The pro peloton is losing one great mane of hair

Q&A with retiring Trek-Segafredo rider Kiel Reijnen, who will take on a new cycling challenge next year

Kiel Reijnen is one of the most unique men in professional road cycling. The fact that he’s an American in a predominantly European peloton is rare enough, but he hails from Bainbridge Island, Washington, a small, flat, forested city in the Pacific Northwest with limited space for long training rides. 

Reijnen is a man of many talents. He grew up outdoors, chopping wood and catching fish and crabs. The perceived stuffiness of road cycling doesn’t seem like it should be enticing to a man as laid back and nature-drawn as Reijnen. If he picked up a bike at all, something trail capable would seem more his speed. 

Instead, he carved out a long career taking on road cycling’s tradition-steeped races, including the last six years as a domestique for Trek-Segafredo. 

Now 35 years old, and having served willingly and ably for others for so long, Reijnen is retiring from road cycling at the end of the 2021 season to take on a new challenge: Gravel racing. 

Reijnen has immense passion for the discipline, which is growing in popularity at a seemingly exponential rate. He is also relishing the opportunity to ride for himself again, and to be a good ambassador for bikes.

“I’m not here to change gravel or to put my stamp on it. I just want to be enthusiastic about it and make other people enthusiastic about it,” Reijnen says. “Getting more people on bikes, at the end of the day, is always a positive, and that’s why I’ve always been pro ebikes and pro gravel bikes. I’m pro any version you want to do because the more people that get out and experience it, the better.”

Reijnen has seen and heard the debates comparing road and gravel racing, the latter often considered a harder, younger, looser and more inclusive cousin to the former. But Reijnen isn’t much interested in pitting the disciplines against each other, or coming up with a formal definition of what is gravel racing.

“Everyone’s trying to say, ‘Well, is gravel like road or like mountain biking, or is it like a race or is it like a grand fondo?'” Reijnen says. “Gravel racing is about making it yours. And so doing the LeadBoat Challenge can be as hard as you want to make it, or it can be easier. And that’s kind of the point of gravel. You choose your version.”

Reijnen spoke with the Trek Race Shop about his journey in cycling, his transition to full-time gravel racing, what he’ll miss about road and how he plans to finish his road career after being forced to abandon the Vuelta a Espana with an injury. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How hard was it to make the decision to abandon the Vuelta?

Kiel Reijnen: It’s easier to make those type of decisions at my age than it was. At 25 there was no version where quitting would feel okay. And it still sucks. It feels like a high school walk of shame or something. You know as soon as you’re off the bike and in the team car, you don’t want anyone to see you. The fans are awaiting the cars, and you just want to hide.

All the guys came and gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Good Job. Listen, we get it. You’re injured and it wasn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.’ So it’s not like anyone’s upset with you. And ultimately, it was really the doctor’s call. It’s his job to come up with a game plan of how to handle it. But also, I was at the point where it was really obvious that it was over. Even at that point, it’s really hard to say, ‘OK I’m done.’

Greggy (Grégory Rast) came up in the team car beside me and said, ‘Look, the grupetto is 2k up the road from you. What do you want to do here?’ And I looked at him and he said, ‘You know, I think it’s time to call it.’ I said, ‘Well, just tell me to, just tell me to quit. So that I don’t have to tell myself to.’ So he did. [Laughs].

What’s next for you this season? How are you closing out your road career?

Reijnen: So I go back for the Eurométropole Tour (On Sept. 29). I’m a maybe for Paris-Roubaix. I do Binche-Chimay-Binche, Paris-Bruges and Paris-Tours. So all those other Belgian-French one-days.

It will be a nice way to finish things out because Belgium is the heart of cycling. It’s also where it all started as a young kid going over to Belgium to get my feet wet. That’s how you sort of decide whether or not this is what you want to do. And I think finishing there sort of completes the circle.

Any memories stand out from those Belgian races?

Reijnen: I think mostly just the memory with the guys. I’ve been a part of that classics team now for quite a few years, half a decade, and it feels right to finish things out with those guys at those races. And I think the race that will always stand out in my mind will be Flanders. But of course it’s Belgium, so all of those courses tend to steal bits and pieces from each other. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Why are you retiring from road cycling now?

Reijnen: So I guess there’s, there are a number of factors. One is, as an athlete, you need to see progression. That’s what you live for, is seeing a five percent increase in your power numbers, or a three percent increase in the amount of time you were able to train, or the speed at which you rode in a race. And when you stop seeing those increases, it gets exponentially more difficult, because now you’re only training to maintain.

