Richard Fries is one of those true Renaissance men. There’s almost nothing he hasn’t done in cycling. He began as a racer, became a writer and publisher and after the birth of his first child, a passionate advocate. Earlier this year he became the head of one of the most powerful advocacy organizations in the U.S. We decided it was high time to have a chat with him about his career.
Padraig: You recently became the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition after having spent (insert number) years at Anthony Shriver’s charity Best Buddies. What led to the move?
Fries: After more than eight years at Best Buddies, which I did in tandem with a lot of other things, I was tapped by a board member of MassBike. We were driving to a ‘cross race together. He noted that David Watson, the executive director, was stepping down. The deadline for applicants was approaching….Like in two days. When I mentioned I always wondered if I could do that job, he suggested I throw my hat in the ring. There were nearly 30 applicants but I got the interview. And then came two more interviews. All I know is every other applicant’s interview lasted about 35 minutes and mine were lasting like two hours!
This is the most exciting and most daunting job I’ve ever had in my life. But I love it.
Padraig: Let’s roll the film back a little bit and talk a bit about what you were doing for Best Buddies and how you came to join them.
Fries: I started as their marketing director for their charity rides. I really loved that but the organization had a lot of political layers that made it frustrating…I got a lot of good teams going such as John Hancock and some big sponsorships such as CSC. But there was definitely a ceiling to my career there. So after about four years I downgraded to being part time as their director of cycling experience. I took a lot of stuff I learned from racing, riding and commuting and started working with corporate teams. I loved it. When Anthony Shriver himself started riding, I got to help transform first him and then the entire Best Buddies organization. The entire staff is becoming healthier and happier to this day. I’m proud of that.
Padraig: What’s your involvement, if any, with Best Buddies these days? Will you continue to do the rides each year?
Fries: One can never get that mission, that organization, out of your blood. I still donate time to leading some of their training rides and I’ll lead our “welders” at both the Boston and Miami events well into the future. But I also have remained in touch with my own buddy, Ian Pfeffer. He’s a great guy who I’ve got working our bike valet with us at Fenway Park. We go to lunch or the movies or something every other week or so. My own son joins us. It’s an awesome, powerful thing to do for somebody.
Padraig: Can you talk a bit more about the welders and where that idea came from?
Fries: It’s really a modification of what Tim Johnson taught me during his Ride on Washington. After 35 years of riding, Tim corrected a lot of my bad habits both as an individual and as a rider within a group. There simply is a way to ride with a group that is safer, more courteous, and also really fast. When done right a group of novices can hang with good pros and EVERYBODY gets their “workout.” All I did was codify the method into 10 rules such as ‘easy when it’s hard; hard when it’s easy,’ and ‘tough guys in the back,’ and stuff such as that.
Padraig: Let’s talk a bit about your background. Would it be fair to characterize your formative years as having chased three passions—racer, historian and reporter? Can you tell RKP readers a bit more about your time as a racer and your early days as a reporter?
Fries: That’s pretty close, but I would have to add “advocate” in there. I started racing after one month at college at USF in Tampa, where I only rode to school because I could not afford a car. After a few weeks I realized nobody had ever passed me. So I entered a race, got 13th, and met a guy who knew a bit more about bikes than I. We had a great friendship and went all in. Within two seasons I moved up to Category 1 and nailed some good results.
But during college, where I studied history, I remember having to register for the draft during the Iranian hostage crisis. On the way home the skies just opened up with a Florida downpour. I took cover under the bridge and just watched an endless conveyor belt of single-occupant vehicles smolder in front of me. A switch went off. I had just been forced to register to fight, and possibly die, for a war so these people could continue on this unhealthy, unsustainable, dirty lifestyle. I made the connection.
I kept racing at a fairly high level but in the early 1980s you either were on 7-Eleven or you weren’t. I got a good ride in Spain on a small pro team. We hit a few big UCI events and won a lot of little ones. I loved it, but I left it to go home.
I went back, got a masters in journalism at Northeastern, and tried—I really, really tried—to quit cycling. I got a job at a New England daily, which in hindsight proved the greatest career move ever. I covered cops, fires, rock ’n’ roll, politics, everything. I learned a lot.
But I went back to the bike and I started racing, and winning, at the regional amateur level. I got to ride as Tyler Hamilton’s teammate when he was like 18. That was amazing. His career truly was truly tragic.
During that time I started a regional cycling magazine called The Ride. We grew pretty fast. I wound up marrying the co-founder. We had a baby, then another, and then a third. So many great people came through our office, including Patrick Brady, Tim Johnson, Mo Bruno and a lot of other folks who went on to significant work in the bike world. We just could not sustain a family of three with it.
So on weekends I was either free-lance writing, helping in television production, or helping to announce at bike races. Somehow it all swirled together, and I became well known and well paid for race commentary. I wove all those professional and personal experiences together as a race announcer. I have gone all over the world because of announcing.
Padraig: Don’t be shy. You’ve raced against some of the greats and called some of the greats teammates. Do us a solid and drop some names.
Fries: My club, CCB, had Paul McCormack and Tyler Hamilton and myself one summer. We put together a combine at Fitchburg that included Frank McCormack, Mark McCormack, Fred Rodriguez and Chan McRae. I was just one of the club guys on that squad. That was a fun weekend. I destroyed myself in support of the leaders’ jersey and did not finish. But we won everything and Tyler—at the end of the day a nice guy—made sure I got my cut. I’ve also been in fields with Noel Dejonkheer, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Ron Kiefel, David Phinney, etc. I beat Greg LeMond in a time trial once, but I believe he had been to a disco pretty late the night before. I’ve been in breakaways with Tom Schuler, Alex Stieda and Steve Bauer…. Shit that reads pretty good, eh?
But honestly I have to say that riding David Ware off my wheel in the rain at Fitchburg was one of the best days of my life. And nobody knows who he was. There were so many amazing riders back then, right before all the Americans went to Europe to turn pro who never got the break they deserved. Hugh Walton is a great example.
Padraig: You’ve retained your credibility among the racer crowd because of your experience as a race and television announcer, which began with ‘cross nationals at Fort Devens back in 1998. How much announcing are you still doing, will do this year?
Fries: I’m still doing about 30 weekends, but I’ll put most of my focus on cyclo-cross, which is my real love. Working the world championships in both road and cyclo-cross has been a fantastic privilege and I hope to do both this season. But I’m just as happy working regional crits and local ‘cross races. Oddly some promoters are too shy to ask me to work local events; I still love them all.
Opening image: David Chiu