For Nolan and Connor Tankersley of Erwin, the passion for cycling began with the Tour de France. Three years ago, when he was 13, Connor broke his femur and was sidelined to the couch. To pass the time, he watched the Tour; it was the first year of Lance Armstrong’s comeback.
He and older brother Nolan, who was 14 at the time, watched Armstrong battle Alberto Contador and Andy Shleck, ultimately coming in third to the younger riders. Connor told his parents, “This is what I want to do,” and Nolan agreed.
Life at the Tankersley home would never be the same.
Nolan and Connor were starting at zero, having no background in cycling and little knowledge of the sport. “We never knew who the big riders were other than Lance,” Nolan said. “The way we started was my dad. His buddy owns a bike shop.”
Brian White of Hampton Trails Bike Shop put the boys on Fuji bikes, “decent starter bikes,” as Connor described them. White and Alan Sparks also drew them into the riding world.
“Actually it was kind of weird how we started competing,” Nolan said. “We went straight to racing. About our third week on bikes we did our first race in Oak Ridge.”
They were “kind of nervous” he admitted, and green. Other cyclists told them to watch out for certain riders. They started learning the etiquette of racing, how the cyclists work together and against one another to win.
And the outcome of that first race? “On the downhill I wasn’t paying attention and wrecked,” Nolan said. He crashed into a briar patch, got back on his bike, kept racing and finished.
“They dropped me in the first five miles,” Connor said with a smile. “But I finished.”
In the grueling world of competitive cycling, sometimes finishing is enough.
Now they race every other week, year-round. From early March to September, Nolan and Connor compete in road races. “Then we pick up cyclocross and carry on until January,” Nolan said. “January’s when we have cyclocross nationals.”
Cycling is an expensive venture, and parents David and Tracey say they are grateful they are in a position to support their sons, though they quickly acknowledge the help White and Sparks have given them. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” David said.
Nolan and Connor have graduated from the starter bikes to professional bikes. Nolan rides a 2010 Cannondale SuperSix, and Connor rides a BMC 2011 Racing Machine. Suffice it to say, these are not bikes teens could buy with proceeds from a summer job.
It is said of Tour riders: They ride, they eat, they sleep. Then they get up and do it again.
Life is like that for Nolan and Connor, too. They train every day, giving themselves a one-day break every three to four weeks.
When school is in session, Tracey said, her sons come home from school, eat, change clothes, get on their bikes and ride as long as four hours, often to the top of Sam’s Gap. It is not unusual for them to ride four hours on a regular training day.
Every Thursday night they ride with the Tri Cities Road Club, and twice a week they meet at Mary Hughes School in Piney Flats to ride with the club team.
The work is paying off. Nolan placed second in the Johnson City Omnium Criterium (Category 3) June 3, fourth in the time trial and fifth in the road race. Connor “catted up” this year to a Category 3 and is showing strength. His dad expects him to catch up to Nolan soon.
With the calories they burn in training and racing, it’s a team effort between David and Tracey to keep them fed.
“I burned 2,750 calories in a 41â„2-hour ride,” Connor offered by way of illustration.
Race days begin with McDonald’s hotcakes, a lot of them. Other days, the boys eat plates piled high with rice, eggs and topped with soy sauce.
“The food (they eat) is overwhelming,” David said.
Yet, despite his massive caloric intake, Connor shed 20 pounds in his first year of racing.
The family has adapted the lifestyle of racing, and they have formed close relationships with other riding families.
“I have a great group of people raising my kids,” David said of the Tri Cities Road Club.
Connor crashed during the Roan Groan in June. A rider went down in front of him and he couldn’t avoid crashing into him. Connor broke his hand and damaged his bike. Members of the road club got to him first, and looked after him until Tracey and David could take over.
“Club members called to say if they don’t fix his bike by Junior Nationals (held June 22-26), they can have my bike, and those bikes aren’t cheap,” David said.
When she spoke of Connor’s injury, Tracey shrugged and said, “It could have been worse.” As for Connor, he was back on his bike, training, the next week.
Which brings us to pain, a rider’s constant companion. Armstrong has said he rides not for the pleasure but for the pain. Both Nolan and Connor smiled knowingly when the subject was raised.
During the Roan Groan, Nolan said, he was suffering all the time. “You have to just block it out. I focused on the guy in front of me.”
“You have to have a tough mindset,” Connor added.
Both plan to go pro after collegiate racing. They look at the career of Brent Bookwalter and know it is possible. Bookwalter rode for Lees-McRae College, then was picked up by the pros. He rode in last year’s Tour de France with Team BMC, whose leader, Cadel Evans, won the Tour.
Nolan and Connor say they have a plan B if cycling doesn’t work out.
It’s not likely they’ll need it.