On the bike, during lonely rural training rides when the imagination takes hold and flights of fancy soar, Trent Klasna would gaze longingly at parcels of farmland stitched along his Sierra foothills routes.
"I remember this one place off (Highway) 49; it was an orchard between Coloma and Placerville," he recalled. "It had a red shack out front and a farm stand. I wanted that."
When you're logging 600 miles a week in the saddle, as Klasna routinely did as a professional cyclist, the mind does tend to wander as the blood-sugar level ebbs.
But really? This was Klasna's fantasy in the early 2000s, when his cycling career was peaking and he was living the dream of anyone who's ever donned Lycra? In 2001 alone, he had won the National Time Trial Championship, the National Racing Calendar and the U.S. Pro Cycling Tour. He had finished ahead of such big names as Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, and battled the likes of veteran George Hincapie on the roads. He had raced in 22 countries for several professional teams and, for a spell, served as one of Lance Armstrong's domestiques (support riders).
So, naturally, Klasna yearned to be a farmer?
"Even as a kid, I wanted to be a farmer," Klasna said. "I realized, as I got older, around the time I started cycling, that I wasn't going to inherit a farm and, to be a big farmer, it's got to be a family thing, passed down.
"But I didn't give up the goal. I said, 'OK, I'm going to race my bike for 16 years, hang it up, never ride again, and (then) get some land."
And dang it if Klasna, now 41, wasn't true to his word.
This week, as professional cyclists hope for sunny and mild temperatures for the launching of the Tour of California, Klasna, too, is fretting over the weather, hoping for optimal conditions.
It's planting season at 49er Farm, a 2-acre parcel Klasna and wife Tracy lease off Highway 193 in Cool, El Dorado County. More than 3,000 of his plants, germinated through the precarious winter and unanticipated early-spring downpours, need warm weather to take root, sprout and yield a bounty to sell at the couple's farm stand and a new weekly farmers market that soon will start in Cool.
If Trent Klasna has time, he might even take a break from planting to head to Auburn to see the Tour of California riders begin Stage 3 on Tuesday morning.
In 2009, the first year the Klasnas nailed up the 49er Farm shingle, they experienced a bumper crop. Everything went right. The weather cooperated. Their tomatoes ripened, their zucchini thrived, their cilantro and basil grew to sweet pungency.
Then came last year. A week after they planted on Mother's Day, a freakish big freeze, a hailstorm and downpour ensued. A cyclist would only have to bear down and ride through it; a farmer's livelihood would be threatened by it. The Klasnas lost 1,000 plants. The squash, cucumbers and watermelon were decimated, the corn took a hit. A milder-than-expected summer, with fewer 100-degree readings than normal, didn't help the heirloom tomatoes, either.
All the crops came in late and, for a guy whose life has been judged by the clock for 16 years, it was hard to take.
"The first year, we were like, 'Wow, this is easy,' " Tracy Klasna said. "But last year kicked our butts."
"But," Trent added, running a hand through close-cropped hair showing flecks of gray, "we're looking forward to this year. We learned a lot. We got the bug after the first year. Now, it's like, 'Come on, we can do it again.' "
No gentleman farmer, no mere dabbler, Klasna is committed to make farming a successful Second Act. He displays the same drive and single-minded focus he showed on the bike, when he was known on the pro circuit for his doggedness, his penchant for the risky strategy of taking the early lead and trying to repel all challenges.
Being a farmer, of course, is another kind of risk. Much is out of one's control. All hard work can be undermined by cruel twists of meteorological fate. But Klasna wouldn't have it any other way. The man lives for challenges, even if he admits, "When I got here, I didn't know how to do anything. All I knew was how to race a bike."
His mother, Sharie, has seen that look Trent gets when he's determined to do something a glint of the eye, a certain pursing of the mouth.
"All he has to do is decide, and that's it," said Sharie Klasna of San Diego. "There's no detouring him."
