Chann McRae and his journey from the police beat to a DS role inside the team car
Chann McRae will take a break from the City of Austin police department this summer to ease back into the role as sport director for Roxo Racing.
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Pity the poor fool who might think they can out-sprint an Austin police officer in a bike pursuit.
Especially if that uniformed officer is former U.S. champion and ex-WorldTour pro Chann McRae.
McRae, a former pro who raced from 1996 to 2003, is on a new beat as a member of the City of Austin police department in the Texas capital.
McRae spends much of his time doing bike patrol in Austin’s thriving central historic district. Since becoming a full-time police officer in 2015, there have been a few bike pursuits (that he usually won).
“I’ve had a few pursuits, but most of them are on foot,” McRae told VeloNews. “I’m usually standing there next to someone when they take off. There’s never a boring day.”
After eight years on the beat as a police officer in Austin, the 50-year-old year makes a return to professional cycling this summer as a sport director at the Roxo Racing cycling team based in Texas.
As a former racer as well as sport director and coach, McRae’s never been far from the pulse of the sport.
When word got out that Roxo Racing needed some extra help on its racing calendar, McRae raised his hand. Though he’s still a full-time police officer, he will juggle some days off, and make his debut as sport director at the Tour of the Gila on April 27-May 1.
“A few weeks ago, the team director reach out to me to see if I was interested,” McRae said. “He said we could use a hand with the team, could you direct the team at the Tour of the Gila? It’s a good opportunity to get back on with a team.”
From chasing wins to stopping crime
When VeloNews caught up with McRae in a recent Zoom call, he was in between shifts at the Austin police department.
McRae grew up in Texas and was among a generation of U.S. riders who emerged in the 1990s. When his professional racing career ended in 2003, McRae raced professionally as a triathlete and worked with the Slipstream franchise as a sport director.
As a racer, however, he never made the same big bucks as some of his compatriots, and with a growing family who were hitting their teens, McRae needed something more stable that would allow him to stay at home after two decades of the itinerate lifestyle of an elite endurance athlete.
McRae had a coaching business and worked as a sport director part-time, but with his kids getting ever closer to going to university, a full-time job sounded pretty good.
“I didn’t have a link to the police department, but I had one guy on the force that I was coaching for cycling,” McRae said. “We started riding together and he was telling me about what it was like to be a police officer. I thought it could be a good fit for me.”
Officer McRae invites you to run with us tonight at 6 p.m.! We will do a 3-mile loop, starting at 115 Sandra Muraida Way. Hope to see you there. #CommunityPolicing #RunATX #OneAustinSaferTogether pic.twitter.com/2UjY7yDRsS
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) November 18, 2019
For financial and personal reasons, he decided nearly a decade ago he needed something more stable, and searched out a new career that would allow him to stay close to home to help raise his brood of kids.
Some local friends led him to make contacts at the Austin police force. After an intense training camp, the 40-something still had enough gas in the tank to pass the physical exams.
He started the academy in December 2014, and joined as an officer the next year.
“In many ways, being a police officer is a government job, and there are a lot of benefits that come with it,” he said.
“When I was in the cycling world, you’re a mercenary, and you go from contract to contract,” he said. “It’s the opposite in a government job.”
What really convinced him to make the dramatic shift from being fully immersed in professional sport to becoming a professional law enforcement officer was Austin’s bicycle patrol.
His racing and cycling background made him a perfect fit for the city’s two-wheeled patrol, and McRae spends most of his time on the beat working Austin’s thriving business and tourist areas.
“Some days I will get in 25 miles on the bike,” he said. “It really helped me to make up my mind to do it because they have a mountain bike patrol. With all the gear on, it keeps you fit.”
Are there any skills or perhaps mentality that translated from being a professional bike racer to helping with his new job as a police officer?
McRae said there are plenty.
“There is still that element of surprise,” McRae said. “Policing is inherently dangerous, and cycling is inherently dangerous, but it’s a different kind of danger.
“If you’re racing in the Alps or the Dolomites, you’re going 70kph down a mountain road, and that is not safe,” he said. “In policing, one moment it’s completely boring and then things are going off big time in life or death situations. I like them both.”
McRae said his racing and training background helped him endure the intense, eight-month training camp where, at 44 at the time, he was 20 years older or more than most of his fellow recruits.
“The academy when I went through it was kind of a paramilitary type of thing,” he said. “It was very structured, with a lot of weapons training, and tons of drills for different scenarios. You have to be able to work with your weapon systems under duress, and you have to maintain those certifications yearly.”
McRae said he typically patrols the downtown Austin area with another bicycle officer, but he does get rotated around the city. He shared a few details of some of the police drama that comes with the job.
“I have seen it all,” he said. “After being in it for eight years, I’ve seen it all.”
Busting into the European peloton
McRae never thought he’d end up being a police officer when he came out of high school as a highly touted triathlete and cyclist. There was another young Texan at his same age named Lance Armstrong.
