ARCALIS, Andorra — Lawson Craddock is riding his first Tour de France this month, and he’s not just sitting in for the ride. The Houston native has finished in the top 20 on two stages and gotten into a breakaway. He has put in a lot of hard miles working for his team leader, France’s Pierre Rolland. Craddock has suffered, too, having been dropped from the peloton while climbing some of the race’s toughest mountains. But with a steady trajectory from junior rider to the top of the sport, and impressive results on his résumé including third at the Amgen Tour of California, Craddock keeps learning and pushing on.
Craddock also has the dubious distinction of being the first Texan to race the Tour since Lance Armstrong, the seven-time race champion whose titles were stripped after he confessed to doping for most of his career. At 24 years old, Craddock is a generation removed from Armstrong, 44, but the two differ in many more ways than that.
Business Insider sat down with Craddock on the Tour’s fist rest day, in Andorra. Here’s what he had to say about racing in the world’s biggest bike race, Armstrong, suffering, and his inspirational team leader:
Daniel McMahon: You compete in many different races in many different countries all season long. What makes the Tour de France unique?
Lawson Craddock: It’s a race unlike anything I’ve ever done. Everything here is on a bigger scale. No one comes to the Tour as preparation for another race. People go to the Giro prepping for the Tour. People go to the Vuelta prepping for the Tour the next year. So when you have people who focus their entire careers on this one race, you’re going to have a lot higher expectations, a lot higher risk, and a lot higher rewards. You see that in the races — people braking that half-second later, taking that little extra risk going around turns in the rain. Nothing can quite prepare you except being here and doing it.
McMahon: You’ve ridden two editions of the Vuelta a España. Was getting to the Tour about having that experience in grand tours?
Craddock: I think that’s the most important thing. It’s getting that first grand tour under your belt. I noticed a huge difference after I did two weeks in the Vuelta the first time. You never get that experience anywhere else, where you race two weeks in a row. And already in that offseason I noticed a pretty big jump in my engine. Then I finished the whole three weeks. It was kind of incredible. You have this motor that allows you go almost all day. You develop this completely new gear on your body. It’s incredible how the body adapts.
You look at two years ago at the Vuelta. I felt like I did everything leading into to it, but looking back there could have been things we could have changed in terms of the racing and training schedule. But after two weeks the body was completely empty. I’d get out of bed every morning and could barely pedal a bike. And you fast-forward one year and I’m able to race hard for three weeks. And then you fast-forward another year and here I am at the Tour de France. I’m racing 50 hours in nine days, and all you need is one day of recuperation and you’re back into it. It’s incredible how the human body works.
McMahon: Were you at all intimidated coming into the world’s biggest bike race as a rookie?
Craddock: You kind of adapt to it and lose that mentality of, “Oh, God, I’m scared — I don’t want to crash these guys.” Instincts take over, and you start fighting and racing your bike. Your whole mentality changes.
McMahon: What’s been the lowest point?
Craddock: It always sucks to get dropped. There’s no getting around that. It’s bike racing, and that’s going to happen. So far, the Tourmalet day was rough for me. I’d put a lot trying to get into that breakaway, and when we hit the Tourmalet I was on the limit already [laughs]. Then you look down and you’re off the back and you have a hundred K to go and 4,000 meters of climbing and you’re like, “This is going to be a big day.” That was a rough day for me and the team. Pierre crashed, too. It was a dark day, but we made it through and put it behind us. You turn your focus on to the next goal, the next task at hand.
McMahon: What’s motivated you in this Tour?
Craddock: When you have a great leader like Pierre, you know — in the bus the next day [after Rolland crashed on the Tourmalet stage] his first question was, “All right, can I attack today?” When you hear that out of a guy who had just crashed really hard the day before and has got stitches in his hand and road rash all over his body, it definitely shows you he’s not ready to give up and quit the race. He’s geared up to race his bike, and that’s what he’s come here to do. That boosts morale. We’re here to fight all the way to Paris, and that’s what we’re going to do. It motivates the director and it motivated the riders, and it set the tone for the rest of the race. You know, you hit a fork in the road. Our leader crashed, and it’s going to be a lot tougher now. But the fact that he’s ready to keep going gives us inspiration.
McMahon: What is it like being the first Texan to race the Tour since Armstrong?
Craddock: I grew up watching Lance race the Tour as my inspiration getting on a bike when I was younger. I did grow up in a cycling family — my dad was a big racer. But when I was younger the Tour de France was the only race on TV. You start riding bikes and racing your friends around the neighbourhood. You turn on the TV and you see Lance winning and it motivates you to get out there on a competitive level.
