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Drenched in sweat, and covered in filth from the haze that encased the Salt Lake City area due to a nearby forest fire, riders slumped over their handlebars and took a collective deep breath. The day’s race was over, and getting a cold bottle of water was the main objective, albeit for one – the stage winner.
With a grin on his face, American Kiel Reijnen hooped and hollered, as though he hadn’t just raced over 180 kilometres, and climbed over 2,000 metres. He had, and he’d won Stage 5 of the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, his first victory of the 2016 season, and his first victory for Trek-Segafredo.
“Whenever the team is behind you and believes in you it’s a lot of pressure,” Reijnen said after sprinting to victory ahead of Tao Geoghegan Hart (Axeon Hagens Berman) and Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac). “It’s a good pressure for sure, but for me at least I always feel like I owe the guys a victory after their hard work. I didn’t feel all that great for most of the stage, and the guys kept working for me anyway and told me I could do it, so when we got down to those final circuits I really tried to grit my teeth and hang on for them.”
The win also helped Reijnen secure the Points Classification, to add to his green jerseys from the USA Pro Challenge in 2014 and 2015.
Fighting tooth-and-nail, against all odds, and coming up with the win more or less sums up Reijnen’s career in cycling. On Saturday, at age 30 and in his ninth season as a professional, Reijnen made his Grand Tour debut, at the Vuelta a España.
After a successful run in the U.S. racing scene, and with glimpses of European racing for UnitedHealthcare, Reijnen inked a two-year deal with Trek-Segafredo last fall to take the step into the WorldTour. Since then, he’s been pedaling along a steep learning curve, getting his “head bashed in” with a heavy load of WorldTour racing in the spring.
CyclingTips last checked in with Reijnen at Strade Bianche in March; he was confident heading into the bulk of his spring schedule, which included Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, the Ardennes Classics, the Amgen Tour of California, and the U.S. road championship.
And while he played a role in Fabian Cancellara’s success at Strade Bianche, the rest of the spring showed him how difficult consistent WorldTour racing can be.
“It’s humbling, but this is a humbling sport for sure,” Reijnen said. “It was just a much more steady diet of hard WorldTour racing this year for me, and my coach and I knew that going in. We trained to build the engine, expecting to have some of that, and hopefully it would pay off for the second half of the season.”
When Reijnen returned to the States after his humbling experience in Europe, he went to a place he knew he would be able to reflect on the spring and re-charge for the second half of the season — a family cabin near Westcliffe, at an elevation of 7,867 feet (2,398 metres) above sea level.
“I went where I always go to get good, the cabin up in the mountains in Colorado,” Reijnen said. “I train on the dirt roads, mostly by myself, go on some vision quests, and it seems to work. I really like riding the dirt roads. I like going out and riding long and hard, and sometimes ignoring my training, much to the chagrin of my coach. That’s why I love riding bikes. It can be soul searching.”
The win in Utah gave Reijnen that much needed confidence boost as he headed to the Vuelta, where he’s riding alongside Spanish veterans Haimar Zubeldia and Markel Irizar, and Italian sprinter Niccolo Bonifazio. And though it’s his first three-week race, Reijnen said he’ll be looking for a result.
“I’m not a guy who likes to go into races just to finish, I like to be ambitious,” Reijnen said. “We have a really good squad for the Vuelta, so if that means I can do a really good job helping those guys, awesome. If that means I get an opportunity that’s awesome too. I just want to take advantage of anything that comes my way.”
Reijnen first turned pro with Jelly Belly in 2008, and if his slow rise through the ranks has made him realize how hard being a professional bike rider is, the humbling experience of a consistent European schedule has made him mentally tougher for the challenges ahead. Despite nearly taking 10 years to crack the top-tier of the sport, he’s proud of the path he took.
“If working up the ranks is a race, then I’m the turtle in that analogy of the tortoise and the hare,” Reijnen said. “I guess I’m a little bit of a late bloomer. I enjoyed each step of the way. I took my time at it and really enjoyed all the experiences I’ve had. I don’t think I’d do it any differently.”