In early November, Bobby Lea made U.S. cycling history. In the UCI Track Cycling World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico, the 31-year-old cyclist claimed Team USA’s first-ever men’s omnium world cup medal — a bronze.
For the two-time Olympian, it was a welcome change from what he calls “the old me” — the guy who usually finished “solidly mid-pack.” Thanks to a new coach, Canadian Olympian Brian Walton, Lea is now on track to be a medal favorite going to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“This whole summer, little bits and pieces turned up in races and training sessions that were giving me a pretty solid clue that things were going to be pretty different this time around,” Lea said by phone from his training base in California.
At the UCI Track Cycling World Cup No. 2 this weekend in London, Lea aims to add another medal to his collection. For someone who’s raced bikes since age 3, it’s been an interesting ride.
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Bobby Lea was born into a cycling family. His dad — an alternate on the 1964 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team — took up cycling after a teammate took him to watch a track cycling event at the 1964 Tokyo Games. (Jack Simes III was competing in the Olympic sprint that day, and years later, Bobby Lea would compete in Madison track races with Simes’ son, Jack Simes IV.)
Lea’s mom was also an avid cyclist, so Lea “grew up surrounded by everything bike,” he said.
His parents would travel to weekend bike races with their sons, Bobby and Syd. With the boys’ little bikes in the back of their van, the Leas entered Bobby in his first race when he was 3 — on a two-wheeler, the training wheels having been dispensed with during a family trip to Austria earlier that summer.
Little Bobby might have won his first race had he not taken the words “finish line” literally.
“I thought the finish line was where the race ended, that’s where you stop,” he said. “I remember stopping right on the finish line, so of course I got smoked.”
His dad quickly told him to ride through finish lines and his son was on his way.
Growing up in Maryland, the Leas often went to Tuesday night track races at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome near Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. Although Lea raced bikes on the road too, track racing suited his tall frame (he would grow to 6-2, 170 pounds). He also saw the track as his best path to the Olympic Games.
He won his first national championship on the track in 1997 when he was 13 and rapidly accrued more national titles. While earning a business management degree at Penn State, he collected 30 collegiate cycling titles (individual and team) on the track and road.
His favorite track event was the Madison — a two-man event named after Madison Square Garden where it was first contested. The race is a 50-kilometer, 200-lap race with 10 sprints held every 20 laps. The competitors trade off racing around the track, and the outgoing rider slingshots the oncoming rider forward by gripping hands.
Lea made the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team and finished 16th in the Madison with teammate Mike Friedman.
But in late 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that the Madison, as well as other track events, would be dropped from the 2012 Olympic program. If Lea wanted to compete in another Games, he would have to find a different event. The six-event omnium looked like the best bet. But Lea did not take to it easily.
“Half the battle with the omnium is really trying to figure it out,” he explained. “It’s a pretty intricate event. You have to figure out how to survive what is potentially 36 hours of competition.”
In his first international omnium in 2010, he realized that he was defeated before he even started.
“I was walking into the track on day one and thinking, ‘Holy (cow), it’s 36 hours before this thing is over, what am I going to do?’”
By the 2012 London Games, Lea had “made peace” with it. But he was not convinced that he would continue competing after London.
Then, after finishing 12th, he changed his mind.
“I finished my last event in London, and I was immediately convinced that there was a lot more in the tank,” he said. “Before I touched down back in Newark, I was already scheming for Rio.”
His first job was to assemble a really good support team, and he already had the cornerstone. In April 2012, he had asked 1996 Olympic silver medalist Brian Walton to coach him. Walton medaled in the points race for Canada at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
At first, Walton did not think Lea was an Olympic medal contender. Then he looked more closely at Lea’s training and was impressed that the cyclist had finished just out of the top 10 with so little training.
“Bobby had never trained more than two times a day until he was coached by me!” said Walton via email. “His competition was simply better prepared and conditioned.”
The omnium is similar to the decathlon, and Lea needed to increase his training volume and intensity to compete at the highest level in three races per day for two consecutive days. As he upped Lea’s training program, Walton noted that the cyclist hardly ever asked for a break.
Walton also knew that in addition to strong legs, Lea also needed confidence. And confidence would only come from racing.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Walton said. “I can say that (Bobby) belongs in the top rank, but until he goes out there in competition, breaks a few legs, and puts in the fastest pursuit time in 2014, it’s all just talk and theory.”
At the Guadalajara World Cup in November — Lea’s first international track event since the London Games — he began to believe. He now sees himself as a “much stronger, more well-rounded cyclist” who is “nipping at the heels of the top-step” riders, and he credits Walton and the rest of his support team (bike sponsor Cervelo and USA Cycling, to name just two) for his improved performance.
Lea is now dialing in the finer points to go to Rio in 21 months as a medal contender.
“I don’t want to go to Rio to just go to Rio,” he said. “I’ve been to Beijing, I’ve been to London. This one is about the belief that, if I do everything right, I can be a medal contender. That’s the goal.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.