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by Peter Flax
March 28, 2016
What do a plea deal in federal court, a SoCal Strava legend, urban street crits, and $400 bib shorts have in common? All of them swirl around a rider who likes to call himself Thorfinn-Sassquatch. Here are 13 ways of looking at his strange story.
1. The News Hook
The story broke last week, on March 16, in the Los Angeles Daily News: A former pro cyclist was about to plead guilty to federal charges asserting that he had sold performance-enhancing drugs over state lines. The story alleged that Nick Brandt-Sorenson, 35, had sold erythropoietin (the hormone better known as EPO), as well as a drug derived from calf’s blood that is not approved for human use, through an operation and blog called the “Anemia Patient Group.” The story reported that the cyclist, who lives in Los Angeles, would be sentenced in July and face up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
Brandt-Sorenson’s name is familiar to many folks in the bike-racing community. In September 2011, he was the first rider to cross the finish line at the Masters 30-34 national road championship in Bend, Oregon. And though he stood atop the podium that afternoon, a urine sample he gave that day tested positive for the oxygen-vector drug Efoproxiral. The title was taken from him and handed to Eric Marcotte. The following January, the U.S. Anti Doping Agency announced that Brandt-Sorenson had accepted a two-year ban retroactive to the date of the positive. Then Brandt-Sorenson quietly left the sport. Sort of. Not really.
2. The Initial Glimpse
The first time I saw Brandt-Sorenson, I was riding up the lower section of Mandeville Canyon, one of the most popular climbs in L.A. It was early in the summer of 2015. A tall, strong guy on a white Emonda flew by me so decisively there was no time to say hello. My mystery-pro radar immediately went off. He was not in a team kit, but if you ride enough, you know how a professional cyclist sits on a bike and turns the pedals. This guy was smooth even though he was hauling. He was out of sight in 30 seconds but I saw him descending in the drops when I was still a mile from the top. And on the way down, I saw him again — taking another crack at Mandeville. I remember thinking, that mystery dude can climb for a big guy. I had no idea.
3. The Legend
On Strava, Brandt-Sorenson goes by the name Thorfinn-Sassquatch. The first time I saw one of his KOMs, and then clicked through to see the details of his ride, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know yet that it was the guy I’d seen on the Trek. I honestly wondered if Phil Gaimon or Neil Shirley or some other nationally known heavy hitter had a secret identity on social. This guy had hundreds of KOMs, on the most iconic climbs around LA. He averaged 20.2 mph up Mandeville (the 5-mile climb isn’t particularly hard, but only 66 of more than 4,200 Strava users who’ve ridden it have clocked 18 mph), and owned nearly everything in the Hollywood Hills. He rode a VAM of 1250 up Mount Wilson and beat Shirley by nearly a minute. The same Neil Shirley who stood on the podium of the national road championships with Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie. I saw that Thorfinn-Sassquatch had just failed to get the KOM up Malibu’s famed Latigo Canyon, finishing the full, nine-mile ascent only 30 seconds slower than Leipheimer in 2013 (and minutes faster than numerous pros). Who the hell was this Thorfinn?
4. The Crit Racer
Brandt-Sorenson’s results page on USA Cycling’s website is still up, basically frozen in amber from the moment his bike-racing career grinded to a halt. The DQ at Masters nationals sits atop a long list of races. That page paints the picture of a serious, unremarkably talented racer who mostly did West Coast crits — riding with the pros as a Cat 1 or Cat 2 — but didn’t have a ton of success until he lit his corner of the world on fire in 2011. His results don’t match up with a rider with a ton of climbing prowess.
I spoke with a few current or former pros who rode with him back in the day. Retired pro Adam Myerson said he did a bunch of races in California with Brandt-Sorenson a decade ago. “We raced together but we weren’t bros. He was a big, tall, TT-type guy, who stood out only for his size, not his performance,” Myerson recalled. “[He was] way too big to be getting climbing KOMs.”
Marcotte recalled Brandt-Sorenson’s “blacked-out, no-name kit.”
“But he was strong,” Marcotte added. “I didn’t think ‘this guy must be doing something to be this strong.’ I just thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got to keep an eye on this guy.’”
