The Cycling Champion Who Doesn’t Have to Win to Be Satisfied

Sixteen months ago, Ashton Lambie hopped onto his bike in Roubaix, France, and cranked his way to a world championship in individual pursuit, a grueling, 16-lap sprint around a 250-meter banked wooden velodrome.

The victory — two months after he set the world record in the same event — placed him at the pinnacle of track cycling, a goal he had pursued for five years.

And that was enough for him. It was the last time Lambie, 33, raced in a velodrome. He felt accomplished after winning the world championship and had little desire to hang onto his place in the sport. He was also ready to be done with the training such high performance requires.

“The mental depth that you have to dig to, like, actually go really hard in those, it’s brutal,” Lambie said of individual pursuit events. “And I think it really takes a toll on me, oneself, and, it’s like you got to go to a pretty dark spot, man. I don’t have any desire to do that if I don’t need to.”

Since his world championship win in October 2021, Lambie has been redefining what success means for him, and that has made him a curiosity in cycling. Once, success meant winning races on gravel courses and setting world records on the track. Now, it means entering races with less focus on competition, seeing what is along the route and exploring new interests — even if he fails along the way.

Most recently, he tried out to become a “meat battery” — a set of strong legs that powers racing sailboats. It did not work out, but Lambie does not regret the effort.

“It feels great to feel good about that,” he said. “It is fun to keep the process interesting and exciting.”

‘Meteoric Rise’

In 2016, Lambie was working at Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop in Lawrence, Kan., living what his boss, Dan Hughes, described as a “monkish” existence, subsisting for a while on the products of a 50-pound bag of flour. He was a cycling omnivore, particularly attracted to long-distance rides in a discipline called randonneuring, while also competing locally in gravel races.

One night he showed up at the grass velodrome cut into a farmer’s field north of Lawrence, the only grass velodrome in the country, riding a clunky borrowed bike. He trounced the competition.

“We have had several talented athletes come through the velodrome over the years, but have never had any do the meteoric rise that Ashton has,” said Bill Anderson, a Kansas cycling mainstay who operates the velodrome.

Soon Lambie was traveling to Trexlertown, Penn., the mecca of track cycling in the United States, to win qualification points, and eventually Colorado Springs as a part of the American national pursuit team, advancing from novice to world class almost overnight.

When the American men failed to qualify for team pursuit in the Tokyo Olympics, which were held in 2021 instead of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, he turned his full attention to the individual pursuit.

Individual pursuits begin with two riders on opposite sides of the velodrome. To get the cycle’s wheels moving from a dead stop, riders exert tremendous force on the pedals and handlebars, the equivalent of a massive dead lift, and then hunch their bodies over aero bars and chase each other for an excruciating four kilometers, or about 2.5 miles.

At a high-altitude track in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in August 2021, Lambie became the first person to break four minutes, a barrier that once seemed impenetrable, like the four-minute mile in running. In doing so, he reclaimed the record that he and the Italian cyclist Filippo Ganna had traded back and forth for years.

Two months later at the world championships, Lambie finished ahead of Jonathan Milan of Italy and Ganna, who had relegated him to a silver medal in 2020, to win the title. Then he decided enough was enough.

He compared his thinking to debates sports fans have frequently. “It’s like, oh, who is the best individual pursuit-er in the world right now? I think however you want to slice that, I feel like I’ve got that,” Lambie said. He could have tried to hang onto the champion’s rainbow stripes for another year, but what was the point?

“I already did that. Why do I need to do it again?”

Deciding Not to Go for the Summit

Now Lambie’s desire is to explore, a throwback to his life as a cycling shop employee who grew most of his own food and did whatever interested him, rather than what others considered important.

Last year, he competed in a series of gravel races and tried out for American Magic, the United States entry into next year’s America’s Cup sailing event. Cycling and sailing are not as different as they seem. Increasingly, the winches on racing sailboats are powered by legs, not arms, and where better than the cycling circuit to find a “meat battery,” as those crew members are sometimes called?

Lambie’s exploration has been marked by what, from the outside, looks like failure. He thought he had a 50-50 chance of making the sailing team, but was told earlier this month that others were chosen ahead of him. Spots may open later this year that he can try out for again.

