Editor’s note: In PART 1 of my conversation with Dan Chabanov, the up-and-coming cross racer and New York City bike messenger talked about emigrating from Russia to the U.S., charges of sandbagging, and finally getting a decent ‘cross bike. Here, in Part 2, the 22-year-old discusses the effects of his day job on his weekend ‘cross performances, prerace rituals, his free car, working as a bike courier in London, and going to the top in ‘cross.
Daniel McMahon: How’d you get into racing?
Dan Chabanov: I got into racing through the messenger community, doing the street races, the alleycats. I had some success. I got a road bike and joined Kissena. Figured I’d try it out. Got into some cat.-5 Prospect Park races. I think I won one a couple of years ago with another messenger buddy of mine. It was cool. We were in a two-man break for four laps in a five-lap race and ended up staying away. I was just, like, That felt good! I raced pretty seriously two seasons ago and ended up wining Green Mountain. That’s how I got my cat.-4-to-3 upgrade. That was like, OK, maybe there’s some potential here. Then I did cross that season and enjoyed that. I think I won two races, a C and a B race. Then I did Iron ‘Cross, but it wasn’t a major focus. This year I’ve been to at least one ‘cross race a weekend since Whirlybird. It’s a priority. People know not to call me on the weekends because I’m away. I pretty much have had my entire season planned out, you know. It’s a lot more focused than it’s ever been, and I think a lot of that is because I’ve been having success. It’s a lot easier to be focused when you’re doing well. It’s a lot harder to persevere through the hard times. But I’m definitely going to be looking around for more support next year for cross.
DM: So this is your first full season doing ‘cross.
DC: I did it a little bit last year. But in November I went to London to visit friends of mine and see what being a courier was like out there. I worked on the road in London for three weeks. It was crazy. London is a really silly city. Nothing is in a straight line and streets change name midblock, building numbers are not labeled. Sometimes you just kind of have to guess that that’s the right building. I spent most of my days buried in the only map—A to Z. It’s a book about two inches thick. And most of it is just street names. You bury your nose in the index.
DM: No GPS then?
DC: I wish I had that kind of money! The thing is, GPS is going to give you car directions. I’m a bike messenger. I don’t need car directions. I have a lot of trouble with that when people come visit me from out of town. I give them directions. They call me back. They’re like, That’s a one-way or We can’t drive through this courtyard. I’m like, Oh, yeah, that’s right. So it’s just like normal shortcuts are ingrained in my mind as the definitive way to get someplace.
DM: Did you just roll into London and find a job messengering?
DC: I had friends from London I met when they were here and who stayed with me. And they were like, Come visit us and crash on our floor. So I did that and got a job.
DM: What’s the courier scene like in London?
DC: Well, New York is unique in that we don’t really have a courier scene, because there are so many couriers here that’s is all very little cliques of little groups who are like friends. But there’s no one large scene. In London it’s like the opposite. If you want to meet London couriers, you go to the Foundry on Friday night at 7, and they’re all going to be there. There’s always a courier pub in London that all the couriers go to on Friday night.
DM: So you did that for three weeks.
DC: Yeah, you know, I didn’t really make any money. I just got a job because I was like, I’m a courier from New York, and they were like, OK, you can have a job. And that kind of works everywhere actually.
DM: You have street cred.
DC: Pretty much. I mean, if you’ve been a courier in New York, it’s like most other cities kind of respect that. It’s the same way with San Francisco or Toronto or Montreal. Because in North America those are some of the hardest cities to work in. Canada for its winters, San Fran for its hills, New York … for it’s fucking everything. It’s, like, I had a gun pulled on me in New York City, you know.
DM: What happened?
DC: This lady almost killed me pulling into a parking lot. I had to save myself by putting my hand on her car and leaning into her. She gets out of the car and starts accusing me of trying to damage her car. I’m like, You almost killed me. She’s like, Oh yeah? She goes to the trunk and pulls out a handgun. I don’t know. I guess she really wanted to finish the job.
DM: Do you tear it up when you’re riding around making deliveries?
DC: Most of the couriers who race on the weekends, you know, when you bump into them on the road they’re not going fast. I don’t go fast when I’m couriering. I’m tired. I get my ego filled on the weekend racing. That’s when I compete. I’m not going to race some asshole up Sixth Avenue for shits and giggles. If you want to race me, get a license, we’ll go race, you know. I’m not going to do it in traffic. Sometimes I do, for fun, but not when I’m working. I’m just trying to make a living.
DM: So what happened after your return from Old Blighty?
