“I think I figured out fairly early on that I was going to be a lifer in the game.”
Do you know your T-Town history? If so, you’ll recall that this week’s guest was a former director here at the VPCC. Andrew is joined by Erin Hartwell, coach, race director, cyclist extraordinaire. They discuss Hartwell’s rich history with the sport, his time in T-Town and his residencies in coaching across the globe.
Thanks to B Braun Medical Inc. for sponsoring the Talk of the T-Town Podcast. BBraun is a global leader in infusion therapy and pain management, B Braun develops, manufactures and markets innovative medical products to the healthcare community. They are also strong believers in supporting the quality of life in the communities where their employees work and live.
Broadcasting to you from the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, this is the Talk-of-the-T-Town podcast, where we discuss all things track cycling.
Welcome back everyone, to another episode of Talk-of-the-T-Town. I’m today’s host Andrew Paradowski, and today I’m sitting down with Erin Hartwell, coach, race director, cyclist extraordinaire. The name is probably familiar to many people in our audience. He’s been all over the world doing different things, but mostly within cycling. And we have him here today while he’s in town for our UCI international racing block with the USA national team, training some of our future stars and helping them get through this high intense racing block. So, Erin, welcome.
Thanks Andrew. Glad to be here. Always great to come back to T town.
Well, we’re glad to have you here and it’s certainly been different from last year when we were still reeling a little bit from the effects of the pandemic. A lot of the countries that would normally be here still weren’t coming back, but this year, they’re all back and team USA is here in full force as well.
So we’ve had a great block of racing and one more event coming up, or one more competition coming up this weekend, the big one, the big Madison point grab that everyone’s looking to do and lots of sprinting [inaudible 00:01:34] available and stuff like that.
So we’re certainly looking forward to watching you and your team perform again this weekend, but we’re here to talk about you and allow our listeners to get to know you a little bit more. So we were just chatting a little bit before we got into the podcast studio about some of your career and where you’ve been. So why don’t we start from the beginning? How did you get into cycling in general, but then more importantly, what got you into the business of cycling?
Wow. I think it’s going on 36 years now that I’ve been in cycling, and it started after a pole vault injury my sophomore year of high school. My career track, even going back to when I was seven years old in 1976 watching Bruce Jenner when the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, I wanted to be an Olympian, but I wanted to be an Olympian in track and field.
And I had a trajectory that was going pretty well at that time in athletics, but an injury. And then seeing the Tour de France on TV in ’86 and Greg LeMond win, that famed tour that year, and then seeing [inaudible 00:02:30] on TV for the first time also, I was just enthralled by this bike racing, something I didn’t understand, hadn’t seen before. A couple of friends had bikes and I thought, wow, this is maybe something I could try, in addition to what I was doing the track and field.
And rehabbing for the injury, I stayed more and more on the bike. The Pan Am games were coming up in 1987 in my hometown of Indianapolis and an opportunity to go watch that competition. And actually I had started to ride just before that. My first license was in 1986 and I won every state championship possible back when state championships were a big deal in the US.
And it really showed me that there might be some other opportunity here. I ended up going to junior nationals, won the pursuit and second in the kilo, actually that year. And that was just a few months of experience and training in a masters rider’s basement on an old ergometer to prep for the competition.
Ended up going the junior worlds that year. And for a kid from Indiana that hadn’t been out of the country yet, that opportunity to go to Bergamo, Italy and to represent the United States and to have that experience was very profound for me. And what I realized is that I could still meet my Olympic objectives through cycling or there might be an opportunity there. And again, I think watching the Pan Am games in Indie later that summer really solidified for me that this is a path that I want to take.
That’s really interesting how some of these large scale events can spark that interest in sport for those riders at a young age and stuff like that. So you had a fairly good career as a junior racer. And then obviously, adult times come calling and some pressures come in and school’s calling and jobs and family and all that stuff.
And this is where you see a lot of riders too, that transitionary period. Either they continue on in the sport or they fizzle out or they find another way to be involved. Some riders decide to become coaches or they get involved in the administration of the sport or become officials. It sounds like you went the coach and administrator way after that. Tell us a bit about that.
