Gage Hecht on finding purpose outside of cycling
Gage Hecht just finished his first season with Human Powered Health but it didn't go as smoothly as he would have hoped. His faith helped him cope with the challenges he experienced.
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If you’re keeping an eye open for Gage Hecht in the busy end-of-year cyclocross period, you won’t find him. Traditionally, the former American junior, U23 and elite ‘cross champion would be lining up for some of the most prestigious races in Europe but this year the 24-year-old from Colorado made different choices. Hecht joined Human Powered Health for a full European road racing season this year but had a serious injury set him back. Now, as the year comes to a close, Hecht is contemplative – looking back upon this year, his dreams and explaining how his faith gives him a different perspective on life.
That Hecht would become a pro cyclist was in the cards early on. From an early age, he was amassing titles in all categories across different disciplines. As a junior, he was one of the stand-out riders internationally in both road and cross. His breakthrough moment with the elites came with a stage win in the 2018 Tour of Colorado when he was just 20 years young. He also won the U23 time trial title that same year.
Hecht’s talent is undeniable but he saw his road ambitions hampered by COVID and the cancellation of almost all of the US pro races on the calendar in 2020 and 2021. It prompted a move to Human Powered Health which – contrary to his previous Aevolo team – has a far more Europe-oriented road program.
“I loved being part of the Aevolo team but there is sadly not much racing left in the United States. If you want to become a pro rider you need to be over here, in Europe,” Hecht tells me from a café in Girona, the Spanish city where he now lives.
“I must say it’s not been a huge shock racing here because I already did some high-level racing back in Utah or Colorado. The only difference is that every race in Europe has that same high level all the time. To be honest, the biggest adjustment was getting to know the racing in different parts of Europe. Racing in Sicily or in Belgium is almost like two different sports.”
This season was Hecht’s first full season in Europe but it got off to a rocky start when a crash in the Four Days of Dunkirk in early May disrupted the rest of his debut season on Human Powered Health.
“This hip injury in Dunkirk set me back quite a lot. The crash didn’t look very glamorous from the overhead shot. I had to shift out on the group and hopped over the median. Those cyclocross skills came in handy but I ended up on the ground after the second median,” he explains with a smile.
Hecht is an optimistic guy who tries to look at the bright side of every situation and every challenge but he admits that the injury hit him harder than he anticipated, both physically and mentally.
“We have team staff here in Girona and they helped me connect me with a physio in town. I worked with them to slowly work into building some strength within the bones and surrounding muscles in my hip joint. Generally, the team was really big on giving me space and making sure I was alright through the recovery process, but it was really frustrating for me to be in that situation,” Hecht admits. “I was living in a place that, while I was making a lot of friends in and around town, was not really my home yet. It really felt like I was without purpose.”
The recovery took a few months and Hecht only felt like really racing again in the last months of this season where he lined up in one-day races in Belgium and France, along with a stage race in Slovakia.
“The riders and staff within the Human Powered Health team could sense that it bugged me not to be as good as I could be. I really have to commend them for the way they rallied around me and helped encourage me when I struggled physically,” Hecht says.
But it was not only a physical struggle for the American rider. Hecht is a Christian and thought a lot about the purpose his life had and has. Hecht found answers to those questions within the AIA – Athletes in Action – branch in Girona, led by Reverend Todd Henriksen.
“I am a pro cyclist now and remember the first time I did my groceries and paid for them with money I earned cycling but it’s also hard to learn how to be content in a mindset where really there is only one thing I am responsible for doing – especially when you are not even doing it because you are injured. “There was definitely a lot of sadness from feeling like I really wasn’t serving much of a purpose,” Hecht says.
“Throughout this year Todd and I spent a lot of time in Psalms 23 which seemed to really speak to me all year as I walked through a lot of trials both physical and spiritual. Todd, his family and my fellow cyclists in the AIA were always there to find ways I could feel like I was still contributing to something. They gave me so much in just having a place to go and voice my frustration and always were able to nudge me back towards leaning on my faith when frustration built up and seeking purpose in that.
“Knowing that, while I cannot see it, God has given me all these gifts and opportunities for a reason helped me get through a lot of rough times. Continuing to build relationships with him and using the way he has loved me to try and learn how to love those around me better is where I find purpose.”
Hecht is preparing for that all important second year of his pro contract with Human Powered Health right now, and cyclocross doesn’t fit in that schedule anymore. It will be the first winter since his junior years the Colorado native won’t set foot in the mud.
“You learn so many skills in cyclocross. You get to handle a bike on bumpy and rough terrain, you make super-fast adjustments to the surface, to adjust your weight for traction and balance. I like the dynamic aspect of it. It’s not hours of being in the same position moving pedals. Sometimes you sprint to a corner, you run, jump and hop. You are much more dynamic and more athletic – but the team asked me to commit full-time to road these first two years which is also a great challenge. I will miss cross though,” he says.
Because the 2022 season turned out so different than Hecht and the team expected, the plan for 2023 will change – there is a need now to prove himself and show what kind of rider he will become on the road.
“Aevolo was really a development team and there was less focus on results. I think Human Powered Health also doesn’t put that much focus on results either and that for a pro team it still has that development vibe. I still feel like a bit of a blank canvas. I prefer hilly races and the stage I won in the Tour of Colorado had a distinct classics vibe to it as well with some punchy climbs. I also liked helping Matteo [Jorgenson] back in the Tour de l’Avenir and have done some good time trials in the past, so there are many roads I can take and roles to develop. These years are all about finding out if this life as a pro rider suits me,” Hecht explains.
If plan A – the pro cyclist route – doesn’t work out, Hecht has a Plan B to fall back on. Although that plan is still very much up in the air, quite literally.
“I have a degree in aviation and aerospace science. I am a tech guy but I am leaning more towards flying commercial airliners. I have my pilot’s license but that is for a single engine Piper Archer where, on a good day, I can fly three people. Getting to bigger commercial airliners takes time but also a lot of money in training. For now, I ride bikes for a living, with two wheels firmly on the ground,” he smiles.
Hecht is very outspoken about his relationship with God and how he feels his purpose is living in his name, to build relationships and testify. It gives him a unique and inspirational outlook on life in a sport where religion is not always very prominent on the outside.
“I don’t see myself as only a bike rider. I have value even when I am not riding. I want to ride and win races but I don’t have to. Having God in my life gives me a little bit of extra tailwind to learn that I am good enough. That I earned my place. That’s what the COVID period, those months with my injury and my friendships at AIA and in the peloton have taught me,” Hecht says.
“I am really grateful for all the US titles I won, all the races I get to do and the places I got to travel to – but in the end that will just be a little speck in the universe. And that’s a good and humbling thought to have and live by.”