Tennessee is a cycling backwater. I write that with no malice. It’s not an insult; rather, it’s an acknowledgement that for the aspiring cyclist, Tennessee is geographically removed from the races and resources that allow a rider to realize talent and progress. Up-and-comers have had a difficult time making their way to races with national-caliber competition. Of course, Tennessee riders are not alone in this regard, but I can say from long-standing experience that the South is a place that the aspiring rider sooner or later counts as a former address.
And yet, it’s not impossible. Garmin-Sharp rider Nathan Brown hails from Covington, Tennessee, about an hour northeast of Memphis. He’s a two-time U23 time trial champion as well as a former winner of the Tour de Beauce. In 2014 he finished his first grand tour, riding to 85th at the Vuelta a Espana.
Brown’s rise to prominence took significant turn for the better when Toby Stanton signed him to his Hot Tubes juniors formation. He spent three seasons there before moving on to the Trek Livestrong team, with whom he notched those two U23 TT wins, not to mention 2nd in the U23 road race and 2nd at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege espoirs race.
Making the jump from a talented regional rider to a pro with Garmin required a considerable investment for Brown’s father, David, and one he’s continuing to make as Nathan’s younger brother, Jonny, is currently racing for Hot Tubes. If there’s any doubt about how talented the younger Brown is, we can dispel that quickly; he’s the current 17-18 Road Race National Champion, and was the 15-16 Road Race National Champion in 2012. He’s won a few races in Europe, as well.
David rode as a pro in the ’80s, which has a fair amount to do with his understanding of what’s required to gain recognition as a young rider, not to mention his willingness to make such an investment of time and money on his part.
While I was back in Memphis for a recent visit, I got wind that the Brown brothers were going to be in town and they wanted to take some folks out for a ride, a ride they hoped would become a fondo next year. There was an agenda in the offing.
Nathan is a sharp guy; he’s together in a way most 23-year-olds I meet are not. Hell, I wasn’t that together when I was 23. His is an acute sense of what was required of his father to launch him into his career. His plan is to start a foundation that will help riders in Tennessee with the expenses necessary to compete at a national level. While he doesn’t plan to go out and identify talent, he says that once a rider begins to shine in Tennessee, his plan is for the foundation to help that rider attend USAC team camps, National team trips and go to Nationals through scholarships.
Nathan says, “Our main objective is to raise money through the Foundation that can help with that financial burden to those families.”
“Both my brother and I understand the financial burden placed on my parents to provide us with every opportunity to make the level in the sport that I and Jonny have attained.”
Brown is surprisingly clear and certain about the foundation’s primary mission.
“There are so many ways to help junior cycling, but we are going to focus on the rider who has shown some talent and is attempting to make it to the next level and possibly beyond. We are well positioned as a family with all our connections to really take our dream of helping juniors through the foundation.”
We rode from Victory Bicycle Studio in Midtown Memphis and headed north into Meeman Shelby Forest State Park before turning southwest and heading toward the Mississippi River and downtown. Group rides in Memphis aren’t the come-one-come-all affairs they once were; most teams train on their own. All the group rides I used to do that saw pelotons of 40 to 60 riders have dried up. But for this occasion a 50-strong group turned up, featuring a couple of the more talented juniors from around the state.
I often wonder what my boys will be like as they grow up. Will they be polite? Will they be friendly? Will they engage other people? I could do a lot worse than have them turn out like Nathan and Jonny. At one point I noticed a half-pint of a rider, Yukio Mariner, who looked to be trying to follow the conversation up ahead; I told him to get on my wheel and took him up to Nathan and introduced the two.
While Nathan circulated among riders near the front of the group, Jonny sat near the back chatting with an ever-changing bouquet of locals. Too often I’ve been at events where famous racers have talked only to those riders they know and often have taken off right at the gun and treated the whole event as a private training day; it’s an ugly spectacle to witness, a kind of selfishness that ought to be beneath cyclists. So I think.
But the Browns hung out after the ride and gave Memphis riders a chance to rub elbows, hear stories of the Vuelta and other big-time races and, in general, make folks feel like they weren’t in a backwater. Perception is everything, no?
Somewhere in cycling’s future the phrase “the Brown Brothers” is going to take on iconic significance, the way “Lance,” “Eki” and “George” once did. When it does, it’ll be a good day for cycling. In the meantime, I plan to be at that ride next year.