Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This past fall, Philadelphia native Robin Carpenter ’14 signed his first professional cycling contract with the Chipotle-First Solar Development Team, the development team for the Garmin-Barracuda Pro Cycling Team. Emily Bryant of The Daily Gazette sat down with Carpenter to talk about his cycling career, his time at Swarthmore, and what he hopes his future holds.
One Thing Leads to Another
How does it start? While his peers were perfecting their skills on the rec soccer fields and baseball diamonds, Carpenter took to the road. Thirteen years later, he is a promising young rider with national recognition.
“It was an organic process a long time ago. Back when I was around ten or eleven I started riding my bike to school a lot and it was about eight miles each way,” Carpenter said. “It progressed from there – I ended up riding on the weekend, riding more, doing longer distances. I did my first 100 mile ride between sixth and seventh grade when I was eleven.”
Carpenter attributes his involvement in racing to his high school running coach. His coach had been racing on a local team called Main Line Cycling in Philadelphia and encouraged Robin to try it out.
“I started racing as a novice on a local team [MLC] in 2008. I was the only young kid – I’d say everyone else was forty or fifty,” he chuckled. “I raced for two years and felt that I learned a lot about cycling.”
His next step was to join a junior team, one committed to train high-school aged racers. During his time on the team, he was able to compete in nationals as well as attend an international race, the Tour de l’Abitibi in Quebec that was frequently referred to as the “Tour de France” for junior cyclists.
Last year was his first out of the juniors circuit. “[Coming out of juniors] is a big question mark for a lot of people,” he noted. “Each year has been a very steep upward curve in terms of results and strength and it was very surprising for me to be able to continue with that streak and continue to get stronger and continue to get results. Even more surprising was this past fall when I got a contract.”
Get a contract he did. Carpenter signed with Garmin-Cervelo’s development team Chipotle as part of the “minor leagues” of cycling.
Unlike some athletes who come to Swarthmore and find it difficult to maintain their athletic commitment given new demands, Carpenter has enjoyed the transition.
“Once I came to Swarthmore it was much easier to budget my time,” he remarked. “I now have full afternoons to train.”
On the evening that we spoke, Carpenter had already ridden to the Chesapeake Bay and back, a distance of about 100 miles.
In the weeks leading up to Spring Break, he was in the middle of a month-long training block. This meant training upwards of twenty-six hours and 400 miles per week by the end of week four. He went through his daily routine for me.
“Each day I am up early, eat a massive breakfast, and head to class. Almost immediately afterward, I go back to my room, get changed and kitted, and go out on a ride. Rinse and repeat,” he smiled.
One has to wonder if he gets lonely or wishes he could be part of a varsity cycling program.
“For me it’s always been about putting my education first and to try to adapt cycling around it,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s not worth it and you’re losing out on the cycling aspect but I kind of think that a lot of people are wrong about that. It’s been so simple for me to figure it out and to do the work in both areas to excel.”
It’s possible that he could have gone to a Division I program to compete, but no schools fit the bill. Many junior cyclists face an agonizing decision of whether or not to attend college in order to further their racing career. For Carpenter it was an obvious choice.
“I’m very proud of that [choosing to go to college]. A lot of people tell me that you can’t go to school and be a professional racer. I love saying no to that.”
But the fact remains that he is almost always training solo and in colder conditions than many of his fellow racers who live either on the West Coast or in Europe. This does not seem to faze him much.
“I’m comfortable with my own company,” he adds.
But things are not all fun and games for Carpenter. Racing season can present a rather demanding schedule.
“It’s definitely difficult once the season starts because I am gone all of the time. About two to four days a week, driving, racing, traveling, at times eight or nine hours to place like northern Vermont. But in the fall and the winter it’s fantastic. I can’t say it’s easy,” he reflected.
“For me, it’s all about how you focus and budget your time and I think I’ve managed it pretty well,” he said.
“There’s Always the Goal at Hand”
His hard work has thus far paid off. When the collegiate racing season opened on March 3 at the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference, Carpenter dominated the race, taking first place. He also won the Grant’s Tomb Criterium Men’s Collegiate, a race in New York City.
As for his spring, he plans on racing in local or national races almost every weekend.
“In the spring, I’m just going to be racing on my own on the East Coast,” he said. “My team is actually already in Europe right now and they are all living in France. There’s about twelve or thirteen other guys.”
His goal is to get strong so that he will be able to play a support role in big races once he arrives in France. He will be a pair of (relatively) fresh legs and says that he will be heavily utilized during the second half of the season. He also hopes to get a trip in with the United States’ national team.
“I can’t say I am looking to win any specific races this year,” he notes. “I’m trying to develop my abilities, figure out what I am good at, and make sure that I am progressing.”
Carpenter faces a grueling seven months. He acknowledges that there is both mental and physical fatigue by the end, but he seems to be well prepared for the duration.
When I ask him about how he feels about not being affiliated with the Athletics Department or being recognized at Swarthmore for his achievements, Carpenter is demure. Instead he focuses on what he hasn’t accomplished at the school.
“It’s funny, I’ve had no time to start a cycling club which would be the way to get funding from the school and get people into racing,” he said.
He has been looking to drum up enthusiasm for cycling around campus, but he admits the process is difficult and time consuming given his already extremely busy schedule.
All things considered, he has managed to be a professional athlete and a full-time college student quite nicely.
“It definitely limits the amount of activities that I can participate in on campus,” he said. “But I’m happy, I have friends… I love Swarthmore and I love riding.”