Yeah. I think I figured out fairly early on that I was going to be a lifer in the game. I genuinely love cycling. I love high performance sport. I love winning. I love competition. I love the Olympic movement, the Olympic games, all of it. And after three Olympics, I retired in 2001, took two Olympic medals, bronze in 1992, which was the first medal, I want to say, in almost a hundred years for a male athlete, a male cyclist at the Olympic games for the United States. And I was the first back to back Olympic medalist on the men’s side ever, or I should say, I want to say, in over almost a hundred years back in the 1908, 1904 games, 1900 and whatnot.
And so, and then four medals in the World Championships, obviously all on the track, kilometer time trial, team sprint, ended up going to the road after knee surgery in 1998, [inaudible 00:05:25] for a couple of years, made the Olympic team [inaudible 00:05:27] in 2000 with Derek Bouchard-Hall, Christian Van de Velde, a few others, [inaudible 00:05:32].
And it was a great experience, but I did one more year, another injury, and I just realized that my body couldn’t cash the checks anymore. And so it was time to go to school. Went up to University of North Dakota for commercial aviation, did a couple years there, really enjoyed it, but that got expensive. I had a wife, two children, and I just realized that I was pining for cycling. As much as I wanted to fly, there was an industry downturn at the time and I just didn’t know where it was going to shake out.
And so I decided to put my foot back into cycling, so found some opportunities in Europe, then came back to the United States. After that, a great opportunity opened up here in T town, in 2005, to work as community programs director. Ended up moving up into the presidency overall after that, and suddenly found myself in an administrative role where I didn’t quite expect to be a couple years before that. I really thought that coaching would be the primary trajectory.
And it’s where my heart was at, at the time. But T town is such a venerable institution and a place that’s near and dear to my heart. I had been coming for years, had some great successes here, and some great disappointments too. And it was really wonderful to be provided that opportunity. I created the valid preferred sponsorship, landed the naming rights to the facility, worked with county officials to amend the lease agreement that allowed us to do that, brought us some of the biggest sponsorships in Valley Preferred Cycling Center’s history. And created the World Series of Bicycling and a few other major events.
And I really enjoyed my time here, but I don’t know, maybe if I just get antsy and I wanted to coach or whatnot, but it was time to move on at the end of ’08 and formed a coaching business, ended up taking an international role in Trinidad and Tobago. And then a couple years after that, ended up at Cycling Canada, which was my first, I would say, genuinely big opportunity to run a world class national program. When I got there, though, there was, Andrew, you would know, there was very little going on.
It was almost like cycling Canada thought, Hey, we we want a sprint program. We don’t necessarily have sprinters right now. There were a couple guys, Hugo Barrette and Joe Veloce, were essentially the program at the time. Let’s see what we can do with this, especially leading into Rio 2016. And so, had a great experience there, and to this day, I truly cherish my time in Canada. My wife is a Trinidad and Tobago national. She was up in Canada with me for a couple years and it got to the point of she missed home. I missed Trinidad. And we decided to look at an opportunity there.
And so ended up going to Trinidad in 2017, and had a lot of success there. World record in men’s 200 meter time trial with Nicholas Paul, essentially dominated the Western hemisphere of the Pan Am region, took all the Pan American records in the sprint events and really built a world class program. Qualified two guys to the Olympic games, just missing team sprint. And that was a really profound experience for me.
Professionally, it became a little bit of a liability in the sense that… And again, my experience in Trinidad was very good and I worked for the ministry of sport, wasn’t working directly with federation, but there were a couple of incidents that suggested to me that, I think long term, it’s going to be difficult to stay here. And so took an opportunity with China, and COVID here, didn’t realize it was going to be COVID in 2020 when I took that role. I probably wouldn’t have if I knew that it was going to blow up as it did.
But overall we can, we can discuss this in a little bit, but China was a profound and very good experience for me. And it was very difficult, essentially being locked in and sequestered for months on end. It was hard, but overall it was a very, very good experience. And actually I recently saw some of the Chinese athletes and my old teammates at the Milton Nations Cup. And it was a really nice homecoming and get together with those guys. They’re great, great people, and really, really, really appreciated seeing them again.
