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Doing the Math with Jamie Paolinetti

Photo by Scott Schaffrick At 38 years old, and with over 14 years of racing under his belt, Jamie Paolinetti is one of the most experienced journeymen in American cycling. A veteran rider who has raced with and against some the biggest names in the sport, Jamie is also a filmmaker and writer with a documentary about American racing almost in the can.

Last week he successfully defended his title at the Shelby Criterium in North Carolina, one of the toughest, fastest criteriums on the national circuit, beating the stiffest competition in the country to the line with only two other teammates from the first year pro-cycling team he now leads: Schroeder/Incycle. The Daily Peloton sat down with Jamie and talked about his career in cycling, his film, his approach to racing and leading a first year team on the National Circuit, and how he managed to repeat his win in Shelby.

Taking the start in this year’s Shelby Criterium as the defending champion, Jamie Paolinetti knew how impossible it would be to win on pure strength. With a scaled down team and the odds against him, he knew it would come down to smart racing if he had a chance to win. "We only had three guys there, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to overpower the field. Going into the race we had a basic plan to watch the combinations of the breakaways; who’s in them, and what team they’re on, and to make sure we were in the good ones. This involves riding at the front, being ready to cover, or bridge to, any break that goes and looks threatening. It's an on the fly evaluation that has to be done quickly, and you have to constantly be working to be in the right position."

Now a master strategist with the motor to bring his plans to fruition, Jamie’s introduction to cycling was by chance: "a freak thing." He played baseball in college, but had stopped, and was in his last year of school, looking for something to do just to stay active. He was surfing a lot at the time when a friend of his, who was a Cat 2 racer, came to him "one day when the waves had been flat a long time and said ‘Come with me for a bike ride.’ "

Jamie’s fit with cycling was instant and perfect. Physically, mentally and analytically engaging, it satisfied "everything I thought I was about at the time." An immediate string of strong results and victories moved him quickly through the categories, and within a few months, he found himself on the start line of the district championships, encompassing all of the west coast. Out of a field of approximately 300, Jamie took 15th, which, along with his previous strong showings, qualified him as a Cat 2 racer within an amazing seven weeks of hitting the local circuit. His first start as a Cat 2 was at a race in La Jolla, California, where he found himself riding with the big boys: "Alexei Grewal, Davis Phinney, and Jeff Pierce were there; superstars who had just come back from the Tour de France. It was a huge step up, and even though I had been on a bike just seven weeks, I was hanging in there! So, I kind of figured out that I had something. Some knack you need to do the sport."

Jamie finished his first season with good results, got a spot on the best amateur team in Southern California at that time, and did a full year as a Cat 1. During that year, he and his team did over 110 races and by the end of the season he had an offer from a small pro team, and went on to ride the national circuit and a few international races for the first time.

In 1990, Jamie was offered a place on the newly forming Chevrolet/LA Sheriffs’ team. "Jeff Pierce, of Tour de France fame, came over here and wanted to start a domestic program. He and I were the first two pros that were hired." On Chevy, he was part of a team that included riders like Malcolm Elliot, Steve Hegg, and Bobby Julich. They rode the National circuit, winning over half the races they entered. The team was dominant and the racing was great, but eventually the heavy schedule took its toll on Jamie. By 1994, he was really feeling it: "I had been racing since 1988, and by that time was doing 120 races a year; full-on, full-bore for ten plus months a year, and I was just tired." The last three years on Chevy/LA Sheriffs were especially intense. "When you’re on a team like that, Like Mercury or Saturn are now, you’re expected to win every race you go to. That’s your job: win every race! For the strongest teams, the onus of making the race falls on your shoulders, and that pressure, that kind of workload, is insane. Every week you travel all over the country, you’re back and forth, and you never know where you are or what you’re doing. It’s impossible to get any kind of steady training schedule in, and there’s always pressure. I was physically and mentally exhausted."

There were some personal changes on the horizon as well: Jamie was getting married, and starting to worry about what the future would be like for a retired bike racer. In August of 1994, when the rumors that he might retire started to trickle out, he was approached by Bicycle Guide Magazine and offered a position as an editor, which he accepted, retiring from racing at 30 years old. The decision was a tough one, and being so near the sport he loved, but not racing proved to be tougher than he anticipated. "About halfway through the first year working at the magazine, I realized that it probably wasn’t a smart thing to do for me, because I had just left the sport in a hard decision, but after two months of not racing, not training, and not getting ready for the next season, I wasn’t tired anymore! I was ready to go. Three months off, that’s all I needed!" he laughs. By that time it was too late for him to go back. The season was underway, teams had long since been solidified, and for Jamie, being so close to the sport and following it for the magazine while regretting his retirement proved to be a bad combination. "I had to write about it and follow it when I couldn’t be in it. I was 30 years old, and had just finished the most successful year in my career, it was just too much."

