The Road Back From Rio
By Gary Weiss Photographs by Jesse Burke
bobby Lea is headed for Rio de -Janeiro. In mid-August, at the Olympic Games, he will represent the U.S. in the sport to which he has devoted most of his life: cycling. At these Games, his third Olympics, he will compete in what’s known as the omnium, a two-day, multi-event race that’s cycling’s answer to the decathlon.
That’s the good news.
The bad news: Although the Olympics might seem like a gateway to a bright future, that won’t necessarily be true for Lea. At 32, he’s nearing the end of his professional cycling career. He’s a top-level competitor, one of the hottest prospects on the 2016 cycling team, but he’s no Lance Armstrong. His spe-cialty—track cycling, not road racing—is obscure and has a limited fan base. Fame and fortune of the kind that have been showered on Olympians like Michael Phelps is simply not going to happen. Lea won’t be on a Wheaties box. He won’t guest-host Saturday Night Live. As, in fact, is the case for most Olympic athletes, there’s no pot of gold at the end of his rainbow.
Actually, for Lea, cycling has been less like a pot of gold than a money pit. The most he’s ever earned in a year is $32,500. He has $10,000 in the bank, zero retirement savings, and $19,400 in credit card debt. His parents have spent tens of thousands of dollars supporting his efforts, on everything from tires to legal bills arising from a doping scandal last year—one that got him suspended from cycling and threatened to end his career. While Lea successfully appealed his punishment (he’d taken an approved drug at an unapproved time) and was named to the Olympic team, sponsors backed off, cutting away at his already meager income.
Facing these financial challenges, Lea, a lean, taciturn 6-footer, has no idea how he’ll support himself once he retires from competition. Other than cycling, the only job he has ever had was a three-month stint at age 17 making subs at a gas station.
What will he do next? What can he do? Says Lea: “That’s the million-dollar question.” And it’s not an unusual one. After elite cyclists leave the sport, “most of them don’t know what to do,” notes Bill Strickland, editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine and a friend of Lea’s. But with the help of experts assembled by MONEY, Lea just might be able to get a headstart on his future.
For racers like Lea, costs add up quickly
Olympic-caliber cyclists like Bobby Lea need expensive, high-performance gear. The total price of this track-cycling outfit is $10,920.
A champion at age 13
Cycling is in Bobby Lea’s DNA. His father, Rob—part of the U.S. rowing team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—and mother, Tracy, are competitive amateur cyclists who met at a race. As Rob and Tracy traveled from their home in eastern Maryland to compete in Europe and every state on the Eastern Seaboard, Lea and his brother, Syd, who is 20 months younger and developmentally disabled, would tag along. Bobby entered his first junior race when he was 9. At 13, he won his first national title in a track event—the first of five junior titles.
While most bicycle races, such as the Tour de France, are held on the open road, Bobby was drawn to the lesser-known discipline of track cycling, which takes place on steeply banked oval tracks, usually 250 meters around, in arenas known as velodromes. There were no velodromes on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where the Leas lived on Rob’s father’s 400-acre farm with other members of their extended family. So on weekends, the Leas would make a six-hour roundtrip drive to Allentown, Pa., enabling Bobby to race at the nearby Valley Preferred Cycling Center.
Riding bicycles that have a single fixed gear and no brakes, track racers reach speeds exceeding 40 miles an hour, often in tight packs just inches away from one another. It can be perilous. Lea has had his share of spills and crashes, both on the track and off, including a serious road accident in 2006 in which he fractured several vertebrae.
The omnium—the event that Lea won at age 13 and that he’ll compete in at Rio—-comprises six different track races, ranging from a one-lap solo sprint to a 30-kilometer (18.6 mile) contest among a crowd of cyclists. The start-and-stop nature of the omnium, says Lea, requires switching back and forth between focus and relaxation. It’s “a big mental battle,” he says.
growing up fast
What’s required along with focus, of course, are bikes. And jerseys. And helmets. And a myriad of other items of gear and apparel that can run into the thousands of dollars. “You easily can drop $1,500 just by having the right clothing,” says Tracy. Early on, the Leas were able to economize. They bought used equipment from other racers who had outgrown their gear—say, a bike for $300 that might have cost $600 new. Lea wore his parents’ hand-me-down clothes, altered by Tracy.
