Amid the dusty hustle and bustle in the team parking lot immediately following the 2012 Amgen Tour of California's closing sprint through downtown Los Angeles, Jacob Rathe, Garmin-Barracuda's barely 21-year-old neo-pro, was alternately speaking with media and signing autographs for fans who had ventured over from the more high-volume podium mayhem.
After Rathe signed and returned a variety of newly minted memories thrust at him by nervous young hands, one grateful father approached and said, "Thanks, Dave."
The generally quiet and polite rider from Portland, Oregon, chuckled subtly and replied, "Oh, I'm not Dave," as if it mattered to the starry eyed kids toting large blue bags stuffed with swag from the race expo at L.A. Live near the Staples Center.
Such is the life for a new pro who spends his days rather anonymously learning the ropes and working for his more accomplished – and obviously better known – teammates. But sometimes even the little guys get some attention from people who actually know who they are.
Garmin's Tom Danielson went out of his way Sunday during the closing press conference to praise the two young teammates he said did a lot of heavy lifting to put himself and Dave Zabriskie on the overall podium.
"The young team had to support three guys, and they did a phenomenal job – rode above themselves," Danielson said. "I think you guys can definitely take note of all the young guys for the future. Guys like Alex Howes and Jacob Rathe, you know, all of them are phenomenal. We owe this opportunity to put two on the podium to those guys."
Howes, the 24-year-old also riding his first year on a UCI ProTeam, made headlines already this year when the team set him loose to infiltrate breakaways at Amstel Gold and Brabantse Pijl, where he put in gutsy rides that screamed of his potential. But Rathe has so far ridden under the radar during his first season on cycling's center stage, stamping out tempo on the front for miles and carrying water in a traditional domestique role.
Team manager Jonathan Vaughters, who graded Rathe's progress and contribution to the team so far as "excellent," said his youngest employee is putting in the hard work on the front and inside the peloton to learn his new trade.
"He's been great at that," Vaughters said before the final stage in California. "I mean I hate to have to do it to him everyday, but he's been a very, very valuable teammate in this race. That's just part of professional cycling, and there will be races where he doesn't have to do that, but this one, once you get the race lead you have to work for it. It's that simple."
Rathe's longtime coach and mentor, Oliver "Butch" Martin, himself a two-time Olympian and member of the U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame, is very optimistic about his protege's future in the sport.
"I think Jacob's the real deal," Martin said. "He's calm, he's a quick learner, he doesn't get too ruffled about things. He's always shown that to me anyway."
Martin, who was the first national road coach for the fledgling United States Cycling Federation and also coached Classics and Grand Tour rider Steve Bauer through the late '80s and early '90s, teamed up with Rathe when the rider was just 16 years old and has been guiding him ever since. As a top junior, Rathe rode with Martin's Hammer Nutrition/CMG Racing program before moving on to Jelly Belly in 2010 when he was 19 and then to Slipstream's Chipotle Development Team in 2011.
"This is really what he wants to do, and he's with a great team," said Martin, who also helped Rathe negotiate his current two-year deal with Garmin. "They've got financial backing for the next three or four years, and they're willing to take their time with him, which is really important. But he has all the qualities, there's no doubt about that. The temperament, it's all there. And he's got that big desire, which is the motor, so to speak."
Rathe got the WorldTour teams' attention with big international wins while riding for Chipotle last year. Chipotle director Chann McRae said Rathe's performance throughout the season made the decision to move him to the next level an easy one.
"He won at the Rutas de Americas, a UCI race that's really tough," McRae said. "It's in the springtime, they were killing it, and he comes out and wins a stage. Then he goes to (U23) Paris-Roubaix with the national team; he's in the breakaway; he's one of the best guys on the pavé; you can tell he's super strong just by the way he goes over the pavé. It's like wow! And then he goes to (Tour of) Portugal, which is traditionally one of the hardest 2.1 races on the calendar, and he backs it up again and takes a stage win. He just secured the deal right there."
He was also part of the 1-2 finish for Chipotle at the 2011 U23 National Championships in Georgia, teaming up with eventual winner Rob Squire in a two-man breakaway from a decimated field. Rathe, who rooms with Howes at an apartment in Girona, Spain, made his 2012 debut at the Tour of Qatar, where he finished the first stage sandwiched between Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert.
Since then he's raced a number of winter/spring events, mostly in Belgium and northern France. Rathe got the call up from the team for Kurne-Brussells-Kurne and Ghent-Wevelgem, and he also earned starts at E3 Harelbeke, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, which he says is his favorite race.
"The atmosphere of that race is different than any other race I've done," Rathe said. "The people, the fans there, were just the most enthusiastic fans I've ever seen. It's a very special race just because of the course, you know those climbs are famous. It's a brutally hard race, and there are very few days of racing in the year that have the same number of spectators and the same energy level. Even compared to Roubaix, it's very different."
Rathe's experience at some of the bigger WorldTour races during his first year in the Pro Team peloton has opened his eyes to a new level and provided a glimpse of what makes the great riders so good.
"The best way to describe it is that they're kind of relaxed," he said. "They're never really panicking. They seem to be able to get through the stressful moments without really being stressed. I guess that's just experience. It's probably true of professionals in general. Sometimes there's definitely stress. In some races there's always stress."
It's a stress that the young rider will need to learn to deal with in a similar fashion if he wants to fulfill his own potential and someday be the rider other teammates make sacrifices for. But for now, he's still learning the "tricks of the trade" and continuing to adjust to his new role in the big leagues.
"The biggest difference is that I'm much more active in races," he said. "I have to ride the front. I'm one of the people making it fast, whereas last year it was, in races like Portugal or Langkawi, we were just along for the ride. There was really no responsibility – so harder races and more activity. A lot of it is just that teamwork is a much bigger part of it at this level."
And at this level the team he rides for sees a future for him in the Classics, as long as he continues to learn, grow and work hard on the bike. Vaughters was guarded about Rathe's future in the sport, but at just over 20 years old, the rider has time to make that leap.
"He's got a number of years before he'll be able to start performing on that level," Vaughters said. "He was really good in Flanders this year, really good in E3 and Wevelgem, so little by little I'm sure he'll learn the tricks of the trade. Obviously, you're not going to win those races at 20 years old."
But McRae, Rathe's former director at Chipotle, seems to think his former rider has all the pieces to make it happen.
"Jacob doesn't talk much, but he gets the job done, and that's why we respect him so much," McRae said. "He performs. He's just humble and he does the job. He works hard over the winter and all season. He trains his butt off and then he comes out and does what needs to be done."