5. The Ridazz
The story in the Daily News mentioned that Brandt-Sorenson had helped “pioneer” the Midnight Ridazz, a now-legendary unsanctioned ride in LA that began with a punk ethos and toured the city late at night. The following day, after the popular L.A. cycling blogger Ted Rogers had included that assertion in a summary, the Ridazz tweeted a denial. “Sorenson is not a ‘co-founder’ nor was he ever an organizer or ‘pioneer’ of Midnight Ridazz. Please delete.”
Still, it’s clear that Brandt-Sorenson has some roots with the Ridazz. He has a profile page on the group’s website that is still live, and insists he has been a member since April 2007. No one with the Ridazz has deleted the sentence in his bio that states his version of the group’s creation: “2004: Pioneered Midnight Ridazz by riding Kim’s wheel out of her apartment.” In a short bio he published on a different site, Brant-Sorenson claims that he won the “first unsanctioned street criterium [in] downtown Los Angeles.”
The Ridazz bio page lists a long list of wins in alleycats and street races.That page also has some really interesting biographical information tucked away below all his junior and NORBA results. It mentions his size (6-foot-3 and 189 pounds in 2007; though the guy I’ve seen on the road and on Instagram looks closer to 170lbs) and offers a rundown of his education — a Ford Family academic scholarship and a BS in applied art and a BA in fine arts (photography) from the University of Oregon. The bio also lists a bunch of gallery and museum jobs he held between 2003 and 2007. It also includes the claim that he organized the first-ever Critical Mass ride in Yosemite, in 2001.
6. The Feed
At some point, I saw an Instagram link on Thorfinn’s Strava page and clicked through. It was only then that I realized that he was the guy I’d seen on Mandeville (by that point he’d blown by me in Nichols Canyon for another 10-second “interaction.”) It’s an engaging Instagram feed, mostly focused on big rides, cycling apparel, and recollections of Strava awesomeness. He has about 13,500 followers. The photographs reflect a person who loves to ride — up in the snow on high passes north of L.A., on empty gravel climbs, just out there in a way that super-committed riders are. There on Thorfinn’s IG page, I also learned that he was connected to an apparel company called Brandt-Sorenson, but I didn’t piece it all together because I didn’t know his name yet. But in every photo he was wearing that company’s kit as he looked fast up all the biggest climbs in SoCal.
7. The Claim
Thorfinn’s Strava profile also had a strange blurb at the top: “Olympic ITP & WADA Bio Passport Program >36 months. Top most randomly no-notice bio sampled cyclist in USA 2013-14 with 24/7 whereabouts filing for >36 months. (Required UCIWT or Olympic brand events).”
This struck me as strange for a guy who is doing his most competitive riding on Strava segments.Now that I know his name, some of these assertions are easier to fact check. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s web site has a handy tool on which you can search an athlete’s testing history. A quick search revealed that Brandt-Sorenson was tested a total of 23 times: once in 2011 (his positive at Nationals, I presume); twice in 2012, 13 times in 2013, and 10 times in 2014.
As for his assertion that he is the most “bio-sampled cyclist in USA 2013-14,” this is not true: Chris Horner, Tom Danielson, and Bobby Lea are among the athletes who were tested more in this time frame. More important, perhaps, was the suggestion on his Strava profile that the guy taking everyone’s KOMs was in the same rigorous WADA Bio Passport Program that ProTour and Olympic riders must participate in. USADA data indicates that in 2015 and 2016, Brandt-Sorenson hasn’t been tested.
I emailed a copy of these testing claims to Cannondale pro Phil Gaimon, who says he doesn’t know Brandt-Sorenson, but has riding friends in common. His reply: “To be honest, he seems like Lance-level creep, just not as good at it.”
8. The Kit
By the end of the summer, I’d figured out that Thorfinn-Sassquatch and Nick Brandt-Sorenson were the same guy, and then immediately realized that he owned the eponymous apparel company that was featured on his IG feed. On the “About Us” page, a bio of Brandt-Sorenson indicated that he had been “raised as an athlete and a seamster in [the] rural Pacific Northwest.” He has a partner who handles the product development side of the business. Most of the apparel on the site looks classy and expensive — which it is. Bibs cost between $325 and $450, and jerseys are around $200. Even in an era of fancy cycling kit, these are high price points.
