When it comes to athletes, cycilists are gods. For anyone who has spent any small amount of time on a bike, whether it be training for a charity ride, amateur race or the Tour de France, we all know (to some extent) something about suffering. With this knowledge, I think we raise professional cyclists onto pedestals. What we forget to remember is that, they, like us, are just human.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to sit down with one of the most succesful cyclists of all time, Shonny Vanlandingham. Sitting on a set of concrete steps quietly away from the cacophony of noise and the glaring distraction of lights at Interbike, her warm smile and calm presence brought a sense of sanity back to the Vegas strip. Most of all she brought some semblance of humanity back to the sport cycling.
Ray Storm: So tell me a little about when you were a child riding a bike and what that felt like?
Shonny Vanlandingham: Ahhh!
RS: You were not expecting that one were you?
Shonny Vanlandingham:I wasn't! Wow! When I was a child I had a pink Huffy. It was my first mountain bike. A pink Huffy with knobbie tires. I would take it off road and do the ramp jumps with the boys, you know with the BMX bikes. And that's what I remember about riding as a child.
RS: Did It have a bannana seat?
SV:I had a bannana seat, a pink one.
RS: When did you first start racing?
SV: Not until I was 27 years old. I played Basketball in college and I kinda found Moutain Biking through being a bike tour guide in Hawaii. I was a bike tour guide when I was living there after college and I found racing.
RS: How does Basketball compare to cycling as far as athletic passion?
SV: I think Basketball will probably always be my number one love as far as sport goes, but mountain biking is definitely a close second. Cycling is so much more... Mountain Biking is so much more individual. You can control your training, you can control more things, but you hardly have the team aspect.
RS: What comes to into your mind when you plant your ass into a saddle, whether it's a training ride, casual ride or a race. What feelings does that bring up in you?
SV: Freedom! That's probably the number one feeling for me. You're outside, you feel the weather or whatever is going on... your enviroment. You're right in the middle of it whether it's cold, snowy, rainy, or you're hot and sweating. It's very natural, especially Mountain Biking, you're on the trails, in nature.
RS: You're very comfortable (as I have seen you out on the bike) at the races, and even during the races. You have a very confident presence. Do you get that from your parents? Are they very supportive? Are they involved?
SV:Well, I think probably I'm comfortable with myself because I try to be a well rounded person. For me it's a healty way to be, to have other things going on in my life besides bike riding. I'm very involved in real estate and that's kinda my passion outside of cycling. Accuioror propeties, managing rental properties and hopefully set myself up for my retirement. I would rather spread out and have other interests, It tends to work well for me.
RS: Do you try to influence other racers with that or be a overall good influence? Whether it's a kid on the street, maybe a younger racer-rider, do you try and prepare them for when they are not racing or just how to have a better presenceor or be a better person within cycling?
SV:You know I probably would not do anything different. Athough I try to be a good example, try to have a healthy perpective about sports. I've played other sports at a high level as well, like basketbal. I'm not saying it works that way for everybody, but for me it's good to have balance. And I think that probably would work well for alot of people to have balance. If your sports not going well you can't let that drive your emotions for your whole outlook on life. If you have balance, hopefully that keeps you confident in yourself and what's going on.
RS: There are so many bad influences in professional athletes, Football players having dog fights, DUI, running cars off the road and every sport now has doping scandel's. Do you think professional athletes are good influences on kids as far as role models go?
SV: I think there are good professional athlete role models and bad ones like every other profession. There's always going to be good and bad people. Just because your a professional athlete does not neccasarly mean you are the best role model, The good thing is there are alot of good role models out there that are professional athletes and the focus should be on them. Unfortunatly the media usually focus's on the bad becuase it's more dramatic. But there probably are more good role models than bad out there you just don't hear about them as often.
RS: Who are your role models?
SV:Well, cliche it may be, but my parents. Neither one of my parents finished high school. They were back in the day when you got married when you where a teenager, and they did that. They had kids right away, they had three kids by the time they were twenty one. So they were always working for the family. Looking back on that, seeing how hard they worked when I was growing up, really created a good work ethic for me. Even if you don't start with the best hand of cards, it matters how you play the cards more than how your dealt.
RS: Well spoken in Vegas!
SV:(big smile and soft laugh) That's true, I did not really think about that. But it's true.
RS: How about siblings? Where are they? Are they supportive? Are they an active part of your life?
SV:Yea! I have an older brother and an older sister. My sister lives in Hawaii with her family. My brother lives in Texas, that goes for the rest of my family, Mom and Dad, Aunts and Uncle. They're great, we all get along well and keep in touch. It's hard not being close together, our family's so far apart these days unfortunately. But it's good when we get together.
RS: I can see the smile in your eyes when you talk about them. It say's a lot. How about you, are thinking about starting a family at some point?
SV: Right now, probably not, because I travel so much. I split my time between Durango, Colorado and the Big Island of Hawaii. So at this point i think it would be really hard, I mean I can't even have a pet. When I do actually have a family, I would like to keep dedicated to my family and I think right now I'm really not in a position where I could focus on a family.
RS: If you could have a pet, what kind of a pet would you have?
SV: Well I'd like to have a dog, I really like Boxer's. Maybe someday? There not to big, not to small, there athletic, and have a good demeanor.
RS: When you're not riding your bike or doing X-terra's or paddle boarding. What other things do you do for an active lifestyle or casual lifestyle? What do you do to keep well grounded?
SV: Well being that I'm doing alot of X-terra triathlons next year, I'm doing a lot of trail running, and a lot of swimming. That's a lot of time when you are training for three different disciplines. So, I'm not just on the bike. Being in Hawaii I do a lot of swimming in the ocean and I have the snorkle, the one that's a swimmer's snorkle. It's great because you can just snorkle while your swimming, checking out life under the water.
RS: Even though the snorkle looks a little tacky?
SV:Yea, it looks a little geeky, but i am a tri geek now and all.
RS: What would you like to do with the X-terra's?
SV: I think I switch over to the X-terra's mainly because it's a new challenge. I have been racing the same circuit for eight seasons now as a pro. For me, it's good for me to have change, it keeps it fresh, keeps me more motivated. I'm commited to doing the X-terra series next year. I feel like I did during my first year as a pro mountain biker. I'm excited about it, I'm excited to train. I get up at six in the morning, go to the pool and I actually want to be there. I think it's good for me and my motivation and also I think it's a great opportunity for Luna (Shonny races for Team Luna Chix) to get into that... It's a growing market. They're very visable, they're on television. It's great for companies that look at multi-discipline atheletes.
Final note: A few day's after this interview I traveled to Lake Tahoe for a little R&R and to watch the X-terra National Championships. This was my first time watching an X-terra. As the pro men's field started to trickle in like wounded soldiers, I realized these races where like war zones. Every racer who finished was more of a casualty of war than a professional athlete. As the racers came within sight of the finish line their expressions turned from contorted suffering to absolute relief. It was as if every competitor just wanted the carnage to end, and when they crumbled across the finish line you could just see their bodies let go.
In typical Shonny fashion though, as she rounded the last corner, and came within sight of the finish line, an ear to ear grin slowly spread across her face. As she crossed the finish line, her "I just peeked at my Christmas present" grin turned into a full on Cheshire Cat smile.