As a neo-pro with Garmin-Sharp for the past two seasons, Jacob Rathe has been immersed in cycling's top level, including multiple starts in legendary classics like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. His ascent through USA Cycling's development programs culminated with seamless rise into the WorldTour at 20 years old and the prospect of a long career there.
“I pretty much sprouted up there in the most perfect way,” Rathe recently told Cyclingnews. “It was a perfect progression without any real setbacks and some big results. It seemed like it happened pretty easy.”
But some admittedly poor decisions during contract negotiations in an especially tough market not only left Rathe without a 2014 WorldTour contract at the end of the season, he still had no team at all as November approached. He faced the very real possibility of falling out of the UCI ranks altogether until a call to friend and supporter Danny Van Haute, the longtime Jelly Belly manager and director, eventually landed him a ride with the Continental team next year during its 15th season in the US peloton.
Now at just 22, Rathe is heading back to the team where he started his pro career at the age of 19 for a steady diet of domestic races he barely knows.
“Cycling's a business, and poor business choices can have repercussions,” he said. “It's a setback, and I don't think it should have happened, but it's just an extra challenge now. The way I deal with it is to view it as a character test. It could be the best thing that ever happened, or it could be the worst.”
Rathe signed his neo-pro contract with Garmin for the 2012 and 2013 seasons after riding with Slipstream's Chipotle Development Team in 2011 and with Jelly Belly in 2010.
The Pacific Northwest native forged a reputation as a strong rouleur with a good finishing kick while coming up through USA Cycling's development program. He finished third in the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2011 when he was 20, and he also won stages at the Rutas de America (UCI 2.2) and the Volta a Portugal (UCI 2.1) that year.
Rathe spent his time at Garmin occupied with typical domestique duties, but he ended his 2013 season with a fifth-place stage finish behind winner Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Britain, taking home the jersey for most aggressive rider on stage 5.
“Part of the disappointing thing is that I wasn't that far from getting results in races that suited me,” he said. “In Flanders and Roubaix, the breakaways I was in should have stayed away longer, but there are always 'what ifs' and 'what should have happeneds.' I had a few good sprints when I got to do my thing. I had some top fives. At the Dauphine, I think I could have been top five in some stages of a WorldTour race, but then we got the leader's jersey.”
The WorldTour's “firm” hierarchy of leaders and workers can be difficult to break through, Rathe said, leaving precious few opportunities for a young rider to find his own opportunities.
“You can easily get set in a role,” he said. “WorldTour racing, sometimes I love it and it's awesome, but sometimes it's so structured and predictable. In amateur racing there's less control and things happen that aren't really supposed to.”
Rathe is hoping to parlay that open environment into the kind of success that will put him firmly back on the winning track and eventually back into cycling's top division.
“To be back in races where I can win and have the opportunities to win, I think it can put the spark back,” he said. “This whole thing isn't good, but there are good things you can glean from it, and one of them is just opportunity.”
Van Haute said he believes Rathe will take full advantage of the opportunities Jelly Belly can provide next season in the rider's quest for another WorldTour contract.
“He's got tons of motivation to show everybody that they made a wrong choice not signing him,” the Jelly Belly director said. “There's not a lot of credit due to those guys who are domestiques – super domestiques – and that's what he was. Now we're going to give him a chance to win some races here and hopefully get him back to Europe. That's his goal and that's my goal, too.”
Jelly Belly is a well-established team with a good program, Rathe said, and it should provide him with opportunities to notch results in National Race Calendar events as well as the big North American UCI races, the US professional championships and some longer stage races in Asia.
Now Rathe will have to reacquaint himself with training though the wet winter in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, rather than the sunny climate of his former European base in Girona, Spain. And he'll need to forgo the team buses and nice accommodations of the WorldTour in favor of van rides and host housing on the domestic circuit.
But he seems to be taking the necessary changes in stride. He bought a season pass to a local ski hill, his first chance to do that in years, he said, and he still he reminisces about life before the perks of WorldTour racing.
“It wasn't very long ago that I was here,” he said of Continental racing. “And I do miss part of the amateur lifestyle; going to South America and Asia, there were always more stories to tell. Two years ago in Uruguay, I rode in the back of a pick-up truck with shirtless workers on the way to lunch. I haven't done anything like that recently. So I don't really need someone to dress me every morning.”
But fond memories of the lean amateur days aside, Rathe is determined to learn from this career setback and return to cycling's top division as soon as possible.
“Bike riding isn't the only part of success in this sport,” he said. “The off-the-bike stuff is equally important. I think other riders have learned similar lessons this year. If I don't learn from it, then I think it would be bad. But I think I am.
“It's really my first experience in the real world with having something like this happen,” he continued. “I'm young enough – and I've worked for this for so long – that to not give 100 percent, I would be mad at myself forever.”