To most Americans, professional cycling is Lance Armstrong. He lifted the sport to unprecedented popularity, winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles, and then sullied its image, admitting that he and teammates used an array of drugs during all seven victories.
Tyler Wren ’03, a pro cyclist now in his 11th season, is troubled by the assumption that all cyclists cheat. There are “plenty of clean, hard-working, driven cyclists out there,” he says, particularly on the American circuit.
Wren is a case study of hard work and drive. He went from a novice to a pro within four years. Though he had planned to run cross country at Princeton, the summer before he arrived on campus he watched cable broadcasts of the Tour de France — it was the year of Armstrong’s first victory — and was so captivated that he bought his first road bike and joined the cycling team in the fall.
He relished the long training rides and the idea that he could improve rapidly. Friends dreaded 8 a.m. classes, but Wren searched for them to maximize his midday training window. (He muses that there may have been a tiny grain of truth in the team’s tongue-in-cheek motto, “Study to pass, race to win.”) Wren also marveled at the sport’s strategic nuances, which he learned by dissecting VHS tapes of pro races.
The training paid off quickly: At the end of his sophomore year, Wren won the collegiate national championship in the small-school division. As a senior, he signed his first pro contract. He finished his thesis in a hotel room while on the road for a weekend race.
Competing for the Jamis/Hagens Berman team, Wren races in events that mean something to cycling fans but don’t often make headlines. Last May, he earned the “King of the Mountain” title at the U.S. Pro Championships, and in 2011, he won a stage at the Tour of Chile (belatedly, when another rider was disqualified for steroid use). The prize money is a fraction of what it would be in Europe, but Wren tries not to measure success in dollars. He still gets a thrill from executing a plan flawlessly. On those days, he says, “it feels like you don’t have a chain on.”
Wren says that he never encountered pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs, possibly because he has not been part of a Tour de France-level team. Staying clean, he says, has been “as obvious and unremarkable as paying my taxes.”
Just as no one would think to display a 1040, few pay attention to a journeyman with a spotless record. But Armstrong’s long shadow still looms over Wren and his fellow pros. Armstrong has “played a large part in me being able to make a living as a cyclist,” Wren says. “Now there’s going to be a low point, and he had a lot to do with that, too.”
Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor and writes frequently about sports.