DC: So yeah, the London trip kind of interrupted my first season of ‘cross. Then I came back and the first race I did was Southampton, and I got 20th or something both days. It just hurt like hell.
DM: Which category?
DC: I did the B’s. It was obvious that I was not in shape after being away for a month, not really riding too much.
DM: How does working as a courier all week affect your racing? Does it help it, hinder it? I imagine some would say, Oh, you ride so much! That’s awesome for training. But is it the case?
DC: No! It’s garbage miles. For the road it’s really garbage. If anything it’s so detrimental because to be successful on the road you need to have as much rest as you have effort. As a courier if all you’re ever doing is riding you never get to rest. So it’s actually very detrimental for road racing. ‘Cross I don’t think so much. ‘Cross is, you know, a very short effort. It’s a lot of intensity. All it is is little accelerations. So for ‘cross I think being a messenger is actually really sort of helpful. All you’re doing is sprinting between buildings. So it’s off the bike, on the bike. It really helps out with bike handling, hopping on and off the bike all the time. I mean, a lot of couriers take mounting for granted. All I do is, like, 300 to 400 dismounts a day. People are like, Oh, you know, mounting and dismounting is really hard. I’m, like, Oh yeah? I never had that experience. That’s what I do for a living. And, you know, making tight turns, taking tight turns at speed, leaning into stuff, finding small gaps and spaces—all that stuff you don’t really think about it. I feel like when most road racers get on a ‘cross course, they’re like, Whoa! This is narrow and twisty! I feel it’s slightly intimidating. And you don’t get that as a courier. It’s like, Oh, this is fun because it’s not traffic—I won’t die if I crash! Trees will stay exactly where they are. That barrier isn’t going to scurry six inches ahead to screw with me. It’s relaxing to just go all out and not have to worry about anything but your fellow racers.
DM: You find it fun then?
DC: Oh yeah. I wouldn’t do ‘cross if it wasn’t fun. I mean, I didn’t have much fun on the road this past season because I did only like three or four races.
DM: Park races?
DC: Yeah, did a couple of park races. But I hate park races.
DC: So boring. Going around the park in loops. Can it get any more boring? I mean, it’s more fun than doing it by yourself, but still, by lap five I’m, like, We’ve got how many more of these to do? I don’t even want to think about it. Otherwise, I did Bear Mountain, Fawn Grove, Battenkill, Tokeneke, but couldn’t afford to do Green Mountain this year, which was a bummer. I like the out-of-town road races. I really like Battenkill because it’s one big loop. I understand it’s hard to organize, and we can’t have a ton of races like that. Rolling enclosures are a pain in the ass. But I wish more races were like that.
DM: You raced as cat. 3 on the road. Get any results?
DC: No. I got dropped at Battenkill, dropped at Tokeneke. I think my best result all year was eighth at Fawn Grove. It was just a bummer season. I had a lot of mechanical trouble with my bike—cracked the frame, broke a bunch of derailleurs, couple of wheels. On top of all that, I just kind of ran out of money replacing stuff. That’s when Keith [Snyder] from Kissena came in and helped me out and gave me a road group to put on a bike.
DC: Yeah, he’s a really good guy.
DM: Evidently, you’re better at ‘cross than at road. Is that true, and, if so, why do you think that is?
DC: It kind of is. I started this ['cross] season as a 4 and now I’m a 2. Hopefully will be a 1 by the end of it. I don’t know. The thing is, I really didn’t do a whole lot of specific training for cross. I didn’t really do much prep. I did the Wednesday or Tuesday night practices on Randall’s Island. And that was great. Got me really pumped for ‘cross.
DM: When I was out there I saw a lot of quality riders.
DC: Yeah. It was really fun to work on the skills and get that going.
DM: What made you decide to do a full ‘cross season this time around?
DC: I was always kind of planning on it. I got on the ‘cross bike, went out to Randall’s Island, and I just felt like I had potential there. I felt like it suited my style of riding. And so I was just, like, OK, I’ll give this a shot. We’ll see how it goes. Apparently it’s going well, so I’ll stick with it for the rest of the season. See how it ends up.
DM: Which ‘cross races have you done this year?
DC: My first race was Whirlybird. I did Iron Cross this year, which is the best race ever—the longest cyclocross race in the world, by the way. They advertise it as the longest cyclocross race in America, but I looked up on Three Peaks, the event that inspired Iron Cross. It’s only like 30-something miles. Iron ‘Cross is 62-plus, the longest cyclocross race in the world. You can’t beat that.