Though Lea’s cycling life was going well, his personal life wasn’t. Lea began to have a series of conflicts with an older relative living on the farm. After these clashes turned violent, Rob and Tracy say they began to fear for Bobby’s safety. The Leas made what they term an agonizing decision: Bobby would leave. They couldn’t evict the other relative, says Tracy, and Rob, a psychologist, couldn’t move his practice. So he and Tracy, now a fund-raising consultant for nonprofits, bought 16-year-old Bobby a home in Topton, Pa., close to the velodrome and in an area where they had friends who could keep an eye on him. Lea dropped out of high school, earned his GED, and enrolled at Penn State’s Lehigh Valley campus in 2000. Lea has lived at that same house in Topton, a converted one-room schoolhouse, since then.
Living on his own, Lea devoted himself to developing the speed and endurance necessary to compete as an elite bicycle racer. And over the years, Lea became something of a local celebrity—an athlete able to compete on a national level. Strickland describes Lea as down-to-earth and approachable, unlike many bicycle racers of his class. “He’ll ride with anyone,” says Strickland. “He has a very quiet, workmanlike approach to what he does. He has a real -middle-class mentality to becoming great.”
In college Lea quickly showed promise. Racing on the track and on the road, he won 30 National Collegiate Cycling Association titles. Though the Penn State cycling team picked up some expenses, such as travel and entry fees, the bills mounted for Lea’s parents. They paid the upkeep of the house in Topton, Bobby’s in-state tuition, and about $2,000 a year in cycling costs not covered by the school.
Bobby got help beyond that. As competitive cyclists, Rob and Tracy had a relationship with Fuji Bikes, which supplied bicycles in return for Tracy’s providing marketing assistance and managing a Fuji women’s cycling team. Such relationships are known as sponsorships in the cycling world, even though usually equipment, not money, is given in exchange for services. Fuji became Bobby Lea’s first sponsor.
While Lea’s cycling was stellar in college, he was adrift academically. “I wasted a lot of time,” he says. After toying with three different majors, he earned a BA in business administration. Upon graduation in 2006 he turned pro.
Life on the road
“I really love it,” says Lea about bicycle racing. “You always have your rough game plan going in, but you almost never get to actually execute it. You’re being constantly presented with new information and having to process that on the fly. And make instantaneous decisions that affect the entire outcome of the race. It’s really a rolling chess match.”
Joining the Toyota United Pro Cycling team, based in Newport Beach, Calif., gave Lea the opportunity to race on the pro circuit—and gave his family a financial cushion. The team and sponsors affiliated with the team covered travel and equipment expenses, as well as the very expensive garments that Lea wore while training and racing. And even though the Toyota team raced solely in road races, it paid for all equipment needed for track cycling in velodromes. That was crucial, because Lea was still devoted to that form of the sport.
Track cycling has become a super-specialized part of competitive cycling, a “niche within a niche,” as Strickland puts it. Toyota and other teams focus on the more popular road cycling, in which cyclists race up and down hills or on special race courses, in events that culminate in the Tour de France. To hone his track-racing skills, Lea had to go his own way.
So Lea trained and raced with Toyota in the summer, then, with guidance from a coach he hired himself, trained and raced at track events in the winter, at locations ranging from Kazakhstan to Colombia. USA Cycling, the nonprofit governing body for competitive cycling in the U.S., covered Lea’s travel costs. Lea, or sponsors he picked up himself, covered everything else. Over the years he acquired sponsors for his sunglasses (Oakley), his saddles (Fizik), and all sorts of gear in between.
Thanks to that corporate support, Lea was largely spared equipment costs, which can be considerable (see the photo at right). Bicycle frames—Lea needs different types for road cycling and for track cycling—can cost $4,000 and up. Wheels can cost $3,500 apiece, and top cyclists need at least three pairs for each type of frame. “Most people think about a bike as one unit,” says Tracy, “but really the bike is made of all sorts of pieces, and all those pieces are very expensive.”
Out-of-pocket expenses not covered by sponsors—everything from protein supplements to a masseuse and coach—ran as much as $20,000 a year. Rob and Tracy were footing the bills; they’ve lost track of how many thousands they’ve spent. “It’s really part of his career moving forward,” says Tracy. “So to some extent it’s no different from when parents help with their kids’ startup companies.” She adds, “For the parents who are helping, it is ‘no heat and no meat.’ You trade in your 2003 vehicle for a 2004 vehicle in 2016.”
