Tour de Force

Last summer, cyclist Marty Jemison BS’89 logged more miles in one race than most people ride in a lifetime. He is one of fewer than 20 Americans ever to compete in the 2,400-mile Tour de France, the Superbowl of cycling.

For 21 days Jemison competed against the world's top 200 cyclists as one of nine members on the U.S. Postal Service Team, only the second American team to participate in the Tour. Jemison played a vital role in leading his team to a 10th place finish. It was the fastest Tour in history, with speeds averaging 25 mph throughout, and some individual stages averaging 30 mph.

A professional cycling team must be finely tuned, with each rider playing a specific role. As the team's “domestique,” a word synonymous in pro-cycling with sacrifice, Jemison's role is to take care of his teammates. This meant distributing food and water to each of the team members during the race. Jemison must replenish his supplies by riding to the support vehicle and then catch up with the team to hand out the “fuel.” With the riders stretched out over a mile or more, this is no easy or quick task.

Being the domestique also means giving up his wheel, literally, when someone else has a flat. Jemison did this for teammate Peter Meinert, causing his 70th place ranking to slip to 90th. Unperturbed by the self-sacrifice, he knows it is necessary to push his team ahead. “My job is to give, to not be selfish,” Jemison says. “At the higher levels, cycling is a pure team sport. When I first started out it was more individual with personal goals and challenges.”

The U.S. Postal Service Team turned heads in professional cycling. With more first-time riders than any other team and only four riders who had previously raced but not completed the Tour, it wasn't a team to bet on. The first-time riders were given a 10 percent chance of even finishing the race. In the end, only 22 teams finished and only three teams finished with all nine members. Jemison's team did both.

Despite 2,400 miles of ascents, leg-burning speeds, and mental exhaustion, Jemison says he was euphoric as he sliced through the millions of spectators lining Paris' Champs Elysee, the final stretch. “The end was everything. I didn't feel my legs that entire day, it was the only day I didn't feel pain.”

Former teammates aren't surprised by Jemison's cycling accomplishments. “Marty has phenomenal strength, mental tenacity, and natural ability; he was a winner in races from the beginning,” says Eric Schramm, who rode with Jemison early on. “Marty lets his legs do the talking.”

Jemison says the secret to his success is consistency. “When I started I didn’t think I showed any great genetic ability. I was competitive, but there were other riders better than I,” says Jemison. “I've taken eight years to build up to where I am now.”

He is consistent in training and has relentlessly sought more difficult and frequent races. He cites his tenacious nature as a kid and recalls perfect school attendance for several years in a row. “My training is the same way, I don't miss a day of it unless it is a scheduled rest-day.”

“The life and dedication of a professional cyclist is measured in the number of races and hours and miles spent training and racing,” explains Jemison. He raced 100 to 110 races last year, all longer than 100 miles each. Before 1997 was over he logged 20,000 to 22,000 miles.

Since graduating from the University of Utah in 1989, 90 percent of Jemison's racing has been in Europe and other countries – that's some 700 to 800 races. “Local racers in Utah would be astonished by the races' speed, length, and the quality of riders,” says Jemison.

Jemison earned an economics degree from the U, but he didn't know what he wanted to do after college. “I had no direction, but I knew I wanted to travel and go to Europe, and cycling was the vehicle that was going to take me there.”

For three years Jemison raced in France and by 1992 he was one of the top amateurs in that country. He went pro in 1994 and became the sixth American ever to go pro on a European team. In 1992, Jemison had 11 wins and 52 top 10 finishes out of 100 races. His wife, Jill, with whom he now lives in Park City, would stand at the sidelines listening to the announcer and the ringing bell to let Marty know whether he should try for a “prime” – a special monetary bonus awarded to winners of designated sections of a race. During this period he won the 1993 U.S. National Amateur Championship. For Jemison cycling had become more than a ticket to sightsee, it became a career.

“After the first year in France, I knew I could do more in the sport, and I wanted to see how far I could go,” says Jemison. “After the second and third year of racing in Europe, I believed I could go professional and that I could race in the Tour. Now, I believe I can ride on the winning team in the Tour.”

During the 1997 Tour, some of Jemison's biggest fans cheered him on; his parents traveled the entire route watching Jemison digest the rigors of racing each day. Sylvia Jemison says, “As his mother, sometimes it was very difficult for me to watch. When I would see the agony on his face it practically brought me to tears. I had to remind myself that this is Marty's passion, he loves it, and his body can handle it.”

Jemison grasps at words to describe an experience barely imaginable to most people. You almost go through the Tour in a dream-like state. It's a good dream and sometimes a bad dream – it's everything. You go through absolutely every single human emotion, daily; that's the beauty of the Tour. You see the true essence of everybody.”

Jemison’s future plans? Nothing less than tackling the Tour again in 1998. “Now I believe I can be on the winning team of the Tour,” he says. “That’s a huge step . . . before I just believed we could do the Tour.” And after a few more rounds with the Tour, Jemison says he contemplates the possibility of settling down and racing only in the United States. According to him, racing in the U.S. is easier. “Or, maybe I’ll take up mountain bike racing,” he says with a sly grin.

– Peta Owens

Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association