That happened to me more recently, where I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m trying super hard just to get to the level that I had last year or two years ago.’ Is that level good enough to be a valuable teammate and belong in the sport? Yes. But I also know that at this point in my life, that’s my ceiling. I’m just fighting to get to my best.

Then there’s a point of diminishing returns too. If all I can do is grab bottles a few times, that’s not nearly as useful as being able to get over the second to last climb and lead out into the finale. So I got to a point where I wanted to be more useful than I was able to sometimes.

Those things played a part. But the biggest reason, I think, for my retirement is that I have two kids now. My older daughter is starting school and the travel component is just getting infinitely more complex. And COVID probably exacerbated that. It upped the timeline. Perhaps I would have raced for one or two more years on the road if COVID hadn’t happened. But it just made travel exponentially more difficult, it increased the amount of time I was away from my family, it made bouncing back and forth less of an option.

How did Trek-Segafredo work with you as an American?

Reijnen: First of all, I’m not the first American to be on this team. There was a sports director when I started, Alain Gallopin, on the team who had taken a couple of Americans under his wing. He got to know those guys well enough that he understood their plight. And so he was really instrumental in helping me build a calendar that allowed me to have these chunks of time to train it at home. Even if it meant going to an altitude camp in America, there’s still a familiarity there that you don’t get when you’re in an altitude camp in Europe

And then I think I helped them justify that by showing up 110 percent when they allowed me to do that. So if they sent me home for a month and I showed up to the races not ready to go, it would have been a no brainer for them to say, ‘OK Kiel, we’ve got to figure out how to make this work for you to be over here in Europe and keep a closer eye on you.’ But I made good use of the opportunity, and I showed up ready to race when I was able to go home and train.

As a pro athlete you do need to find a balance. Does jet lag take it out of you a bit? Definitely. Does missing your family and being away for an extra few months also take some percentage off the top? Definitely. So it was about finding a balance between the two things. And Luca, he’s been there the whole time, and he also was really understanding of that and recognized that when I was happy, I raced better. And with a little bit of effort from both sides, we could create a situation that made space for that without both having to sacrifice a lot.

How did you get into road cycling? As someone who also loves trails, it seems counterintuitive that you didn’t gravitate towards mountain biking.

Reijnen: It was a really convenient mode of transportation to get around the island. We are a relatively small island here. Public transportation exists, but it’s not hugely convenient, but it’s also an island so everything’s relatively close by. So rather than turn 16 and get a driver’s license and buy a car, we rode our bikes everywhere because it just didn’t take that long.

My best friend and neighbor growing up, we rode our bikes to crew practice in the mornings, five o’clock, and we’d ride home, then we’d ride to school. And it’s a small community so people take notice, and they look out for each other’s kids.

And one of the people that noticed that I was riding a lot with my buddy was the mechanic at the bike shop, because of course we bring our bikes in to work on it, and he’d see us riding around town. Turns out he worked for a period of time with the national team as a mechanic.

He came to my friend and me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys come over to Seattle one time and do a practice crit and give it a try and see if you like it.’ And so we went over to Seattle with them and saw the scene, and the race was a uniquely inclusive environment. They only have a couple of categories, and so as 16 year olds, going on 17, we got thrown in the deep end in the Cat 3/4/5 races.

There were a lot of unwritten rules about not getting in the way and that type of thing, but there were also a lot of people out there encouraging you to keep trying. And, and so I think because of that environment, we had a really great first experience and so we went back again the next week and the next week the next week. And pretty soon we both saved up and bought crappy used road race bikes, and it just sort of kept snowballing.

What made you think you could race as a career?

 Reijnen: So the local bike shop got a few of us kids together and helped us race regionally. What I really wanted to do is go to the Olympics, and crew (rowing) was the sport that my buddy and I picked and I just didn’t get big enough. And so I gave up rowing and started riding more and more and more.

There’s a great cyclocross scene in Seattle. There’s a decent road scene, but I don’t live in Seattle, I live on the island, and so I’d have to take the ferry boat over and do group rides over there. It was a big investment, not just financially but also the time commitment to go over there and do a group ride.

I remember one time I went over there with a friend. And the group ride started a ways from where the boat was so we took his car onto the ferry boat and drove over, and I forgot my cycling shoes. And it was such a commitment, you couldn’t just say, ‘Oh I forgot my shoes I’m gonna go home and get them,’ or, ‘I’m gonna just bail today and try tomorrow.’ So I took my tennis shoes and I duct taped them to the pedal.

