|Erin in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Photo by Henri Szwarc/Getty Images|
For Erin Hartwell only one suit merited wearing.
“In the Olympics you are given two suits,” he says. “Your marching suit for the opening ceremonies and an awards suit for the podium.
“I only ever wore the awards suit. Never went to an opening ceremony, never went to a closing. We weren’t there for the party. We were only there to compete.”
That single-minded focus on the highest level of competition shaped the kilometer specialist Hartwell, now 44 years old, into one of the most successful American track cyclists in the world arena. He earned Olympic and world champion silver and bronze medals. He set Olympic, world, and national records. He also dominated national championships.
His path to achievement in cycling came about through another sport that he’s recently rediscovered.
Images of Bruce Jenner running, pole vaulting, and launching a javelin as he worked toward gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics hooked seven-year-old Hartwell on becoming an Olympian. In high school he swam, but he focused on track and field to pursue the Olympic goal.
After practice he returned to his south side Indianapolis home. His mom worked as a flight attendant. Self-employed, dad painted and hung wallpaper.
The young Hartwell started cycling while recovering from a 1986 track and field injury. The next year he became junior national champion in the individual pursuit. The velodrome reminded him of track and field and he manufactured speed in no time at all on a fixed gear bike. Cycling became his new ticket to the Olympics in the form of the kilometer time trial or “kilo.”
“I choose the kilometer because it was the one event I felt I could control in my pursuit of pushing the limits of human performance,” he explains. “It was really about me testing what I was capable of doing…I wasn’t racing a man; I was racing a clock.”
Sprinting for medals
Hartwell portrays American track athletes of the early 1990s as “punching bags for the rest of the world.” He and teammate Marty Nothstein headed to competitions like pioneers driving wagons loaded with American pride and ambition.
“No one is going to push us around,” recalls Hartwell regarding their mindset at the time. “We will compete with the best in the world. And even if we lose, somebody’s going to be bloodied at the end of the day…any event we ever went to, we were there for one explicit reason – get the medal.”
He raced at his first Olympics in 1992. He and his American teammates rose quickly to podiums, Hartwell believes, because they were good athletes. And they prepared. “I remember countless times I could look my competitors in the eye and see who had done the work and who didn’t. You could see the fear. And that was a beautiful thing.”
The Madison was actually his favorite track event. But dedication to becoming the best in the world meant focusing on the kilo. Fun wasn’t the point at the time.
In 2011, ten years post-retirement and after swearing he’d never compete in masters cycling, Hartwell captured a masters national championship in the Madison. “I wanted to win a Madison championship,” he says. “And it was enough.
“In hindsight I think I may have been a better endurance athlete or maybe a Madison rider, points racer, something than say a pure sprinter. I was good at sprinting.” However, he adds, “I think I could have been more successful on the road side, at least financially and maybe professionally.”
After the 1996 Olympics he quit the kilo, trimmed off sprinting muscle, and prepared to transition to road racing. At that time another ambition began to claim his loyalty – raising a family with his wife at the time. Team EDS, a trade team he explains was associated with the U.S. national team, asked him to return to his trademark event for a salary and a guaranteed job afterwards. Family in mind, Hartwell got back on the track bike.
He made it to road racing with the Saturn Cycling Team in 2000 after a 1998 knee injury cut him off from the kind of training the kilo required. An overall win in the Joe Martin Stage Race and additional victories confirmed his road potential.
Before agreeing to travel to his third Olympics that year for the team pursuit, he hesitated. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a track cyclist and wasn’t sure about committing the second half of the road season to the world event.
Hartwell’s reluctance to ride in the 2000 Olympics reveals something else one could say he values: the desire for autonomy, the freedom to define himself.
About a year later in 2001, after recovering from another injury, he started to put in the miles on the roads of what he describes as the “wind-swept, Belgian-like hills” of southern Indiana. In the middle of a ride he clicked out of his pedals and sat in the grass at the side of the road.
“You know what?” he said to himself. “That’s it. I’m done.”
Recalling that moment, he says, “I was no longer pursuing the Olympic dream… I should be going to school or something, do something I’ve not done yet while I still have the opportunity.
He retired from professional cycling and continued his pursuit of human excellence in other capacities.
Respect for sprinting
After some college study and a job with the Welsh Cycling Federation, in 2005 Hartwell became the CEO at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania.
Hartwell describes track at a world-class level as a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat spectator sport. Speed. Banging elbows. Incredible acceleration and explosiveness. Track sprinters, he says, pump out 2,500 watts while riders completing a Tour de France stage might generate just over half that.
To understand the experience Hartwell suggests viewing online videos of the Belgian Gent Six-Day event. He calls the action “beautiful mayhem on a bike” as athletes zip around an oval at 55 to 60 kilometers an hour doing Madison exchanges. “…it was literally hours of they are going to crash at any second,” he says.
Based in part on the exposure track cycling received during the 2012 Olympics, Hartwell perceives increasing interest in the discipline. A revamped world cup format, more international meets, and other developments signal that track is getting more respect, “the respect it deserves.”
In 2012 the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame added the guy who gave America its first Olympic medal in the kilo to its modern road and track competitor ranks.
“It was a wonderful moment for me. Icing on the cake. It’s good to have that peer recognition especially following in the footsteps of my best friend Marty [Nothstein] who was inducted the year before,” Hartwell says. “I thought ‘wow man, two track cyclists/sprinters back to back!’ I thought that was pretty cool.”
The next act
He left the velodrome in 2008 to focus on his Athletics Cubed venture. The sports management company provides athlete coaching and management as well as event promotions through three programs, the newest called SprintStars. Now he’s looking to restructure his business with a more singular focus on sprinting by year-end. He imagines a central environment exclusively for international sprinter training. Plans also include camps and tours in unique places.
While still passionate about pursuing human excellence in his work, he says, “I like the sport, but after almost 30 years you don’t live for it anymore.”
What he lives for now: family, peace, contentment. “I’ll begin exploring my creative side more. I’d like to see more of the world where it’s not just focused on a velodrome and a hotel room.” The creative work that interests him is writing. “I think there may be a story to tell at some point and wouldn’t mind doing some screenplays, we’ll see.”
Article Source: USA Cycling