Ashton Lambie comes across as a relaxed and sort of hipster-ish kind of guy, with a handlebar moustache and a country-folk vibe about him. The Nebraska-born track cyclist, who recently broke the world record in the Individual Pursuit, also has an exacting edge; a need to be meticulous, on-target and perfect. His attention to detail comes from his background in music: a pianist whose precision while playing the keys with his fingertips has somehow translated into pedalling on the track with his legs.
Lambie comes from a close-knit family. He has a history of gravel biking and lives with his wife Margaret on the outskirts of Lincoln, in Nebraska – also known as The Beef State – and a place he admits is a little more farm and a little less city. His dad is a landscaper, and his mom is a loan officer for a local real estate firm.
"We're not cattle ranchers or anything like that," Lambie says, mainly in response to the rumours circulating about him being plucked from a cornfield and put on a track bike. The tales started after Lambie broke the world record in the Individual Pursuit (4km) in 4:07.25 at the Pan American Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in August. He shattered the existing record set by Australia's Jack Bobridge in 2011 by more than three seconds. In doing so, he gained international press attention, in part because he was an unknown in the world of cycling.
"Most people come to track racing from the road, racing under-23s in Europe, and we already know their names," says Lambie, who has a history of long-distance gravel racing. "For someone to come out of gravel, which isn’t as popular, and to break a world record that people have had their eye on for a while, people were surprised.”
It's true that Lambie is relatively new to track cycling, having started racing the Individual Pursuit at the US Track National Championships last year. But the press, and his peers, have focussed on his Nebraskan lifestyle and a job he temporarily had at a bike shop in Kansas while his wife Margaret attended Kansas University.
He has even been going by the new nickname 'Cornfed', affectionately given to him by his teammates on the US national team.
"I'm a fairly stalky dude," Lambie laughs. "That’s the thing in Nebraska, though – everyone grows corn or has beef cattle. I don't. We do live in the country and grow all our own food; we’re thrifty, and our house has a wood-burning fire, so that's our primary heating source. So, it is farm-ish, I guess.
"Margaret and I live in a three-bedroom farmhouse with a shed to work on bikes, and a couple of rabbits. My wife is big into knitting and crocheting. Our rabbits are a specific breed for wool production – very fluffy – so we comb them, and she spins their wool into yarn and knits with it. We stay warm."
A deeper look into his background reveals that Lambie and his wife both have degrees in music from Hastings College, where Lambie proudly started a bike-share programme that's still operating.
He is well-versed in the piano, having played since he was in early childhood. He graduated from Hastings in Music Performance and Business Administration. Margaret went on to earn a doctorate in Flute Performance from Kansas University.
While in Kansas, Lambie took a job at the Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in Lawrence. He also dabbled in ultra-distance gravel biking and racing, and held the record for the fastest ride across Kansas from west to east (688km in just under 24 hours) until it was broken in 2016. "That's my other big accomplishment," he says.
When it comes to track racing, however, Lambie attributes some of his success to his background in music. In addition to the piano, he plays percussion instruments and the accordion.
"When I was a kid, my mom told me that I had to take piano lessons until I was 18, and, like every kid, I hated piano lessons," Lambie says. "By the time I was 18, though, I was good enough to enjoy it. I was playing songs that I would hear on NPR [National Public Radio].
"Something about the detailed level of practice and precision you could get with something so simple as a piano, all the different music and different stuff you can do with it, and you can never quite master it – that appealed to me.
"I've never had a grand scheme with music. I didn't think that music would pay the bills, so I thought business management would be a good idea, too."
World-record precision on the track
Lambie got his start on the track after competing in the 2017 national championships in Los Angeles, where he raced the Individual Pursuit in 4:29. USA Cycling picked him up to race the Individual Pursuit and Team Pursuit at a series of international events during the 2017-2018 track season: the World Cups, the Pan American Championships and the World Championships.
"I had to learn how to do the Team Pursuit first, but that's pretty easy if the fitness and the power are already there," Lambie says, noting that he was more nervous about learning the Individual Pursuit than the Team Pursuit.
"The Individual Pursuit is like a solo piano recital, so, if you mess up, there's no one else to blame. It's 100 per cent your own fault. The Team Pursuit means that you get to show up with a small ensemble of guys that you trust. If you get a really good group, that you trust and that you've ridden with for a while, and you know how they react, that’s good.
"You trust your teammates, and they trust you to do your job to get the time that you need. They're the people you can rely on when things go wrong."
Not much has gone wrong for Lambie on the track so far.
At the Pan American Championships in Aguascalientes, the US men's Team Pursuit squad – Lambie, Eric Young, Gavin Hoover and Colby Lange – shattered the previous national record of 4:02.798 three times throughout the competition. In the end, they lowered it by nearly nine seconds to 3:53.86, also marking the first time an American Team Pursuit squad has broken four minutes. And they earned the gold medal.
Lambie also knocked 10 seconds off his Individual Pursuit time from a 4:17 at the World Championships in Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands, in March to the 4:07 world-record performance at the Pan American Championships.
"Aguascalientes is known for being a really fast track at elevation, in warm weather and it's a good shape,” says Lambie, who started working with a new coach, Ben Sharp.
"I thought maybe I could take off four or five seconds, maybe down to 4:12. That's fast. I trained hard this summer, did heat acclimation, spent a lot of time in the gym, and I thought by my fitness alone I could maybe shave off another two seconds because I am a much better rider than I was last year, so maybe down to 4:10.
"That's objective, though. It's hard to say how many seconds better you are. I thought breaking the world record could happen, and I didn't put it out of the realm of possibility."
Lambie says that he started the 4km effort in Aguascalientes fast – maybe even too fast. During the first 2km, he felt over-paced, covering each 250-metre lap at roughly 14.4 seconds.
"I was supposed to ride 15.2-second laps," Lambie says. "I was worried that I had gone out too hard, too soon, but I was consistently banging out 14.4 seconds a lap, and I felt good.
"I knew the fourth kilometre was going to be hard. After 10 laps, I was in a full blackout, and so I had no idea what the time was when I was done. There wasn't a point during the race where I felt like I had it, though. I knew I had some fast laps, but I couldn't do the math during the race."
Lambie says that USA Cycling endurance coach Clay Worthington was standing at the side of the track calling out lap times. There was no digital timer at the finish line, and so he didn't immediately know he had won the gold medal and broken Bobridge's seven-year-old Individual Pursuit world record.
"I rolled around and was blown out," Lambie says. "Clay told me my time was 4:07, and I felt like that was a lot, but it didn't hit me at the time. A few minutes later, I was totally blown away by what I had accomplished."
Lambie says he studies the different international tracks, which helps him improve on training ahead of each significant event. The track in Aguascalientes, for example, is 250 metres with 41-degree banks, and 1,887 metres altitude.
"I've been learning a lot about the events and the tracks," Lambie says. "A lot of people don't know how different each track is: corners, straightaways, angles and transitions are all different, and so I've been figuring out how to get better at riding the different tracks that we race on."
Lambie says he will continue track racing with a goal of winning medals in the Team Pursuit and Individual Pursuit at major events. He also hopes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He will next compete at the Berlin World Cup at the end of November with the British trade team Huub Watt, and then the final two World Cups in New Zealand and Hong Kong before the World Championships in Poland.
"I'm working towards the Olympics," Lambie says. "I would love to get good results – perhaps a podium at the World Championships in the next two years in either the Individual Pursuit or the Team Pursuit."