Story and photo above by Vicky Sama
Chris Niesen joined his JAM Cycling teammate Al Donahue and former teammate Anthony Clark on the podium at Saturday's Black Fly Challenge... Niesen's first-ever podium finish at a major race event. Niesen stuck with the leaders through the 40-mile gravel grinder in the Adirondacks, finishing third, less than two minutes behind winner Clark, who now races for Squid.
"A group of maybe seven of us got away pretty early," Niesen said. "Anthony attacked like a crazy person and eventually got away. Al chased. I was in a group of four and attacked going into a wooded double track into the finish for third."
Niesen joined JAM last summer as a category 4 racer, what he calls "a big ol' noob." He has since moved up to cat 2 in cross and 3 on the road. He's making strides toward a successful cross season.
How'd you get involved with JAM?
Chris: I was kind of a bike commuter bum and a friend brought me to a cyclocross race in Cincinnati, and that night I fell in love with racing. I didn't even know at the time I was watching legends like Powers, Johnson and Trebon. I just knew it was f'n amazing. So I tried to figure out how I could pursue my dream. I stumbled across JAM online, and for two years, on and off, I sent emails to them with no real response. But I just stuck with it (or until I annoyed them enough), so they could see I wasn't going away.
Did you meet Jeremy Powers then?
Chris: I met him as a fan... just standard, "Hey man, that was an awesome race," and for sure got a picture. That was me pre-actually-knowing-who-he-was.
Who contacted you about receiving a JAM grant?
Chris: I talked to Al Donahue on Skype and there were no promises. He simply said you can come up here if you want; this is for sure the place to be if you want to be good.
So you moved from Ohio to Massachusetts without a sure deal? That was risky. What did your friends and family say about that?
Chris: They were very supportive, but I think they knew I would do it regardless. Cycling is my thing, my passion. There is no second guessing what I'm here to do and what I want. I would have figured it out if JAM was like, eh no. But JAM is the best thing to happen in my life and pursuing this dream, that's for sure.
When did you start racing?
Chris: I was a commuter, just huge into cycling scene in Milwaukee... but spandex free. I'd been commuting by bike year 'round for about five years-- simply riding bikes. I never really owned a car. I knew I wanted cycling in my life forever, just wasn't sure how yet. Then I moved to Ohio and went to watch a race, and a week later I was racing. So I was racing for about a year and a half before I joined JAM.
What was your first day like "on the job" with JAM?
Chris: Ha ha. Nerve wracking. Exciting. All of those people I look up to-- I was riding with them. It became clear very fast how little I knew. It was intimidating. It was a battle for me because I'm so shy, so I don't think they took me super seriously at first. But Anthony is one of my heroes. But getting to race in a JAM kit? Holy crap! That's the proudest I've ever been. But those moments keep happening.
Did they take you for a ride?
Chris: Yea. So the first day in town Al meets me for a ride, and he says just try and keep up. So Ohio has maybe four-minute climbs. Our first ride consisted of 6, 8, 10-minutes climbs? It was a big slap in the face. I got dropped so hard. I think Al could do the hill twice before I got to the top. So it was two days of me and Al riding hills, then I rode three days in a row with Al and Powers doing 70 to 80 mile rides doing stuff I didn't know existed like crazy huge climbs and the gnarliest gravel roads.
Chris: It was absolutely brutal, but it was just motivating. So to podium a race a year later with Al and Anthony? Huge.
Yes, that is huge. Congratulations. So what have you learned being part of this group?
Chris: Oh man, where do I start? I've learned a lot. But for me, it's just never quitting. Sweating the details. Paying attention to everything. How to race bikes and be a good person. I could go on.
Was that your first podium finish?
Chris: Yea, it was. I podiumed some small cat 4 races, but that's not really anything. This is the only podium in my mind that I was like, holy sh--, I worked for this!
What's the best part about JAM?
Chris: Best part? Just really, really good people. They are supportive in every aspect. They create the best possible environment for someone to learn and pursue their goals and dreams. I wish I had the grammar to write how awesome JAM is, ha ha.
Speaking of goals, what are your goals for cross season?
Chris: I usually set my goals pretty high. But I'd like to podium some local elite races, and if I'm lucky, get some good results in a few UCI races. Getting UCI points is my biggest goal for the next year or two.