In this time of great change and uncertainty, we are forced to re-evaluate how we interact with the world around us. Given these circumstances, many of us are asking ourselves “have we been living the life we want to be living?” Our world is overflowing with a diverse population with different beliefs and ways of living that there is no one particular life path that works for everyone. At the end of the day, however, we can all agree that our health and happiness is paramount.
During a recent trip to Sedona for the Sedona Mountain Festival, we caught up with Syd and Macky, two professional mountain bike racers who live and travel together in their van. Is it possible that they have life figured out and have had it figured out for many years?
SHIMANO: We can’t help but notice what a beautiful office you have today. Sedona is a beautiful place filled with a multitude of trails for hiking and cycling. Are places like this a typical place for you to wake up in?
Syd and Macky: We’re fortunate to spend most of our time on the road following the mountain bike race circuit and even more fortunate that so many of these races are in beautiful places. We’ve definitely gotten pretty spoiled getting to wake up most days to incredible views, great trails and no traffic. Our favorite campsites are way off the grid, but close to great trails!
SHIMANO: Van life is a somewhat known culture that has been talked about over the years. Do you consider what you are doing to fall under the category of van life?
Syd and Macky: In the true meaning of the phrase, yes – we live in our van, so I guess that counts as van life. But compared to what most people think of as van life nowadays, we do things a bit differently – our van is a 2006 Ford E-350 that we bought for $8,000. It doesn’t have any fancy cabinetry, wood paneling or even a sink. Oh, and we sleep in a roof top tent. For us, living in a van is simply a means to an end. It gives us the freedom to live on the road and train and race all over the country. If we had a house we’d never be there so it’s the perfect setup for what we’re currently doing.
SHIMANO: Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
Syd: Both my parents rode mountain bikes, so I started really young. But I was a track and cross country (running) athlete in high school, so I didn’t really try mountain bike racing until I went to college and joined the collegiate team. I raced a few seasons of XC in college and then transitioned to enduro. I met Macky and together we both raced enduro professionally for about five years. Now, I’m transitioning back to more XC racing, but still taking advantage of all the skills I gained from enduro. I’ve learned that I don’t really want to be niched into one discipline – I just really like riding bikes.
Macky: My family moved from New Orleans to New Mexico when I was thirteen and that year my parents signed me up for an after-school mountain bike program. I loved it. After doing that for a couple years, the people who ran the camp invited me to a cross-country race at nearby Angel Fire Bike Park and after finishing 2nd in the Junior Beginner category, I was hooked. For the next couple years I raced a few races a year and my last year as a Junior, I raced Mountain Bike National Championships at Mammoth Mountain and finished 4th. That’s when I started taking it more seriously and got my Pro card the next year (2006). After racing cross-country seriously for seven years I transitioned to enduro and did that exclusively until 2019 when we started racing a wider variety of events, everything from cross-country to enduro to downhill to stage racing.
SHIMANO: Going back to your teenage days what sort of goals did you have? Did you see yourself making a living riding bikes?
Syd: No, I don’t think so. I always wanted to be an athlete but I don’t think I really knew that what we’re doing now was even an option. I also wanted to travel the world, write mystery novels, go to culinary school, stop climate change, be a translator, etc. I was keeping my options open, ha!
Macky: As a teenager I loved racing but played a bunch of other sports in high school and didn’t ever consider it as a potential career until my last year of college when I was deciding what to do after graduating. While most of my friends got programming jobs (I studied computer science) I decided to see if I could make it as a professional racer and after a couple years of doing freelance web design and doing odd jobs I started making enough to race full-time.
SHIMANO: Where did you meet?
Syd and Macky: We met racing bikes at Middlebury College, a small liberal-arts college in Vermont. Together we made up a third of the Middlebury Cycling Team. It was a small team, but we had a TON of fun.
SHIMANO: Where do you consider home now?
Syd and Macky: We haven’t paid rent or had a mortgage since 2013 but we’re fortunate that both of our parents are supportive of what we do and don’t mind if we drop by throughout the year. In general we use Macky’s parents’ house in Taos, NM as an address and we have New Mexico driver’s licenses – oh, and we’ve commandeered their bike shed to store our extra gear. Van life is great, but it’s really impractical in a lot of ways (like, not having a shipping address for packages or an official residence for important documents – health insurance, etc.), so that’s how we make it work. We spend 80% of the year in our van, but if asked, we call New Mexico home.
SHIMANO: At what point did you decide that you wanted to make a living as a cyclist and do you consider the money you make from cycling to be a “living? Or do you have other supplemental income?
Syd and Macky: We’ve been able to live off of sponsorship since 2015 but we’re very conscious about keeping our expenses low. Living in a van helps with that (especially if your van + build costs less than 12k!). More recently we started a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/sydandmacky) to share our adventures and while we don’t make much from YouTube, we have a great team on Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/sydandmacky) that financially supports our YouTube channel.
When we were first getting started, we supplemented our sponsorship income with web design (Macky) and freelance writing (Syd). Now all of our income streams are bike related: we make money via sponsorship, occasional race winnings, YouTube ads, Patreon support, selling merchandise, selling used gear and branded campaigns on our YouTube channel. We’ve always prioritized having diverse income streams, because sponsorship and race winnings are obviously variable. This approach gives us some financial security despite an untraditional career path.
SHIMANO: Do you advocate for riders to pursue a professional career as a cyclist?