And then after my contract came up, I was talking with Jim Miller USA cycling, and this opportunity came around to build a program in the United States. I have everything to thank USA cycling for in my own history and my own career. They’re obviously instrumental in where I’m at. I had a overall, a very, very good experience with USAC for almost 15 years as an athlete. And so an opportunity to give back to the program that had given me so much was something that I could not turn down under any circumstance.
And so here we are, obviously mid 2022, just coming off COVID, building a new program, looking towards Paris 2024, but obviously long term LA 2028. That’s our real goal here. And I couldn’t be more excited to be in the sport at this time. At 53 years old, I feel that I’m rejuvenated, renewed, enthusiastic, and just loving it.
So Erin, that was quite the lengthy CV there, and it’s brought a couple of questions into my head as you were going through that. So I’ll try to see if I can remember them all as I go through them. So the first one has to do with your time in Canada and in Trinidad. So if I’m correct, both of those times lined up when both nations received a fairly large brand spanking new velodrome.
… for their athletes. And prior to that, the track programs, while existing, weren’t anywhere near as developed or as intense as they were after the fact. So do you want to talk a little bit about how having that kind of infrastructure can play out and have an effect on a team’s success and development and the future of the sport, not just in track cycling, but I think across all the disciplines?
Look, to be clear, you can’t do it without it. You’re never going to find success without that level of infrastructure. I made a pitch to a high performance summit late last November with USA Cycling on essentially what the spring program would need to be internationally competitive. And if you look worldwide, you see that every successful program is a centralized program. They’ve got their home base indoor 250 UCI class one homologated velodrome, which is the standardized size and style of track that we race on, year in and year out now. That’s not going to change.
And so to me, that’s absolutely requisite and stepping into Canada, I knew that, obviously with Pan Am games coming online in 2015, there, in Toronto, it was going to be a huge deal, tracked us outside of Toronto and Milton, that cycling Canada and the COC and whatnot were going to put some serious resources into it.
And so to me, it was a viable project and opportunity. And one that, I’ll tell you what, I think if I look back at my athletic and coaching career, I would say that my greatest success and my best memories are of the Pan Am games in 2015. And I say that because I challenged our athletes and even Cycling Canada pretty early on in saying that, “You know what? The Pan Am games in 2015 are going to be the sprint program’s Phoenix rising,” from the Curt Harnett and Lori-Ann Muenzer days, and there was obviously a dearth of performance for a long period of time. It’s like, “This is our comeback.”
And got laughed off. Women’s track endurance was the queen of the program at the time in road, and even men’s track endurance was coming online. And we weren’t being taken that seriously. Jacques Landry to his credit was, and they were providing us the resources that we needed. Did a talent ID scheme across Canada, brought in athletes like Kate O’ Brien and Evan Carey, and got Monique Sullivan to come out of retirement, and so I saw the makings of us to do something special.
And we won five of the six gold medals available in sprint cycling. Canada. Listen, we hadn’t been competitive for years, even at the Pan Am level. Took five or six golds, seven of, I want to say, eight medals total, including a couple of silvers. We dominated… Women’s sprint went 1-2. Won both team sprints. Won the men’s sprint. The only hiccup was Hugo Barrette’s bronze [inaudible 00:13:19] and I think we just let our guard down for their second after he won this sprint and how great that was.
And to me, that was just such a wonderful, wonderful experience, and we could not have done that without the track, obviously. And having access to it leading into the Pan Am games was just critical to the development and having just come back from Milton, what was it, a couple of months ago for the nation’s cup up there, I see what Frank [inaudible 00:13:43] was doing with the sprint program, obviously the great success they’ve had with the work that we had put in early on, leading into Frank’s arrival.
I actually hired Frank. Jacque and I looked at, when we… I had been complaining that I needed an assistant coach for a long time. And we did the interviews and whatnot, and Frank was, was absolutely rock solid. A great addition to the program. I ended up going back to Trinidad soon after that, just again, some family pressure that had me needing to up and leave, but they’re in great hands right now. And again, all of that’s born from what happened back in the lead to the Pan Am games. Could not have done it without that infrastructure.
