LOOKBACK: Tyler Farrar the fighter

Words by James Startt with images by Yuzuru Sunada & James Startt

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In his prime, Tyler Farrar was one of the greatest road sprinters that the U.S. has ever produced, winning stages in all three grand tours. Later in his career he earned a reputation as a formidable team captain. But in September, just before the world championships, the 33-year-old Washingtonian revealed that he was retiring from pro racing—despite the fact that he was still under contract with his Dimension Data team for another year. PELOTON magazine sat down with Farrar in Canada, just before his final pro race, the Grand Prix de Montréal, where he looked back over a career rich with memories, talked about the reasons for retiring and looked tentatively into his future.

Tyler, you just told me that you are retiring and all I can say is: Boy, that went fast. Heck, I remember when Cofidis team manager Eric Boyer told me at the 2005 world championships in Madrid that he was going to sign this new American kid that he thought had real potential.

Yeah, it’s weird. It’s almost a blur sometimes. One minute you are this young guy and then the next you are a veteran, and then all of a sudden it’s 15 years later. The whole thing has just been a wild adventure. There are so many special parts over the years for different reasons. The big victories are nice of course. That’s why you get into the sport in the first place. But simply to be a part of growing a small team into a world-class team is an amazing experience. And I was lucky enough to be a part of that twice, first with Slipstream and then more recently with Dimension Data. That is something that I really took a lot of pride in. I love that process. I love that underdog attitude and trying to prove that you deserve to be part of the best races. There are just so many little anecdotes. I mean, just that moment when you come onto the Champs-Élysées for the first time as you are finishing your first Tour de France. That was back in 2009 and I would still put that up there with one of my best memories in cycling. It’s not a victory, but it was a moment that I realized that I was a real professional. This is it. You make that turn and all of a sudden there it is, and you see the Arc de Triomphe!

You always seemed to follow your own path—turning professional with a French team for starters and then living in Belgium. Most Americans, and so many professionals in general, have settled in Girona, Spain, or Nice, France, over the years. But you settled in the very heart of Ghent, along the canal in the old town.

Well, that is just one of the huge perks of the job. You get to see so much! I’ve seen so much of the world that I probably would never have seen if I wasn’t a cyclist. I’ve raced in South America. I’ve raced in Asia, Australia, et cetera. Sure, I would have gone to Europe in my life. I would have visited Paris, Rome—you know, all of the main attractions. But I got to actually live there for more than a decade. I got to be in the thick of it and go to places that you don’t usually go to when you are a tourist. I even got to learn Flemish! I mean, living in Belgium all those years, you just can’t not learn Flemish!

Yeah, you always seemed to have a special affinity with Belgium….

For sure! First, there are the races. Belgium is where all of my favorite races were. And then for some reason, just culturally, that is where I always seemed to feel the most at home. The Belgian fans and people just adopted me. It’s fun always traveling, but I needed to feel as though I had a home base, and I got that in Belgium. Coming back to Ghent was like coming home.

Your career track is one of the most original. You started out as a real sprinter, winning stages in all three grand tours before morphing into a deluxe-domestique role, something that not many sprinters are capable of doing. When did you realize that you had reached your limit sprinting and were not really competing at the same level?

You know, that is something I have thought about a lot. And it is something I don’t have a definitive answer for yet. I think I changed as a rider. I started thinking about the sheer craziness of the sprints. And saying that, I was probably one of the ones that was on the crazier side, because, well, there are two kinds of sprinters. There are the guys that win on pure speed and those that win because they take risks. But when you hit the ground hard enough a few times, you start to think. And there comes a point where you look at those small gaps and think, “I don’t know if I can make it through there.” In addition, sprinting has evolved. The way sprints are today are a lot different than back in 2008 or 2009. Today you have seven or eight teams totally dedicated to their sprinter, just drag racing to the line. The dynamics just shifted and I don’t think the new dynamics suited me as well.

But then you transitioned into a really dependable team rider. Most sprinters just don’t have that kind of engine. They are strung pretty tight, built for speed rather than the sort of diesel power you need to grind away at the head of the peloton for hours. It was a fun process for me. At the tail end of 2014, and the first part of 2015, I was still trying to be a sprinter. With the new sprinting, I could still scrape out a place, but was that really helping anyone? I mean, sprinting is about winning. That’s the brutal reality at the WorldTour level. I just came to this point where I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue racing if that was the only thing I was going to do. But coming to MTN-Qhubeka [which became Dimension Data] gave me the opportunity to morph into a new role and I really loved it, and because of my experience with Slipstream, I really was able to help build this team into a world-class operation. We have a lot of good sprinters on the team here and I take a lot more pleasure helping someone else win as opposed to getting fourth or fifth myself.

You were also a pretty good classics rider. I would see you in the front pack very late in the race, and you managed to finish fifth in the Tour of Flanders in 2010. Did you ever think about focusing more on those races?

Well, it is the classics that first inspired me. Heck, I would get VHS tapes back in the day and watch them. But while I could hold my own, and maybe place if the race came back together at the end, I was never the guy that was going to be throwing bombs with guys like Boonen, Gilbert and Cancellara. I had my limits. That said, in recent years I really enjoyed teaching the younger riders about these races. Because I lived there, I knew the climbs and would go out and take notes before the races that I would share with the guys on the team.

Okay, Tyler, so you definitely know all of the climbs in Flanders. Which one is the hardest?

Oh, wow! Well, I guess if it was just about the single hardest climb, that would go to the Koppenberg. But when it comes to the racing, I would say the Oude Kwaremont. The way it is placed in the races, and the climb itself, are just so hard. First you have that steep part and then over the top, on that long false flat, is where the race just breaks up. I can’t tell you how many times I was in the front group at the top of the first part and then you just have that long drag to the top. It’s the defining climb in so many races. It’s always where the big moves go. It’s funny because, if you were just going out on an easy ride and went up it, you wouldn’t even say it was one of the three hardest climbs. But in a race it is.

Tyler, you still had a year left in your contract. Why did you decide to stop?

Well, there just comes a point where it is time. One thing that I didn’t want to be was the guy who stuck around too long. I would like to think that I’ve had a pretty good career and built a fair amount of respect. And I didn’t want to squander that by sticking around when I couldn’t be a factor in races anymore. This year, I just started feeling as though I wasn’t at the same level. I was still doing the training, but I was getting into this vicious circle where you do the training but the body is not responding. And you get frustrated. I felt like I was racing too many races in survival mode this year. And being a professional has always been crucial to me. It didn’t matter if my job was fetching bottles or winning. I wanted to be able to do that job well. I started feeling this year that I just wasn’t pulling my weight on the team. And for me that is the worst feeling in cycling. So midway through the season I started talking to management. And I just said that I didn’t want to be the guy that was dead weight. I love this team too much to do that.

So what are you going to do now?

Well, I am still trying to figure that out. But one thing that I struggled with a bit over the years is the fact that being a professional athlete is one of the most selfish things that you can do in the world. I mean, literally, your entire existence is built up around maximizing your own performance. Everything from how you eat, when you sleep and where you go on vacation is centered around you and how it will affect your performance. I’ve always struggled with that level of selfishness, because I just never felt as though I was doing anything to help anyone else or make any kind of contribution to the world. So I am looking into ways that I can maybe make more of a contribution. I am looking into become a fire fighter. I’m looking into getting my EMT [Emergency Medical Technician] certification, the fire academy and all that. It is something that has always inspired me, and I think it is a noble calling, so we’ll see!

From issue 70. Buy it here.

An American in France

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