Although Cyclocross Nationals are in December, many Masters athletes hoping to race in Louisville are starting their training plans now. Last year, Justin Thomas of Reno got a unique opportunity to race at Nationals in his hometown of Reno thanks to a five-week sabbatical offered by his employer. This #crossiscoming story looks at Thomas’ unique way of preparing for the 2018 Reno Masters Nationals.
Training for Nationals is often a year-long commitment, even for amateurs. Or perhaps, especially for amateurs. With the demands of everyday life, developing a training plan and sticking to it takes commitment and sacrifice by athletes, partners and families.
Justin Thomas of Reno was one of those Masters racers hoping to balance the demands of life and his training schedule to be on good form for the Masters 40-44 race at the 2018 Cyclocross Nationals in his hometown. However, as a West Coaster with podium dreams, he also faced the tough reality of earning enough USAC ranking points to earn a good call-up spot.
To start and the front and chase his podium dreams, Thomas knew he would have to take his cyclocross show on the road. Fortunately, he is lucky enough to work for a company that offers its employees a five-week sabbatical program after they put in five years of work.
In Thomas’ mind, what better way to go on sabbatical than to race cyclocross?
“I knew had the time off, and finding an outlet where I felt good about taking the five weeks away from work was important,” he said. “It’s not every day your employer, including myself—I’m part owner of the company—allows you the opportunity to do this. I felt like I needed to take advantage of it.”
To make sure he would be on the front row of the Masters 40-44 race in his hometown of Reno, Thomas traveled across the Midwest and East Coast in September and October racing at some of the biggest cyclocross races in the U.S. including Jingle Cross, the Trek CX Cup and Charm City.
The journey paid off after he finished fifth in the loaded Masters 40-44 field in Reno in January and then landed in the top ten in Saturday’s singlespeed race as well. When the dust settled, were the cyclocross travels worth it?
“Absolutely,” Thomas said after his Masters 40-44 race. “It’s hopefully not a once in a lifetime deal to have Cyclocross Nationals in your hometown, but if it is, I think I took advantage of the season.”
A Sabbatical to Remember
Thomas works for Reno-based TCI Wealth Advisors. He is part owner of the company, and as a team, he and his co-owners developed an incentive that offers employees a five-week sabbatical for every five years they work for the company.
For Thomas, the 2017/18 cyclocross season provided a perfect confluence of events. He had five weeks off work saved up, he was able to train through the fall and Cyclocross Nationals were going to be in his hometown in January.
“I felt it was important to take advantage of it while it was in front of me,” Thomas said about his year where everything came up Justin. “Just like Cyclocross Nationals being in my hometown, you need to take advantage of it.”
On the training front, Thomas got some local help. His background as an athlete was running in college, then XTerra triathlons and mountain biking as an adult. With some of the top Masters 40-44 recently removed from the pro ranks and still able to compete in UCI races, he needed a training edge.
“I’d also like to give a shout out to TrainerRoad,” Thomas said. “They were a big sponsor of mine this season, as far as giving me a training program and giving me some tools to make that happen really well.”
With a good amount of training in his legs, when September rolled around, Thomas packed his car up and headed east. His first stop was at Jingle Cross, where he podiumed in the Masters 40-44 race, and then on to the Trek CX Cup where he podiumed again. After two weeks in the Midwest, Thomas’ USAC points hunt was going well.
“It was cool to see cyclocross on a world stage,” he said about the two U.S. World Cup weekends. “Being able to participate on those same courses, for my small world, it’s a big deal. Maybe in the grand scheme of most people’s lives, they don’t care, but for us guys who are passionate about the sport, it’s pretty cool.”
The best part of the trip for Thomas came when he headed further east and his family joined him. He scored another Masters podium at the KMC Cross Fest and two more at Charm City. However, during that part of the trip, there were more important things than podiums.
“Having my family fly out ot meet me midway and do some touristy stuff in addition to the racing on the East Coast was pretty special,” he said. “I don’t know if and when we’ll ever have that opportunity again. So to have our families come out, see me race and see my nine-year old son Charlie race was pretty cool.”
After that, Thomas made a stop at the U.S. Open of Cyclocross in Boulder and headed back to Reno. When all was said and done, he had driven well over 6,000 miles, raced against his best age peers in the country and shared some special time with his family.
Once home, it was on to Reno Nationals, and maybe nervously checking to see who his competitors in Reno would prove to be.