Opting to get further away from the cycling world, Jamie went back to school at UCLA to study his other passion: filmmaking. Eventually, he went to work for the local cable companies producing commercials. Before long, he had started his own commercial production company, and was working steadily. Around this time, he was approached by a friend who had just started what would become the NetZero cycling team, and was asked to join them in the local criteriums. "He told me ‘We don’t care what you do, just show up when you can!’ " It was 1997 by then, and Jamie hadn’t raced at all in three years, but when he came back, he came back strong, and was "Winning everything! I think I won about 15 races that year, including the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, which is a National Calendar race."

By the middle of 2000, Jamie was racing again and running a successful business. That year the film and advertising industry suffered a huge blow when the commercial actors’ guild went on strike, shutting down all production for months. Jamie’s production company floundered with no work for 8 months, and finally went under. During the strike, he found himself with a lot of free time, and "just started training and racing all the time, with NetZero." The team had a lot of successes, winning big local races and traveling to some national races and winning there as well. "By the end of that year, the strike was still on, and the guys from NetZero came to me and said ‘look, we want to put in more money and have a professional team. What are you gonna do?’ and I said ‘I’ll do it.’ "

Jamie saw another opportunity in his return to bike racing. In 1994 he’d written a treatment for a documentary about the sport. He wanted to make a film about domestic, professional racing, and saw his opportunity to race with NetZero as a chance to pursue that dream. "I decided I could look at the strike in two ways," he says, "I could either see it as something that put me out of business, or that it had finally given me the opportunity to make this movie I’d been wanting to make for years." With the prospect of making the film, Jamie signed on to race with NetZero for one year as a rider and as the coach of the team.

Jamie’s goal for 2001 became his documentary. Jamie Paolinetti the bike racer happened to play a role in the film, and was the coach of this team, "but for me, the real person, I just wanted to make this movie." NetZero went on to tremendous success as a first year pro team, and Jamie shot his documentary, capturing an inside view of grass roots American road racing. He is currently polishing and editing the film, and hopes that it will give people a unique vision of the sport: "I wrote it, directed it and am editing it for people who know nothing about cycling. I think it’s going to get the people who are fans already. Hopefully, it’ll get the bike riders, too, who will get view of the sport that they couldn’t have, because you just can’t know what’s it’s like to race professionally until you’ve walked a mile in those shoes. I think my movie is going to give everybody a really cool look at what this sub-culture is all about, and at the strange life that these people live."

By the end of the 2001 season, things were going badly for the NetZero team, as their sponsors fell victim to the dot.com meltdown. By June, they were out of money, and still had the whole summer to go. "I had to pay my own way to races, and I’d never done that, ever in my whole life; not in all my years on the bike! But," Jamie laughs, "the riders stuck it out. That’s what bike racing is all about." By the end of the year, photography for the movie was finished, and the team was folding. Jamie knew it was going to be a huge job to edit and market his film, and that he wouldn’t have time to train and race. He wanted to focus all his energy on the movie, and retired from cycling for the second time.

The film turned out to be an even bigger job than Jamie imagined, and "as can be expected with a project of this size, things go wrong, and take longer than you ever expect." Coming into this year, Jamie started to hear rumblings that a new team was brewing. Some of the riders on the Schroeder Iron/Incycle club were wanting to start a pro team, and they approached him and asked what it would take to get him to come and run the team. Jamie was approached by Frank Schroeder through some of the guys who rode with the Schroeder amateur team, and they told him "about a plan they had in the back of their minds, asking what would it take. We started a series of meetings, though at the time, I really had no intention of racing again." Jamie was still focusing entirely on his movie, but as time went on, and the film wasn’t done, he started looking seriously at the idea of the new team, and started to see the potential of racing with Schroeder as an opportunity to promote his film, and dove back in.

The Schroeder/Incycle team is "really a rollover of some of the NetZero guys, and guys who were on the Schroeder amateur team last year, and there’s a huge range of talent and experience on the team. The NetZero guys have a year of pro-racing at a pretty high level under their belts, and that’s hard to get. The others are at the beginning of that experience. If you can press through an opportunity like that, and you can get to some of the bigger races and learn, that’s how you get better. For some of these guys, even though they’ve been racing forever, this is really their first year in the game, and they’re going to have a learning curve, while others are ahead of that, have ridden under me for a long time, and know my style. I’m looking at it like the NBA. In the NBA, there are a lot of coaches who can come into a team and turn it around because they have a style of play that works. That’s kind of how I look at what I am attempting to do as the lead rider and director of Schroeder. I have a style of racing, and a coaching strategy: a way of looking at the sport and it’s been proven to work. Teams that I’ve been involved with have won every race in the country."

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