Dylan Casey’s first serious bike wasn’t meant for racing.
It was an old Cannondale, bought from a friend for $100 when he needed to get around UC Santa Barbara back in 1991.
It was quite different from the Trek 5700 he rode on Sunday as a member of the U.S. Postal Service pro cycling team at the 109-mile San Francisco Grand Prix road race. Yes, the U.S. Postal Service team – the team with Lance Armstrong on it.
Casey, a Berkeley native who currently splits his time between Mountain View and Gerona, Spain, rode alongside Armstrong as a team domestique – a specialist rider who chases down breakaways in a race and helps team leaders to conserve as much energy as possible in the early stages of the race. On this day, Casey’s trademark yellow shoes could be seen late into the race, as he protected team leaders Armstrong and George Hincapie, the event’s defending champion.
Casey, who moved to Walnut Creek with his family when he was 12, has ridden with the USPS team during his professional career. He is a two-time national time trial champion (1998 and 2002), and won a third national championship in 1998 in the individual pursuit, a track race in which two riders compete against each other, starting from opposite sides of the track. His two 1998 championships gained the attention of USPS team managers, who were assembling what has become the most formidable men’s cycling squad in the world.
And although he may be better known for his domestic cycling feats – including a stint on the U.S. Olympic team in the track racing event – Casey has also made his presence known abroad. Among his best results in Europe, home to the most competitive races in men’s world-class cycling, was a stage win in the 2000 Tour of Luxembourg.
It’s a long way from Wildcat Canyon to Gerona. But for the down-to-earth Casey, who looks like he could be your kid brother, it’s all in a day’s work for Postal.
“Ah, it’s just a plane ride,” he says, smiling.
Sometimes he takes that literally. One day last month, after a snafu with an airline that delayed him in Europe then lost his luggage, Casey landed in Chicago at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday, raced a criterium at 4 p.m., then flew back to Europe, landing in Brussels on Monday afternoon. On Tuesday he started the five-day Tour of Holland, finishing ninth overall.
You can’t interview a USPS rider without asking The Lance Question. What’s it like to ride with a guy who will probably be talked about as the greatest cyclist ever?
“When you’re around Lance, he seems like an ordinary, everyday guy,” Casey says. “He’s fair, he’s very honest. He knows how to bring out the best in his teammates and friends. And Lance has a certain work ethic and a vigor for life and for cycling. He exudes this aura of confidence and vitality, and that seeps into all of us.”
Teammate Kenny Labbe says that Casey’s status as a world-class time trialist contributes greatly to a team effort in a road race like the SF Grand Prix. “Dylan’s specialty is short-distance time trials,” he says. “He’s one of the best riders in the world at the 20-30 minute distance. That skill, translated to teamwork, is very valuable. We can put Dylan at the front [of the race] to make the other guys work harder.”
On Sunday, Casey was strongest in the final two laps of the large 10-mile circuit that makes up most of the SF Grand Prix course. At the same time that Casey protected, Hincapie attacked. He pulled away from the field just past the 3:30 mark, at one point leading by over 30 seconds. But hampered by an injury he suffered at the Clasica San Sebastian in Spain last month, Hincapie eventually pulled back, finishing 15th. Postal teammates Armstrong and Vjatcheslav Ekimov, an Olympic gold medalist and Tour de France rider, stayed with the lead pack until the final furious sprint on the Embarcadero. 7UP/Nutrafig’s Charles Dionne, an irrepressible 22-year-old native of Quebec, won the race. Ekimov finished fourth and Armstrong sixth. The top seven riders were all timed in 4:18:49.
“It went really well,” Casey said of his race as he walked his bike back to the team truck. “I did my job well, and I rode a lot better than I think people expected me to ride.” Indeed. In a race that’s been dubbed “the toughest bike race in America” because of its inhumanly steep climbs on Fillmore and Taylor Streets, Casey finished 33rd of 132 starters, less than five minutes under the lead pack.
Lance Armstrong made a press room of toughened pros laugh Sunday when asked what strengths Casey brings to the Postal squad.
“Dylan is our high-tech analyst on the team – he gives us a lot of feedback on things like MP3 players and espresso makers,” Armstrong said. “I heard he took the guys out on a local ride the other day and made ‘em suffer.”
A hint of a playful smirk crept across Armstrong’s face as he added his closing salvo.
“Maybe that’s why we didn’t win today.”