And in cycling, the gravel cycling world he once dominated chewed him up and spat him out.

Last June in the Flint Hills of Kansas — it was alternatively cold, rainy, windy, sunny, hot and humid, a perfect day for masochists on bikes — Lambie competed in the 200-mile race at Unbound, the Super Bowl of gravel cycling. In 2019, he had won the 100-mile race at what would become Unbound.

This time he finished 105th, two hours and an eternity behind the leaders.

At times, he was an incongruous sight. Reminders of his world championship glory days, in the form of the winner’s rainbow stripes, were on his bike, his water bottles and his sleeves even as he barreled into checkpoints covered head-to-toe in mud, well after his opponents had already left.

But Lambie does not feel he has failed. He sometimes looks at athletic achievements as a mountain to summit. He spent years climbing the mountain in track cycling, and he’s wary of immediately going for another summit.

“It gives you a little bit more bandwidth and more curiosity to maybe see things that you wouldn’t see if you were just strictly like, ‘I’m on this path to this peak’ and you’re just like looking at the ground in front of you, right?” Lambie asked.

In many ways, Lambie could not be more different from Ganna, his biggest rival in track cycling.

The son of an Olympic sprint canoer, Ganna is a lithe 6-foot-4, the ideal body type for a cyclist. Riding for the well-funded Ineos Grenadiers, Ganna, a specialist in time trials in road cycling, has won stages at the most prestigious multiday races, like the Giro d’Italia and the Critérium du Dauphiné. Lambie jokes that Ganna’s road cycling life is so demanding that track cycling “is kind of a break from his job.”

Lambie, in contrast, is short and stocky, an elaborately mustachioed power specialist who wouldn’t have looked out of place 100 years ago wearing an old-timey wrestling singlet. He built a homemade gym in a shed in Montana during the early days of the pandemic to train.

Lambie said of Ganna, “I think he more looks at me and he’s like, ‘Man, what a weird little dude. What’s this guy doing here?’”

Ganna said: “No, I think he is a good guy.” He added that he is jealous of Lambie’s mustache; he can’t grow one.

Lambie is often asked why he does not compete in the biggest road races. If he can beat Ganna on the track, can’t he beat Ganna elsewhere? But Lambie said it’s not that simple: He trained specifically for the individual pursuit, and still barely bested Ganna.

“I spent six months living in Montana and focusing on nothing but the sub-four and managed it by, you know, three hundredths of a second,” he said. “He’s busting world records while he’s also racing full time on the world tour and doing all sorts of other crazy stuff.”

Absent from last year’s world championships in October, Lambie sent Ganna a good luck text message before it began. Ganna won the gold medal in the individual pursuit, breaking Lambie’s world record in the process.

This year, Lambie wants to complete the Flint Hills Ultra, a 1,000-mile ride through Kansas and Oklahoma, and race The Rift, through Icelandic lava fields. He wants to pioneer new distance routes out of Houston, where he bought a house with his wife, Christina Birch, a former professional cyclist who is in the NASA astronaut candidate program.

Lambie is an athlete, but he also considers himself an influencer, a word that is sometimes seen as derogatory in sports because it is more associated with Instagram-perfect shots than world championships. He makes a living from sponsors, signing with those who respect his lifestyle, rather than those who would want him to ride in specific races and give performance-based bonuses.

He sometimes does customer support for a gravel bike manufacturer, Lauf, and hopes to show people they don’t “have to follow this really specific, rigid, super common career path,” he said.

He continued: “Like, you can go from ultradistance to gravel to sailing, whatever you are passionate about, and as long as you are doing it, it doesn’t make it the wrong thing.”.

Outdoor enthusiasts often refer to the fun scale, with three types of fun. Type I is something that is fun while it is happening, like eating cake; Type II is only fun in retrospect, like a hard workout; Type III is not fun at all.

Hughes, Lambie’s old boss from the bike shop, believes Lambie’s secret is that what is Type III fun for most people is Type II fun for him. It is not that he loves every second of a punishing six-hour ride or an intense weight lifting session. But he loves it enough in retrospect to keep doing it, to keep exploring, whether that is on a boat, a gravel road in the middle of Kansas or somewhere he has not yet dreamed of.

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