DM: Pretty hardcore.
DC: Pretty awesome! You’re just, like, in the woods for like five hours on your bike. And it’s just awesome.
DM: You had a good result there.
DC: I finished 10th in the 40-and-under category, and I knocked 20 minutes off my time from last year. I finished in just 4 hours 10 minutes. Which is still a long way away from the winner, Jeremiah Bishop, who won it in like 3:40-something. I think he was just off the course record. I finished 14th overall, including all the other categories, and it was almost 300 people I raced, so I felt pretty good about it. It was really a nice warm-up for the rest of the season, in terms of getting some racing fitness into the legs. It was a really hard 5-hour race.
DM: What else have you done?
DC: I did the New York States in Albany, and the day after we went down to Wissahickon to do that mud fest. That was my first MAC Series race. I won the Westwood Velo B’s. That was my last race as a 3. I upgraded the next day. Then I did Beacon, then Cat and Kitten, which was a really fun weekend, because Beacon was probably one of the fastest courses out there. It was just hard-packed, like a crit through the woods. Then Cat and Kitten was a mud fest, and you had to really run some stretches because it was just unrideable. So those races were the two extremes of cyclocross, and it was great. And both in one weekend. And it was awesome to see New York do so well. Kyle Peppo got third both days; I got second and first; Andrew Crooks rode really well. I’m probably going to end up racing him at Staten Island in the As. I’m probably going to do the As and the B’s that day.
DC: I think there’s enough room in between. I think there’s like two hours. Even if it’s just an hour, I don’t mind.
DM: Ever done two cross races in one day?
DC: Yeah, I did it at Whirlybird, because I flatted out of the B’s and decided to jump in the A’s.
DM: How’d it go?
DC: I got 11th. But it was only out of 17 people. And it was my first hour-long race. And it just kicked my ass!
DM: What exactly is the big difference between the 40-minute races and the hour-long ones?
DC: You definitely get a lot sloppier as it gets into the 40-minute-to-an-hour range. So I feel like it gets a lot harder to keep your concentration up. The other thing is that in the shorter races, you know, once you gap somebody, it’s pretty hard for that person to ride back up to you. But in the longer races people get second winds. Like somebody you’re ahead of might catch you and you might lose it, then you might get a second wind. It gets a lot more tactical. I just feel an hour-long race is a whole new ball game.
DM: It seems that a lot of the higher category races end up with guys soloing and winning by a half minute or a minute. Like they’re really on their own, time trialing. Do you find that to be the case in your races, or does it end up that you’re going back and forth against guys?
DC: I’ve had experiences where both have happened. In some races, I’ve been kind of on my own the whole race. Like Westwood Velo: I took the hole shot, and I road by myself the rest of the race. In Beacon Cross it was kind of a two-man duel between me and Sam O’Keefe. After I endoed in the sand pit, he just kind of road away. I road by myself the rest of the race. But behind me there was a pretty heated battle for third between Kyle Peppo and Guzman and few others. He was in a group of four, and I believe Guzman had a mechanical and Peppo took third. On Sunday, at Cat and Kitten, it was definitely a two-man race for a long time. Even when I did get a gap it wasn’t that big. I mean, it was 30 seconds at the finish, but for most of the race it was, like, 10 or 15 seconds, and he kept closing in, going back out, closing in, going back out. There’s definitely a possibility for a race to go either way. And I feel like in the higher categories, you’re right, people go a lot more back and forth, especially on dry days. In the mud, it’s a world of difference. In the mud, the technical side seems to come into play a lot more. But on dry days fitness and technique are more of a 50-50 game.
DM: A lot of guys look like they’re trying hard in races. You don’t. Do you wear a poker face?
DC: I work really hard in any race. I’m definitely hurting, but I don’t show it on my face as much as some people do. I feel like sometimes it comes out but the photographer is not around. At the same time, it’s cool to have epic photos of yourself looking like you’re dying, but let’s face it, guys: We’re racing Bs in a regional series of cyclocross races. It’s pretty awesome, but at the same time I try not to take it all that seriously. Maybe one day it’ll be a different story and I’ll be talking about this as serious business, but right now I’m doing it because it’s fun.
DM: How do you get to races?
DC: I have a car. My mom donated it. She was getting a new one and was, like, I could trade it in for a $500 government rebate or give it to you. I was, like, Let’s go with that.
DM: How did New York States go?
