By Daniel McMahon | November 6, 2009
New York City–based bike messenger and cyclocrosser Dan Chabanov has been one of the most successful amateur ‘cross riders on the East Coast this year. Though the 22-year-old is in the middle of his first full ‘cross season, he’s making up for lost time. With recent back-to-back wins at ‘Cat and Kitten Cross’ (a.k.a. HPCX) and Westwood Velo ‘Cross—and a slew of top 10s—the Russian-born Brooklynite is eager to find out how far he can go on the ‘cross bike.
On Wednesday I sat down with Chabanov in a Midtown Manhattan deli after he’d worked a day of messengering. We talked about his new-found success in ‘cross, the Cyrillic alphabet, sandbagging, the MAC series, and nemeses and stalkers.
Daniel McMahon: So you’re from Russia?
Dan Chabanov: Yeah, I was born in Moscow. Both my parents are Russian. I’m, like, fresh off the boat, technically. Not really all that fresh anymore. We came here when I was 9. Lived in Arizona, then went back for a year. Then I went to middle school and high school in Jersey. And I went to college in New York City.
DM: Do you speak Russian?
DM: Still use it?
DC: Mostly with my mom, who lives in Jersey City. But not as much anymore. It’s getting harder and harder. I mean, I left when I was 9, so I have the vocabulary of a 9-year-old essentially. I can’t really curse anyone out or anything, unfortunately. [Laughs]
DM: Do you know the Cyrillic alphabet?
DC: Yeah, I can read and write, but it’s hard. My first language now is definitely English. I think in English.
DM: Do you dream in English?
DC: Yeah, it’s kind of one of those weird things. You meet other bilingual people and you ask them which language they dream in. It’s kind of interesting. With some people it depends. It depends on what country they’re in. I feel like if I were in Russia I’d dream in Russian.
DM: You said you went back for a year.
DC: Yeah, my step-dad was going to college in Arizona at the Thunderbird Business School or something. And my mom was just over there, you know, and at some point they just kind of ran out of money. He was just going to school and he wasn’t making any money. So then I went back and was living with my grandmother for a year, and during that year they got a job, moved to Jersey, found a place to live. Then I came back to stay with them.
DM: So you went to high school in Jersey.
DC: Yeah, middle school and high school.
DC: Westfield, New Jersey, kind of like central-middle Jersey. If you go from New York, you just go west. It’s on that parallel.
DM: And you went to college here in New York City?
DC: Yeah. I went to the School of Visual Arts, for photography.
DM: Did you graduate?
DC: Ugh, no. Dropped out after two years. I didn’t really like school.
DM: Well, that’s what one does at SVA, I’m told.
DC: Yeah, I was just like, the first two years I was just learning, and I was, like, OK, cool, this is going to get better. And then no, it didn’t get better. I just kept learning the same shit I could read in a book. It’s like, I don’t need you to teach me how to use a light meter, you know. Like, Teach me how to think about stuff. This is all mechanical bullshit that anybody can do. It’s like they were training me to be a studio assistant. I don’t need to spend that kind of money to be a studio assistant. It’s a good school if you’re trying to be a commercial artist. That wasn’t what I wanted.
DM: And you’ve been here since.
DC: I was couriering part-time since sophomore year, and after I dropped out I just went full-time. Been doing it ever since. It was three years in September.
DM: So you messenger five days a week, regular business hours?
DC: Yeah. Usually I come in at 9, 9:30, and I usually leave between 5 and 6.
DM: What messenger service do you work for?
DC: Elite Couriers. They’re on 27th Street.
DM: Do you have to report to them every morning?
DC: Yeah, I call in to my office, and my dispatcher, Terry, gives me runs, if there are any. The last year there really hasn’t been all that much to do, with the recession.
DM: So do you physically have to go in or can you just call?
DC: I call in when I’m on the Lower East Side. You know, they have people who live in Harlem, in Queens, people who live in Brooklyn, even one guy who lives in Staten Island. So they know where people show up to work from, and they just kind of count on you. If there’s a run on the Lower East Side, they call me. If there’s a run all the way downtown, they call the guy who gets off the ferry. If there are runs coming uptown, they call the Harlem guys. Or Midtown, Queens.
DM: What do you do when you’re not making deliveries?
DC: Hang out at the Apple Store. Read. I don’t really have the Internet at home so hanging out at the Apple Store is when I get online.
DM: Various stores?
DC: Yeah, various ones, the SoHo one, Fifth Avenue. There have been days when I’ve been to all three. I just check e-mail, maybe cruise CyclocrossResults.com. More like troll. [Laughs] There’s actually an option now for “stalking” someone.
DM: Speaking of, who’s your CyclocrossResults nemesis?
DC: Mike Festa. We’ve only raced twice together, but both times he beat me by one spot. I mean, I don’t know him personally, but both times we came up to each other and were, like, Good race. There’s no animosity between us.
DM: But it’s fun.
DC: Yeah, a friendly nemesis. I think the person I’d like to beat the most is that kid [15-year-old] Sam O’Keefe, who won Beacon Cross. He’s really fast. I got second there. I feel like we were pretty evenly matched, then I endoed in the sand pit, and he kind of opened up a little gap. I don’t think that I’m stronger than him, but I kind of feel like he poured on the gas, so the gap grew and at that point he was kind of unreachable, so now that I’m higher up in the rankings I’ll probably get a call-up. You know, I think it’s going to be a much more interesting race. I mean, even with the MAC Series. Even with the B’s. It’s just, like, really highly competitive. There are a lot of changes day to day, and I’ve had a lot of good luck lately, but it’s like … I just glued my first set of tubulars, so who knows? I could fucking roll a tire this weekend. Knock on wood.
