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To say that Alex Candelario is “chill” is an understatement. I’ve known him for more than 10 years, have interviewed him, interacted with him at races, seen him go shoulder-to-shoulder with the big names on many occasions—and in all these times his demeanor remained the same. Chill. He began racing pro with the Prime Alliance team in 2002, moved to Jelly Belly in 2004, then over to Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies to officially finish his pro racing career in 2014. At 39, he was faced with the question that most pro cyclists have to deal with: What do I do next? Hawaii is a big part of his life. His wife is from there and he’s trained there for most of his career. Ultimately, he took the leap of faith, moved the family there and embarked on a new adventure called Big Island Bike Tours. Hawaii can be loosely defined as chill, and now the embodiment of chill wants to show you around by bike. We caught up with him to talk about his career as a pro and the upcoming phase of his life.
Words: Tim Schamber
Images: Shawn Michienzi
Tell us how you first got into racing? I was on summer break in Lake Tahoe from swimming at UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas]…I was totally fried on swimming and began racing the North Tahoe mountain bike series. Very fun and grassroots.
What influenced you to get into racing? It was just the competitive nature of things, and I loved racing the mountain bikes, especially with a front aluminum fork.
You raced at such a high level for so long, what has been your proudest moment on the bike at the racing level? That’s always a hard one. I have a lot of great moments with great teams and people. One of my most memorable is the 2012 stage 4 finish of Tour of California, where for a brief moment I actually was competitive against [Peter] Sagan and [Tom] Boonen, but ended up fourth. Helping Andrew Bajadali win Redlands [in 2007] was a truly great team effort, and leading out Eric Young for the stage win in Utah last year was pretty great as it was such a team effort.
What was the hardest part of racing? For me, it was the travel. The reality of the teams we are a part of, is that travel is the one place they can save money, so we are always flying cheap flights, staying at cheap hotels, and it just gets very hard after 15 years.
You were always a bit of a “free spirit.” Did that personality trait keep you calmer on the bike? I suppose so. That may be better answered by teammates…but for some reason the last 10 kilometers of the race are the only time when I can really focus on the task at hand. I truly enjoy the final moment of a sprint when time seems to stand still and there is this split second of clarity where, for me, I could really think clearly about how things were going to play out while there is total and utter chaos occurring all around you. It’s like being in your own little rabbit hole.
Who played the biggest role in your pro career? Prime Alliance created my paradigm of what a team should be, and I was fortunate enough to be teammates and lifelong friends with Danny Pate, Jonas Carney, Michael Creed and Svein Tuft. This always helped me make right decisions about racing and stay true to myself and to the sport.
What’s your opinion, from someone who has raced for a long time, of all the doping in the sport? I’ve come full circle in the sense that I’m not bitter anymore (which I was for a long time). I’ve learned to accept that people are people and everyone has a choice to make in life, and while I may not always agree with other people’s decisions, especially when they impact me and my career in a negative aspect, I can say that there is a price to paid for everything in life and that while I may have never made it “big” in the sport, I chose a path that allows me to be proud of every single race that I’ve ever competed in. And that’s something I can always tell my sons and family no matter what happens, and that I’m truly proud of my career and very lucky.
You have been a part of two teams, Jelly Belly and Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, which have been involved in the sport for a long time. How do you explain their dedication to this sport? Both teams are run by great individuals. That trickles down to the riders and staff they hire, which translates into successful programs. I think it says a lot about the sport in general, that very successful companies like Optum and Jelly Belly not only see the justification of sponsoring cycling but truly believe in the sport as a vehicle of their messages.
Danny Van Haute, Jelly Belly’s directeur sportif, must have taught you a few tricks about racing? “Beast” is a legend and there is always a lesson to be learned out there by the one and only.
Of all the racers you went up against, who was the toughest to stay with? I would say most recently, Kiel Reijnen. He is very fast and can out-climb me any day of the week.
What made you decide to retire from racing? It’s never an easy decision to quit. I honestly think I could probably be physically strong for another three years, at least on a very high level. There are always those looming challenges on the horizon, but I wanted to quit while I was still good enough to win races, which is something important in the sport. I didn’t really want to just fade away and have people wonder why I was still racing.
What would you say was the difference in racing say in 2002 and up to when you retired? I like to equate bike racing to the “Bull Durham” movie where I think Kevin Costner says something like “you throw the ball, you hit the ball, and sometimes you win.” I’m not sure of the exact quote, but essentially bike racing is bike racing is bike racing. It’s pretty simple stuff, no matter how good the high-definition cameras get, and that’s why it’s such a beautiful sport. People like to think they [bike racers] are special and they are important, but the reality is that we are not and the show goes on with or without you, and I’m truly lucky to have had such a long career and follow my dream of earning a living racing bicycles all over the planet.
