The length of suffering: A gravel rider’s unlikely pursuit record

Two years ago Ashton Lambie was a shop mechanic in Lawrence, Kansas, a gravel fiend, the fastest man to ride 430 miles across his home state. On Friday, he became the fastest man in history to ride 4,000 meters around a velodrome.

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Two years ago, Ashton Lambie was a shop mechanic in Lawrence, Kansas, a gravel fiend, the fastest man to ride the 430-mile length of his home state, and a top finisher at Dirty Kanza. On Friday, he became the fastest man in history to ride 4,000 meters around a velodrome.

In the semi-final of the Pan American Championships, Lambie took more than three seconds off a world record set in 2011 by Jack Bobridge, and previously by the inimitable Chris Boardman, two men of impeccable track and time trial pedigree. In the final, Lambie again beat Bobridge’s old record, with a 4’09”. Three seconds taken by a gravel grinder.

This does not make a lot of sense, at first pass. It’s like an amateur marathoner setting a world record in the mile, or someone best known for swimming across the English Channel beating Michael Phelps in the 400m freestyle. It breaks all laws of athletic specificity. But the superficially strange can sometimes be clarified by context. Lambie is new to the track and his background is unorthodox, but he’s long shown the ability – mental and physical – to take on the world.

“I popped up out of a cornfield,” Lambie says.

“People are like, ‘What the hell, we need to go look in some more corn fields, man.'”

He’s sitting in a Pete’s Coffee in the Houston airport. Flying solo en route from Mexico, home of the fastest track on earth, Aguascalientes. Solo because he’s sneaking back to Nebraska to surprise his wife, who thinks he’s returning a day later. Don’t worry, we won’t ruin the surprise; this story will run after he gets there. He ordered a black coffee, and wanted a scone. They were out of scones. “It’s a travesty, dude,” he says.

He’s joking about the cornfield thing, but it’s not far from the truth. There’s a thread that runs from his old life to his new one. It starts in cornfields, riding through expanses of the American Midwest for hours at a time. It ends on wooden boards, riding in circles. The thread is his propensity for suffering. Lambie was then, as he is now, a bit of a masochist. Pain, he says, is something you learn to deal with.

There’s a video about his 23-hour, 53-minute ride across Kansas. “It’s little things you can do to make yourself uncomfortable,” he says half way through. Little things like riding in the rain, in the cold. Riding when you don’t want to; because you don’t want to. Riding now because in three hours it’ll be better, or in three hours it’ll be worse. “Just practice living with discomfort,” he says, a matter of fact, like seeking discomfort is something everyone should find obvious.

The pain of four minutes is quite different from the pain of 24 hours. Yet now Ashton Lambie has conquered both.

Ashton Lambie

In late 2016, USA Cycling began a project designed to unearth American male track talent. The United States’ women’s team pursuit had earned silver at the Rio Olympics that summer, while the entirety of the American men’s team consisted of keirin rider Matt Baronoski and Bobby Lea, who was so irked at his treatment by the governing body following a positive test for a metabolite of oxycodone that he refused to pose in a pre-event group photo. There was no men’s team pursuit. The US had no team of four that was anywhere near fast enough to qualify.

USAC cast a wide net, and began running camps. Riders cycled through. Crit racers, track racers, road racers, mountain bikers. The goal was to find four riders who could go near 4’30” in an individual pursuit, which would set them up for internationally competitive times in the team pursuit. These days, that means under four minutes.

The camps worked. A team began to take shape. They found Gavin Hoover, who on Friday broke Taylor Phinney’s American record of 4’15”160. They pulled in Eric Young, a former champion of Indiana University’s Little 500 with a pile of wins on the American crit scene, and Colby Lange, a 19-year-old from Vail, Colorado. Lambie showed up at Nationals last year and won the individual pursuit title with a 4’29”. He was fast-tracked into the program.