Syd and Macky: If it’s something you enjoy doing and you’re willing to sacrifice a regular paycheck, then definitely. But if you’re hoping to get rich, there are probably easier ways...
SHIMANO: What is your favorite part of having a career that doesn’t require you to be in an office or a work place on a set schedule?
Syd and Macky: Having control over our schedules lets us spend time in some amazing places and we love being able to extend our stay if we’re enjoying a place or shorten it if the weather gets bad. And on a day to day basis, we have the freedom to be both athletes and creators, which is an incredible privilege.
SHIMANO: What does your daily schedule look like?
Syd and Macky: If it isn’t a race weekend, we generally cook and eat some breakfast then head out for a couple-hour ride. Sometimes this is a training ride and sometimes it’s an endurance or filming ride. Then we’ll make some lunch and relax a bit before doing a few hours of computer work (usually editing a video) and then do a gym workout if that’s on the schedule. If there’s any bike maintenance we need to do, we’ll get that done then cook up some dinner and head to bed as soon as it gets dark. That’s one thing we love about being in a van, there’s not much to do once the sun sets so you get into the habit of going to bed early.
It’s a simple routine, but one in which we’ve found great satisfaction and happiness. Van life isn’t for everyone, but it is for us.
SHIMANO: Are there some people or companies that you want to credit for letting you live the life you are living?
Syd and Macky: We’re super fortunate to be working with the best companies in the industry who are supportive of what we do and help to make our lifestyle possible – Niner, PEARL iZUMi, Velo saddles, Xpedo pedals, Shimano, Fox, Lazer and Stages Cycling. We also owe our Patreon team a huge thank-you for supporting our YouTube channel.
SHIMANO: Tell us a bit about your bikes.
Syd and Macky: We started working with Niner Bikes this year and have been really enjoying getting to know their line-up. It’s great working with a company that has such a wide range of bikes, everything from a gravel bike (the RLT) to a super lightweight XC bike (the RKT) to a medium-travel trail bike (the JET) and a big-travel enduro bike (the RIP). We built these up with Fox suspension and Shimano 12-speed drivetrains, wheels and brakes and they are incredible machines.
Recently, the JET has been our bike of choice. As a 120/130mm 29er, it’s an incredibly versatile bike: fast and light on the climbs, without sacrificing anything on rough descents. Check out the 5-Star Shimano build on Niner’s website here for an idea of our builds: https://ninerbikes.com/products/jet-9-rdo
SHIMANO: Where is your favorite place to wake up?
Syd and Macky: In our van, in the middle of nowhere with lots of trails within riding distance.
SHIMANO: What do you think of the current landscape for organized racing? Macky in particular you have been racing for many years and have certainly seen events come and go. For someone who has recently started riding mountain bikes what sort of events do you recommend they check out?
Syd and Macky: In general we recommend people start with a local or regional cross-country race as the trails are generally less technical and the head-to-head style of racing is really fun. Cross-country also lends itself to a wider range of bicycles, everything from hardtails to enduro bikes. Once you’ve tried out a race or two and start to feel comfortable on more technical trails, then you can start to experiment with other kinds of events like enduro or downhill or even a multi-day stage race. If you’ve spent a ton of time riding chair lifts at a bike park then you could try out a downhill race as your first race but for a newer rider, cross-country is generally the best choice.
Macky: In terms of organized racing, it’s been really interesting to watch it change over the years. When I started racing, you generally had two options: cross-country and downhill. There were some other formats like short track and four-cross, but those were generally races that people added on to a weekend and their focus was either cross-country or downhill. Then Super D came along for a few years and forced a lot of cross-country racers (myself included) to work on their descending skills. And then we saw the rise of enduro, which brought both cross-country and downhill racers together and helped create the current generation of do-everything bikes that I think have made riding more fun and accessible for most people. Now we’re seeing a lot of growth in gravel racing (which I think of as the enduro of the road racing world) and more and more people are doing big, epic, bucket-list stage races like BC Bike Race and Trans-NZ.
SHIMANO: Where do you see yourselves in 5 years?
Syd and Macky: That’s a tough question. At this point we’re enjoying racing and don’t plan to give that up anytime soon. There are lots of events we want to race and we both feel we still have the potential to become better racers and so we want to explore that potential. We’ve been keeping an eye out for affordable properties (probably in northern New Mexico) where we could build a house and lots of trails, so if we find something perfect we might buy it, but even if we did we’ll likely still be van-based for a while. We love living in the van and camping out most nights of the year, so we’re not in a hurry to change things.
SHIMANO: Anything we missed that you want to share with our readers?
Syd and Macky: People might be curious how we’re dealing with all the changes due to COVID-19. Obviously, we’re disappointed that races have been cancelled, but we know in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t matter too much. We’re trying to find the opportunity in all the changes, and for us that means focusing on our YouTube channel and creating entertaining videos that will help people escape from what’s going on, even if only for 15 to 20 minutes. These videos will be different than our usual videos (since we usually focus on racing!) but that will push us to tap into our creativity, which in the past has led to some of our best videos, like this one we did for Valentine’s Day (https://youtu.be/j9MvvRq2F18) last year. It went mini-viral and surprised us by appealing to a wider audience. Life will be different after COVID19, but we encourage everyone to look out for one another and find those hidden opportunities. We hope everyone reading this is staying safe and healthy!
Photo's by Kyle Ledeboer, Courtesy of Niner Bikes.