Everybody doing this sport here is doing it because they’re hooked. They love it, because we’re not riding in awesome weather, we’re riding in the rain. There’s no long, beautiful mountain climbs with twisty switchback descents.The island itself is a nice lap, but I’ve done it a lot of times. [Laughs]. And so it’s definitely an unlikely place to get into riding period, let alone road riding.

You’ve mentioned rowing a couple times. How did that sport influence you as an athlete?

Reijnen: Unless you’re rowing a single, it’s even more pure than road cycling in terms of the team effort. It’s all together. It has to be together. And it’s about how smooth you are together. Your weakest guy, it’s about lifting him up versus strengthening yourself. And I think because crew is sort of my initial sport, I wanted to emulate some of those things in cycling.

It definitely shaped my attitude towards discipline, training, how you treat directors, staff, teammates, all those things. It probably shaped me more as an athlete and person than road cycling did.

What are you going to miss most about road cycling?

Reijnen: Absolutely, it’ll be the team aspect. Getting a result that’s better than any one individual. And then the relationships that you form under that type of stress and pressure. There’s not a lot of comparisons for that. You’re not going to find a nine to five job where you go through those intense experiences and become bonded through that in a way that you do with road cycling.

Just that mentality of going into the race, into that competitive arena, together and achieving something that you wouldn’t be able to achieve by yourself. That’s what I’ll miss most. And I think through those really, really hard, difficult experiences you forge relationships that take years if they ever happen in normal life.

You embraced the domestique role in a way that not every rider is so keen to do. What drew you to that sort of role?

 Reijnen: I am really glad my career took the trajectory that it did because it allowed me to have a host of different experiences instead of one role for my whole career. And I did relish certain things about being in a leadership role. There’s a part of me that’s excited about gravel racing because I’ll get to push myself for results again, because it’s been a while. And I think especially at my age it might be the kick in the butt you need to try and step up another level or train just a little bit harder, give a little bit more of yourself and make that extra sacrifice.

I think that the big reason that I continued to do the job that I was doing is because I was valued for doing it. Trek continued to hire me, they continued to tell me that my job mattered, and then the individuals I was working for were guys that I believed in and valued me as a person. If they had taken me less seriously or if it had been more of a working relationship, I may not have lasted in that role as long as I did. But a lot of the guys that I had the opportunity to sell out for are my friends too.

And now, what are you looking forward to the most in the next phase of your career?

 Reijnen: Getting to sort of rediscover yourself as an athlete again. And it’s sort of forced because there’s no one to work for and then get out of the way. You’re accountable to yourself again and to the team in a way that I haven’t been for a while.

And then because gravel racing is sort of some growing pains to define itself, I’m excited about getting a role and helping coax it one way or the other. And I don’t mean that with any ego at all. I hope that it’s an opportunity to bring authenticity, or keep authenticity in it. And then keep it from changing too much in some ways. Just taking care with how we approach it. Because if you don’t pay attention to context, you can change it into something that no longer looks like what you originally got into it for. I like gravel racing the way it is, and I don’t want to contribute to it deviating too far from what it is.

How do you want to coax gravel racing? What is it to you?

Reijnen: I’m not here to change gravel or to put my stamp on it. I just want to be enthusiastic about it and make other people enthusiastic about it. Getting more people on bikes, at the end of the day, is always a positive, and that’s why I’ve always been pro ebikes and pro gravel bikes. I’m pro any version you want to do because the more people that get out and experience it, the better.

Everyone’s trying to say, ‘Well, is gravel like road or like mountain biking, or is it like a race or is it like a grand fondo?’ Gravel racing is about making it yours. And so doing the LeadBoat Challenge can be as hard as you want to make it, or it can be easier. And that’s kind of the point of gravel. You choose your version.

I’ve really tried to steer clear of a bunch of these debates that they’re having, like aero bars or no aero bars, pacing strategies, feeds, all that stuff. I frankly don’t have a strong opinion, because I think the whole point of gravel is ‘you do you, man.’ If the most fun version of gravel for you is to use aero bars and a skinsuit and get feeds, far out. I hope you enjoy it. If my favorite version is to ride 12k an hour on mountain bike wheels and not set any records, if you had fun and you met some cool people along the way, then that’s awesome too. All the versions are cool.