From Austin to Colorado via the Stages Podcast – Freewheeling interviews JB Hager

This year there was a new addition to the Tour de France coverage – the Stages podcast with Lance Armstrong and JB Hager. Stages was a word-of-mouth success, topping tastemaker lists, making the iTunes top ten, and achieving over 5 million downloads by the time the riders rolled into Paris.

Fans were keen to hear more, and the comments on the Facebook Live feed after every stage was full of requests for the pair to cover the Vuelta later this month.  Although Lance said on-air that he wouldn’t be covering the Spanish Grand Tour, he did hint at covering the inaugural Colorado Classic, which kicks off tomorrow. The event issued a press release announcing an official partnership with the podcast, however just a few days before the Classic kicked off, USADA intervened and declared Lance’s involvement an infringement of his lifetime ban.

If there’s one thing we know about Lance Armstrong though, it’s his steely resilience in the face of a challenge. Less than 50% chance of surviving cancer? Lance ain’t gonna let cancer win. World class cyclist comes down in front of you on a precarious bend? No worries – cycle through a field, avoid a puncture, jump a ditch, rejoin the bunch. The Stages team will be covering the Colorado Classic in an unofficial capacity, which could be good thing, allowing Lance the freedom to tell it like it is without any constraints.

I managed to catch up with Lance’s co-host JB Hager just before he left Austin for Colorado.  Read on to find out about JB’s awesome work with his Bikes for Kids charity, the state of US pro cycling in 2017, and of course – the Stages podcast.

 

Were you surprised by the success of the Stages podcast?

Yes and no. Surprised because I doubted myself. Lance asked me if I wanted to do it just a few weeks before the Tour started and I said “I would love to, but I haven’t been following pro-cycling for over 4 years.”  He said, “Cool, neither have I” so I said, “Ok, I’m in”.

I ran into Lance last December and I wasn’t just blowing smoke up his ass, but I had to tell him how good I thought his “Forward” podcast was. Great interviews, well prepped, engaging.

I wasn’t sure how “Stages” would do until I heard how unfiltered Lance was on the first episode or two. Then I was like, “Holy shit, this is the stuff I always wanted to know” and as a broadcaster I have always had a keen sense of what the audience wants vs. just being safe and beholden to an employer. It was and is genuinely entertaining asking him the insider info about the Tour and professional cycling in general. It’s a fascinating and incredibly complicated sport. You have to keep in mind that he was one of the best tactical racers that did so much in the off-season to be better prepared, like recon, wind tunnel testing and gear R&D.

What I didn’t expect was the global audience that has tuned in. I shouldn’t be surprised because most parts of the world understand the complexities of cycling so much more than Americans. Others ask about team dynamics, the intricacies of the sport, watts, tactics, etc… while most Americans are still hung up on “how do you pee on a bike?”

 

On the Stages podcast, Lance mentioned your involvement with the Bikes for Kids campaign, are you able to explain a little about how the campaign worked?

Sure, I never had a bike growing up but I was always fascinated with them. When I started my radio show in Austin in ’96 I started Bikes for Kids. We would collect money from our listeners to buy bikes, helmets and locks for kids. The most unique thing about the program was that our listeners would nominate the families to receive them. We were looking for kids that weren’t on a charity list, easily overlooked, but they had a neighbor or a co-worker that knew the family had fallen on hard times. They would nominate them and if selected, could elect for the family to come pick up the bikes or they would pick them up and surprise them on Christmas morning. Over the years on the radio it added up to about 2 million in bikes, helmets and locks. We were adamant that they be good quality bikes so over the years we were able to buy wholesale from Raleigh, Giant and Trek.

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JB and Lance in the Airstream Studio for the Stages podcast, July 2017 (Photo: Lance Armstrong, Twitter)

With only 3 riders in the Tour this year, some commentators and fans seemed concerned about the state of pro cycling in the US.  Watching the Tour of Utah last week and hearing about the plans for the Velorama Festival, it seems that pro cycling in America is pretty healthy and has been rejuvinated by some interesting concepts, like Velorama and the Colorado Classic. Do you think we’ll see more US riders coming up through the ranks for future Grand Tours?

I’m certainly not the best equipped to answer this question, but from what I’ve seen in Austin in the last 20 years it’s stronger than ever. In Austin I’m one of the founders of www.drivewayaustin.com , along with another notable bike racer, John Korioth. We wanted to see see bike races on our motorsport complex. This series has exploded and developed a lot of great racers. I know that Criteriums are not the global standard, but being able to do an official race like this every week from late March until the end of October is huge for developing young racers. I may be speaking out of school, but I think we’ll see more of the great American talent when the American sponsors get behind cycling. It’s a well-educated, higher income fan base so it makes sense. I often compare it to motorsports where there are only so many butts that get in the seats of the cars. That is also true in cycling. Great riders need the opportunity to go to Europe, get their doors blown off for a year or two and then get their legs. It can happen.

 

JB was also kind enough to answer a special version of ’30 Seconds With…’, read on to see what he had to say…….

30 Seconds With….JB Hager

 

What was your first bike like, and what do you ride now?

