I first met Alex Candelario five years ago by a remote beach break on the southern Baja Peninsula. It was November and I was camping with a friend near a pebble beach, in the middle of a 10-day surf trip, when Candelario and company rumbled down a dirt road and parked their RV next to our white Tacoma. Other than our every-other-day trek into "town" to buy more Tecate, tequila and ice, we hadn't seen anyone else in days. Needless to say, when Candelario, a lean, dark-skinned Westerner, hopped out of the driver's seat smiling and greeting us as if we were on the corner of Bond Street, we were surprised.
Then we saw him surf. Watching the pro cyclist nimbly carve up and down the azure waves on his 6-foot board, it made perfect sense that this dude would know about this remote location. For days, we had been lazily cruising on our longboards. He changed the terrain, carving the same waves, but with precise elegance. After a full afternoon of surfing, a couple of tacos and a brief, energetic chat around the campfire, he and his crew were off, leaving the space transformed for us.
"I've always believed in being a well-rounded athlete," Candelario wrote in an email to the Source. "I wish I could do a lot more sports, but there just isn't enough time as winter training is such an integral part of a successful road season. In order to keep the sanity, surfing is definitely important, but unfortunately, I can only do it in the off season."
Variety in training—Candelario skate skied through the winter—has served the pro road racer well throughout his 11-year career. He has long been considered one of the best domestic sprinters in the U.S. pro peloton, which is roughly 150 riders strong (in Europe there are hundreds more, including the top-tier ProTour teams, like ones that compete in the Tour de France). At 38 he's one of the peloton's older riders, but advanced age has proven to be a boon for Candelario. Earlier this month the Tahoe/Reno transplant (he and his wife and newborn son moved to Bend last year) finished a grueling Tour of California, an eight-day stage race considered the most prestigious in the U.S. Candelario finished seventh on three stages and on stage five found himself in an elite breakaway that included some of the world's best riders. In the break were former world champion Thor Hushovd, strongman Jens Voigt (who ultimately won the stage) and Peter Sagan, the 23-year-old Slovakian sensation who already has won multiple races this year, including the Belgian spring classic Gent-Wevelgem. Candelario, who races for Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, helped his teammate Chad Haga finish 10th overall—a big result for team with a modest budget.
Unlike, say, American professional football, where teams operate on similar budgets, professional cycling has multiple tiers of teams all with corresponding budgets. Some of the ProTour riders Candelario was racing against at Tour of California make over a million euros per year, while many U.S. pros struggle to secure a livable wage. Some established domestic riders make more, especially after prize money and win bonuses are factored in, but base salaries hover around the $20,000 mark. For pro women, it's worse. Because paychecks for most female domestic pros look more like stipends than salaries, racers often work 20- to 40-hour-a-week day jobs in addition to their cycling duties, just to make ends meet. Still, time-wise, training and racing easily eat up 30-plus hours per week for most U.S. pros—and that doesn't include travel, rest and down time. The cycling teams provide bikes, equipment and team support, like a massage therapist, but the meager pay and life on the road make an American pro racer's path a rocky one.
Candelario, a talented workhorse, is one of the few who has managed to carve a stable career out of bike racing. He launched his professional career with Prime Alliance in 2002 after cutting his teeth mountain biking in the Boulder area, where he went to college. It is his long-term love affair with the bike, as well as the unwavering support of Hannah, his wife, that have kept him going strong for the last 11 years.
"I think the biggest thing is that I just like riding bikes in general," Candelario wrote. "Whether it's cross, mountain, or road."
Candelario happily engages in all three disciplines. Last fall Candelario often found himself riding inside the top 10 in elite U.S. cyclocross races—after having logged a long, draining road season. Mountain biking in Bend allows for further diversity in training.
Riding is what he loves and racing is what he's good at. For that, the Optum rider is thankful, and noted that he hopes the next generation of riders can enjoy a similar lifestyle, though he's concerned by the dwindling number of domestic races (this year there are 37 races on the USA Cycling Pro Road events schedule, including the Cascade Cycling Classic) and decreased prize money. Still, he sees younger riders—like 24-year-old Tejay van Garderen, who won the Tour of California overall, and 21-year-old Lawson Craddock, who, racing on a well-funded pro development team, finished eighth—as indicators of America's bright future in the world of bike racing.
"It seems like if you're under 23 and good, then you don't have a lot to worry about," Candelario offered.
That is good news for U.S road racing. And for the younger Candelarios out there. SW