He took lusty cuts in tee-ball with the other kids, and there was even a one-day dalliance with the golf team in high school. But Nic Long understood early on that he belonged on a bicycle.
Because there was only room on the seat for him.
“I loved the individuality of it,” he said. “You go out there with your family on a race weekend, but you get to the gate and you’re all by yourself. You can train by yourself and be yourself and express yourself the way you like to. You don’t have to worry about making other people happy.
“It was just realizing that and being able to express myself through my sport, rather than as part of a team that won a championship.”
But a podium is a pretty good place to express yourself, too.
In that respect, it’s been a swift start to the 2015 BMX season for the 25-year-old rider from Lakeside, California. He won a third USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championship in March in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and was second to fellow Olympian Connor Fields closer to home at the USA BMX Seaside Nationals in Ventura, California. In between, he picked up where he left off at last year’s UCI BMX Supercross series with a third at the first world cup event of 2015 in Manchester, England.
|Nic Long poses for a portrait during the NBC/USOC photo shoot on Nov. 18, 2011 in West Hollywood, Calif.
On top of this success, Long’s newly formed company, Idol Hand Gloves, is taking pre-sales on the first 2,000 pairs he just ordered from a manufacturer.
This latent entrepreneurial side is something of a concession, the free-spirited Long acknowledged, to “the lingering thought of athletes like us” regarding life after racing. But in virtually every other respect, he remains resolutely live-in-the-moment, even with an Olympic year around the corner. Each race on his calendar — from upcoming USA BMX Pro Series stops at Nashville and Salt Lake City, to the Pan American Games and world championships in July — is important in its own right and not just as a building block to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016.
But that’s obviously important, too.
Long made his first Olympic team in 2012 as the coaches’ pick for the third spot, a process he’d “really would like to avoid this time.” That would mean taking one of the two automatic berths, the first based on season points and the second on a one-day trials event.
“I don’t see it getting any easier,” Long said. “We’ve got a deeper talent pool now, and we were all pretty young the last time.”
If he does reach Rio, it’s likely he’ll bring a different approach.
“Making the team (in 2012) was a goal,” said Long, who didn’t make the final in London, “but I didn’t really have expectations once I made it, and that hindered me. I had some injuries (including a ruptured disc) that played a part, but looking back I got to that point and I was satisfied with that. I think I have more drive to get there this time and redeem myself — not ‘clear my name’ but just do better.”
It’s when he can shed the notion of “just settling” that Long is at his best, as in 2010 when he upset Olympic gold medalist Maris Strombergs en route to his first world cup win.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Hey, I made the main, that’s good enough for me,’” Long said. “I need to change that to win races and make podiums.”
If the addition of sports like BMX and snowboarding into the Olympic program over the past decade or two was a calculated move to allow the Games to reach a hipper audience — “I don’t think the Olympics was something they could relate to before,” Long said — it’s also upped the stakes for competitors in those disciplines. Long sees a younger, hungrier rider emerging with a more professional bent. His international experience provides a helpful edge, but only if he “keeps a young mindset.”
“You just have to do the work that suits you,” Long said. “I have a real simple approach to training: I just ride a lot. It’s not a lot of gym work, but it’s a lot of racing. A lot of guys might race only the world cups and two or three smaller races, while I’ll do 15-18 races in the U.S.
“It’s always what’s worked for me. I don’t know if it’s mental thing or a ritual thing, but I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
But Long has always done it his way — from his break with traditional sports at an early age to the tattoos that began to take over his body at age 18. He has long been BMX’s illustrated man, covered neck-to-toe with zombies and skeletons, angels and Biblical scenes, and assorted quotations. All the ink has likely cost him some sponsors and marketing opportunities over the years — but like the bumps and turns of his chosen sport, it’s also spawned his newest venture. The Idol Hands brand is body art on a glove.
“I get a lot of love and hate from the tattoos,” Long admitted. “People will say, ‘Why don’t you look more professional?’ A lot appreciate them, too. It’s always kind of 50-50. But the individuality of the sport is something I’ve always cherished, and something I live.”