It was a Peugeot Canyon Express rigid mountain bike.  I was a broke college kid working at a steak restaurant. I had unpaid parking tickets and got in trouble so I traded my motorcycle with a co-worker for this mountain bike. My commute to work was about 10 miles. I would get off work at 1am; bike lights were unheard of then.

 

I didn’t get my first road bike until I was about 28 years old. I became friends with the neighborhood bike shop owner because of our Bikes for Kids radio charity and he let me pick what I wanted from his catalog at cost. This was around 1998 and Schwinn did a re-release of the Classic Paramount but it was a painted titanium bike built by Serotta. Honestly, that was my first road bike.  I wish I still had it. I regret just about every bike I every got rid of for various reasons.

 

Now I ride a Madone. Well, I should say I just got back on the Madone. I quit bike racing a few years ago and the weight gain came easily. My daughter, Raleigh Hager, is a Pro-Wakesurfer. She won the women’s world title at age 10 so I hung up the bike and started driving a boat every evening. Now, she’s a teenager and interested in other things so I knew it was time for me to get back on the bike. I kept finding excuses until Lance called about the “Stages” podcast and I was like “Fu@$, I gotta get back in shape!”

I do have to say my fave bike right now is my Surly fixie. I love that thing and my legs are whipped in an hour and a half.

 

Books or Movies? 

Books for sure. The process of going to movies annoys me. Agreeing on a movie is impossible, finding the right seat, people eating and slurping is annoying. I’d much rather wait until I can see it at home, so I read a lot. Especially humor books like David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman and I still like to revisit some Woody Allen or Dave Barry every now and then.

 

What’s on your mp3 player?

I have an online music series, www.onairstreaming.com, so my musical taste is pretty eclectic, plus I’m out of Austin, Tx, which is the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world. Some of my faves might include Avett Brothers, Ray LaMontange, The National, Band of Horses, Phoenix, Alpha Rev, Fences, The XX, Blitzen Trapper, Cold War Kids, Daughter, Jack White and First Aid Kit just to give you a snapshot but my heart lies with the post-punk alt-rock I grew up with like The Police, Echo and the Bunnymen, Elvis Costello, The Cure, XTC, The Jam, R.E.M., Psych Furs, P.I.L., Talking Heads, U2, The The, The Church.

 

Sorry you asked yet?

 

If you could go back and ride any event from the past what would it be?

Tough question.  There were two rides that had a decade plus jump on me out of Austin. 1st, there was the Swedish Hill Bakery ride on Saturday mornings. This is where I first cut my teeth riding with the big boys. I probably got dropped 20+ times before I could stay in for the 50-60 mi ride and then slowly graduated to the 80-100 mi rides. It was not uncommon to have 100 riders for this hammer fest.  Eventually, the Austin bike scene got segregated by more organized teams and this ride fell apart.

Once I started taking an interest and getting the legs to race, there was the legendary Tuesday nighter in Austin. This was a bootleg, unsanctioned, all category race that happened just outside of Austin for over 25 years. Everyone would meet in the city and then ride an hour warmup out to the 9 mi rolling hill course. It was an unofficial 3 lap race, anyone who showed up was in. I also got dropped from this but more like 50+ times before I could finish all three laps. It was a chance to race against Cat 1, 2 guys and you never knew if Lance or a traveling pro would show up.  I learned how to race there before I ever raced.

 

If you hadn’t worked in radio, what would you have done instead?

Most likely would have gone into the restaurant business. I was a cook at a high-end steak restaurant in Austin, the same place I traded my motorcycle for a mountain bike.  I later became a waiter and I just loved the business. My college internship in radio led me away. My semi-secret passion is writing. I’ve been doing it for local magazines for the last decade. I have a monthly column in Austin Woman Magazine.

 

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On This Day in the Tour…2003

14th July 2003

2003, and Lance Armstrong is aiming for his record-equalling fifth consecutive Tour de France win. It would be almost a decade before he was stripped of all seven of his wins after the truth about the US Postal Team’s doping programme was revealed. As for many of his Tour attempts, Armstrong believed that Jan Ullrich would be his closest rival in the 2003 race. Ullrich had signed with Team Coast at the start of the year, but the sponsor had run into financial difficulties and the title sponsorship was eventually taken on by Bianchi, which secured the team’s entry into the Tour.

Ullrich’s presence at the race, and the number of other possible yellow jersey rivals, meant that the 2003 Tour was much more competitive than Armstrong’s previously dominant victories. Two of Lance’s biggest rivals, ex teammate Tyler Hamilton and fellow American Levi Leipheimer were involved in a heavy crash early in the race. Leipheimer was forced to abandon, yet Hamilton continued with a broken collarbone. This left Jan Ullrich and the Spaniard Joseba Beloki as the biggest threats to the dominance of the US Postal Team.

Beloki had the ability to perform well in both mountain stages and time trials, and was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the General Classification at the start of Stage 9, which was held on 14th July. Beloki’s all round ability had seen him share the final podium in Paris with Lance in the previous three editions of the Tour – as 3rd in 2000 and 2001, moving up to 2nd in 2002. His skill and proximity to the yellow jersey as Stage 9 began meant that the US Postal Team had to mark his every move as the stage took the riders from Le Bourg d’Oisans to Gap.

