Welcome to the VeloNews podcast. If this episode sounds a little different, that’s because it is. We’ve launched a new series that is devoted to interviews with cycling’s most interesting people. From riders to directors to other influential people, this is your place to learn about the sport from the insiders.
Fred Dreier sits down with cyclocross star Stephen Hyde to talk about his unusual path to the top, the weight of his national championship jersey, his relationship with an old mentor, Jeremy Powers, and a battle with depression.
Stephen Hyde was stuck in Hartford, Connecticut, this past January. It was the day before the 2017 U.S. national cyclocross championships, and Hyde had driven to Hartford to pre-ride the course. Midway through the day, a blizzard roared across New England, and Hyde knew that his two-wheel drive truck lacked the traction to get back to his home in Massachusetts.
Hyde, 30, had no hotel reservation, and his usual race arsenal — various kits, two sets of shoes, and cold-weather gear — was back at home. He was the favorite to win the race, and his plans had gone completely sideways.
“I was like, ‘Man I can’t drive home. I’m going to be a nervous wreck,’” Hyde remembers. “‘I’m going to be shot, it’s not going to be relaxing at all, and it’s going to take two hours.’”
Hyde didn’t panic. Instead, he did what he has done throughout his career in cycling: He asked for help from the cyclocross community, and then adopted a flexible, anything-goes attitude toward the situation.
Over the last half-decade, this strategy has helped Hyde progress from a talented regional racer in the Mid-Atlantic and New England scenes into one of the top American ’cross racers of his generation. Throughout his progression, Hyde has relied on assistance from coaches, riding partners, bike shop owners, and even other racers. These individuals have, in turn, provided Hyde with jobs, housing, sponsorships, and even therapy when he was injured. The relationships have had a lasting impact: Steven Hyde is, truly, a product of the American cycling community.
In Hartford, Hyde asked his friends at Cannondale’s development team if they could spare a bed. Team manager Chandler Delinks agreed, deciding to share a bed with newly minted masters national champ Dan Timmerman to make room. Hyde found a thermal skinsuit in his bag and some other gear. By the time the gun went off, Hyde was ready to win, which he did in dramatic fashion.
“Something being so close to fruition and then being taken from you is… for me that’s the number-one way to make me fight for it even harder,” Hyde says.
THE BICYCLE HAS PLAYED an integral role in Hyde’s life. He grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and rode BMX bicycles alongside a friend, Tyler Sparr, who is now a professional BMX rider. BMX quickly became the center of Hyde’s life, and he traveled to races across the Southeast. Hyde lacked the talent to make it to the pinnacle of BMX. While Sparr went on to win a U.S. championship, Hyde raced more for fun.
“We’d just ride all day until dark,” Hyde says. “This gang of ratty little BMX kids riding around.”
Hyde also showed a knack for fixing bikes and began working at a local bike shop, Bikes Plus, at 17. He began racing mountain bikes, with his shop as his primary sponsor. He tried out alleycat races in Florida and completed a 3,700-mile cross-country bike tour with a girlfriend.
College education was never part of his life plan. He always struggled in school and was diagnosed with a learning disability. Hyde changed schools often and was even home-schooled for a time.
“I felt so alienated. I was out,” Hyde says. “I didn’t care, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want anything to do with the rest of the classes.”
He tried a vocational school but dropped out after his classmates teased him. His parents urged him to graduate, but Hyde pursued life away from higher education. He says he is comfortable with his level of education and does not regret missing out on college.
Instead, Hyde worked at bike shops and bounced around. He briefly lived in Portland, Oregon, and shared a one-bedroom apartment with a girlfriend and a buddy. Everyone slept on the floor.
He raced mountain bikes and picked up road racing in 2009 with the West Florida Wheelmen cycling club. The nomadic lifestyle stretched through his 20s. He lived in Martha’s Vineyard, where a local bike shop owner, Frank Jennings, tutored him on racing. His natural talent was apparent.
