January 12, 2004
UCSC alumnus overcomes injury to retain spot
on premier USPS cycling team
By Jennifer McNulty
As a member of the United States Postal Service professional cycling
team, UCSC alumnus Damon Kluck is among the top athletes in the country.
But his sport remains largely unknown in the United States.
|UCSC alumnus Damon Kluck, shown
here racing in the San Francisco Gran Prix in 2003, is a member
of the elite United States Postal Service's pro cycling team.
Under the leadership of Lance Armstrong, the USPS team has captured
five consecutive Tour de France victories and become the most accomplished
and highest-profile cycling team in the world.
With the exception of the annual Tour de France race, though, cycling
rarely gets a headline in U.S. newspapers. And thats fine with
Kluck, who is preparing for his second year on the team after finally
triumphing over a hip problem that has bothered him since high school.
Im excited to see what I can do without the injury,
said Kluck, who began racing road bikes at the age of 13 in his hometown
of Eureka in northern California.
After a brief stint racing mountain bikes, Kluck, 26, became a top
semipro road racer while attending UCSC in the late 1990s.
It was really hectic during my last two quarters, recalled
Kluck, who earned a degree in business management economics in 2000.
I was racing in Los Angeles and had to come back to campus to
take a final exam. I was so stressed out about school that my racing
got a whole lot better after I graduated.
The experience of juggling school and racing taught Kluck an important
lesson about mental preparation. When I was younger, I thought
I was only limited by my cardiovascular system and my muscles,
he said. But stress takes a huge toll on your body. When I finished
school and began sleeping normally, everything got into a rhythm.
In Europe, where cycling is a top sport, riders who are performing
at their peak have what is called morale.
Cycling is just like anything--everybodys really insecure
about their performance, said Kluck. But when you do well,
then maybe you can jump to the next level. Fifty percent of it is just
believing that you belong there, at the front of the pack. Its
the feeling that I own this race. When you have that, you
make decisions that help your performance. You have morale.
Experiencing the perfect blend of mental and physical preparation isnt
something riders command, though. Its a fleeting thing,
said Kluck, shaking his head and smiling, as if marveling at the simplicity
of his statement. You try to prepare yourself, but when it comes,
theres no warning.
Kluck went professional in 2001, finishing in the top five overall
in two French stage, or multiple-day, races. He joined the
Saturn cycling team in 2002 and was promptly recruited by USPS team
scouts for the 2003 season. First-year riders typically earn a salary
that barely covers living expenses, but all their equipment--including
about five bicycles--is supplied by the team. Only the sports
star riders earn the kind of salary typically associated with professional
sports in the United States, said Kluck.
Described on the teams web site as a young rider with great
potential, Kluck had his contract renewed for 2004 despite riding
much of the 2003 season with a painful hip ailment that caused serious
muscular imbalances. By late spring, Kluck was compensating for the
problem so severely that his right leg was doing all the work, and his
left knee was hitting the bikes frame as he rode. Following a
100-kilometer race in May, Kluck thought his career was over. I
knew I couldnt race anymore until I figured it out, he recalled.
I truly felt I was going to be messed up for the rest of my life.
Numerous specialists, including a top Belgian physical therapist, couldnt
diagnose the problem. But Kluck, who traced the pain to an injury suffered
during high school, began his own rehabilitation program. Gradually,
he got better. I figured it out and fixed it, said Kluck,
describing the accomplishment as more satisfying than any of his races.
Two months later, he returned to racing. Id lost all my
base fitness, and I was really slow, but I finished the year, and I
was able to show (the team) Id fixed the problem, he said.
That grit was enough to get his USPS contract renewed. I got
a second chance, said Kluck. This year Ive got to
step up. Most people dont get a second chance.
To prepare for the 2004 season, Kluck has trained under the supervision
of his coach, fellow UCSC alum Dario Fredrick (1997). Kluck, who lives
in Santa Cruz, rides two to four hours a day and complements his rides
with pool running and gym workouts. He takes a day off every two or
three weeks. At this point, I cant gain weight, no matter
what I eat, said Kluck, who at 63 is a lanky 165 pounds.
In early February, he will move for the cycling season to the teams
official European residence in Girona, Spain. Kluck, like his teammates,
will spend more than 200 days on the road, flying from race to race
throughout the season.
Even in Europe, with its devoted cycling fans, the lifestyle isnt
Youre living in Europe, away from friends and family in
a place where you may or may not speak the language. Youre trying
to train, youve never raced this hard, and youre so run
down that youre getting sick every weekend, said Kluck.
I cant believe it didnt crack me. You have to really
Kluck doesnt hesitate when asked what he likes most about racing:
When its over. Elaborating, he explains that its
hard to associate pleasure with racing. It doesnt feel good. It
College, too, was a struggle for Kluck, who said he doesnt
take tests well and doesnt study well. To succeed, he tapped
the same reserves of inner drive and determination that help him excel
on the racing circuit. I wanted to be there, I wanted a degree,
and I felt like I was trying as hard as anybody, but the format didnt
work for me, he said.
Kind of like racing with a bum hip? Yeah, maybe, concedes Kluck, the
boyish grin returning to his face as he ponders what the future may
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