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Cyclist Evan Huffman tries to climb back

Evan Huffman shares a moment with his mother, Lorry, at home in El Dorado Hills. The cyclist says he’s “having fun again.”
Evan Huffman shares a moment with his mother, Lorry, at home in El Dorado Hills. The cyclist says he’s “having fun again.” rbenton@sacbee.com

Evan Huffman isn’t introverted, but he pedals in solitude as much as five hours a day six days a week. It’s a job requirement.

Several months removed from employment with cycling’s former top-ranked and most controversial team, Huffman is riding anew. The former Elk Grove High School athlete has a one-year contract with SmartStop, a small pro squad sponsored by a Southern California-based self-storage company.

SmartStop, one of six entry-level teams in the 10th Amgen Tour of California, has 14 riders from five countries, all with individual training programs. Huffman will be one of the team’s eight riders competing in the event, which starts in Sacramento, for the first time.

Without the luxuries of top teams – customized motor homes, private chefs and specialized medical staffs – Huffman is finding his way in a sport mired in global uncertainty and hindered by tight budgets.

“I’m just out there with my thoughts,” said Huffman, 25, who lives with his mother in El Dorado Hills. “People ask, ‘What do you think about?’ It seems strange to most people who aren’t cyclists, but I say, ‘I don’t know. I just think about pedaling.’ I’ve never trained with music. I really don’t like it. It distracts me.”

Huffman rides 300 to 400 miles per week, but since he doesn’t live in Europe or in a United States cycling hub like Boulder, Colo., or Greenville, N.C., it’s nearly impossible to find training partners with similar skills.

Though cyclists rarely discuss their salaries, top riders have guaranteed incomes, while entry-level pro teams often pay minimally and some riders pedal for free.

Huffman telecommunicates with team director and former pro Mike Creed and personal coach Felicia Gomez. He joins teammates at races or periodic training camps, but he’s mostly a team of one, negotiating hilly routes east of Folsom between races.

“He seems to be gaining a lot of confidence, which is crucial when coming back from the Pro Tour (cycling’s top level),” Creed said. “Sometimes you can have your tail between your legs and be almost apologetic. But I can see Evan wants to return to the Pro Tour and is confident in his ability to do so.”

Huffman, who swam and ran cross country at Elk Grove, is personable and often hesitates before speaking. Friends say he’s humble and trains meticulously.

Trying times in Europe

Huffman raced the past two seasons for Astana, named after Kazakhstan’s futuristic-looking capital. The squad is vastly accomplished but much of it overshadowed by doping issues. Huffman rode his bike and remained unconcerned about Astana’s reputation.

“(Drug use) was just never part of me when I was growing up,” he said. “I was kind of oblivious to it. I try not to dwell on it too much now. Once you tell yourself other guys are cheating, then you kind of lose motivation. That’s not a good place to be.

“I guess I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, because at the end of the day you really can’t control it. What are you going to do?”

Huffman was largely adrift in Europe. Cultural differences and loneliness didn’t help. He competed in countries from China to Qatar and Belgium to Jordan. But he raced only 87 days in two seasons, including twice in Paris-Roubaix. He failed to finish cycling’s most rugged one-day race both times.

“(Paris-Roubaix) was cool to do, but it wasn’t really a race I really enjoyed,” Huffman said. “It’s not really suited to me. Once you get dropped, you get to the point where you know you’re not going to get back in the race again. So you just say, ‘Is it worth it just to finish, or do I want to stop and save it for the next race?’”

Gomez, a former pro cyclist and a Ph.D. in exercise sciences, began working with Huffman six years ago.

“The past couple of years have been tough for Evan,” she said. “The positive he can take from Astana is that he raced against the best in the world. It’s a higher level than most cyclists in America have experienced. He can apply that experience to the races here.”

Swimming was Huffman’s first sport at age 5. He participated in triathlons, soccer and other high school sports, but he was “never really into ball sports.”

Huffman first competed in cycling in 2007 and rode the next season at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He won the junior national championship and was invited to a training camp in Europe. He quickly embraced cycling as a career and left college.

Return to California

At 5-foot-9 and 156 pounds, Huffman is suited for time trials, the individual discipline of positioning, power and pacing. But he can climb and is a skilled team rider.

In late February, Huffman won his first race as a pro in Stage 3 of an eight-day stage competition in the Dominican Republic. He went to the front several times, with his final 12-mile solo effort resulting in a 29-second victory. It was Huffman’s first triumph since 2012, but not his first win against pros.

After finishing second as an amateur at the 2011 Nevada City Classic, Huffman won second-level pro race time trials in 2012 in Merced and Tyrone, N.M. He soon joined Astana, one of several global teams with American sponsorship connections.

“I didn’t hesitate at all,” he said. “They sent me the contract, and I signed it. I was told if I had results, I would be taken care of.”

Huffman ventured to Europe alone. He studied Italian on tape. He found an apartment in Girona, Spain, secured a work permit and opened a bank account. He had a cellphone, but his team rarely called.

Huffman also traveled to Kazakhstan once for a lavish team presentation.

“It was only for a few days,” he said. “I didn’t want to go outside. It was too cold.”

With many European teams struggling financially or disbanding and his contract expired, there was little interest in an unheralded American with few results. Huffman returned to California.

“It hasn’t been too hard for me to adjust,” he said. “In some ways, it’s kind of going back to where I was. I’m trying not to be too needy, and I try to not expect too much from anybody. So, it’s all good.

“In cycling, a lot of stuff changes, and a lot stays the same. I just have to train hard, race hard and try to win. I am having fun again, and I don’t want to lose that.”

AMGEN TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

Men: May 10-17; first stage starts and ends at the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento; the final stage finishes in Pasadena.

Women: May 8-10, May 15; first two stages start and end in South Lake Tahoe; third stage is in Sacramento; final stage is at Big Bear Lake.

TV: NBCSN: May 10-15, 2-4 p.m.; May 16, 1:30-3:30 p.m.; May 17, 10 a.m.-noon.

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