Mack Dorf: deer in the headlights
The Vail-raised cyclist spent his summer and fall racing against the big boys in Europe
Mack Dorf is intimately familiar with both literal and figurative interpretations of the idiom “deer in the headlights.” The 2022 VMS graduate spent his summer and fall racing across Europe for the American U19 elite development team LUX Cycling. Going spandex-to-spandex with the best Spain, France, Belgium — and all the other traditionally cycling-rich countries — is an eye-opening experience for any rider, even the most prodigious.
“There were quite a few of those,” he answered when asked to pinpoint the cycling equivalent to his “we’re not in Kansas anymore” epiphany.
“I’ve gotten a better idea of where I stand in the sport,” he continued. “The depth and talent of just how many kids are pursuing the same dream as me — in the U.S., you can really work hard and see consistent results just because the depth isn’t there. When you come over here, instead of 30 kids that are working hard and getting results, there’s 200, all of which are naturally talented and working really hard.”
In anticipation of his aging out of LUX in 2023, Dorf this winter moved on to the Girona Racing Academy (GRA), another high-level development team based in the Spanish endurance sports hub.
“Still kind of moving up the ladder, but I would say it’s a solid step up from LUX and I’m super excited to race for them this year,” he said, adding that in his new location, daily rides often involve running into people like Jumbo-Visma star Rohan Dennis.
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“I was a little starstruck at first,” Dorf said of his new surroundings.
“Another really fun part about Girona is the international appeal, and being able to make friends and bump shoulders with some of the world’s best,” said Andy Lydic, the other American cyclist on the roughly 10-person GRA squad. Lydic raced Dorf as a youngster during the boys’ ski racing days and introduced Dorf to GRA.
“Being two cyclists from Colorado who have seen each other race in the amateur pelotons in the U.S., it’s a really unique and incredible opportunity to race together and live together on the other side of the world,” the Boulder-area rider stated.
“The importance of community in sport can sometimes go understated, but being able to make a town across the world feel a little more like home really helps.”
Aside from Liddick, everyone — and everything — else has been new.
“It’s a bit intimidating, walking into a place where you don’t know anybody, you don’t know how to navigate the riding; I’m fortunate to speak pretty good Spanish, so the language hasn’t been much of a barrier,” he said.
“Living by myself — It’s a big step that everyone takes at some point, and it’s probably a little exaggerated because I’m in a foreign country and I’m trying to perform as a high-functioning athlete. Making ramen for dinner every night isn’t really an option.”
His coaching has changed, too. The Vail-raised athlete has gone from Training Peaks’ two-time U.S. National Time Trial champion Chris Baldwin to Science to Sports’ Darrell Fitzgerald. By late November, he was already in the thick of 20-hour training weeks.
“It’s a definite transition. The workouts are different, the volume is different. Having really nothing else to do but ride my bike this year and take some Spanish classes, my volume has definitely increased, so that’s something I’m getting used to,” Dorf said.
“From the short time I have been with him, I would definitely say his mental strength and will to want more is right up there,” Fitzgerald, who began working with him the week before the UCI Gravel World Championships in October, stated. “Physiologically Mack has a pretty good engine on him and I am excited to see the progress we’re going to make in the next couple months. This past week he had a solid week with some improvements already.”
Big boys from Belgium
After helping LUX athletes Alex Gustin and Viggo Moore to two U.S. road national titles, Dorf flew out to France to begin his European tour at the biggest junior race in the world, the three-stage Ain Bugey Valromey Tour.
“That was a huge kick in the teeth. That race was super brutal. It’s compared to being a world junior championships but in a stage race format instead of a one-day event,” he said. Racing in 100-degree heat, Dorf became dehydrated on the second day and had to pull out of the event.
“It was pretty demoralizing to come over and have that first race be so incredibly brutal,” he said. “That’s the kind of race where the winner of that race will be doing well in the actual Tour de France in a couple of years.”
After that, it was off to Austria for the Oberosterreich Juniorenrundfahrt, another multi-day stage race.
“I had a better week there,” Dorf said, adding that although he felt strong for the first two days, he ended up pulling out again on the final one because of sickness. After a week recuperating in the Netherlands, it was off to Belgium. At the 56th Aubel-Thimister-Stavelot, he was 123rd in the first stage, 11th in LUX’s team time trial the next day, and 69th-place out of 140 riders in the following 95.3-kilometer stage, finishing in a huge pack at the end.
“I was healthy, I felt good, and I had a solid three days there,” he said, humbly. “Again, no real results to speak of, but I was able to work for my teammates. The last day, which is known as the hardest day on the junior calendar — it’s 60 miles with 7,000 feet of climbing — I had a good race there.”
His team returned to France in August to conclude the summer at the 34th La Ronde Des Vallées. Reflecting on his European whirlwind tour, Dorf is mature, not defeated, in his perspective.
