Wheels of Destiny
Senior aims for Tour de France
When you win the tennis U.S. Open you receive $1.9 million. When you win the golf U.S. Open, you win $1.44 million. When you win the Tour de France you receive nothing. This doesn’t stop or slow down Matt Narel’s dream to win the Tour de France.
Narel, a senior at Quinnipiac did not always have dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. He came to Quinnipiac to run track and field for the school team but in 2009, when he was a freshman, the program got cut because of Title IX.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Narel said.
Once track got cut, he started riding his bike to stay in shape. As he continued to ride, his trips got longer and longer as his speed continued to increase. It was at this point that he found his love for cycling and his incredibly high talent level.
His road to professional cycling started with a “PTO” (Professional Tryout) with Bethel Cycle which was a three-month process of the team hammering him with tests and challenging rides leaving him exhausted at the end of the day. But Narel stayed motivated knowing this is what he loved and wanted to do.
After the three-month trial period, Bethel Cycle, signed him to a contract.
For Bethel Cycle, race season is from March to mid-October. During this time, Narel constantly gets pulled out of class.
“I don’t want to miss class,” Narel said. “Some kids will be like, ‘Oh good I get to miss a week here and there,’ but once you fall behind it really sucks to have to catch back up. When I go places and have races I want to enjoy where I am. I don’t want to think about having two papers to do.”
On top of missing classes, Narel commutes to Quinnipiac from Sandy Hook, so he has time to train, which makes his time on campus even less than the average student.
“Being a commuter in general, it’s tougher because I’m not on campus all the time,” Narel said. “No I can’t go out and drink and party. I had one bad accident after drinking. Someone threw me a surprise birthday party (the night before) and I came close to messing everything up in my sports career. I honestly have no desire anymore.”
Most seniors worry about what’s after graduation and how they are going to find a job. What’s next for the business management student is a trip to France upon receiving his diploma.
“After graduation I am leaving for Europe,” Narel said. “I am going to the Tour de France to do the practice stages. I’m going out to France for probably 10 or 11 days. We get to hang with the riders and stuff like that just to get a feel for what it’s going to be like.”
Following his Tour de France practice, he is headed to Austria, Germany and Switzerland to do a few more races in Europe.
“I’ll get a feel for what some of the big pro teams are going to be like,” Narel said. “It’ll be cool duking out with those guys.”
The 21-year-old cyclist is still too young to enter the sports most famed race. The youngest riders usually range from 22 to 23 years of age.
Riding all over the country as well as in Europe isn’t cheap. Along with that, the equipment can quickly run an amateur cyclist thousands of dollars. That is where being a professional and sponsored cyclist comes in handy.
“The bike I ride now if it came out commercialized would be about $10,000,” Narel said. “So think about a car. Some are even more (expensive). If you want a decent road bike you have to spend at least three grand. It’s definitely an expensive sport.”
Narel’s uniform, bike, helmet and shoes are covered with sponsors ranging from Nike to Heineken to Cliff Bar.
“It’s a big privilege to get a sponsorship so you have someone constantly giving you equipment,” Narel said. “The wheels. Each wheel is 800 bucks. Do you know how many wheel sets I’ve broken? You crash, rip a wheel off or something like that.”
One of the reasons the bikes are so expensive is that they are customly designed for each individual rider.
“The bike that I ride is the only bike on earth exactly like it,” Narel said. “It was specifically made to fit me with my geometry like my leg length and stuff like that and specifically made for going uphill. Everybody’s bike is modified to whatever they are best at. My training partner is a sprinter so his handlebars are as low as possible because it gives him the aerodynamic advantage to be lower and be less wind resistant. My handlebars are up higher so I am more upright and (it’s) easier to go up hill. Little things like that, no one picks up on.”
Narel’s partner is Jason Yoakum, a 39-year-old surgeon. Yoakum found his way into cycling in a different way than Narel.
“I weighed about 300 pounds and I needed a way to lose weight,” Yoakum said.
In two years of racing, Yoakum has gotten himself down to 200 pounds and exceeds in areas where Narel struggles.
“I love the hills, that’s where I live,” Narel said. “I hate going downhill. My training partner is paired up with me because he is good at all the things I’m bad at. He kicks my butt in the flat stages and is the only person I trust riding behind me going downhill. When you are going 60 something miles an hour around a bend down hill, it’s scary as hell. It’s scary as hell. Stick your head out the window going 60 miles an hour in a car that window is hitting you pretty fast. And all you have around you is a skin suit and like a 15 pound bike. It’s not pretty.”
When race season ends, Narel focuses on giving back to the community and to the sport that has done so much for him.
Every September, he hosts a fundraiser to raise money for Golden Opps, a charity that helps elderly people and people with depression (you can find out more about the charity at GoldenOpps.org).
“Every year I run a charity event…I have maybe 10 guys max (race) with a designated course, photographers and drivers,” Narel said. “They all come duel it out and see if they can take me down or not. It’s a lot of fun.”
Although Narel doesn’t want to be perceived as cocky, he enjoys talking about cycling with anyone interested.
“Everybody thinks you get on your bike and just ride,” Narel said. “But there is actually a lot of science behind it; drafting, aerodynamics. There is actually a lot of strategy behind it. I love sitting down and talking about it with anybody whether you know anything about the sport or are a seasoned expert.”