Harm’s Way. Interview with Dan Harm

In February Stage 17 Racing’s assistant director/ racer Dan Harm. We meet at Stumptown in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. I was a half hour late due to my lack of navigation skills. Dan was nice enough to let it slide and give me a half hour of his time.

I have been follow Dan on twitter for a little over a year and I my initial impression was “this guy is intense”. He is intense, but not in that in your face way, more of a quiet intensity, which in my opinion is more real than the screaming from the mountain tops kind of intensity (think crossfitters). We briefly talked about Stage 17, but I’m saving that for another project.

What follows has been slightly edited for clarity.

RJG: How long have you been racing?

Dan Harm: This will be the start of my eigth season. So seven years going on eight.

RJG: And up until last year you focused primarily on the track?

DH: I started out on the road and then got into track racing in my second or third year and then took a break and returned to the sport I focused on the track and last year I switched full time to the road. Last year I was fully focused on the road and continue to follow that forward.

RJG. That seemed to pay off well.

DH: Yeah

RJG: You had a good year?

DH: It was a rough one because I invested a lot of time and energy in the track and it paid off becausse that investment allowed me to do well on the road.
I’m much happier on the road. It is way more stable and turned into an actual career, instead of the dog eat dog world [of track racing].

RJG: Is that what made you want to switch?

DH: That was the main reason. After I made the switch I kinda felt like I was giving up on the track. I’m really passionate about the track, but I knew my primary goal was to be a bike racer. Racing on the road was a way to make that happen. I’m much happier on the road.

When I first made that transition I felt a little disappointed but afterwards I was “thank god”.

Kinda like a break up. A year after a breakup you’re “I can’t believe I was in that relationship”. You break up and you’re like “gosh”

RJG: You said that you took a break and reading your blog you wrtie about bieng in the enchantment for your pre season break. What made you take that first break from racing?

DH: The two year break?

RJG: Yeah.

DH: I was just a shit show and I didn’t feel I was a shit show and I needed to be a shit show for a couple of years.
It was one of those internal experiences that you can’t quite explain, or articulate but you fundamentally know you have to follow.
Everyone told me to not go on this crazy road trip but I knew I had to. Even though I just graduated I was more or less on the trajectory of being a successful bike racer. I had two degrees and I just knew that if I’m gonna follow that path in life of bike racing or academics I needed to try something out first. Just curiosity I guess. Finding out what else life had to offer.

RJG: When you take a break it seems that you just disappear into the mountains. You did that the year prior and then this year. Is that a necessary thing to de-stress from the road season.

DH: 100%. I call it not being a bike racer. It is totally fundamental and I think a lot of recreational racers don’t give enough attention to it. I have a few clients right now that are struggling with motivation and the race season is right around the corner and I’m like: Look the most important thing to do is to start the race season fresh and motivated. If that means sacrificing training and hanging up the bike for a while then that’s the most important thing you can do. If you just keep pushing things you burn yourself out. What’s the point of starting the race season when you’re tired and not motivated?

Having that psychological break of not being a bike racer to me is fundamentally important. I see that a lot more the higher I get in cycling and the more I’m rubbing shoulders with really big names I see that they do that. There is the misunderstanding that professional athletes are extremely committed.

It is more that they’re committed to honestly assessing themselves. They are not following this blind structure that’s completely rigid. Like Rory Sutherland (Formerly of United Healthcare, now with Saxo-Tinkoff) and my friend Adrian Hegyvary and Marc de Maar all take breaks in the middle of the season

I know a lot of the big names on United Healthcare through Adrain, so I’ve been able to hang out with those guys and Marc de Maar and Rory Sutherland hang their bikes up in the middle of the season for two weeks. A lot of people just don’t believe that when they hear it.

Recreational cyclist, I feel really focus on details and its not that high profile professionals don’t focus on details its just that they know what details to obsess on. At the end of the day there is only so much you can process without psychologically cracking so somethings you just have to not do.

I remember one time I was at a dinner party with Adrian and some other UHC boys and Adrian had one of those rubber straps so you can stretch. He was doing that and then he just ripped it off [saying] This is doing jack shit, this is just totally me being a racer. Its more beneficial for me to just put this thing down and not worry about it and just chill the fuck out and enjoy this dinner party.

That was really eye opening for me. Sometimes just not doing all the tiny little things that make you a bike racer actually makes you a better racer.

RJG: I can see that tendency in a lot people I know

DH: There is a weird trade off. I got in this rhythm where I was waking up super early all the time to get my morning routine of exercises and stretches in and I was just getting more tired. I realized all this active recovery is actually exhausting me even though its active recovery. I could just not wake up at six am and not do all this active recovery, just turn my alarm clock off and sleep in and not feel guilty about it. That’s the most beneficial thing to recover, being able to step away and think what is going to allow me to race better.

RJG: One of the things that drew me to your blog was that its not just…  Its about racing, but it seems more about life. I can see that there is a bleed between those things. Your post “You’re a week I’m a machine” was a big thing for me last season and I remember passing it around to my teammates saying “Look! This is how its done. If you want to do this, this is how you focus your time and attention”. That seems like something that is really high on your priority list [managing time and attention].