DC: It was my second race with the A field. My second hour-long race. I got fifth. Felt pretty good about it. I was third in State and the fastest Cat. 3. I felt pretty good about it. It wasn’t a spectacular finish, but it certainly felt good to be in the top 5 in an elite race. But, I mean, it was a small race; there weren’t that many people there. It was a good result but not phenomenal or anything.
For the rest of the season I’m going to be committed to doing the MAC series races. I’m going to do Mercer Cup weekend, Whitmore’s Cross in Southampton, Staten CX, Philipsburg, which is the New Jersey State Championship. I did that race last year and it was just a ton of fun. And then after that we’re going to drive down to Virginia for the MAC series final, and that’s probably going to be my last race. December 6—then we’re calling it quits!
DM: Do you have a mountain biking background?
DC: Done one race. Dave [Trimble] dragged me to one, and I think I finished second to last. I mean, it was my first time ever on a mountain bike—and I had a ton of fun—but there’s a lot of possibility for death and serious injury in mountain biking.
DM: Do you do any specific training for cross?
DC: No, not at all. Not this year. Definitely next year, racing elites, it’s going to be a much more intensive, involved thing. This year I’ve got a good thing going, and I’m not going to mess with it, like add anything to it. Just going to roll with it. And hopefully win some more races and climb up the in the MAC series and get my 1.
DM: Is that a goal, to upgrade to Cat. 1?
DC: I don’t know if I want to be a 1, just because I kind of want to go out with a nice streak of good results before I start banging my head against that wall. So I think I’m going to finish out the season as a 2. And after the season is over put in for my 1. Start off next year as a 1.
DM: So you’d be doing the A races.
DC: I’d have to do the A races everywhere. The thing is, like, to be a 1 you need a UCI license anyway, because most of the races are UCI. At the start of next season I’m going to buy a UCI license and use that for everything, as opposed to a USA license.
DM: So you’ll be traveling a lot more.
DC: It’s a little early to even think about it, but from my vaguest ideas of what next year will hold, I’ll probably be committed to doing the MAC series as an elite and see how that goes. From what I’ve gathered talking to people, the easiest way to get a ride is to commit to a series, get a good result, because it shows dedication to traveling to all difference races. It shows some consistency. It’s a long way away next year. Who knows? Maybe I’ll hate cycling by then. So I try not to plan that far ahead simply because it seems like a recipe for disaster.
DM: Any prerace rituals?
DM: At what point exactly?
DC: I like to do it before I warm up. About an hour before the race. We haven’t had any super-cold races yet, so I feel like it might have to go on a little earlier for those simply because it takes a little while to heat up.
DM: It’s been pretty nice out there so far, for the most part.
DC: Yeah, it’s been an interesting cross season. Got a good mix of conditions. I feel like those West Coast punters who claim we don’t have mud over here, like—we’ve proven them wrong! We’ve got some seriously muddy races—and, yeah, Portland, go to hell!
DM: So in the A races you’ll be up against guys like Trebon.
DC: Oh yeah. That guy’s legs! The barriers should be on hydraulics so that when he goes up they should raise a couple of feet, so he actually has to jump over them like the rest of us.
DM: I chatted with him at Wissahickon. His inseam is 39.5.
DC: He should have done the Beacon Cross Amphitheater of Pain. The run-up was up the bleachers of an amphitheater. They were pretty freaking high. It was not a short-person-friendly race.
DM: After the cross season’s done, what’s the plan, Dan?
DC: I’m going to take a break, for like a month, and just try to have a good time, relax. If it snows, maybe I’ll take my cross bike out and head to Prospect Park and have a good time. Just ride. I do plan on doing a lot more road, and hit the season a lot more focused than I did this year, where I was kind of all over the place with training and racing. I’m going to try to have a bit more of a plan, and maybe go for a 2 on the road. Probably race Bear, Battenkill, Fawn Grove, do all the big out-of-town races. We’ll see. I’d like to take a break halfway through the summer and come back and hit it again. And maybe go back to Green Mountain, but if I do go back that would be the last road race I do. On the other hand, maybe I don’t go back, and wind it down and get ready for the cross season, try to replicate the freshness I had going into this season.
DM: Do you ever go back to Russia?
DC: Last time I was there was probably when I was 16 or something. I really don’t have any interest in going back. I mean, I have some relatives there I’d like to see, but I don’t have any friends there, not a big patriot in any way, shape, or form. You know, it’s where I’m from, but I don’t feel any real connection. Sure, I’d like to go back and see it a few more times, but no pressing desire.
DM: Thanks, Dan. Best of luck with the rest of the season. See you at the races.
DC: Cool, thanks.