The individual pursuit is not the event it once was. That’s a shame, really. Its removal from the Olympics after the Beijing Games rubbed off much of its lustre. The biggest names in track racing for the last two games had little interest in it. Bradley Wiggins never gave it a real crack after Bobridge set his world record in 2011, for example. Yet much like the hour record Wiggins does hold, there is something pure about the pursuit that sets it apart from the rest of the sport. There is no luck in a pursuit, or tactics. It’s just a rider versus 4,000 meters.

Earlier this week, we put up a story on nature vs. nurture. Are pro cyclists made, or born? Lambie is an interesting case study in this question. He started racing at 15, maybe 16. He can’t remember. He raced crits in college, spent some time in the Midwest scene, full of big fellas with big watts rolling through flat, corner-filled courses. He was good, but not great. He didn’t like it.

“I got kinda jaded for the same reasons everyone else gets jaded about racing road,” he says. “You get some dude in a Midwest Cat. 3 race yelling at you like you just burned his house down and you’re like, ‘Dude, calm down, it’s just a crit in some mall parking lot.’”

Ask someone who is obviously talented about that talent and they will often deny the existence of talent at all. Call it the gene-speed paradox. Talent as a concept doesn’t fit well into the minds of elite athletes. It can’t, really, because if sport is decided mostly by talent then what’s the point of trying so hard?

Lambie doesn’t really do this. He says he’s talented. “But it’s a bit of both,” he says, when I ask him about nature vs. nurture. He says he never found his niche before, which seems valid. He’s stocky, muscular. Long-distance cyclists tend to look kind of like long-distance runners. They’re lean, thin, efficient. He’s not. He talks about pain, too. What he is most adamant about, to the point where one simply has to believe him, is that the most important thing is to be hard as fucking nails.

After a break from racing, Lambie started randonneuring. And this is where his unique talents began to show. Less physical, and more mental. He calls it “cultivating the mentality of picking the highest target.” In randonneuring, that meant jumping straight to 1,200-kilometer races. “That’s the biggest one? Yeah, let’s do that,” he says. Or crossing Kansas. “I wasn’t like, let’s do Massachusetts or some bullshit state first; let’s do Kansas.”

(Note: I used to live in Massachusetts, and though it is not bullshit in a broad sense, it is considerably smaller than Kansas, and thus maybe bullshit in an ultra-endurance sense.)

He reached his limit in ultra-endurance, he thinks. So he borrowed a track bike and gave it a try on a grass track. He liked it. He bought his own and went on a road trip, where he raced in Colorado and California. He liked it even more. He went to nationals and bowled everyone over. He went to worlds and came in 7th. All this in the span of about a year.

The mind that thinks this way might be caught in a sort of madness. I’m not sure. It is certainly caught in confidence, in being able to “just pick something and not be completely daunted by it.” Lambie did not see 4’10” as an unachievable target. It was just the fastest anyone’s gone.

Ashton Lambie has a moustache. It’s a good one. It flitters a bit when he flips around the track at over 50 kilometers per hour, and also when he talks. It’s very Midwest, very gravel scene. It makes him look like a racer from the early 1900s. Like if you just put him in sepia tone, he could fit right in with Hippolyte Aucouturier.

He’s really nice. I don’t know him, but everyone I talked to says so. His coach, Clay Worthington, for example: “He is the most mellow athlete I’ve probably ever met. He’s just a mellow, easy-going, cool dude. Very positive. He doesn’t say bad things about other people. He’s always smiling. He listens to the other guys around him. He’s exactly what a program like this needs.”

Lambie did not expect to be a world record holder last weekend. He thought he might be, though. He told his wife he might be, and she said she thought he could be. He told Worthington, too. His coach didn’t set a schedule that was record-beating – it was 15.5 second laps, mostly. But when Lambie was doing 14.4 second laps over and over again, Worthington was holding his head in his hands, and everyone started thinking it might be possible.

“I spent some time with the boys this morning,” Worthington says. “I sat them down and said they should stop being surprised when they do exceptional things.”

Lambie is surprised. We’re surprised. Maybe we shouldn’t be.

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