Sweet Home Reno
Part of Thomas’ goal for his sabbatical racing was to improve his call-up position for the Masters 40-44 and singlespeed races he would be competing in January. His efforts lowered his USAC ranking to a very low 107, and when USA Cycling announced call-ups, he found himself ranked sixth and on the front row. Mission accomplished.
Although 2017 winner Matt Timmermann skipped Nationals, the Masters 40-44 field was still loaded with talent that included eventual winner Jake Wells, Johannes Huseby, Justin Robinson, Steven Stefko, Alec Donahue and more.
Thomas’ travels also had him ready to compete against the caliber of athletes he would face in Reno.
“I knew all those guys from the season,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t scared of them, but I knew where their strengths were and where my strengths were, so it would have been great if we had a 5,000-foot climb on the course, but clearly we didn’t. It worked out. I was happy.”
The Masters 40-44 race was on Thursday of Nationals week this year. Thomas’ family was there and many of his co-workers came out to watch and volunteered at Rancho San Rafael Park, so his biggest task before the race was minimizing distractions.
“Before the race and after, I was just kind of like, get your warmup right, don’t miss your call-up. Get your nutrition right. I was focusing on those details and not worrying too much about who’s here and all that stuff.”
With his call-up secured, Thomas made the most of it by getting off to a good start. After the race, he said that aspect of his cyclocross sabbatical journey was worth it.
“I think the call-up was pretty key given how big the field was,” he said. “Typically, there are going to be really large fields at Nationals, so getting to line up on the front row, it just kind of put my mind at ease. I didn’t have to worry about somebody slipping a pedal or crashing or breaking a chain. It’s one of those boxes you get to check off.”
Jake Wells dominated the Masters 40-44 race pretty much from the whistle, but Thomas took advantage of his start and training to make a chase group for second that included Steven Stefko, Justin Robinson and Alec Donahue.
Making a group with Justin Robinson who hails from nearby California did have its benefits. “I was racing with second through fifth place and there was Justin Robinson getting cheered on along with me, another Justin,” Thomas said. “I think we were both feeding off a lot of people cheering for Justins.”
Thomas eventually finished fifth in the Masters 40-44 race, thus completing his season-long journey on the wide-angle podium. “I think all of us racers would love to win a national championship, but to be at my first one and to finish fifth, I’m very pleased,” he said after the race.
It Takes a Village
Finishing in the top five in the Masters 40-44 race was a great accomplishment for the Reno native racing at his first Cyclocross Nationals, but that Thursday at Rancho San Rafael Park was a great day for Thomas for many other reasons.
Many of us are likely similar to Thomas in that our co-workers and friends wonder about that “nutty thing he goes and trains for on his lunch breaks or before work or whatever.” At Reno Nationals, Thomas’ co-workers finally got to learn what that “nutty” thing was all about.
“It was nice to have some people like my office mates here,” Thomas said. “Having them out here was really cool because they’ve never seen me race. They know I take off during my lunch break and go ride my bike, but they’ve never gotten to see an event this important in the backyard. They got to come check it out and see, oh this is what he does.”
Not every Masters racer is lucky enough to get a five-week sabbatical from work to race cyclocross, but those with children can certainly appreciate the team effort it takes to train at a Nationals-podium level while working and being a part of the family.
Thomas and his wife Julie have been married for over a decade now, and during that time, she has supported his activities that scratch his competitive itch. “She supported me in my professional XTerra career days where I traveled a lot and didn’t make any money,” Thomas said about his wife Julie. “The one bonus was we got to travel all over the world. That was really fun. To have her support after 15 years of marriage is pretty incredible.”
After his race in Reno, Thomas’ son Charlie was spinning around Rancho San Rafael Park as his dad cooled down. Thomas said Charlie was bummed there was not a Junior 9-10 race this year, but the younger Thomas did get to race with his dad at the events out east earlier in the year.
Thomas went on to race in the singlespeed race on Saturday, where he finished seventh against another stacked field. With his two races at Reno Nationals in the books, his 2017/18 cyclocross journey that started back during the summer was complete.
The sabbatical provided by his employer allowed him to gain invaluable racing experience, earn a front-row call-up at Nationals and spend time with his family doing a sport his whole family loves.
When the dust settled, Thomas shared what he learned during his unique and special road to Cyclocross Nationals in his hometown.
“It kind of reasserted the idea that if you lay things out in a structured manner and try to stick with it the best you can, knowing there’s going to be some curveballs along the way, you can go with the flow and enjoy the experience.”
More more Throwback Thursday memories, see our gallery from the 2018 Reno Singlespeed Nationals.