Although the stage win on 14th July 2003 went to the Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinakourov, his win is overshadowed by an incident on the road between Beloki and Armstrong. 4 kilometres from the finish line in Gap, Beloki was descending from Cote de La Rochette after negotiating the mountain pass of Col de Manse. Attempting to eat into Armstrong’s lead, Beloki appeared to be taking risks on the descent. Armstrong was determined not to let the Spaniard escape, and stuck to his wheel as the pair descended into Gap.

Beloki, riding directly in front of Armstrong, negotiated a difficult turn at high speed, and panicked as he realised the severe angle of the corner. In a split second, Beloki lost control of his bike, applied his rear brake, and locked the back wheel. The heat of the day had partially melted the road surface, with the result that the rear end of his bike swayed wildly in both directions. Beloki crashed heavily, suffering career threatening injuries. His elbow and wrist were broken, and his femur was fractured in two places.

With barely a fraction of a second to react, Armstrong aimed his bike straight ahead in order to avoid hitting Beloki, and rode straight off the road across a ploughed field. The road curved around the edge of the field, which allowed Armstrong to travel a short distance across the rutted field, before leaping off his bike and carrying it across a ditch. Armstrong quickly remounted and continued with the race. The entire incident lasted only a handful of seconds but served as a metaphor for the Armstrong era as a whole. Lance – riding with performance enhancing substances in his system, was gifted a hefty dose of luck to match his undeniable talent. “That man was in complete control” exclaimed race commentator Paul Sherwen, “Armstrong is such a star!”

Beloki’s career as an elite rider was cut short that day, as he attempted to ride away from Lance. The scene only added to the Armstrong legend.

Crossing the Dark Line – Paralympian Suspended for Taking EPO as Armstrong Free to Enter Non-Cycling Events

Unbelievably, four years have passed since USADA’s ruling on Lance Armstrong following the publication of the Reasoned Decision – a damning and hefty document which explained the lengths that Armstrong and his cohorts had gone to in order to claim back-to-back Tour de France victories – EPO, HGH and testosterone filling their veins as they successfully circumvented the rules seven times in a row.

The USADA report led to Armstrong being banned from competitive sport and stripped of his yellow jerseys.  In a defiant move following the announcement of his fate, the disgraced athlete tweeted a photo of himself at home in Texas, surrounded by seven framed maillot jaune, bearing the moniker ‘back in Austin and just layin’ around’.

On the 24th of August this year, part of Armstrong’s complex sporting ban elapsed, allowing the Texan to compete in certain events once again.  “Armstrong can compete in a sanctioned event at a national or regional level in a sport other than cycling…that does not qualify him to compete in a national championship or international event” Ryan Madden of USADA explained to USA Today Sports.  Whether or not this permits Armstrong to compete in triathlons is somewhat confusing, although one would assume that he is free to do so given that triathletes are not governed by USA Cycling.

When asked his view on his eligibility to enter American triathlons, Armstrong himself was not certain as to the extent of the partial lifting of his ban.  “Good question” the Texan quipped, “my interpretation would be, yes, in probably 80% of the events out there, I am free to compete”.  Armstrong was a talented triathlete in his teenage years, and had expressed a desire to return to the sport after retiring from professional cycling.  In an interview with the BBC in 2015, Armstrong lamented his frustration at the extent of the USADA ban, which saw him unable to run marathons or compete in his beloved Iron Man events.  The ban meant that Armstrong could not enter the Chicago Marathon he had trained for, hoping to raise sponsorship money for his cancer charity. “I don’t think anybody thinks that’s right.  I want to get back to a place where I can help people”.

So will we see Lance at the start line now that he’s free to compete in non-cycling events?  “I am now 45 years old and just exercise these days for general fitness and for my sanity” Armstrong told USA Today Sports.  “My days of competing are behind me”.

Meanwhile, the hangover from the Armstrong era continues, as the reigning Paralympic individual pursuit champion, the Australian Michael Gallagher, tested positive for EPO at an out of competition event in July.  Gallagher, who won Paralympic gold in the individual pursuit events at London and Beijing, did not travel to Rio due to a provisional suspension as confirmed by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

In an open apology published on his Facebook page last week, Gallagher admitted taking the banned substance EPO, stating that he had crossed a ‘dark line’.  Blaming the pressure of expectation, low motivation and depression for his actions, the 37-year-old wrote “people deserve an explanation and I want to give it…worsening mental health issues and other personal issues in life lead to an inability to train like I used to…with the expectations of living up to past performances…the pressure mounted.  Rather than seek help I self-medicated to motivate, crossed the dark line, took short cuts and cheated”.

Gallagher assures his fans that he acted alone, without the knowledge of his coach or even his wife.  “My coach Dan…had no idea and I’m sure is devastated”.  The gold medallist wrote frankly that he is now seeking help ‘”to hopefully find the person I used to be”.

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