Coach for the Stars of Cycling - the Neal Henderson Story

We are so incredibly lucky to have so many great people in our cycling community!  

Some of these people work at the very top end of our sport - one such person is Boulder's Neal Henderson, who in his capacity as a cycling coach, has touched the lives and achievements of star athletes, including Olympians, Tour de France riders, and international riders for track, cross, mountain and road racing.

Danny S and Neal H 2013 photo by Felt

A Colorado cycling snapshot:  Danny Summerhill and Neal Henderson at the 2013 Track World Cup in Los Angeles.  Danny grew up in BRAC (his mum was Board President!) and continues to be a force for good in Colorado cycling.  In Danny's first track race of the season (he's been killing it in cross this fall), Danny earned a podium at the World Track level!  Maybe that has something to do with Neal's input....

Photo by Felt Bicycles.

Neal sat with our superstar correspondent Amanda C for this interview.  Thanks guys!


Amanda:  For the few people who don't know you can you give a brief background of Neal Henderson the athlete beast?


Neal:  Beast might be an overstatement for my current self, but my athletic background is definitely long and varied.  I started off as a youth soccer player through high school, with some wrestling and baseball thrown in for good measure.  Of course, the standard start for any endurance athlete (or not).  After a particularly badly broken arm I had to give up soccer and wrestling, and was forced to do something non-combative/contact and started swimming at age 12. I continued to swim competitively through high school, and also got very involved with track and field in middle school.  In high school, I continued to swim and do track and field, and played soccer until my junior year then I switched to playing football ? offensive guard, and inside linebacker.  Yes, I was a little thicker in those days.  My senior year, I traded the football uniform for cross country in the fall (another logical progression, right?) and continued to swim and compete in track & field (my prime events were pole vault, javelin, and discuss ? though I?d do long jump, 100M, 400M, etc. as needed).  I also competed in my first bike races as well as a couple of triathlons while in high school. 

I went to Penn State University and tried to walk on for the track & field team as a decathlete, and competed in an Olympic-development decathlon in the summer going into my freshman year, but I wasn?t quite Division I quality (lost too many points on hurdles & high jump...I?m kind of short for those events) and switched my focus to triathlon.  I joined the Penn State Triathlon Club, and before long became president of the team.  During my time at PSU I raced a lot of triathlons, including my first Ironman race my senior year, as well as some cycling and mountain bike races.

After that I continued to train for and race in triathlons, and moved to Boulder to go to graduate school and continue my triathlon career after working at the Penn State Center for Sports Medicine in Hershey, PA for nearly 2 years after I graduated.

In Boulder, I joined the CU Triathlon Team as a graduate student in the fall of 1999, and started working as an assistant coach with the team.  I was hired as a head coach in 1998, and continued to train & race road triathlons as well as XTERRA triathlon (swim, mtb, trail run) and race bikes a little bit for training.  Eventually I won some smaller triathlons, and ended up winning the silver medal in my age-group at the 1998 XTERRA World Championships in Maui.  I earned my elite triathlon license in 2000, and raced at that level through 2003 ? with a primary focus on XTERRA.  Due to old injuries (back fractures as a teenage pole vaulter & javelin thrower), I had trouble running pain free, and retired from competitive triathlon racing after the 2003 season.  During the winters, I had also competed in winter triathlon (run on snow, MTB on snow, and XC ski) from 2001-2003, and was the top American finisher at the 2002 and 2003 ITU winter triathlon world championships in Europe.  After I retired from triathlon, I put more focus on bike racing and raced with the Wheatridge Cyclery,  GS Ciao, and Rocky Mounts teams until getting old enough (35) to join the Boulder Master?s Cycling Team (AKA Boulder Orthopedics, now).


Amanda: What are your athletic goals this year?


Neal:  My goal is to stay fit enough to be able to ride along with (well, mostly behind) the elite athletes that I coach on their easier days.  I?m also a pretty competitive person by nature, and I always try to win at least one race of some kind every year ? whether it?s a snow MTB criterium, track race, criterium, road race, or something else random.


Amanda: When did you start coaching?


Neal:  I started off as an assistant swim coach with my hometown USS (United States Swimming) team during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college.  I began some loose sort of triathlon coaching as the president at the PSU triathlon club (there weren?t too many triathlon coaches in the world in 1992), and expanded my coaching of amateur triathletes, cyclists, and runners while working at the Penn State Center for Sports Medicine.  I also worked as a strength & conditioning coach for the Hershey Bears, the AHL (American Hockey League) affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche at the time.  Hockey players tend to use indoor bikes as their primary off-ice conditioning activity, so it was a good fit for me.  I volunteered with the first USA Triathlon national team in 1996 in Colorado Springs for 2-weeks.  During the summer of 1999 while I was in graduate school at CU and head coach of the CU team, I was hired as the collegiate national team coach and camp director for the USA Triathlon collegiate and junior national teams at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs from June-early August.