Various cycling mentors took Hyde under their wings. He moved to Washington, D.C. and quickly progressed through the Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross series, graduating through USA Cycling’s category system there. In 2012 he made the jump to the elite ranks at DCCX, still riding a loaner bike from a customer who frequented the bike shop where Hyde worked.
“Every time I upgraded I had that anxiety about whether I could do it,” he says. “That drives me so hard.”
IN 2012, HYDE MADE an ambitious plan: He wanted to earn a spot on a professional team. Through his friend Rodrigo Moraes, Hyde reached out to Alec Donahue, who operates the Massachusetts-based JAM Fund development team. Co-founded by multi-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Powers, JAM Fund is a nonprofit aimed at helping young talent rise through the ranks.
Hyde launched himself toward his goal, working 70 hours a week at the bike shop and training with vigorous intensity. He faced an immediate setback. That August, he contracted Lyme disease from a tick on Martha’s Vineyard.
The sickness knocked Hyde off of his bicycle. He spent a month on debilitating antibiotics and waited to recover. With racing on pause, he returned to Oregon to earn his mechanic’s certification from the United Bicycle Institute. In late 2012, Hyde returned to ’cross racing, earning a few promising results on the local New England circuit. Through another friend, he reconnected with Donahue, who gave Hyde an informal tryout at the Cheshire Cross race in November.
Hyde was so nervous he forgot to pin on his race number. Yet midway through the race, he rode in the front group, alongside cyclocross stalwart Adam Myerson. On the last lap, Hyde attacked the course’s tricky descent.
“Hyde absolutely ripped that downhill like he was on a trail bike,” Myerson recalls. “I still don’t even know how he did it. He was just a puppy off the leash and going for it.”
The performance helped Hyde earn a spot on the JAM Fund team. He dove into the 2013 season with energy, winning his first UCI event at Baltimore’s Charm City Cross, and landing on the podium at three more UCI events. Hyde had finally achieved his goal: He was a professional cyclist.
HYDE’S CHEERFUL DEMEANOR AND talkative personality belie a darker side of his psyche. He has suffered from depression since 2008 — the condition has sapped him of his motivation on and off the bike.
In 2013 Hyde’s depression began to impact his racing. He was living in Northhampton, Massachusetts, solely focused on training and recovery. The monastic lifestyle left little room for a social life, and Hyde missed regular companionship. In years past, he would ride with friends, go out at night, and meet more friends for lunch the next day. Suddenly, he found himself riding alone, focused on his strict racing program.
“I was out on a ride, and I’m like, ‘I love riding my bike, but I feel so sad right now and I don’t know why. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know if it’s being on the bike; I don’t know if it’s being off the bike,’” he says. “It’s like when you stub your toe — I don’t know if keeping it still will make it feel better or moving it around violently will make it feel better — I just want it to stop. That’s kind of how I felt a lot of the time. I went through these waves.”
He had originally gotten into cycling because he loved spending time with friends. Bikes wove his social network together.
“When I had made the jump out here, it was a lot. I wasn’t making much money. I didn’t know how to plan. I didn’t know the psychological toll it would take,” Hyde says. “Going from being a super-social person to all of a sudden riding all this time by myself. Even when I started riding I did it to have people around me. I didn’t know it was depression.”
On one of those solitary training rides, when he wished he’d stayed in bed, Hyde realized it was time to address the matter head-on.
He talked with Donahue, his coach, about his depression. Donahue told Hyde that there was an easy solution: He could always quit.
“I was like, ‘Hang on, no, no, no, I don’t want to quit,’” Hyde says. “I just don’t know what to do with these feelings.”
Instead, Donahue helped Hyde recalibrate his goals any time he rolled out for a training ride. Hyde would stop several times on some rides to do breathing exercises and push away the dark clouds.
“Sometimes I was annoyed I was stopping so much,” he says. “It’s like that ride where you have to pee all the time. But I realized those were the most productive rides.”
