An interview with Rahsaan Bahati, July 17, 2008
Rahsaan Bahati is one of top criterium racers in the U.S., and he's had a strong season since joining the Rock Racing team last year. Yet his wins have come despite a multitude of injuries which have left him able to pedal fully with only one leg. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski talked with Bahati on the team's 'bling-bling' bus during Philly week.
Back in 2000 Rahsaan Bahati turned quite a few heads by winning the U.S. elite criterium national championship... as a junior. That win launched his career through several top teams – Mercury, Saturn and TIAA-CREF (now Slipstream.) But none of the teams seemed to match his personality, until 2007 when he found himself on the upstart Rock Racing team. The kid from Compton was 'home,' and his win at the CSC Invitational put the new team on the map.
This year, just when he should be making a career jump equal to the size of his team, Bahati has been quieted by a long-standing set of injuries. Nonetheless he crossed off a major career goal by winning the infamous Athens Twilight criterium and recently defended his win at Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, but did so mostly using one leg.
A little has been already written about Rahsaan Bahati and his chronic leg injury – but to be more specific it is actually a combination of four separate ailments, each of which would cause a cyclist significant pain.
"For the most part I've been racing pretty much with one leg the last three years and I just figured it out a month ago." -Bahati explains all the physical problems which left him without power in one leg.
"The first thing, what is giving me the most problems, is that my L5 vertebrae is crushed," he said. "It hasn't actually slipped out, it is just crushed. I had a MRI done on it because I get these huge lumps in my back when I race – they are really big. I can stretch it out but then it always comes back. When I finally got the MRI they did it in two halves – when they got to my back they saw my L5 is crushed. But they also found this tendon called the triremeal is completely torn!"
"They said we can do surgery on that and totally fix it, but you'll be out for like 8 weeks to heal."
"The third thing is that my right femur's head is overgrown for some reason and it doesn't fit in my hip socket," he said. "At the top of my pedal stroke the hip socket is touching the head of the femur. They want to go in and chisel it down."
Finally, rounding out the list is effectively a result of the previous three. "For the most part I've been racing pretty much with one leg the last three years and I just figured it out a month ago. My right leg, I'm not even really using it for the most part. They think that because I've been dealing with it for so long that it transferred over to the left [leg] because I am overcompensating with it – even when I walk."
Of course a normal person would take the doctor's advice and correct the problem with surgery. But an athlete's body is finely tuned and can be significantly affected by invasive surgery – especially to an area such as the back. "The doctors feel that it won't get any worse, but I do need to take care of it. I have to say I am nervous about getting surgery and that is the first thing they want to do. I'm going to do Harlem, Austin, Manhattan Beach and then hopefully make it to crit nationals. Then see if maybe I can do some rehab, because if you start cutting anything can happen. But my goal is to make it to Downers Grove [US national criterium championship] – that is the race I've always wanted to win, because I've never won it as a pro."
Indeed, he only won the elite amateur category as an 18 year-old junior... pish-posh.
Injury or no injury, one cannot say he is not delivering quality wins for his team. Though he had an understandably quiet early season due to the lack of crit racing, he started the first major race of the season off right, with a win in the famous Athens Twilight criterium – a race that had eluded him until then.
"I've raced it a lot and I think I've come as high as ninth, and that was without sprinting. I was just trying to hold on then!"
"In the last lap I was in some pain but I was riding in the moment too. To have all those people out there yelling, going crazy. Peter [Dawson] had been doing a great job setting me up by taking all the pressure off of me by sitting in the break for 85 percent of the race. At the end when I found myself in the position to win I kept telling myself, 'Suck it up, suck it up!' "
"It was like one of those days like CSC – you have those days twice a year if you are lucky... at least I do. I knew I had to take advantage of it."
But the effort took a toll on him and his injuries, enough that he did not even go out and celebrate the win on the even more infamously raucous streets of Athens, Georgia. And celebrating a win is something that Bahati enjoys almost as much as cycling. "It hurt a lot. I didn't even go out that night! I took a shower, laid in bed, and that was it! I was walking around like and old man – people were so surprised. I blew my chances!
Bahati was unable to defend his win at the CSC Invitational, mostly due to a breakaway lapping the field. But at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, he successfully defended his title. This time hurt a little more because his physiotherapist was not on hand. "It actually hurt a lot because the chiropractor we had for Philly week wasn't there, and I was depending on him to put the kinesio tape on my back."
The kinesio tape is the blue tape that has found its way on to many athletes in recent years, especially cyclists. "That stuff really works!" he added. But not having it made his back even more uncomfortable than usual.
"My legs felt good, I just had the uncomfortable aching in my back, but I put that aside because I felt so good."
Being on an unconventional team like Rock Racing does have its challenges. Team owner Michael Ball is well-known for having a 'win or you are fired' approach to motivating his riders. But for Bahati, Ball and the team have been completely supportive of him, no matter what he chooses to do regarding his injury.
"They've been supportive. Michael Ball said he'll support me if I want to take the season off and get it fixed or if I want to race – he knows I want to compete. It was good to hear that he supports me. It's been a tough year all around, having so many good guys on the team and not getting a chance to race as much. When he heard that I wanted to race, and was sincere about it, he was supportive."
His wins so far this year has convinced the management to give him the green light to continue racing a rather full schedule, building up to Downers Grove. "I got the OK to do some of Superweek and then the Chicago crit. Then I'll do Charlotte and Downers Grove. The winning is how I convinced them, to send guys with me to lock it in, so that I can win Downers."
Being sidelined from the team also had the potential to make relations with his fellow teammates difficult. But he said that this has not been the case. "I feel it has been good, but kinda from the outside looking in," he said. "I haven't been around as many races with the whole team. I think the team is great – we have experienced guys racing, and we have some new staff too. But team morale is good, especially after Redlands, but even before that."
"At San Dimas, Sevilla had a mechanical. Most guys would have freaked out and yelled at the mechanic, but he was so laid back. That helped everyone be professional and say, 'That is the way to take care of a situation.' He is a very good leader even though he doesn't speak very much English."
In fact, until Philly week, Bahati had not raced with the full team all year except for the team's training camp. "Training camp, that was pretty memorable! It was like a two week race because I was dealing with the injury and the death of a friend – it was a rough time for me, definitely. But to ride that fast with those guys – I love to ride fast and it was great to go out and ride 60kph for 30 minutes. It's therapeutic."
A product of surroundings
Growing up in a not-so-nice part of Los Angeles has had its effects on Bahati, but even the bad experiences can be turned into positive ones. For one, when looking to life after cycling, Bahati said he wants to become a homicide detective – in part because the death of a friend he referenced was a homicide.
"I have other goals I want to achieve in my life. I've been telling my wife I want to race another three to five years. I can stop today and be totally happy – I'm happy with what I have done so far in my career. I can totally stop and be happy but I want to continue to grow with Rock Racing. But I've been joking around a little with Halden about becoming some kind of management in the next few years. I don't want to leave the sport all the way because I love it. Maybe after I'll do something I actually learned in school!"
Speaking of school, Bahati did finish his university degree from Indiana University (famous in cycling circles for the Little 500), even though he postponed some of it to pursue racing professionally. "I finished online – computer animation through the telecom school!"
But his degree might not relate to what he says is his ultimate goal. "I'm going to become a homicide detective! That's my next thing. Detective B! After cycling, in L.A. – I'll always stay busy there! I've always been intrigued with law enforcement. My favorite show is 'The First 48 Hours' on A&E. That is pretty realistic. When I lost my friend Aaron this year it prompted me to do more. And I've been surrounded by Sheriff officers for the last three years. I'm coaching a guy who is a detective, my next door neighbor is a detective, and I've been talking to them about it. He even said he will sponsor me when I go to the academy."
Bahati also has his hands in the product end of the industry. "I've been dealing with a friend of mine and we started this company called Attack Cycles. We just want to make the 'bling bling' wheels and accessories. Just for the people who like to spend money but don't really go that fast. But the wheels are good – I raced them at San Dimas. It keeps me busy and some other income."
Bling bling indeed, and as the company tag line goes, "Ride like you stole them!"