They often lived parallel lives, with Armstrong at a much higher level than McRae ever reached. His first big chance to turn pro came in 1996 when ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters had contacts to join a second-tier Spanish-based team with a mix of Spanish and Russian backers called Porcelana Santa Clara-Samara.
“JV hooked me up with the team, and this was my opportunity to turn pro, and I wasn’t going to say no,” McRae said. “I was living with JV and some other Spanish guy, and the flat below us was full of Russians.”
Police Officer and Cyclist Chann McRae finds new challenges in policing: https://t.co/pP3NSRlzLk pic.twitter.com/Ta3ZiJ4a5P
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) March 9, 2017
They lived in the outskirts of León in northern Spain, which McRae described as the “middle of nowhere.”
“The team was half Russian and half Spanish, and then me and JV,” he said, referring to Vaughters. “We ended up racing the Vuelta a España that year, but the owners ran out of money.
“We weren’t getting paid, but you still had to perform to get on someone’s radar,” said McRae, who finished that year’s Vuelta.
In 1997, McRae was handed a lifeline by a German continental team that kept him racing in Europe. A strong showing at the 1997 Peace Race with sixth overall and victory at the Lancaster Classic (part of the CoreStates Invitational Triple Crown) that summer landed him a job with Saturn for 1998.
Another strong season, including fifth at the Tour of Denmark, opened the door for him and fellow compatriot Freddie Rodríguez to join super-team Mapei in 2000.
“I’m still good friends with Freddie,” he said. “We lived outside Varese, and he really had some good years there. It was good there at Mapei.”
McRae raced two seasons with Mapei, where he broke into the top-20 at the 1999 Vuelta a España, and then joined the ill-fated Mercury Viatel team before landing at U.S. Postal Service.
By 2003, a year after McRae won the USPro national championship, the Texan wanted to transition back to his roots and try to have a professional triathlon career. Despite having strong swim and bike elements, he could never fully develop his running facet to break into the upper ranks of the triathlon world.
After winding down his professional career, McRae worked as a coach and sport director for the U.S. development team in Belgium and then with Slipstream. By 2014, a full-time gig with the Austin police department was sounding pretty good.
A US worlds-best that stood for 20 years
McRae watched with interest at last year’s elite men’s world championships when Neilson Powless, who rode to fifth in Leuven, matched McRae’s dramatic finish in the 1999 worlds.
“I called JV right after I saw that result and said, you gotta keep that guy,” he said of Powless. “He said, oh yeah, we already have him signed. That was an impressive ride. He’s still young and he’s still learning, but Powless is very good.
“I was expecting someone to come through at the worlds for the U.S. men for a long time,” McRae said. “I am surprised it took so long.”
Back in 1999, McRae delivered fifth in the Verona worlds with a best U.S. elite men’s result that would stand until Powless matched it last fall.
That year, McRae rode into an elite nine-rider group on the Verona circuit that included Jan Ullrich, Frank Vandenbroucke, Dmitri Konychev, and a relatively unknown Spanish rider named Óscar Freire.
McRae said he couldn’t believe he was racing for the world title among such esteemed names, and he uncorked a surprise attack just before the red kite.
“I was there next to guys like Ullrich and Vandenbroucke, and I launched with more than 1km to go,” he said. “I was on the right-hand side and I was carrying some speed, and [defending world champion Oscar] Carmenzind comes over and blocks my attack.
“Then Freire attacks on the left hand side and it’s inside the final K,” he said. “I am looking up, and we’re stalling out. He’s doing 60kph, and I said that’s the world champion right there. I missed my chance.”
A pedal still in the game
McRae remains fit and still trains in addition to his mountain bike patrol duties. He will race the Boston Marathon later this month, and continues to follow the sport.
Last year, he started putting feelers out to teams about rejoining the ranks of a sport director. He misses the action and tactics that come with professional racing.
McRae jumped at the chance to help out Roxo Racing, a start-up, second-year team with seven riders and big plans. Team director Chris Watson brings on title sponsor Roxo Energy, and the team is based in Fort Worth, Texas, with riders from across the United States.
“It’s an ambitious team, with a strong sponsor backing it,” McRae said. “We will see how it unfolds. I sat down with the sponsor and all the feedback I was getting was positive. They want to build it into a UCI team and really grow out the program.”
McRae is watching with interest as women’s racing and the gravel scene are booming in the United States and across the globe at the same time the once-thriving U.S. domestic racing scene is stagnating.
“The women’s WorldTour is thriving right now. In the U.S., things have slowed down and we’ve lost a lot of races,” he said. “Personally, looking at it now, it’s just sad. All these big races in Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Georgia, California, they’re just all gone. There are hardly any races left. Up until 2012 or so, you could be a U.S. pro and race 100 days a year. From the outside looking in, it’s a shame.”
McRae said he’s optimistic the scene will see a revival and is keen to return to the role of a sport director. He’s excited about working with elite athletes again and rolling up his sleeves to pass on his lifetime of experience and insight.
In the meantime, it’s back on the beat. Crime waits for no one.