And in Trinidad and Tobago, it was somewhat the same thing. When I was here back in 2010, there was no indoor track yet. We were dealing with a large concrete outdoor track in Arima, a town outside of Port of Spain. And it just wasn’t feasible there at that time. You’re just not going to find success without that type of infrastructure and honestly, financial support, whether it comes from government, private sponsors, whatever, it needs to be there.
So when I returned to Trinidad in 2017, it was with the understanding that the resources would be there, that we were going to chase Tokyo 2020. We’ve got the new track coming online. We’ve got some great athletes in the mix, guys like Jessain Philip, Quincy Browne, obviously Nicholas Paul, was a junior Pan Am champion at the time. So I saw the makings of being able to do something similar.
And we did end up going to Pan Am games, you know, dominated there in Lima, Peru in 2019. And really enjoy the successes that we saw there. And both experiences are still molding me today, and how I approach what I did in China, and now here in the United States.
So that’s a good segue, Erin. You brought up China again, and that was my next question after you talked about it briefly earlier. It’s a different world for sure in China. And I think it sounds like you had two interesting points having gone there. One, going to coach in a part of the world that is markedly different from the Western part of the world.
They do things differently. The sports system is different. The culture is different. The politics, the government, all that stuff is different there. So it’s a whole different set of rules going over there to be a coach and learning to adapt to that. But on top of that, an unprecedented by a century worldwide pandemic where things just changed month to month, week to week.
So tell us about that time. What did you find interesting? Are there any anecdotes from that time that can explain what it was like for you to be in this environment that, on a good year would be wildly different, but also in the middle of a pandemic?
God, how much time do we have? It was such an important and profound experience for me. Look, and I took that role. My title there was executive coach. And so the way the Chinese system had worked is that you had Benoit Vetu too there leading into Rio 2016 and he was falling on the heels of Daniel Morelon, who had been the French coach that had built the program between Beijing and London 2012.
And what really allowed those guys to succeed is that they had central governance over their programs. They were the only ones in charge. And after Benoit left in 2017 for Japan, the Chinese system shifted in the sense that if a provincial athlete qualifies into the national team, his provincial coach comes with him or her.
And so what ended up happening after Benoit left is that you would have a foreign coach come in to head the program, but then you would have 3, 4, 5, 10 provincial coaches all acting as national coaches too. And so it just created an almost untenable environment for those foreign coaches. And when I was hired, the real goal was not to coach the athletes themselves, but to coach the coaches. And to me, I saw that as a very challenging opportunity and one that I was chomping at the bit to give it a go again.
Politically, there was some issues in Trinidad that I felt that I wanted to look at other opportunities and therefore did. And the Chinese opportunity came around at a great time. I left Trinidad January 17th, 2020, and this is literally, was it, maybe a month before COVID began to explode. There were some whispers and whatnot that there was this new virus or illness or whatever going around, but it’s not that we weren’t taking it seriously. None of us really knew what was happening.
So I go over there and I integrate into the program and culturally, it’s a lot different. And I’ll say this right now. The Chinese people are beautiful people. Literally some are just the absolute nicest, nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. And I will forever cherish those relationships, from the coaches to the athletes, to the persons in the country. It was just an amazing experience. And we bounced between mainland China between Beijing and a city called Taiyuan in Shanxi province. But then also Hong Kong, spent a lot of time in Hong Kong because we ended up locked up, not locked up, but we were unable to return to mainland China after the world championships because of COVID.
And to repatriate, it must have been 25 people, all the athletes, staff, et cetera. It was such a huge undertaking in the way that China was managing COVID at the time that we ended up stuck in Hong Kong for months. This would’ve been between March, and then I think we finally were repatriated back in at the end of July. And in Hong Kong, it was the same thing, lockdowns, obviously mass policies and whatnot, and so being inside a sports center for weeks on end, unable to venture out, is difficult. But again, I was surrounded by great people. We had great food.
And I will say outside of the Chinese people just being amazing people, it was the food. The food is unmatched. Chinese food in China is absolutely unreal. Some of my best culinary experiences, foodie experiences were there. And I look back on that and just smile and just, that was an overall great experience. So no regrets there at all. Ran the course of my contract act.
