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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.

Photo of Damon Kluck

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 that’s 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.

“I’m 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--everybody’s 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. It’s 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 isn’t something riders command, though. “It’s 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, there’s 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 sport’s star riders earn the kind of salary typically associated with professional sports in the United States, said Kluck.

Described on the team’s 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 bike’s frame as he rode. Following a 100-kilometer race in May, Kluck thought his career was over. “I knew I couldn’t 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, couldn’t 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. “I’d lost all my base fitness, and I was really slow, but I finished the year, and I was able to show (the team) I’d fixed the problem,” he said.

That grit was enough to get his USPS contract renewed. “I got a second chance,” said Kluck. “This year I’ve got to step up. Most people don’t 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 can’t gain weight, no matter what I eat,” said Kluck, who at 6’3” is a lanky 165 pounds.

In early February, he will move for the cycling season to the team’s 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 isn’t glamorous.

“You’re living in Europe, away from friends and family in a place where you may or may not speak the language. You’re trying to train, you’ve never raced this hard, and you’re so run down that you’re getting sick every weekend,” said Kluck. “I can’t believe it didn’t crack me. You have to really want it.”

Kluck doesn’t hesitate when asked what he likes most about racing: “When it’s over.” Elaborating, he explains that “it’s hard to associate pleasure with racing. It doesn’t feel good. It hurts.”

College, too, was a struggle for Kluck, who said he “doesn’t take tests well and doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 bring.

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