Cyclists, like most pro athletes, draw lucrative salaries. But their careers are finite and often depend on one- or two-year contracts from companies that sponsor teams. Though Klasna said the lowest-paid pro in a peloton earns about $250,000, they certainly do mull post-cycling career options.
"I knew I didn't want to be part of the (cycling) industry," Klasna said. "The traveling, at the beginning, was the coolest. (But) I did 110 races a year. At the end, I'm saying, 'Man, I'm flying to Australia again?' I was tired of it all."
Perhaps he wasn't so much burned out on cycling as fueled by a burning desire to till the land. Farm life, after all, wasn't totally alien to Klasna. Though he grew up in suburban San Diego, he spent the summers from ages 10 to 14 living with his grandparents in Nebraska and working on a hay farm "just to keep me out of trouble in San Diego."
His agrarian ambitions remained abstract until 2002, the year after his most successful season. He had met Tracy, an emergency-room nurse with no farming background, at a cycling event in Florida that year. They married and took to the road like modern-day Okie homesteaders.
Sponsored by the car company Saturn at the time, Klasna purchased a motor home and roamed the land towing a promotional car, his bikes and cycling gear. Not exactly ideal conditions in which to train long workouts on unfamiliar roads, followed by hours behind the wheel of a hulking RV but it gave Trent and Tracy a chance to scout post-cycling locations to take root.
They looked at spots in Oregon, at Solvang (Santa Barbara County), at Smartville (Yuba County). They wanted a place with trails to hike and rivers to traverse. They wanted rich soil and sun enough for a garden. They didn't want neighbors anywhere close.
They eventually warmed to the aptly named Cool. Trent Klasna had been familiar with the burg from long solo cycling jaunts in the Sierra foothills. With his cycling nest egg and Tracy's nursing jobs, they bought a house that has a backyard that leads into the Western States Trail. And they did it even before Trent's career ended after the 2005 season.
Once the bike was put away for good, Klasna felt a "What now?" panic for about two seconds before plunging himself into his new life. He taught himself how to build fences and weld artistic iron railings. He worked part time for an excavating company to learn how to operate a tractor. He quizzed every person he ran into about soil analysis and techniques to ensure a bountiful harvest.
"The (excavating crew) boss once said to me, 'You know what's crazy about you? You're such a cowboy because you're not afraid of trying anything,' " Trent said. "Tracy bought me the welder for my (cycling) retirement. I didn't know how to use it. But I took a couple of classes. I bought a big tractor and people said to me, 'Dude, you don't even know how to drive a big tractor.' I'm like, 'No, but I want a big tractor.' "
He's proficient at the basics now, thanks to practice and advice. Klasna may have wanted a house far away from neighbors, but he certainly has embraced the Cool and nearby Greenwood communities.
"The thing that's most striking about (the Klasnas) is how they're really pushing for a sense of community," said Heidi Zacher, who runs a farm-to-school educational program for the Black Oak Mines School District. "There's a movement with younger families like them, back to the older ways of farming, knowing where your food comes from."
Deena Miller, an organic farmer in Grass Valley, has been a sounding board for the Klasnas. Her family owns the 600-acre property on which the couple leases the 2 roadside acres. "He may be new to it, but he's fabulous at asking questions," Miller said. "And my dad (Rafe Miller) said he'll make a good farmer because he's got stamina and energy."
Klasna retains much of his elite cycling fitness, though laboring in the field has made his upper body far more muscular than it was in his Lycra-clad days. During the winter, when the farmland is fallow, he and Tracy and their dogs usually begin the day with hikes or runs on the trails.
But he has stayed true to his word about eschewing the road bike. Besides, come summer and fall, focus switches to 12-hour days on the farm.
It's hard work, but then so was making the move out of the peloton for a breakaway with your quadriceps and lungs burning. But farming taxes different attributes. It takes patience. It takes learning to slow down.
"It's paying attention and observing nature and working with the land," Tracy Klasna said.
For someone like Trent Klasna, once so ruled by the clock, it's been a change. A pleasant one.
"I'm still learning," he said. "I probably will be for a long time."