And at that point with COVID and just the difficulties of managing COVID, it’s not that I didn’t want to extend. It was just like, I need to look at a way to get back to the US at this point. I was looking at, Hey, you’ve got Paris upcoming, then LA. There was some whispers that USAC wanted to reinvest in sprint. I’m an ex sprinter from the US, a product of USAC. And to me, it was like, wow, that’s something that could be really, really cool if I could make it work.
So the prodigal son returns.
Yeah. I’ve been gone almost 12 years actually, out of the US.
And from some of your successes in the past, it’s a good omen for USA cycling to have you on board to help shape the team here in the US and Paris 2024 is coming up soon. And then of course you said earlier, you have the long term goal of LA in ’28. So do you see those two goals as working together, ’24 as a springboard to ’28 being the culmination of six years of training and strategy? And I guess in addition to that, without giving away too much of your secrets to the world, what’s the general plan to build that program up here in the US over the next six years?
First, Andrew, there are no secrets. Outside of a few of the countries that really might have some secrets, GB, Australia, couple of those, the reality is, it’s good planning and hard work and respecting that it takes time to build these programs. One thing that’s worked in my favor in this role is that I’ve produced some really good results over the past 10 years. But importantly, I was able to do it in a relatively quick period of time, two, two and a half years in multiple locations.
And so I think that was one of the attractive features in bringing me back is that, can we turn this around somewhat quickly? Look, we don’t necessarily have six years to start seeing results. We’re an impatient bunch here in the US. We want to see those results now. And so to me, it’s Paris is the first stop in having this program start to shine. But look, Olympic qualification starts now. Literally it might be starting at this year’s Pan Am championships. That’s the impression we’re under with the IOC and UCI releasing the Olympic qualifications system literally just yesterday, I want to say.
And so we’re seeing that this year’s Pan Am’s may be included. We’re not ready yet, unfortunately. I think on the women’s side, obviously with Mandy Marquardt and Maddie Godby, we are. And those are two very competitive athletes, but on the men’s and development women’s side, we’re not there yet. And so I think we could do a lot in a couple of years. We’re really only six months into this with the development program. I’ve seen great strides already, but we do have a long way to go.
And funny, one of the concerns I hear from athletes is that, is the plug going to be pulled? Is our funding going to be cut? How long is this going to last? Six months, nine months, a year, 18 months, whatever. So guys, I’m under the impression that USAC and the USOPC is in this for the long haul, that they want to see sprint cycling succeed. It’s 50% of the medals available on the track. It’s 27% of the total medals available in cycling at the Olympic games. How do you ignore it? And that was my pitch to, at the high performance summit, we need to make a decision. Either make a real investment or tell us that you’re not going to, but it’s got to be one or the other. It can’t be a gray area. It’s a yes or no answer.
And so the impression I’m under now is that it’s a yes, and that they’re making the investment. We’ve just relocated the program to Los Angeles. We’ve got a six year sponsorship agreement with look, arguably the biggest in USAC history for the sprint program, the first time the sprint program itself has had its own deal. It’s a huge deal for us. We’ve got a huge grant that’s upcoming for talent ID programs, that’ll be piloted out in Los Angeles, that’s sprint oriented. And again, it’s a big, big deal for us. So things are going in the right direction. We’ve got a great development pool of athletes from which to work. We’ll start bringing more in through talent ID.
And I see some momentum. The inertia that we had been in is shifting. That momentum is starting to build. And I’m truly encouraged where we’re at. It is going to take some time, though. Do not expect results in a year. That’s the reality of how this works. Talk to me in 18 months. Talk to me in two years. I am seeing a lot of progress, but if you want world class results, it’s going to be 18 months to two years, minimum. And look at any world class program. All right. Whether it’s the Dutch, the Brits, whatever, the point at which they started to see genuine, consistent predictable world leading results is eight to 10 years. Cycling Canada, it took six years, seven years.
Two Olympic cycles, basically.
Two Olympic cycles. And so we’re six months in. My thought is that we can dominate LA six years away. We cannot dominate Paris. We won’t dominate Worlds in 2025. But I think by the time you get to 2026 and 2027 [inaudible 00:25:02] Olympic qualifications system leading into LA, and then even Brisbane in 2032, the US is a dominant factor in international sprint cycling, just as it was in my era back in the nineties when we had great financial and resource support.
