IZEGEM, Belgium - If Kevin Soller were in the United States, the sun would already have disappeared by now. After all, it is 9 o'clock at night, time for a little TV on the couch, maybe a snack to sate the sugar crave, a couple phone conversations with friends, then a few hours of sleep, just like any other American 18-year-old for whom "sweet" is the most important word in the dictionary.However, the sun doesn't set for another hour and Soller is not doing any of those things. Instead he is sitting at his computer talking over the Internet to a local newspaper reporter thousands of miles away. Before he climbs into his bunk bed this evening to rest, Soller must finish packing for the next day's big event, a 3-day stage race halfway across Belgium that is touted as one of the toughest he will face during his time in Europe.Soller, a Breckenridge native and 2006 Summit High School graduate, is in Izegem, Belgium, as a member of the USA Cycling U-23 road development team - a collection of the best 18 riders between the ages of 18 and 23 that America has to offer. He arrived on May 1, two days before his friend and teammate on the U-23 team, fellow Breck resident and soon-to-be SHS grad Walker Savidge, left USA Cycling's ancient brick house in Izegem and returned to Summit County following a 2-month stay of his own.The local pair were named to the national team last fall, after proving themselves the preceding summer at the Junior National Championships in Pennsylvania. Each recorded a pair of top-five finishes there, Soller taking two fourths and Savidge a third and a fifth. The U-23 designation is not only prestigious, but also a coveted assignment for anyone who likes road cycling even a little bit: Soller and Savidge began the season in the Bahamas, where the national team was introduced in February, and have since followed a globetrotter's schedule around the Western World.
Their stops have included France, Spain, Belgium, Virginia, Texas, California, Colorado, Arizona and London. All of their expenses are covered; their only job is to ride their $7,000 bicycles through the most impossibly green countrysides a ski-town kid could imagine.'Not a vacation'Well, that's the short of it, anyway - the dream assignment with no downside. Perhaps the greatest lesson Soller and Savidge have learned during their time on the U-23 squad, they said, is that the profession they are trying to crack might look like euphoria on the outside, but once you get inside it becomes much more complicated. And even harder to achieve.For instance, one of the team members last week was berated for eating a crepe within a few days of a race. "This is not a vacation," stressed the team director in a subsequent e-mail sent out to the entire squad, imploring the cyclists to manage every aspect of their lives with the utmost seriousness - including what they eat.They must earn every race start by impressing the director during their daily training rides; when they do race, Soller and Savidge, two of the youngest kids on the U-23 squad, are relegated to domestique duties, in essence draining their tanks so their older teammates can place well.
Their day will come, that much they know. A cyclist's progression is often greatest during the years between 18 and 23, meaning they are just beginning their journey toward a potential pro career. They have precedents to follow, too: One of the team's veterans, 21-year-old John Devine, is about to leave for a domestique gig with Discovery, Lance Armstrong's squad, making him the eighth member of the U-23 team to sign a ProTour contract."This year," Savidge said, "they told us, 'You're not looking for your results. You're just looking to get stronger.'"So they ride and ride and then ride some more - 16 of 17 days since Soller arrived, he said - cutting through tortuous headwinds, climbing up steep cobblestone streets that twist and rise like mini Alpe d'Huezes. Once Savidge rode past Jens Voigt, the German superstar who has worn the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, on a path next to a Belgian canal. More often, however, it's just the dreamers and their thoughts."The whole purpose," Soller said, "is to go from here to the ProTour. That's what we're here for. Everyone wants to do that. We're not just here to race; the goal is to become a professional cyclist."
Closely monitoredTo prepare for such a position, the USA Cycling young guns are groomed to deal with every aspect of the professional cyclist's life, none more feverishly than doping. When the Americans sit around their old brick house and unwind over dinner prepared by the team director's wife, they talk about virtually everything - their training, their racing, the language barrier, girls - except one: cheating."Pretty much, we're representing the United States," Soller said. "No one even thinks about it. If you were under suspicion at all, you'd get sent home immediately. It's not really even joked about.""They monitor you so closely," Savidge added in an interview this week in Frisco. "We send them our training files every day and if they see anything out of the ordinary, they talk to us about it and see what's going on."Although Soller said he gets lonely at times, living where he doesn't understand what anyone says, the fact that Savidge went through the European isolation beforehand has made it easier to bear. During their two days together in Izegem, Savidge, who also spent time in Europe last year as a member of the USA Cycling juniors squad, delivered a crash course on where to ride, where to eat, where not to eat, how to enjoy European coffee in the middle of a ride.Both admit there are aspects of their cultural experience they could do without, but the way their sport is received in Europe is not among them. Each described pedaling cramped, narrow streets no wider than a bike path, yet never feeling like a burden to motorists.
"People here don't get pissed off or give you the finger," Soller said. "We'll be riding on little farm roads and there's tractors going 60 kilometers an hour and they'll pull over for you."A life in commonThe Breckenridge boys understand that in addition to ProTour contracts, they are chasing a more discreet title: that of the first Summit County cyclist to break onto the professional racing scene in Europe. They will inevitably be cast as rivals because they are two riders pursuing the same goal, yet their competition is nothing like it once was.Savidge and Soller met shortly after Savidge moved to Breckenridge as an eighth-grader. They quickly established themselves as two of the top young trail riders in the county, which meant they gunned for each other like Armstrong and Ullrich.
"In mountain biking races when we were younger," Savidge said, "I'd always be like, man, I just wanna beat Kevin."If you're wondering who has the edge now, take a number. "People always ask us that," said the 6-foot, 145-pound Soller, who is seven days older, one inch taller and three pounds lighter than Savidge. "I beat him in one of the races at nationals (the road race) and he beat me in the other (the time trial). And it was only by one spot in both cases."Aside from the early season races in February and March and the two days in Belgium, Soller and Savidge have not seen each other much since making the team. They e-mail back and forth daily, however, and they'll be reunited sometime next month here in Summit, once Soller returns from Europe and before Savidge goes back over.Until then, the sweat will continue to stream and the legs will continue to burn, every day, two small-town kids linked by a common dream and chasing it together, across two continents and an ocean, getting closer with each spin of the wheel.Devon O'Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.