Amanda:  Most memorable experience in coaching?


Neal:  There have been a great number of highlights over the years, and it?s really hard to name just one...as there are so many memories and experiences that I?ve had over the years.  Two that stick out a little more, though, would be when I was the coach at CU my first year the team had come to the collegiate championships as 3-time team champions, but had never won an individual title.  That year, we won our 4th consecutive team title and also had both the overall male and female champions from our team ? Nick Cady and Teri Duthie (now Cady), who are now married.  We also had the absolute last-place finisher of the race as a member of our team, and for him completing the race was a massive accomplishment and lifetime high experience. 


One of the other major highlights was being track-side at the 2010 UCI track cycling world championships with Taylor Phinney calling his splits during his victory in the 4K individual pursuit.  Taylor had won several other world championship titles before then, but that was the first big-time title that I was right there from start to finish in his preparation through execution.


The other top highlight would be from London last year with our women?s team pursuit team earning the Olympic silver medal.  The finals race where they took 2nd place to Great Britain was not the highlight ? it was in fact the 1st round race versus Australia that qualified us for the Olympic final that was the highlight.  Look up the race on YouTube or NBC Olympics as it was amazing.  Australia had a fast young team who started very fast and were way ahead of us early in the race.  Our team executed an amazing race, and took the victory on the last lap ? likely even the last 1/2 lap due to a monstrous effort from multiple time track world champion Sarah Hammer.  I will never forget being in the infield of that race watching our team ride that race.


Amanda:  Chill bumps here.  That all sounds so amazing and I am jealous.  Ok on with my next question if you could race any race what would be "the one"?


Neal:  Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.  As an amateur I tried to qualify for the race...and came up just short on many occasions. Three different times and races I finished in 4th place in my age-group with only 3 qualifying spots in my age-group.  In several of those races had I been a couple of years older or younger my time would have qualified me, but I just never got it right.  I have done the swim with a paratriathlete that I coach ? Trish Downing ? guiding her during the swim portion.  It?s an amazing event, and though I?m not a proper competitive triathlete anymore I still some day hope to complete the race.  That?s why I still do a triathlon once every 4-5 years since retiring...just to keep the dream alive.


Amanda: What is the best race to be in a team car following the action?


Neal: Surprising, you see very little from the team car in a race.  I guarantee that you will see much, much more of the race from home on TV than you would see from the car.  The best kind of race to be in a follow car, though in my opinion, would be a professional time trial ? as you see everything the rider that you are following is doing ? and are giving them feedback and encouragement if they have a radio, or simply via horn if they ride without.  I?ve driven the follow car for Roman Kreuziger during last year?s USA Pro Challenge TT in Denver, as well as with Evie Stevens during her win at this year?s Tour of CA Women?s time trial...which was pretty awesome.


Amanda:  In your opinion what do you see as the biggest challenge your working full-time athletes face?


Neal:  Keeping a healthy balance of family time & life responsibilities, work responsibilities, training and recovery.  Most athletes tend to do far too much training for what they are able to adapt to given their ability to recover.  Quality is more important than quantity ? and just because you can handle doing a certain amount of training doesn?t mean that you are getting any benefit from it. 


Amanda:  Best tip you have ever gotten/given for us Cat 3 wanna be's?


Neal:  Health first, fitness second.  When you are not healthy (whether it?s an illness or injury), your body is not capable of making gains or making a good performance.  Simple advice that?s hard to follow for your typically driven endurance athlete.


Amanda:  If you could play Mad Scientist and put together the perfect pro cyclist whose head, heart, legs, and personality would you pick. (example: Boonens mental toughness, Cari Higgins heart, Chris Hoys legs, and Jens personality)


Neal:  I play mad sport scientist everyday!  I think that instead of taking pieces from people who are already developed in certain areas, the best scientist would get the absolute most out of every athlete by examining what gives them an edge as well as discovering and minimizing what is a liability relative to what they are preparing for.  One thing that is a must for a pro cyclist is to have a large competitive drive that is balanced with good ethics...which in that way is nothing really scientific, it?s more a great psychological & sociological framework that I would wish for.  The mind is the greatest weapon or biggest weakness that you posses as a person and athlete.


Amanda: Well said Sir, well said.  Last question even though picking your brain is fascinating for me.  Weirdest food combo that you love even though it just may kill you?  (mine is oreos dunked into red wine... sounds gross i know but don't judge!)


Neal:  Ragusa ? Crazy rich Swiss chocolate & nougat...it?s even hard to find in Europe.  I only buy it a couple times a year but it is so bad you, and I absolutely can not control myself with it.  Once I bought a few pounds of it from an online candy shop, as it was a much better deal in bulk due to the shipping costs...and I ended up eating it all in about a week. 


Amanda: Ahh a man after my own heart with all the chocolate talk.  Thank you Neal for taking the time to let me harras you.

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