Well, it certainly sounds like you got a good plan, and I think we’re all going to be waiting in anticipation over the next couple of years and watching those results come in and the program grow. And I think, yeah, it does sound LA in ’28’s going to be the moment. And hometown crowd. You can’t ask for anything better with that goal, so.
So before we send you on your way back to the track to keep training those athletes, I know you’ve got some more training blocks coming up today before we get into our racing, why don’t we talk a little bit about Erin Hartwell the guy, just to let our listeners know a little bit about you, when you’re not surrounded by athletes and teaching people how to ride their bikes and training sprinter’s athletes, tell us a little bit about the man. What do you do in your spare time? What kind of hobbies do you like to do? Music, movies, all that stuff.
Man, I’ll tell you what, I, and I hate to say this and I do not wear it as a badge of honor. I’ve got very little spare time in reality. We’re pulling 60 to 80 hours a week, week in, week out. I have not been home in two and a half years. I have not seen my wife and daughter in two and a half years.
And it’s not good. All right. And it’s not that I’m a slave, or that I’m committed to work or on that grind. That’s not it, but I’m very serious with my work, or I should say, I take it very seriously, and I’m committed to what we’re trying to do here. And it’s a huge effort. And so, granted, some of that was I was in China for a year with COVID. I couldn’t go back. My family couldn’t come over. The Trinidad and Tobago border was closed up to, I want to say, November last year. And then it just got to a point where, look, I’ve got to get this program up and running. And so fortunately my wife and daughter are understanding.
I’m going to go back after Pan Am championships this year, so in a couple months I’ll be home, I’ll be able to see the family again, and I’m working to bring them into the US. But those are those challenges. And so I do do very little other than focus on the bike right now. And again, it’s not a badge of honor, and it’s not necessarily a good thing, but having done this for so long and just knowing what it’s going to take for us to succeed, it’s an all encompassing effort.
But I will say, outside of the bike, I love food, love cooking, love my west Indian food, my Trinidadian food and cooking Indian and fresh Mex and things like that. So that’s my mental break when I get home after a day at work. I had been running, but my body at 53 after years of physical effort is giving me some fits, so I’m trying to stay relatively fit and eat well and whatnot, but it’s been a challenge.
I really enjoy reading, non-fiction, philosophy, things like that. I tend to be quite introverted. And I think that would surprise people. I’m quite extroverted when I’m in my coaching role, but I think, because there’s so much intensity with that. When you’re out barking orders all day, it’s good to go home and just sometimes sit in quiet and think.
So, I do enjoy my personal time, my private time, and now I literally just moved to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago before we came out here for T town and I was able to find a great place that’s super quiet in a large city of 13, 14 million people. And it’s been great.
So, but no, I think, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been wanting to get out of the sport or high performance for years, just because it is so all encompassing. It’s very, very stressful. And listen, a coach that doesn’t admit to that is lying. It’s a hard gig. But it’s something that we relish and cherish. And again, I feel that I’m in a position of great responsibility and leadership, and I take that very seriously, and never let my guard down in that sense. So it’s an honor to work with USC Cycling, to work with the United States, to work for my country. And that’s my driving goal right now. So there isn’t a lot else going on, man. That’s it.
All right, Erin. Well, thank you so much for coming in today. That was a great hour sitting down here, talking to you about your life, your career coaching, all the great things that you got planned. Like we said earlier, I think everyone here is excited to see what the USA program’s going to be over the next couple of years. And right now we’re just excited to see your athletes compete here this weekend at our final UCI race at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, so. So thanks for joining us. And we’ll keep an eye on everything that’s going on there.
Appreciate that, Andrew. And it’s a season isn’t complete until you’ve come to T town. So I’m glad to be back this year and for our month in June. And it’s just been wonderful, man. So I really appreciate the hospitality and you guys have been great as always. And I feel like the organization is in good hands. Kudos to you guys. It’s good to see everybody back.
Thank you very much, and we’re looking forward to having you back next time.
All right, folks, that’s it for our episode of Talk-of-the-T-Town. We’ll see you next time as we continue interviewing all the different personalities of writers, coaches, and other such luminaries that come to T town here and have some fun on the track. We’ll see you all next time.
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