With help from Team Mom and Dad, as Bobby Lea puts it, he made it to the Olympics, first the 2008 Beijing Games and then the 2012 London Games. His perfor-mances were middling, though, and he was never in medal contention. In 2008 he and a partner placed 16th—last place—in the men’s Madison, a tag-team race since dropped from the Olympics. Four years later, he finished 12th out of 18 in the men’s omnium. Faced with such undistinguished results, Lea “really got serious,” says Strickland. After the London Games, Lea resolved to go all-out for a medal in 2016, training exclusively for track cycling rather than joining a team. “It wasn’t quite working,” Lea says.
Around the same time, Lea grew close to Shelby Walter, a competitive cyclist from California whom he met at a cycling event in 2013. Beginning that winter, he began to split his time between Pennsylvania in the summer and her apartment near Santa Monica in the winter, training and racing at a velodrome in Carson, Calif.
By February 2015 he was showing results. At the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in France he placed third in the men’s scratch race—one in which all cyclists start at the same time. It was the first time an American had ever medaled in that competition. Lea proved that he was ready for Rio. He was now a contender, not an also-ran.
That year his earnings peaked, thanks to $10,000 in prize money; $10,000 in cash sponsorship support from Pure Energy Cycling, a New Jersey cycling emporium; and a $12,500 stipend from USA Cycling. And yet he was running up a credit card balance and still getting money from his parents. The parental support weighed on him, then and now: “There are many serious thoughts and many conflicting feelings about it,” he says. “It’s something I think about on a nearly daily basis.”
Knocked off track
In the summer of 2015, Lea’s cycling prospects were bright. Then came a crisis of his own making—a disaster that threatened to derail his career. The night before a competition, Lea took a Percocet, a narcotic painkiller. It was to help him sleep, he says. Traces of it showed up in a post-race blood test. In a sport torn by doping scandals, most famously Lance Armstrong’s, the result was swift and merciless. Lea was suspended from cycling for 16 months, quashing his Olympic hopes. In a blog post in which he talked about his desire to have a storybook finish to his career, he wrote, “I’ve lost the ability to write my own ending.”
Lea apologized publicly on his website: “I made a mistake and that was wrong.” He also appealed to get the suspension shortened and join the U.S. team. His parents paid $25,000 in legal bills, and Lea made the team in April. But his sponsors dropped him, and he lost his USA Cycling stipend.
This year his primary cycling income is the 10,000 euros (about $11,000) he’s getting from a Bavarian road cycling team, Maloja Pushbikers. Lea hadn’t planned to join a team, but he says Maloja was flexible enough to enable his Olympic training. While it may seem odd for a U.S. cyclist to race for an overseas team, such things are common in competitive cycling, a sport for which fan interest is much stronger in Europe.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, Lea eats, drinks, and lives cycling. A normal day of training starts with a one-hour indoor workout early in the morning, followed by a 30-minute bike ride to the velodrome. He trains on the track, has a few hours of downtime, and then cycles again in the velodrome or on the road. It’s at least four hours of intense pedaling each and every day.
Losing his sponsors hurts Lea, who now has to pay for equipment he once received gratis. His credit card debt, on which he’s making only minimum payments, totals $19,400. The interest charges are $325 a month. If he keeps paying just the minimum, he’ll be in debt for 30 years.
That’s not his only obligation. This fall he and Walter plan to move into a 19th-century farmhouse near Topton, bought in January for $410,000. Half the money came from Walter and half from Bobby’s parents. Syd Lea is expected to live on the property someday. The spread is large enough that Tracy and Rob, still in Maryland, can move in too. Though Tracy doesn’t want to be repaid every nickel she and Rob have given Bobby, they do expect to be taken care of in the future: “Even if it means pushing us around in wheelchairs.”
The home is lovely, but it needs work. Renovations, already underway, will run $200,000. To help out, Walter’s father, who is in the real estate business, has arranged a loan with a minuscule 1.8% interest rate, payable over 12 years. Walter will pick up the first half of the payments.
Their life could be a dream—if only Lea had any insight into his financial future. He may stop competing after the track-racing season ends in March, or maybe he’ll sign on with a team to race through the end of 2017. He doesn’t know.
