Few people in California have done more with a bike than Neil Shirley.
Hooked on two wheels since a child in San Luis Obispo, Neil started racing mountain bikes professionally as a teenager. While making a career of it, Neil transitioned over to the more lucrative discipline of road racing, participating in such races as the Tour of California.
Since retiring from the pro scene, Neil hasn't really moved on from cycling, as now he serves as editor of Road Bike Action Magazine.
Living in Santa Clarita, Neil shares his stories about all the places two wheels can take you.
What was it like to be raised in San Luis Obispo away from big city life?
It’s funny you should ask, because since San Luis was the largest town within 50 miles it seemed like the big city to me! After moving to San Diego when I was 22, I realized how quaint of an area SLO really is. Now when I go back to visit I can really enjoy the small town atmosphere where most businesses are independently owned and you can ride across town in about 15 minutes.
Before you fell into the world of cycling, what did you imagine yourself becoming as a grown up?
Well, my dad was a plumber while I was growing up and I always had to work with him during the summer. That was the best thing for me because I realized that I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Fortunately, there really wasn’t any time wasted as a directionless teenager since by the time I was 15 years old I already knew that I wanted to be a pro mountain biker.
Neil continues to raise money for World Bicycle Relief
You got into mountain bike racing quickly. When did it dawn on you that it could be a career?
When I first started racing mountain bikes in the early-to-mid-90s the sport was still growing and there was a lot of money in sponsorship. I rode for the top junior development team in the US—Team Devo—when I was 17 and it was then that I believed it would be possible to make a living racing mountain bikes. As it turned out, after mountain biking debuted in the ‘96 Olympics much of the corporate money started to go away and created a much smaller pool of racers that were making a real wage.
What did you love about racing mountain bikes professionally?
One of the things I liked most was the fact that I truly felt like I was living my dream since I was able to accomplish the goal I was dreaming about during algebra class as a sophomore in high school. Traveling across the country was also another wonderful part of it. There was a lot of time spent in the van going from Big Bear to Park City to Steamboat Springs to Mammoth. I don’t really remember much of the racing details from those trips but I sure have some great off-the-bike stories!
How much of a leap of faith did it take to switch from mountain bike to road racing?
Honestly, it wasn’t much of a leap of faith. I knew that if I wanted to continue as a professional the mountain bike wasn’t going to be my future since it was so difficult to make any money. An opportunity presented itself with a road team that was newly formed and they were looking for another relatively young rider and offered me a part time spot on the roster. I still had the freedom to race mountain bikes, but after racing events like Redlands Classic, Philadelphia Invitational, and San Francisco Gran Prix there was no going back for me. The size of the events, number of fans, and greater opportunity to get a result had me hooked.
Local riders are painfully invited to join Neil's Gravelpalooza & 4 Days to Fitness
Making the transition, how long did it take you to feel comfortable racing in the peloton?
I would say my savvy in the pack came around quickly and I don’t think I caused too many wrecks...hopefully. One of the things that took the longest to learn though was patience. With mountain biking it’s so similar to a time trial effort, you put your head down and ride as fast as you can for the duration. On the road, it’s quite the opposite, and understanding when to put your head down and when not to took me a couple of years to learn. Things got much easier after that.
You rode the Tour of California back in 2010. Are you happy where this race has progressed?
Being a California native and now living in a city that has a stage start or finish nearly every year is really fantastic. Seeing how the Tour of California has remained the top stage race in the country really shows how healthy the sport is, especially in California. Amgen has to be given credit for their continued support of the event, which they’ve been title sponsor of since the inaugural year in 2006. I think this year’s route is the best we’ve seen in a number of years since nearly every stage is new. Hitting San Diego, South Lake Tahoe, and the mountain finish atop Gibraltar in Santa Barbara will all be great stages.
Neil's work with Road Bike Action Magazine takes him to Scotland(pictured), Israel, Belgium and beyond.
How in the middle of competing as a cyclist did you discover you had a skill at writing?
The jury is still out on whether or not I have any writing skills, but I am fortunate to have made it my post-racing adventure. Back in ‘07 I started doing some race journals for Socalcycling.com, then was approached by ROAD Magazine to write a monthly journal for them. At first I wasn’t really sure that what I was doing would be of any interest to the readers, but it turns out that you have a lot of stories to tell when traveling the world to race your bike. I also figured that, unless I was one of the few guys that are actually winning a lot of pro bike races, which I was not, I should look for other ways to keep my name out there and hopefully bring added to value to my team and sponsors. What I ultimately realized was how much fun it was to re-live the moments by writing about them and getting to share them with readers.
As editor of Road Bike Action Magazine, is it more work than play?
Yes and no. Production week really isn’t all that much fun, yet I hardly go a day without getting on my bike. I’ve been so spoiled by the fact that the only jobs I’ve had are as a racer, and as a magazine guy, so I don’t really have the same perspective as people that have jobs that aren’t their passion. I have the freedom to create content ideas that involve traveling to just about anywhere in the world to ride my bike, and I realize how lucky I am. Of course, the work back in the office doesn’t stop just because I’m gone so there’s always a price to pay when I get home.
Neil competed in the 2010 Tour of California with Kelly Benefit Strategies
Looking back, what are some of the great experiences that cycling has brought you?
It would be easy to say that my greatest memories were winning the KOM at Tour of Utah, or standing on the podium at USPRO, but that’s not the case. The memories I truly value really don’t involve the times I’ve been on the podium, rather it’s the time I spent the day lost riding around Thailand, or the week I spent in a dive motel in Silver City, New Mexico, with my teammates. I do count my trip to Zambia with World Bicycle Relief as the greatest thing that cycling has allowed me to do. That particular trip gave me more life perspective in a single week than I had gained in the 28 years I had been alive.
What’s it like to integrate cycling with your lifestyle now that you reside in Santa Clarita?
Cycling has been such a huge part of my life for the past 22 years that it’s very fulfilling to share my enthusiasm with the Santa Clarita cycling community, whether that’s putting on 4 Days To Fitness over the winter, or just joining up with the group ride when I’m in town. Seeing the group grow in numbers and in strength over the past five years since I moved here is really inspiring. I can plan out the craziest, hardest climbing or gravel ride and there’s guaranteed to be at least half a dozen riders up for the challenge.