“It was a mix of ups and downs. My summer in Europe was a bit more downs than ups, but that’s kind of what happens when you first come over here. Nothing is ever guaranteed,” he said. Through it all, he said he’s emerged a different cyclist than when he left in May.
“You never stop learning how to ride in these huge packs, climb and descend faster — it’s just continuous growth,” he said. As one of the youngest riders in the field, Dorf explained that part of the journey this year was about finding his place in the cycling world.
“Some of those older guys know exactly what their rider-types are and what they need to do to win, and I’m still figuring that out. I’d say this summer was big to figure that out for me,” he said.
One of Dorf’s strengths, which he credits to his ski-racing past, has been his ability to maintain comfort while ripping descents in the “controlled recklessness” required by world-class bikers. That strength was threatened on Aug. 17, his second day back home from the European summer block.
Heading down one of his favorite climbs — Mountain Star — at 45 mph, Dorf came around a not particularly sharp turn, but trees on the inside shielded his view of the middle of the road. Standing right in the blind spot — and the middle of the road — were a doe and fawn. He slammed on his brakes to no avail, T-boning and flipping over the muscular doe before skidding 25-30 yards. Eventually, he tumbled off the road and into a rise in the embankment on the side of the road.
“I wasn’t unconscious, but you don’t just pop up after that one,” Dorf said about lying in the grass, his gloves inexplicably filled with dirt, after the crash. Pumped up on adrenaline, he remained capable of processing his relative good fortune; he’d walk away with a destroyed front wheel and minimal — considering the crash — road rash, as well as a broken thumb.
“That was by far the best case scenario of that crash,” Dorf admitted. “Pretty crazy story.”
Recovering, Dorf said he questioned whether he would ever descend the same way again.
“Race car drivers — they say you either have it or you don’t, and I was worried I wasn’t going to have it anymore,” he said. Even though he cautiously crawled past the first deer he saw when he returned to riding, by the time he’d returned to Girona to prepare for the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships, he was back to normal.
“It’s been a couple months, and I’d say I’m back to ripping descents,” he said.
The untimely injury hurt his preparations for the 180-kilometer gravel event, however, which was already longer than the races he’d been doing all spring, summer and fall. Despite those factors working against him, Dorf fearlessly hopped into the front pack after the gravel course’s initial 4-mile climb. The young cyclist seemed especially undersized drafting in the peloton filled with large Belgium bikers.
“I was out there with these huge, 6-foot, 5-inch Belgian dudes who could just hammer away at 400 watts all day long,” Dorf described. “I got my teeth kicked in by those guys for about an hour before I fell out of the front group.”
When the course looped into a false-finish at 139-kilometers, Dorf, having suffered through the heat, wind and rolling mix of single and double-track, was pulled off the course to let the race leaders ahead of him, rounding the spot for the second time, fight for the podium. Dorf decided to not hop back on the trail to finish the last loop.
“To end my season with another 20 miles of misery wasn’t really something that I needed to cap off a good season,” he said. “I enjoyed it, I thought it was a super cool experience.”
Dorf hasn’t finalized his 2023 schedule yet, but anticipates an early-season peak at the three-week Tour of Rhodes in Greece. The high-level UCI race isn’t a World Tour race but will still have many of the best young riders on the planet.
“That’ll be a huge target for me,” he said, adding that his winter training has started sooner in order to be fit by the March event. Fitzgerald has incorporated off-the-bike gym strength and some winter running as well, a few slight tweaks to help Dorf continue to improve.
“As soon as we have the race calendar, we can fine tune the training a little more specific to what Mack wants to achieve,” Fitzgerald said. “I am sure with another 5-8% increase in performance Mack will for sure be a strong force in the team.”
He’s also hoping for a good result in his first U23 year at U.S. road nationals next summer. Next fall, he’ll begin his freshman year at the University of Virginia, and, depending on how next season goes, he’s entertaining the idea of doing some collegiate club races in 2023.
“Everything I’ve heard, collegiate cycling and the community is super great. I am excited to be a part of that,” he said.
“My hope would be that in the next year I can have a good season and move myself onto either a high-level UCI team that’s willing to support both my academics and European race calendar. That would be the ideal goal — to study at UVA but still have the ability to come over to Europe and race super-high level UCI races.”
A big goal is to make it to the U23 World Championships.
“It’s not totally out of the realm,” Dorf said, noting that winners at the U.S. road nationals — often younger World Tour riders who fly back to the U.S. — receive an automatic roster spot for the world team.
Though his first European season had a mix of illness and injury, the local athlete weathered every storm. Receiving illumination into the big world of professional cycling hasn’t discouraged him from his passion, either, even if it has revealed the reality of talent he’s up against. Still, he’s optimistic that he, too, possesses the gift.
“I’ve never had a season where I’ve been able focus this much, train this much,” he said.
“I don’t really know what I’m capable of yet and I don’t think anybody really does.”