Reflecting on Utah field sprint: No satisfaction in second place for Lawless

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Dealing with failure is a reality of any sport, and one that becomes easier with experience. This is especially true in pro cycling, where 150 riders line up on the start line, and only one will end the day victorious.

This paradigm is distinctly true for field sprinters, who oftentimes win or lose by inches. To sprinters, second-place is the “first loser.”

Take, for example, British rider Chris Lawless (Axeon Hagens Berman), who finished second on the opening stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah Monday to Ty Magner (Holowesko-Citadel).

From an outsider’s perspective, a close second-place is far from a failure. But Lawless holds himself to a high standard. It’s a self-imposed reality made even stronger when his Axeon Hagens Berman teammates completely sacrifice themselves for his success.

After a hot and windy day with two climbs up and over Bear Lake summit, the Tour of Utah peloton completed its circumnavigation of Bear Lake and retraced its path back into Logan for the finish. The suffocating heat was still present during the technical circuits leading to the finish in Logan. Magner opened up his final kick early, and after returning to the saddle mid-sprint to shift, narrowly edged out a charging Lawless — another meter and it would’ve been the 21 year-old’s victory. Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) was third in the bunch gallop.

The Stage 1 podium at the 2017 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, from left: Chris Lawless (Axeon Hagens Berman), Ty Magner (Holowesko-Citadel), Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare).

Relaxed despite his near miss, Lawless lounged in the dorms of Utah State University hours after his disappointing finish. Gazing out the windows toward the expansive mountain ranges surrounding the campus, he analyzed the finale.

“The lads rode unbelievably today, it was the best team performance I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It’s a shame I couldn’t finish it off.”

“The plan we discussed [Sunday] night was to go for me. I was pretty confident that even if I got dropped on the last climb I’d be able to make it back on. I was hoping to get over in the group but I was 10 seconds off the back of the peloton going over the top. Ricey [Michael Rice] and Logan [Owen] did a really good job staying with me on the climb. I told them when I needed to go slower on the steeper bits and when we could press on. And then pretty much straightaway when we started descending we got back on.”

As the field sprint wound up, Lawless was marking Holowesko’s John Murphy, a fearsome and decorated sprinter in his own right.

“Originally when Murphy first went I thought he was sprinting for himself, so I was waiting on his hip,” Lawless said. “I knew he had gone early so I was ready for him to blow up. All of a sudden Ty came past with a load of speed and I really had to try to get on top of it but it was a bit too much for me.”

It wasn’t a win, but Lawless has already had a successful 2017 season, even by his high standards, highlighted by second place (and first U23 rider) at the British national road championships behind a solo Steve Cummings (Dimension Data). He’s also notched numerous podiums at European races and wins at the ZLM Tour and the Tour de Beauce.

Lawless’ journey through the sport began at age 12 after watching the Revolution Series events at his home velodrome in Manchester. After racing with a local club, he entered the British Cycling national federation pipeline at age 15.

Lawless made his way through GB Cycling’s tiered academy system, with stints riding for Team Wiggins and JLT Condor before signing with One Pro Cycling for the 2017 season. The commitment came prior to One Pro’s regression back down to UCI Continental team status, and like it did for much of their roster, it left Lawless scrambling to find an adequate replacement for 2017. Axeon took him in after the One Pro drama in November, and the Tour of Utah marks his first ever race on American soil.

After a shoulder separation in August of 2016 followed by two months off the bike, he was eager to undertake the slow process of fitness rebuilding in preparation for his 2017 season. He attributed his return to success to his support system and his priority on a content and positive headspace.

“The main goal for me this year is to make it to the WorldTour,” he said. “I think I’ve been getting the results I need to do that. This year has been my best year getting the training done. All my family, my friends, and my girlfriend are really supportive. They all really get it so that always helps. I think the main thing, the thing people forget, is that the head is just as important, if not more important, than your legs.”

“If you’re not happy you might as well quit the sport because you’re not going to get anywhere. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Lawless, and the rest of the field sprinters in Utah, should have at least two more opportunities to end the day victorious. And once again, Lawless won’t be satisfied with anything other than a win.

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