Jon Hornbeck’s Journey to Road Cycling
It’s 1:15 pm on a Thursday in early April and Jon Hornbeck is hungry. The 25 year-old pro cyclist is hungry to prove himself to his new race squad, the most prestigious domestic team in the the US: Hincapie Racing Team. He’s hungry to grow his coaching and cycling camps/events business, Fast Tours Cycling. And, more than anything else, he’s hungry for solid food. Even though it’s approaching mid-afternoon, Hornbeck hasn’t chewed a single morsel all day. The kitchen table at the condo in Snowcreek—the Mammoth Lake Crib—is littered with a small spiral notepad, his laptop, as well as the almost finished detritus of what’s he consumed today: a venti decaf from the Starbucks at Von’s and a liter of orange seltzer.
Like almost all pro cyclists, Hornbeck makes even obsessive calorie counters and Weight Watchers participants look casually concerned about weight. Yesterday he rode for 5.5. hours, mixing mellow spins with uphill all-out efforts. These intervals would all but kill a mortal. But for Hornbeck, who specializes in climbing, it was another day at the office and each pedal stroke was a part of his quest to drop 32 ounces.
Currently his weight is hovering at about 131.6 pounds and losing the final two pounds is difficult. But, shedding that weight is one of the many reasons he’s in Mammoth Lakes.
“Your body’s working harder at elevation and you don’t even realize it,” said Hornbeck, who looks like an incredibly lean and mean, Good Will Hunting-era, Matt Damon, if Damon wore matching diamond stud earrings.
“So, if I watch what I eat, it will make it that much easier to be race-ready,” continued to Hornbeck.
Getting race-ready is particularly brutal for Hornbeck because weight matters for climbers more than most. Because all things being equal, if two cyclists are producing the same amount of power, the lighter rider will be faster and the first to the top of the climb. That’s just basic physics.
And training at altitude helps riders create more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to muscles. The more red blood cells, the better.
“I always really liked coming off an altitude stint because you feel like you can go harder for longer. And you have more confidence because not everyone has been riding at altitude and if you have, you’re going to be stronger,” explained Hornbeck.
But even a pro athlete like Hornbeck had a tough time when he first arrived, five days ago. Just like you and me, he was initially winded climbing some steeps.
The cyclist first visited Mammoth Lakes as a kid, when he started snowboarding. But, the town of 8,000 turned into more than just a fun destination a few years later when he started racing motocross: Mammoth became a goal.
Because not only is the Mammoth Motocross the longest running race in the country, it’s also ultra-competitive: racers have to qualify for it. As a youngster, he decided he wanted to make a go at becoming a professional motocross racer. His dad got behind this plan 100% and the two moved from LA to the moto-Mecca of Temecula. To ensure maximum time to train and race, Hornbeck was also homeschooled.
Just before Hornbeck was ready to make a go at turning pro, the economy took a nosedive. Even with sponsors, Hornbeck’s dad was throwing down more than $100k to support his son’s racing. And after the economy crashed, the Hornbeck family couldn’t afford it, so the dream he’d spent years chasing was pulled into the pits.
But, Hornbeck had been introduced to road cycling by a coach. It wasn’t love at first sight. Jon would ride an old Giant that belonged to his coach’s wife and he has some aptitude for it. His coach suggested that Hornbeck try road racing, but Hornbeck balked, the dead dream of racing moto still weighing heavy on him.
Eventually, Hornbeck gave in and one thing quickly led to another. After winning his second race as a beginner (what road riders call a Cat. 5), he decided he wanted to try to go semi-pro (Cat. 2) by the end of the season.
Traveling regularly to Arizona, NorCal and points east for races that more suited his climber’s body, he’d travel every weekend and sleep in his Honda Civic, returning home by Monday morning, so he could make it to work: doing maintenance at a day spa.
Five years later he went pro.
One of his biggest surprises, coming from the speed and handling skills of motocross? “Some of these guys could not ride their bikes, it was mind-blowing,” said Hornbeck, talking about the sub-standard handling abilities of his fellow racers.
Last year, he returned to Mammoth Lakes for the first time since his moto days to ride the Gran Fondo.
“It’s one of the best fondos, I’ve ever done,” said Hornbeck, who has done plenty.
He loves the scenery, the course, and, the camaraderie of the Mammoth Gran Fondo.
“There are some Fondos where you’re by yourself 10 minutes in and thinking to yourself, ‘Why am I paying someone to do this?’” explained Hornbeck.
Hornbeck is clocking long days in Mammoth Lakes, even though the season is just starting. Riding 20-25 hours per week, even focusing on the climbing, he’s pedaling between 300 and 400 miles per week, and climbing as much as 30,000 feet.
“I have a few races coming up to prove myself. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. I have to be firing on all cylinders, that’s why I’m up here: to be sure when my time goes, I’ll be good to go,” said Hornbeck.
He’s already nabbed a few local Strava King of the Mountain awards, but don’t ask him about his favorite climb. He loves all the training options in the Eastern Sierra, but he remembers roads the way rock stars recall groupies: he can describe them, but rarely can he remember their names.
But, he believes all cyclists can benefit from training at altitude. “The more time, the merrier: the training up here is so good. Coming up here and riding will put you heads and tails above those who don’t,” he says, wrapping up the interview.
Fifty-three minutes after I arrived and Hornbeck is padding into the master bedroom, suiting up in his Hincapie kit, Spy sunnies, as well as Giro helmet and shoes, before heading out on his 16 pound, Felt road bike for a short spin. Just 90 minutes or so to stretch out his legs, while dreaming about eating for the first time all day: dinner.
Author: Stephen Krcmar Stephen Krcmar is a journalist, marketing guy, and former Copywriter, Social Media Director, and Associate Creative Director at Mammoth Mountain. During his tenure at Mammoth, he rode his bicycle outfitted with studded tires to Main Lodge on most winter days. And he never skipped a meal. Cycling photo credit: Brian Hodes/Velo Images