I was pretty fortunate with the path that I took in cycling. Obviously there’s that whole story with him and the doping aspects, but he did help me out in my career, and I raced for the under-23 team that he helped fund and create. Without those opportunities it’s fair to say I would not be here racing the Tour. It’s unfortunate everything that happened, but I think it paved a clear way for cycling.
Being from Texas and living in Austin now, you’re always going to draw comparisons. But at the same time I’m here to make my own legacy. I’m here to race the Tour and be Lawson Craddock, not Lance Armstrong, in a lot more ways than the doping aspects. It’s cool to be compared to such an iconic cyclist and someone who helped mould the sport into what it is, but still, at the end of the day I’m going to be myself, not him.
McMahon: Do you get tired of the Lance questions?
Craddock: I mean, not necessarily. It comes with the territory. Just being from Texas it’s something I’m asked a lot, but it’s not something that bothers me. I harbour no hard feelings for the guy, and it doesn’t upset me. And honestly it doesn’t upset me what he did because it allowed me to come to the sport and not have to not face these decisions — like, “Oh, man, if I want to race the Tour, I’m going to have to put all this shit in my body.” The sport definitely went through a rough patch, but being here and being part of a great team like Cannondale is just — I’m really fortunate with the path I’ve had into the sport.
McMahon: Can you imagine a situation where you or anyone on your team would be tempted to cheat?
Craddock: I can’t really imagine it. Obviously you can’t speak for everyone, but for myself I’d like to think that my parents raised me better than that, and I know they raised me better than that. I’m not here to cheat my way to the top. I don’t see any enjoyment in that. I honestly don’t see how anyone would find that fun. I love the sport because I can go out and push my body to the limits and I can see success just from doing that. I can see success in races from doing that. That’s what I enjoy. And when you put drugs in the picture, it’s like, what’s the point anymore? It’s not you doing the work. It’s some outside factor. It’s cheating. It’s no fun.
McMahon: You rode with a European team for two years. How did you end up on an American one?
Craddock: [Cannondale-Drapac general manager] Jonathan Vaughters wanted me ever since I was 17, and it never worked out. Things didn’t really quite fall into place. And at the end of last year we got on the phone for the sixth or seventh time over the last six or seven years, and I really felt in my heart that this would be the best place to succeed. They have a great antidoping perspective, and that’s something I share with them. That’s huge.
But it’s also the feel of the team. You could tell the guys have fun and are professional but enjoy racing their bikes. They love it. They don’t do it for the money — they don’t do it for the fame. They’re a bunch of dudes who love racing bikes. That was a big draw. Also being an American team and being an American rider was big for me.
McMahon: What’s the best thing about being a professional bike racer?
Craddock: Just seeing the world. You’re in Andorra on two wheels seeing this beautiful scenery that you would never see otherwise. Eye-opening experiences that stay with you.
McMahon: And the worst thing?
Craddock: Being away from home for so long. But even that gets better with time. You learn how to adapt. My fiancée and I are living together in Girona [Spain] now, and that helps a lot. You start to make it more like home and not a place you’re just staying. But it’s hard to be away from Texas for so long. I haven’t gone fishing at all this year, and that’s been a little rough.
McMahon: What do you do at the Tour when you have down time?
Craddock: Right now I’m moseying through a TV series, “Revolution,” which is pretty good. But I also have a Kindle and I read. But you’d be surprised. There’s not as much down time because you just wake up, you eat breakfast, you race six hours, you drive, massage, eat, and by then you’ve got like 30 minutes and you want to lie down and relax before you go to bed at 10:30 or 11. I try to get nine hours’ sleep, but you get to a point during the Tour where you get so tired you can’t fall asleep anymore.
McMahon: What would you be doing if you weren’t a bike racer?
Craddock: My dad owns a roofing company in Houston, and when I was younger that’s all I ever wanted to do was take over the business. My brother is out there now, and he’s working for him. My dad is grooming him to take over the business, and I can only hope that my brother accepts me with open arms once my career is done.
McMahon: You’re 24. Today some guys are racing until 40 and beyond. Do you envision having a full cycling career?
Craddock: I fully do. I’m here for the long run. I want to push my body to the limits and take this as far as I can go at the competitive level as long as I can. And if that’s 15 years, then hell yeah — let’s do it.
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