Donahue also gave Hyde a key piece of advice: He had to give his personal happiness the same priority as race results and training sessions.
“It’s difficult to do, and you have to persevere through it,” Hyde remembers his coach saying. “You have to figure out how to make yourself happy doing that. You need to decide to make that part of your goal: Be able to do this and be happy.”
He started opening up to friends in the community, many of whom were similarly experienced with the difficulties of a pro cyclist’s lifestyle.
“I realized that I don’t need to hide how I’m feeling or mask how I’m feeling,” Hyde says. “I need to actually confront them and find people that can help me and relate to that.”
Hyde also faced physical struggles that season. Midway through the autumn, he was forced off the bike by patellar tendonitis. At times he couldn’t even bend his knee.
The cycling community again came to Hyde’s aid. Former criterium national champion Brad Huff (Rally), who knew Hyde through the JAM Fund team, invited him to Springfield, Missouri, to see a team of physical therapists with the local Mercy Hospital. The staff had helped Huff recover from a similar injury in 2008.
Working pro bono, therapists Jim Raynor and Karen Rakowski made quick progress with Hyde. Within a couple days, he was walking down staircases, which he’d been avoiding due to the pain it caused.
“From walking down the stairs he got a spring in his step,” Huff says. “He couldn’t wait to get back in the therapy room and do those little tedious exercises that feel like baby steps. His smile came back. He was just himself again.”
Huff then connected Hyde with bike fit specialist Chris Norrington, who worked an entire day with Hyde to improve his position. Hyde’s first race back was the 2013 U.S. national championships in Boulder, Colorado. He finished a distant 16th, but his body and motivation were intact.
HYDE FIRST MET JEREMY POWERS in 2012. He was a bit star-struck having watched the “Behind the Barriers” videos featuring the ebullient Connecticut native. As Hyde’s career progressed, his contact with Powers became invaluable to his career trajectory. Even as Hyde got to know Powers, he was still in awe of the national champ.
Hyde and Powers became friends and began to travel to races together starting in 2014. Hyde was immediately impressed by Power’s dedication and professionalism.
“I showed him the level of attention to detail but also work ethic — how hard I was working to go after it,” Powers says. “Food, sleep, rest, massage, taking care of my body, kind of the attitude I was bringing to it. I think he learned a lot.”
Hyde was a quick study. He remembers how calculated Powers would be in approaching a race, how detail-oriented he was in preparation and planning. The two traveled to Europe, and Hyde soaked up knowledge from Powers.
“It was life-changing for me. I respect him for being able to grasp that this is just how he is,” Hyde says.
The friendship also carried a rivalry, and in a few years, Hyde drew even with Powers. They battled each other at domestic races and abroad. In some races, Powers had the upper hand, while in others, Hyde took the advantage.
Powers likened the relationship to one he shared with retired pro Tim Johnson. As teammates, the two men battled for several years on the domestic circuit.
“Tim and I have a good relationship now,” Powers says. “But the power of the competition and desire to win is real.”Hyde says his relationship with Powers is based on mutual respect.
Hyde says his relationship with Powers is based on mutual respect.
“Okay, you can beat me; I’ll be happy for you, and when I beat you, you’ll be happy for me,’” Hyde says.
His progression reached a new level in 2016. Powers was injured for much of the autumn, and Hyde won seven races at the national level. Hyde also proved himself against the world’s best, riding to 10th place at the Jingle Cross World Cup and finishing in the top-15 four times at European races. Powers finished well behind.
When the duo prepared for the 2017 U.S. national championships, the roles had become reversed. Hyde was the favorite, and Powers was the dark horse. Of course, that was before Hyde became stranded in the blizzard.
As Hyde looks back on the near calamity, he sees it as a metaphor for his career. Sure, the blizzard presented a challenge, but Hyde has spent his life overcoming tougher ones.
“Every time I’d get to the point of everything being together, it would come apart,” Hyde says. “You know what, I’ve dealt with worse than this. Whatever.”