems to have paid off.
As Bassett’s results started piling up, pro teams began to show interest. “I began talking to a few pro teams after Joe Martin,” Bassett said. “The last major pro race of the year is the Tour of Utah, so I was trying to find a guest ride spot on one of the pro team’s roster, but most of the teams wanted me to also race other races with them too, like US Nationals and the Tour de Beauce. It was tempting, but First Internet Bank was there for me when no other team would touch me, so I felt like I was committed to racing Nationals with them. Plus, I thought that my best personal result at Nationals was going to be with First Internet Banks since the team knew each other, and we already worked well as a unit. I didn’t want to jeopardize that with a new team that might have some kinks to work out. It was a combination of a personal agenda and feeling loyalty to First Internet Bank.”
A guest rider spot did finally open up with Danny Van Haute’s Wildlife Generation Pro Cycling Team p/b Maxxis. The under-25 squad is one of the most respected in the peloton having helped produce cycling stars like Kiel Reijnen, Brad Huff, Phil Gaimon, and Tyler Farrar. “Being able to sign with Wildlife Generation to race the Tour of Utah and Tour de Hokkaido was great. It’s such a nice organization. I think that our goals coincided pretty well. I could share some experience with their younger guys without taking a spot from one of their regular riders.” Once again, Bassett wasn’t there to be a field filler, he won stage two of the Tour de Hokkaido against an international field that included Pro Continental team Nippo–Vini Fantini–Faizanè.
With such a stand-out year, Stephen Bassett accomplished what few riders are able to. He came back from the setback of not being signed by a pro team, to having the best season of his career, and one of the best of the entire domestic peloton. He entered the 2019 as an underdog with a singular focus, to make cycling a career. Mission accomplished. Rally UHC Cycling, an American Pro Continental team, has signed Bassett for the 2020 season. Next year, Bassett will be racing in Europe against the best cyclists in the world. And if 2019 is any indication, he’ll be racing for wins.