DM: You’ve been riding clinchers up to now?
DC: Yeah. I’ve only had one wheelset really. Honestly, I haven’t ridden tubulars yet, and the only reason I’m doing it now is I used to work for a bike shop that used to offer me wholesale on the tires. And I had the wheels kickin’ around, and I wasn’t really using them, so I figured, Why not try this? It’s not like the clinchers weren’t performing up to my expectations or anything. It’s just that it seems everybody in ‘cross rides tubs, so it seems like the logical equipment progression after upgrading the frame.
DM: So now you can ride lower PSI on your tubulars and get more grip. With clinchers you have a greater risk of getting a pinch flat with low PSI.
DC: Yeah, that’s essentially what everybody’s telling me. So I’ll experiment with that and see how it works. The next goal is a pit bike, hopefully next season.
DM: Can’t you use your old bike?
DC: I cannibalized all the parts off it. It was just that the frame was steel, heavy, didn’t really fit me, and I was definitely the only jerk out there riding a quill stem. [Laughs]
DM: But you were still kicking ass.
DC: Yeah, but I was so stretched out on that bike: My lower bike hurt, my ass hurt, every time I had to lift that bike over a barrier it hurt, and every time I had to shoulder that bike the tiny, tiny steel tube dug into my shoulder. I’d have bruises. It was, like, okay, I feel like I know I can do well so I can justify this investment.
DM: What are you riding now?
DC: It’s a Salsa. It’s a scandium frame. Seems to be doing well. I like it. It’s my first ‘cross bike. Next year it’ll probably be something different. Hopefully the economy will pick up.
DM: Maybe you’ll have a team-issue bike.
DC: Maybe! I think that’s a little far away.
DM: Some have said you’ve been sandbagging the B races. What say you?
DC: I mean, I don’t have a UCI license. I can’t buy one because I don’t have any money. Like, until Friday I have $66 in my bank account, and the new bike pretty much cleaned me out. And to spend the $150 to get another license that’s going to expire at the end of this calendar year seems really silly. It’s also my first full season racing cyclocross.
And I don’t think you can really sandbag something you’ve never done before.This is my first weekend racing as a 2, you know. I felt like I’d gotten to 2 at an appropriate time. I did a cat.-3-only race, and I won Westwood Velo. That was a cat.-3-only race, and I felt that was a good gauge, you know. It’s, like, if I’m riding away form the 3s, I should be a 2. Now I’m racing with 2s and 3s and 4s.
DM: And in big races.
DC: Yeah, I mean, the MAC Series is a pretty big, nationally recognized series. It’s, like, maybe if I were riding B’s at the smaller races it would be sandbagging, but most of the small races force me to ride as a 2 anyway. Yeah, I’m going to be racing A’s when that’s my category. Unfortunately, I can’t race the A’s at the MAC Series because I don’t have a UCI license. And it also seems silly because I’m doing well in the MAC standings, so to jump to a higher category to start all over again … It’s, like, maybe it’s a little silly but I’d kind of like to finish out the series. And just see where I end up on the final standings. I definitely think there are guys faster than me, and I definitely think winning Cat and Kitten Cross wasn’t easy—that was a struggle. Me and that guy Gunnar [Bergey], who I think is second in the MAC standing right now. It was a very hard-fought race. I mean, he was taking a clean bike every half-lap. I don’t have that luxury, and that would be even more detrimental to me in the A’s—not having a pit bike, not having a pit crew.
It would seem that I’m ill prepared to race the A races right now, so I’m going to stick to the B’s, ride out the season. If I have enough points to upgrade to a 1 at the end of the season I will. Then, next season, you know, hopefully I’ll be more prepared, I’ll have a pit bike, I’ll have a little support, and I’ll spend the season banging my head up against the wall trying to get some results.
DM: How tall are you?
DC: You know, we think it’s 6 foot. Not sure! [Laughs] I seem to ride really weird-size bikes.
DM: What’s your new bike?
DC: It’s technically a 56 but it’s really like a 53, you know. It’s one of those. My stem isn’t super long, the seat isn’t super jacked. I don’t know. I feel like one of these days I should just go get fitted and figure that stuff out, but I don’t have any money for that right now. And I seem to be doing fine.
DM: What do you weigh?
DC: I don’t know. It fluctuates. Sometimes it’s like 138 or 147. On average it’s 143.
DM: Do you ever use power meters or a heart-rate monitor?
DC: Somebody gave me a power meter and I couldn’t for the life me figure it out. I can’t afford a power meter. It’s cool to have one. I’ve used them on the training sessions on the trainer. It’s kind of interesting. It’s nice to see your wattage because it’s like a concrete number that you can compare with others, but I find that in reality none of that really translates into real life.
I feel like having a power meter on your bike would translate into real life a lot better, but, like, those trainer numbers, some people who would beat me, I would just be like, I know that I’ve dropped you. It’s a different, totally isolated environment. It’s a good gauge when you return to that environment over and over again, but I feel like I don’t have access to that all the time. I used to swim, which is also an endurance sport technically, and it was more your mental capacity for the sport. Like I trained with some guys who were certainly fast, and we all did the same training.
DM: This was in high school?
DC: Yeah, I was on the swim team. And I was on a club team. Pretty much all year round. I got the chance to swim with some really fast swimmers, like guys you see on TV. One of the guys I used to swim with was on one of the relays in the Olympics last year for the U.S. And it was, like, I trained with that guy. What was the difference there?
Read part 2 of my interview with Dan Chabanov here.