Edward Anderson wore a St. Christopher's School jersey, a white helmet and white socks pulled halfway up his calves, which were not overly muscular by cycling standards. "Who's that kid?" the people at Forest Hill Park wondered.
Nicknamed Eddie, the 17-year-old had co-founded St. Chris' mountain biking club and taken to Richmond's trails with his dad. But before this day in April 2016 at Forest Hill Park, he had only once competed in a varsity mountain bike race, placing in the middle of the pack.
He won that first race, triggering an amazing series of events that would bring him to the brink of the elite road cycling scene.
At Forest Hill, Anderson caught the eye of Dan King, a successful cyclist and the uncle of pro racer Ben King from Albemarle County. He called Andrea Dvorak, a former women's pro cyclist who had just retired from road racing, and suggested that she look into this kid from Richmond's West End. Soon she invited Anderson on a group road ride on Afton Mountain.
The teenager showed up in mountain biking shoes that looked more like sneakers. He was underdressed for the weather, and a few of the other cyclists — all serious riders — rolled their eyes, Dvorak recalls.
"He'd been training but not too much," she says, and mountain biking and road cycling are two different animals, with different equipment and competitive styles. But the questions stopped once the group hit the road.
"It's one of our epic rides," Dvorak says, "and he dropped the rest of us."
It turns out, this was when Anderson's life changed. "I caught the bug," he says. "I figured out I could race."
And race he did, winning three state varsity races that season. In December 2016, Anderson became one of 16 cyclists signed to the best under-23 development team in the world — Hagens Berman Axeon — which has produced many top-flight cyclists, some of whom have competed in the Tour de France and the Olympics.
This year marks Anderson's second season with Axeon, as well as his first year on Team USA, which chooses three cyclists to compete in the summer Olympics. He's also in his first year at the University of Virginia. Dvorak, a former pro cyclist who won a stage in the women's Tour de France, is one of his coaches.
"Last year, I was definitely leaping into the deep end of the pool," Anderson recalls of his first season with Axeon. He still doesn't think of himself as a veteran, but he's learning — occasionally in a trial by fire.
The 2017 Tour of the Gila, a challenging multiday mountain race in New Mexico, was just such a moment for both Anderson and his teammates.
Anderson crashed, and so did one of his teammates, Chad Young, a 21-year-old rider from New Hampshire, on a steep mountain descent.
"Chad was in the break. It was this weird turn," Anderson recalled in July, three months after the crash. Although Young originally appeared to be in stable condition, He sustained serious head injuries and died five days later, a blow to everyone on the team.
"We lost a friend, a teammate and a family member," team general manager Axel Merckx said in a statement after Young's death. "I have no words that can express my pain over this loss." Anderson, who often roomed with Young during travel, remembered his "super happy, contagious personality."
This year, Anderson prepared for the Tour of the Gila — scheduled April 18-22 — by training in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado, so he'd be more accustomed to the thin mountain air.
The Axeon team was formed in 2009 as a feeder team for Team RadioShack, led by the now disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong. Ownership has changed hands multiple times, and the current regime is fervently anti-doping.
If a team member tested positive for doping, Anderson says, "the whole team would fold. [Today], races are won by tactics and less by strength." Also, he says, testing is much tighter than before, when Armstrong and his cohorts were racing.
One thing that has not changed over the past nine years is the team's reputation for producing elite professional cyclists; about half of the Axeon team graduates to the UCI WorldTour, the highest level of competition, Dvorak says.
This year is a crossroads for Anderson. Because the training schedule will get ever more intense if he continues to strive for WorldTour status, Anderson would likely have to withdraw from school to race in Europe next spring.
"He's very modest, but he's a huge talent," Dvorak says, and has a gracious temperament that is helpful when working with sponsors, coaches and teammates. "Your physical strength goes a long way, but if you don't have that personality that clicks, teams won't invest in you."
As a relative newcomer to road cycling, Anderson also has the benefit of flexibility in his role on the team. He has the "raw strength," Dvorak says, to make an early breakaway and force the peloton to chase him, but "he hasn't been pigeonholed yet" as a mountain man, a sprinter or a team leader.
"I've told him, dream big," she says. And he is — while negotiating classes, dorm life and cafeteria food.
"After this year, we'll have a better sense of what I can do on a bike," Anderson says with a dimpled smile. "All in or not." S