As you near 40, would you say you are satisfied with your pro racing career? Any regrets? I am very satisfied…although I would have really liked to win Philly. I got close, but never closed the deal.
THE NEXT PHASE
Did you have a plan for retirement, what you would do after bike racing? I like to call it my next phase of life. Starting Big Island Bike Tours is something I’ve been thinking of for about eight years, so it’s nice to see it come to fruition.
Hawaii and the ocean are near and dear to your heart…. My wife is from Big Island (that’s pidgin), and since I’ve known her I’ve been doing my winter training in Hawaii. Her family is very old school and goes way back to ancient Hawaii, so I’ve gotten to know a little of the history and our families’ deep ties to the island. So it’s not only an epic place to ride, but it also has the culture and history that would fascinate anyone—which is a large part of what is interesting in life.
Everyone associates Hawaii with great surfing, obviously the beach, but most are unaware of the amazing riding…. The Big Island in particular is incredible for riding as it has two 13,000-foot volcanoes, which create some very interesting and challenging terrain. Most people just think of the Ironman World Championships course for bike riding, but the reality is that we have so many amazing country roads where there is little to no traffic. It’s hard to describe the transcendence of descending from 11,000 feet down to sea level while you ride through rain forests, 300-year-old ohia trees, and smoldering calderas, to a lively ocean that is so blue it seems like a movie.
It seems that Big Island Bike Tours has pretty exclusive access to private land. How important was establishing a relationship with owners? Strangely, the majority of land on the Big Island is privately held—and there is a lot of land! Luckily for me, I married into a family that has been around for a long time, so my father-in-law has been instrumental in introducing me to land owners (mostly ranchers). Now it’s up to me to build a network of trails that can show how people and cows can get along, as well as financially justify the relationship. In other words, I’ve been allowed in the door, but it’s up to me to make sure that I stay there.
Tell us how you decided to partner up with 1% For The Planet. Basically, it’s the only way I can justify or sleep with myself by promoting people to get into jet planes and fly across the ocean to simply ride a bicycle. It’s hard to call your business “eco-tourism” when getting people here takes such a huge toll on the environment, and 1% For The Planet is one of the best organizations out there.
The commitment to the environment seems like a no-brainer. Riding bikes obviously contributes to this, but we always forget about support vehicles and the like. Biodiesel is a big part of our operation, and all produced locally. Our good friend Alex Woodbury [and an environmental consultant]buys large batches of biodiesel from Pacific Biodiesel and we get it from Woodbury. It’s something that has always interested me and I truly believe we can run alternative fuels on mass scales if the right pressures are there.
As a racer, you were used to having support from start to finish. How important was that detail for you in setting up the company and ultimately for your guests? Soigneurs providing you with every little thing to make the riding as easy as possible is a key part of “feeling” like a pro. I hate to say it, but when you’re totally smashed after a ride or race and you come back to the van or wherever and there are clean towels with chairs, cold beverages and sandwiches, it’s hard to complain about how hard the ride was! And for us as company, I feel like it’s all those small things that riders who never competed at a high level get to experience. Not only do you get to ride in paradise but we are going to treat you like the pro you are!
Most tourists just see the beach in Hawaii. How amazing is the up-country in your opinion? It’s all amazing and they think that up-country is simply grass land, but when the beach is only 10 miles away, it makes it something special. They define and complement each other nicely. Where we live is very cool and wet and you can actually wear pants and hoodies at night and have a fire, which is nice when you’ve been baking your brain at the beach all day. It’s sad how many people never make it to the other side of the island or venture away from the resorts. We do that with the bike tours.
None of us realize that there’s some ridiculously steep roads on the Big Island. There are a lot of steep-ass hills, as the state really has no concern for the way they build roads. They just build these roads up the sides of mountains and, well, if they are 25 percent, so be it! Riding Waipio Valley Road is truly beyond steep. It makes the San Francisco Grand Prix look like a flat criterium. Not only is it beyond steep, but it’s incredibly beautiful, so the whole time you’re suffering, you’re looking out at the ocean and green valley walls and thinking to yourself, “Is this right? It can’t be.”
Some people may be intimidated by a bike tour company run by a former pro, that it may be too gnarly…. I never really thought of it like that. Hopefully we can break down those barriers by showing them some aloha.
Aside from road and mountain bike tours, what else can a client expect in terms of exploration of the island? Well, I can’t reveal it all, but a large and very important element of our tours is showcasing the Hawaiiana (Hawaiian history and culture), and this can only be done with local people—my brother-in-law does sag support for the tours—who are from the land and know the land. This is when you truly create an experience beyond what anyone can imagine.
What do you hope people come away with? I truly hope that while the riding is truly epic in Hawaii, it’s about the culture, history and geography that make this a wonderful cycling destination.
GET OVER THERE! bigislandbiketours.com/hawaii/
From issue 39.