But the company has an interesting story to tell: Everything is made to measure and hand sewn in Los Angeles. Thorfinn’s IG feed, and that of the company, feature very cool photographs of a small crew of guys and gals riding in the mountains looking super-fit, authentic, and yet properly color-blocked. Los Angeles has a small, actual population of riders who train and ride as though they are elite athletes, yet balance odd jobs with their 400-mile weeks and seem to do more photo shoots than races.
I’m sure some people would be inclined to immediately dismiss the apparel because of Brandt-Sorenson’s past. And that’s a personal choice. I have a bunch of Hincapie pieces, and enjoy them without any self-recrimination. I’ve never worn Brandt-Sorenson’s stuff, but I have a riding friend who bought a kit last fall. He is a serious rider and a discriminating consumer who has worn high-end kits from Rapha, Assos, and Castelli. He was a little frustrated with the long wait to get his bibs and jersey, but he likes the company’s made-in the-USA ethos, and insists the jersey is the best he’s ever owned.
9. The Buried Lede
On March 17, the Los Angeles Times published a story that broke the news that Brandt-Sorenson had, in fact, entered a guilty plea the previous day at a federal courthouse in Los Angeles. The story contained some new details — the date of his sentencing hearing (July 20), for instance — and attributed these and other facts to court documents. I have obtained all of these documents myself, all of them publicly available. Many of them are procedural documents that aren’t exciting but illuminate the grinding legal process.
The highlight is the plea agreement, which was filed on February 16, and contains lots of fascinating details. One of the three district attorneys listed on the document is Mark A. Williams – who helped lead the criminal investigation into Lance Armstrong until U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. announced that case would be closed. The plea agreement discloses the fake name that Brandt-Sorenson used in connection with his drug-selling business: Eric Horowitz. It detailed how he purchased drugs from online pharmacies in China and Europe and had them shipped to his home, and how in, or around, March 2011 he sold a vial to an athlete in Boulder, Colorado, for $631.
The plea agreement does not identify any of the athletes who were Brandt’s customers, but at least three of them already have been sanctioned by USADA: Wisconsin-based cyclist Kyle Schmidt; Brook Radcliffe, a triathlete living in Palm Springs; and his brother, Robert Radcliffe, a triathlete from Salt Lake City. In 2011 the Radcliffe brothers completed their first Ironman together, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and afterward, Robert (who finished in 9:52:10) told the Salt Lake City Tribune about the experience: “Ironman is all about the journey.”
There are no documents or records (that I’m aware of) that name the Boulder athlete who bought the EPO from Brandt-Sorenson.
I reached out to Brandt-Sorenson for comment through his company’s web site, but got no response.
10. The Race
The 2011 Masters 30-34 national road championship began at 10:30am on Sunday, September 4. The field covered a total of 69 miles over four clockwise laps on a challenging circuit north of Bend. On the final lap, Bend local Scott Gray was off the front, solo. But those closing kilometers were punctuated by a number of small punchy climbs, and a select group of five riders bridged up to, and past, Gray. Brandt-Sorenson was there, as was Marcotte.
“With two or three kilometers to go, it got really steep and lumpy. And I remember hitting everybody over and over,” recalled Marcotte. “And the guy just kept reacting and sitting on my wheel, and I’d ask him to pull through and he wouldn’t do it.
“I remember hitting it one more time,” Marcotte said. “We came out of one last roundabout with 200 or 250 meters to the line. I probably should have put him more into the wind, but I took the shortest line. He got me by a couple inches at the end.”
Marcotte has gone on to greater success — he won the 2014 U.S. professional road national championships — but at the time, he was frustrated to miss out on the recognition and the joy of standing atop the podium and wearing Stars and Stripes.
I asked Marcotte how long it took to get the medal and Stars and Stripes jersey that Brandt-Sorenson took home from Bend. There was a pause on the phone before Marcotte replied: “Dude, I still haven’t gotten it.”
