Airman chasing dreams with U.S. Military Cycling Team
EAU CLAIRE, Wisc. — Discipline. Work ethic. Dedication. Sacrifice.
Airman 1st Class David Flaten has learned a lot since he signed up for the U.S. Air Force.
A 2010 Memorial graduate, Flaten has found a way to take the lessons he's learned and apply them to his passion for mountain bike racing.
In January, Flaten was upgraded to professional status by USA Cycling and has been named to the U.S. Military Cycling Team. In addition, he's a candidate for the Air Force's athlete of the year award.
Saturday he will compete in the most prestigious race of his career at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif.
"I'm trying to see how far I can take it," Flaten said. "I don't have any intention to stop training or stop racing at this level."
Flaten is a member of the USAF Security Forces at Andrews Air Force Base, located just outside Washington D.C.
While his military duties keep him busy, Flaten has still been able to train nearly full time, which has been key in his recent jump to professional status.
"There's never a day that I don't have time to get at least a two-hour ride in," said Flaten, who noted that he's just shy of 3,000 miles in his winter training routine. "On days of work, I'm not really able to get in more than three hours, but on my days off I'll put in a few pretty hard days."
As one of just 16 professionals his age, Flaten impressed enough to receive an invitation to join the U.S. Military Cycling Team, which until now had been entirely focused on road biking.
When Flaten received an email stating the team was looking to branch out in the mountain biking world, it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"They kind of wanted me to start that out," Flaten said. "I got invited down to their team training camp in Tampa, Florida, and I got to ride with the elite team. It's a really great group of guys. We rode just shy of 500 miles for the week. It was a really good time."
This weekend's race will be an excellent test of his abilities as he will be facing off against the best athletes in the sport, including the Czech Republic's Jaroslav Kulhavy, who won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
"The goal more than anything is to find out where I'm at," Flaten said. "I'd like to see myself finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. There will probably be more than a dozen Olympic athletes there and the past four or five national champions, so the competition is extremely tight."
Flaten will be the lone mountain biker representing the U.S. military at the race. The fact that he's the only active duty member competing in the sport at the professional level was key in his nomination for athlete of the year, an honor Flaten said was "extremely humbling."
All active duty members of the military are expected to maintain physical discipline, and Flaten was commended by his group commander for exceeding the Air Force standards for physical training.
While cycling as a whole has been viewed as a troubled sport concerning drug use, especially with Lance Armstrong's recent confession of doping, Flaten hopes to be part of the generation that turns that negative view around by simply training harder than ever before.
"I will never take any sort of performance-enhancing drug," Flaten said. "I completely disagree with that whole culture. So for me to gain any sort of edge, I need to make sure I'm eating healthier than the next guy is. It's a pretty strict diet and I'm pretty much snacking all day. I try to stay well-fueled and sometimes that means eating up to eight meals a day."
Aside from managing a rigorous diet, Flaten said his winter routine consists of 20 to 25 hours a week on the bike and three to four hours a week in the gym. He's been averaging between 250 and 450 miles per week in the offseason, which lasts from December to February.
"Cyclists are a lot like boxers," Flaten said. " Boxers go to the gym every day and they can train with a partner or they can hit a bag. You're really not going to know how fit you are or how hard you train until you're in a race or in a ring getting punched in the face or sprinting up a hill against someone. It's really a fitness that can only be achieved through racing."
Flaten credits his coach, Eau Claire's Craig Manthe, as a main figure in helping him reach the level he's achieved.
"Dave is very dedicated and driven," Manthe said. "He does the right thing day after day. He is consistent with his training and that is what it takes to get to where he is at."
Flaten and Manthe have constructed a weekly workout routine that consists of some long rides and some shorter, more intense rides including interval training.
"You get to that point where it's a constant battle between your legs and your head," Flaten said. "Your legs are telling you to stop and your mind is telling you to stop but that competitiveness inside you is telling you to keep going and push harder."
According to USACycling.com, to qualify for professional status a cyclist must reach "two top-three or three top-five finishes in Elite/Open Category 1 races at USA Cycling National MTB Calendar Events."
Once named a professional, riders earn points based on finishes in sanctioned events. Those points determine a cyclist's national ranking.
Despite having only three months as a professional, Flaten has jumped his ranking up to 270 out of 305 professionals nationwide.
Every race he participates in will give him a chance to improve his ranking, including the Red Flint Firecracker held on June 30 at the Eau Claire Expo Center. It will be his first time competing in the hometown race as a professional.
Flaten's ultimate goal is to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, and he'll have to be ranked in the top five to be considered for the two available spots.
As part of his preparations for the Olympics, Flaten hopes to be accepted into the World Class Athlete program, which allows active duty military personnel to be relieved of their duties in order to train full time and represent the military at the highest level in their respective sports.
With the backing of the U.S. military and longtime support from Eau Claire Bike and Sport, Flaten knows it will be a challenge but remains focused on his goals.
"The next three years, it's going to take a lot of dedication and a lot of sacrifice in addition to the sacrifices required of being an active duty member of the United States Air Force," Flaten said. "It's going to be tough, but I think I can do it with all the support I've had from the military and my friends and family.
"As long as I'm lucky enough to have that kind of support, I truly think the sky's the limit. I'm just going to keep putting my head down and keep plugging away."