Lea also hasn’t given his post-cycling career much thought, nor does he intend to until after the Olympics. Once he does start planning ahead, he’ll have to address a few challenges. While he would like work that involves cycling, one appealing job—managing the local velodrome—is already out, since a former elite cyclist already has that post. Neither he nor Walter are willing to relocate, a situation that cuts down his options. And though Lea is only 32, he’s not quite as marketable as an athlete finishing up with college sports in his early twenties.
To help Bobby sort out his finances and his future, MONEY connected him with two experts: Jill Gianola, a certified fi-nancial planner based in Columbus, and Howie Jacobson, president of Athletes to Careers, a California firm that offers counseling and job placement for soon-to–retire athletes like Lea. MONEY also supplemented their advice with suggestions from Bicycling’s Bill Strickland.
As little as Lea wants to plan for the future now, he needs to flip that switch and start his job hunt immediately after the Olympics. With each passing year, says Jacobson, the vividness of his achievements, his allure to potential employers, and the value of any industry contacts he’s made will fade. To make his point, Jacobson mentions an encounter he had with an Olympic medalist, a weight lifter, who at age 45 was managing a nutrition supplements store—work with little future or satisfaction, Jacobson implies. If Lea waits too long to make his next move, he could end up in a similar situation.
Come up with specifics.
Jacobson pushes Lea to come up with two or three fields that might be of interest to him. Lea can’t think of anything. Jacobson tells Lea that a sales or management-trainee job would fit him well, as it has for other athletes. Lea, he says, could probably find a business-to-business sales job around Allentown, about 15 miles away. Selling medical equipment, for example, could pay at least $35,000, or $65,000 after commissions. Lea is hesitant about a noncycling sales career. “If you’d asked me to list things I’m good at off the top of my head,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t pick convincing people to buy stuff as one of my top abilities.”
Weeks later, with Lea still drawing a blank, Strickland suggests a few cycling-related paths for him, based on his experience with other pro cyclists. Coaching, while an obvious choice, is rarely lucrative. A better idea might be to ally himself with a bicycling manufacturer, maybe as a sales representative, wholesaling equipment to bike shops. A medal will help, says Strickland; Lea’s doping suspension, while a “blemish,” won’t shut down these options, given the nature of his violation (it didn’t involve something -generally categorized as a performance-enhancing drug) and his openness about his mistake. Lea is noncommittal but raises the possibility of being a “brand ambassador,” attending cycling events on behalf of a manufacturer—work he thinks would pay around $50,000 annually. His ultimate interest, he says, “would depend on the exact job description.”
Jacobson notes that like all top-level athletes, Lea has qualities that corporations seek out. He’s competitive, organized, resilient, and results-oriented: a team player who sets and meets goals. So when Lea starts job hunting, he needs to highlight—both in a résumé and in person—these traits, along with experience that he can apply to business, says Jacobson. Lea’s years dealing with sponsors, for example, can be framed as work in marketing and public relations.
Attack the Debt.
Gianola tells Lea that he needs to restructure his crushing credit card debt—the bulk of which carries a 27% interest rate—and pay it off as quickly as he can. Fortunately, his parents have an unused credit line with a 6% annual rate, which they’re willing to tap for paying off the credit cards, with the expectation that Lea will treat it as his own debt. (They’ll have to assume the risk that he won’t.) Should Lea be cycling, he could keep the balance from growing by paying only $100 a month. If he lands a job paying at least $50,000 annually, he could retire the debt in three years while also saving for the future.
Plan for the worst.
As soon as possible, says Gianola, it’s important for Lea to draw up a power of attorney for medical treatment and a living will to express his desires regarding end-of-life medical care. All adults need those estate-planning documents, along with a financial power of attorney and a will, says Gianola. But the health care paperwork is especially important for high-level athletes, since serious injury is always a possibility.
Start saving slowly.
Between his credit cards and the renovation, Lea, who has no retirement savings now, can’t save much anytime soon. But he should try to put the annual limit, now $5,500, into a Roth IRA, an account especially good for someone, like Lea, in a low tax bracket; with annual contributions, the Roth could grow to $72,000 in 10 years, says Gianola. Free of debt, he could then double or even triple his savings rate.
Despite his current refusal to think about his post-cycling career, Lea says he’ll keep an open mind. Sports have taught him “things you end up being good at are not necessarily things you think about right away,” he says. “You never really know where that hidden talent is.” Another thing he’s learned: Sometimes you have to race ahead at full speed. With no brakes.