11. The King of the Mountain
As of the day Brandt-Sorenson pled guilty to selling EPO over state lines, Thorfinn-Sassquatch had 1,605 followers on Strava. In the eight-month period between March and October 2015, he rode 5,953 miles and climbed 506,972 feet. By my count, he has 834 cycling KOMs.
Many people, especially road-racing types in Los Angeles who have to wake up to emails from Strava notifying them of lost KOMs, would like to see these marks stricken. We are talking about a convicted doper who now has admitted to selling EPO. We are talking about a strong but undistinguished big guy who was pack fodder in Pro/1/2 crits who has taken dozens of KOMs from far smaller WorldTour climbers.
When I asked Marcotte about Brandt-Sorenson’s Strava achievements, he laughed out loud. “There’s no way that guy could have done that with the fitness I ever saw — no fucking way,” Marcotte said. “He’s a pretty stout dude. He must be 75 kilos [165 pounds]. That’s a red flag.”
I reached out to Strava for comment, and this is the statement I received from the company’s co-founder and CEO Mark Gainey: “At Strava we strive to record accurate segment times and rely on our community to flag unsafe rides and mechanical cheating. We applaud those dedicated to fighting doping in sport. But we are not able to judge this very nuanced debate of who used PEDs, when and where they used them, and to fairly determine how that use improved times on one segment or another. Strava values sportsmanship and fair play, and we want members of our community to earn spots on the leaderboards through clean and safe competition.”
I will admit that I find this statement a bit unsatisfying, but I understand the company’s position completely. If governing bodies and the public can’t decide who won a grand tour, how can a technology and social-media company decide who really owns the Latigo Canyon KOM? If you start taking KOMs from an obviously dubious rider who has not been tested positive since he joined Strava where do you stop? It’s just a black hole.
That said, I personally think Neil Shirley owns the Mount Wilson KOM.
12. The End Game
Brandt-Sorenson won’t know his legal fate any sooner than July 20, the day his sentencing hearing is presently scheduled. His attorney and prosecutors have agreed to ask the judge to sentence him to three years of probation, 300 hours of community service, and a $5,000 fine. As the plea agreement states, the judge will have the latitude to sentence him to up to a year in prison and assess a fine of $100,000 or more. The legal documents do not provide any hint of whether there are any ongoing investigations related to any customers other than the three men who were named and sanctioned by USADA and the unnamed individual from Boulder. But I would imagine that every amateur athlete who bought drugs from Eric Horowitz at the Anemia Patient Group is sweating bullets just about now.
13. The Epilogue
On the day after he pleaded guilty in a federal courthouse, Nick Brandt-Sorenson went for a ride. It was a 40.4-mile lollipop loop through Elysian and Griffith Parks. I know this because Thorfinn posted it to Strava. He didn’t get any KOMs, but he did get 133 kudos.
I really don’t know exactly what to think about Brandt-Sorenson. I feel content that he was sanctioned for doping and cornered into a plea deal for selling PEDs, but beyond that it’s complicated for me.
I think it’s cool that the guy has a background in art and has tried to build a business that sells bespoke, made-in-the-USA kits, and I’m open to the idea that he played a role in helping make punk midnight rides in L.A. more popular. I am disgusted that taking drugs to win pro races has led people to take drugs to win amateur races, which has led to cheating at gran fondos, and now Strava, and I can only presume that Zwift doping is next.
Still, I think too many cycling fans want to define elites as heroes or villains, and I refuse to see things in such binary terms. I have civil relationships with many riders who have been sanctioned, and I presume I have civil relationships with other riders who have cheated but never been sanctioned. At this point, I don’t even know whether there’s a line between good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things.
Brandt-Sorenson posted a picture from that 40.4 mile ride on his Instagram account. He’s riding on a wide city street in downtown L.A. If I’m right, it’s on one end of the 2nd Street Tunnel, which became a fixture on Midnight Ridazz routes. He’s alone in the photo, in a lane about to make a turn. In the accompanying caption, he wrote, “There are so many roads in life. I’ve learned that if you take a wrong turn, to just stop, head back and one will always find the right direction. Every man knows that we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. Within the cycling peloton, one of my favorite phrases that’s always shouted is ‘PEDAL!’”
Peter Flax, the former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine, presently works as features editor at The Hollywood Reporter. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore.