American Mark Hekman, winner of the 2009 USA Crits series, has embarked on his last year as a professional cyclist with the Mountain Khakis team. The tall, lanky redhead has been a fixture in the United States of America criterium scene since his break-out win in the Athens Twilight criterium in 2007, but he will trade all of that in for a full-time career in music in 2011.
At the end of the season, he will begin work on his Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. A classically trained bassoonist, Hekman put down his instrument for the bike five years ago, but is now ready to go back to his first passion.
"It is definitely my last year racing full time - I'll always be a bike racer, I'm sure I'll race next year in some capacity," he said. "But full time traveling, racing and training all winter is going to be over because I'm actually already enrolled in school - there's no getting out of it now."
Hekman's aim for the racing season is to go out strong rather than fade away, and he's been putting in some impressive work over the winter to get ready to make his last year his best.
"I worked all fall to get ready for the audition, and then I got in [to the DMA program]. It was fun getting back into it, and I'm super excited about school, actually. But at the same time, I finally got a power metre and started training with that and it changed everything," he said. "I've never been so in shape in my life.
"I've never been this fit - I lost 13 pounds from my race weight of last year, so I might go fast this year...I paid attention to the little things - diet, not drinking and doing all the intervals. I've been training with heart rate, and I was doing them all wrong. I'd go out too hard and then blow up. I was missing the benefit of the latter part of the interval."
The Mountain Khakis team has also given him new inspiration by delivering him to the overall title in the USA Crits series at the finale in Las Vegas last fall.
"The USA Crits series win was awesome - it was a goal of ours from the start of the season, and to accomplish something that the entire team worked towards for the whole season was a super good feeling,” he said. “It all came down to that last race, and to pull it off was a great sensation. It left me with a lot of motivation to train hard this winter. It was a good way to end the year.
"The series will be a goal for the team again, but we want to try and do a little better in the NRC, so we'll do some more stage races. Whether or not it’s my personal goal, I'm not sure. We also want to get NRC points so we're going to be going out with some of our skinny little climbers and do some more stage races."
The team is currently in California for the Redlands Bicycle Classic, having finished well in the final stage of San Dimas where Hekman placed seventh in the criterium. Last year he took sixth in the Redlands criterium, and is looking to improve on that and go for a stage win.
"We really want to be able to participate in the race - just to attack and really race our bikes, not just be hanging onto the race.
"The team's awesome - it's well put together, and we have a really good mix of guys. Everyone is on the same page,” he said. “We have some young guys who are really going to have some break-out performances this year, and it will be fun racing with Adam [Myerson] again.
The team's new director, Scott Moninger, will be bringing in more experience to help hone the squad into a winning team, something that gives Hekman plenty of motivation. "It's going to be exciting because he's won every single bike race more than once, so it's going to be good - he can give us lots of tips on how to race.
"It's bittersweet though, because all of this is finally happening in my last year - I'm finally learning things."
Hekman would like to take another big win, maybe in the Tour of Battenkill or US Pro Criterium nationals, but once the season is done his life won't be all about the bike anymore. "It's going to be all about the bassoon, which is also a very cool life," he said.