Five years ago, Louisville's Drew Dillman had no idea that cyclocross existed and now the 18-year old Marian University student will be taking on the world at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships on February 2 in the under-23 men's race in front of family and friends.
“The first thing that pops in my head is just thinking of all the people from Louisville who have supported me in the past, for the past five years; especially my family and my mom. ” said Dillman who races for the Bob's Red Mill Cyclocross Team.
One could say that Dillman grew as a cyclist and more specifically as a 'cross racer as the scene in Louisville also expanded.
“It's definitely gotten a lot bigger since I started. Even just the past couple of years, our local series, the amount of people that were at the races compared to now, it has grown tremendously. All the supporters have gotten a lot bigger, I think people have started to take it a lot more seriously, before it was more of a way to train for road and mountain biking but I think now it's starting to get its own image.” said Dillman who graduated from Pleasure Ridge Park high-school in 2012.
It all started at the age of 10. “ My mom worked at a local bike shop in Louisville, I got to know the mechanics there so they took my out mountain biking.” He then joined Red Zone Cycling, the junior development program based in Louisville.
“The team captain, Mr Haley, was able to get me a cross bike and a road bike the year that I joined the team. It wasn't a choice, alright you're going to do cross, you'll probably be good at it.” he said with a chuckle. “I did like a year of cross, I loved it. The first year I did it, it was a huge eye opener, I'd never even heard of the sport and then I was better at it than I thought I would have been, I guess it just grew from there.”
At age 14, Dillman was hooked on cyclo-cross. His skills and dedication continued to grow which led him to race locally, nationally and internationally. The first European trip, as a junior, came at the end of 2010/11 season where he not only adjusted but thrived in the tough racing, claiming top 10s in some of the bigger races.
“I don't know.” Dillman replied when asked where he found that mental toughness. “I'm sure that it has a lot to do with the way my mom raised me, I have to give her a lot of credit. She would put me in sports, she wouldn't let me quit anything, she always made me finish. If I ever quit a race, I was grounded.” he laughed. “I guess from that, it built onto it. I remember when I went to Europe the first year, I adjusted to European racing better than a lot of other people. I guess it's confidence but not conceit, it's really hard to explain. When in the middle of a race, I always want to push myself harder and if I don't leave it all out there, I feel like I just I didn't even race.”
“I guess another part of it, the feeling when you lose, it just feels really bad,” he chuckled, “so I don't like to lose. When I'm training I think about the races that I want to win, that keeps me focused.”
He finished 21st, the top American junior at his first participation at the World Championships in St-Wendel, Germany in 2011. At the 2012 World Championships, on the sandy Koksijde course, Dillman once again was the top American finisher with a 14th place.
Now at Marian University, Dillman is focused on getting a “good education” as a biology major. School is the priority but he still has time for racing in his full schedule at the collegiate cycling powerhouse.
“This year was the first year that I did a full calendar of mountain biking and it was awesome, I did mountain biking from August until October, and then I used to get that to improve my handling skills for cross.”
He then took a small break to start his cross season fresher in November and slowly built up his form to finish a strong second at the USA Cycling National under-23 cyclocross championships in Madison, Wi two weeks ago.
“My season was pretty good. I didn't do as good as I wanted to as the Louisville USGP, and a couple of other races. I had a couple of pretty good results at Cincy on the second day, I got fifth and that was probably one of my best races all year. And then obviously at Nationals, I felt really good with second place. I think those were probably the two big highlight races of the season.”
He would love to get a top 20 finish in Louisville. “I raced in Europe for two weeks, my results were all over the place.” he said. For the third year in a row, Dillman trained and raced with EuroCross Camp during the winter holidays. “I was just able in the 20s when I was in Europe in the really big races, so I'm sure that a lot of those same kids will be at this race, and so without the travel, the jetlag and all the travel stuff, hopefully that will be to my advantage and I will be able to get a top 20.”
Dillman is proof that it takes not only a dedicated rider but a community behind him to be able to race at the highest level.
“I definitely have to say thank you to everybody in Louisville, I wouldn't be a this school, I wouldn't have gone to Europe if it wasn't for all the support from so many people. I could name a thousand people that have in the past five years helped me with something, even if it's just letting me borrow a wheel at a race, or getting hooked up with a coach or a training ride.”
And through cycling, Dillman found his faith. “That is the biggest part of my life and I feel like that's the biggest thing that has changed my life. And if it wasn't for some of the people in Louisville that helped me become a Christian, I don't know where I'd be right now. That's the thing that I'm most thankful for.”
Be on the lookout for Dillman at the 2013 World Championships in Louisville. Not only will he be racing in the men under-23 race on Saturday February 2 at 2:30 p.m. But he will be leading the cheers on Sunday, dressed as 'USA man', in a Stars and Stripes morph suit. A suit he put onto cheer on his fellow Americans racing in Belgium this winter.
“That was a lot of fun.” he laughed. “I had a bunch of people come up to me, whisper in my ear, say something that I couldn't understand do me, and I would be like okay. A couple of people tried to give me beer, almost poured it on me, I was like no. I had people dance with me. I had 50 people take their picture with me. It was pretty cool.”