DH: Yeah

RJG: You seem to have figured out how to breakdown your time and use it effectively. If it wasn’t always like that for you how did you transition into that and how does it affect your racing and the overall quality of your life?

DH: That’s a great question and it really gets down to the heart of the issue.

It is a cliche to say that “bike racing is life”. the reason why [ tape is overwhelmed by music from the coffee shop speakers].

Ever since I was young I always knew that I wanted to live life fully. I can’t explain that. I just knew that I was searching for more out of life. For a while that took the form of rebellion and questioning.

That’s what, more or less, lead to that crazy road trip as well. My searching for meaning in life.

I feel that to exist I require a lot of meaning. The ultimate goal of the road trip. I realized that the way to get the most out of my life was too, and also life in general, was through bike racing and what it brings to my life.

Bike racing allows me to travel, allowed me to explore all the facets of life.

It really brings up a huge issue that I’ve been discovering more and more and that is the value I place on connecting with mind and body. That’s what pursing bike racing has allowed me to do. In many ways bike racing is just a medium to explore the connection between my mind and body.

In order to truly explore that you can’t do it without that structure, without that commitment without dedication. So bike racing allows me to bring meaning to my life and its just not bike racing that can be the medium or the vehicle to bring meaning to my life. If I was born in a different time and place, had a different trajectory it could have been mountaineering. Could have been Ice Hockey, could have been Gymnastics, could have been Ballet. Some type of pursuit in life that emphasizes a mind body connection.

RJG: That’s an important thing to develop. Something I’ve been thinking about the last couple years. Of sport being something that enriches, not just from a competition standpoint, but makes our lives more whole. Because if you’re in tune with it, and a lot of people clearly aren’t.

So that notion of of self discovery and and sport being about that seems like a very amateur aesthetic to carry professionally. There are still results, you have to get results, you have to be out there. That notion seems to add a different level to the professional aesthetic.

DH:  As far as getting results in competition. There has to be a little more desire. For example before I went on my road trip and quit cycling, I was thinking about becoming a yoga instructor, which follows that same premise of connecting mind and body but it wasn’t as adventurous as bike racing. At the end of the day I really love to ride my bike, that’s what it really comes down to and I want to do it all the time.

Bike racing allows me to do that. When I can’t race a bike anymore I want to do adventure touring and hopefully get paid to do that. I view bike racing as a way to pay the bills and ride my bike at the same time. If there were another way to do it and pay the bills I would.

In many ways bike racing is what I’m most scared of. When it comes to cycling there’s a lot of unknown factors, its dangerous and there’s a lot of things I’m not good at. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. I see your point for sure.

RJG: Do you like that engagement with fear?

DH: I don’t. At the end of the day bike racing is scary, but I keep doing it. A lot of it comes back to the sport. I wanted to see how far I could take this thing. How far I could go with it. Its the unknown and it was the same thing with the road trip. I like unknowns.

RJG: I think one of the things that interests me most when I’m watching races is what’s happening to in the racers mind. I wasn’t’ there when you won the crit at Tour of Gila by going into a solo move.[ed note: Dan Harm won the cat 1/elite crit at the 2012 Tour of Gila by attacking the field and soloing for the win] You weren’t a crit specialist

DH: No, not until the middle of last year. I was the antithesis of a crit specialist.

RJG: You were primarily a TT specialist.

DH: And the reason I was a Time Trial specialist and the reason I was a track specialist, was because I sucked at crits. That’s why I was interested in track racing and ultimately why I was happy switching to the road. Because I realized that transition was facing a huge fear. So yeah I was a horrible bike handler and if I really wanted to be a bike racer then I needed to learn how to race my bike.

That was a mental switch to maturity. The road trip forced maturity on me and allowed me to become a more mature bike racer. Allowing me to honestly assess what I was not good at.

The background story to the crit was the week prior I had tried the exact same move. I tried it three or four laps earlier and got caught two laps before the finish. For the Gila crit everything just came together.

Also Silver City is beautiful, there was a full moon. It was a good race. It was perfect. It was one of those things where there were no problems at all. Making it happen comes from failing a lot [laughs]

RJG: During a TT. What’s happening inside your head? Are you pacing or engaging in the pain of the race, facing yourself? Is there some kind of self talk that is happening?

DH: I always do time trials naked. Never do power. Never do heart rate. I never do a TT with that information so its always just on intuition. Time trials have always been a psychological struggle with me. Because my best TT was when I first got back and since then I’ve had some good results (ed note: Dan took 2nd in the 2010 Elite National Time Trial), but none as satisfying. I’ve been trying to figure out how do I get back to that level.

I got a lot of proof at Time Trial Nationals where I got second and there was a sense of urgency. This flight or fight kind of thing. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back to that intensity. To get results, but in a more calm manor.

But to answer your question simply. I think that what drives me in a TT has changed. It used to be how hard can I punish myself. I think that as I’ve gotten older its a bit more calm and I don’t know if that’s why my TT results haven’t been more stellar and why I’ve been drawn closer to road races and lead outs in crits.

But really it’s just about seeing how deep you can go.

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