Cole Paton’s cycling career started on a hand-me-down mountain bike.
“A nice pretty purple one,” Paton’s father, Scott Paton, recalled.
Cole was 3 years old for his first ride without training wheels, a short uphill stretch through the woods in Lake Wenatchee on his sister’s Specialized Hot Rock.
He spent his summers traversing the wooded area near his family’s cabin on Lake Wenatchee (Cole called it Camp Grandpa), along with his older sister Kealani and his grandparents. His grandparents took the grandchildren out for 4-mile rides before breakfast every morning.
Scott and Nalini Paton, Cole’s mother, would drop in to ride with their children to Midway Village, a local shop on Fish Lake for ice cream, an 8-mile round trip.
“We had sugar content figured out so he’d be ramped up just enough to get home,” Scott said.
Cole suited up for his first race as an 8-year-old — the Beezley Burn in Ephrata — riding a 20-inch Specialized Hotrock, another hand-me-down.
“I loved that bike,” he said.
He finished first in the cross country mountain bike race in his category in a pack of about 20 children, and a racing junkie was born.
Paton, now 15, outgrew the bike a year later and hasn’t slowed down since in his physical growth, nor in his development as one of the nation’s top cyclists in his age group.
Seven years after lining up in Ephrata for that first race, Paton is taking a bold step forward this summer.
The Cashmere native will ride as part of the U.S. Junior National Team in Europe, a group of five nationally prominent youth cyclists with high trajectories in the sport. Paton will suit up as the youngest member of the squad. The flight to Brussels leaves Thursday, and the trip could very well shape the arc of Paton’s career.
“The goal for Cole is not to go over there and be competitive at this point,” said Jason Jablonski, Paton’s coach who founded SET Coaching, an endurance clinic based in Wenatchee. “If he is, that’s great — that’s a by-product. But the goal is for him to get better. … He needs to see if this is something he’s going to enjoy for the future.”
Jablonski, a mountain biking vet who spent six years competing at the professional level, has seen plenty of bright prospects such as Paton spark excitement in the racing community, only to flame out due to over-training.
One of Jablonski’s objectives while grooming Paton is to help him avoid that fate.
“I want Cole to enjoy this,” he said.
Exploding on the scene
Paton spent the first four years of his career competing and dominating in regional races such as the Bike and Brews in Leavenworth, where he finished first in the Category 1 division earlier this month as the only competitor younger than 19.
But a recent third-place finish in the Category 2 mountain bike cross country race at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif., in April gave him a taste of the national spotlight. He finished with a time of 1:32.58.
“It was like a car race,” he said of the event, which draws thousands of riders from across the country. “There were people everywhere — it was crazy.”
Paton made the U.S. junior team after Jablonski found out there was an open spot on the roster and suggested Paton try for it. Jablonski spoke with the head of the U.S.A. Cycling mountain bike division and Paton was added shortly after. The trip amalgamated quickly and Paton scrambled to obtain a visa and make flight preparations. He will race in Holland, Germany and Switzerland.
He will likely run into culture shock in Europe, just as he did during his trip to California, where cycling is more of a cultural pastime than a niche sport.
“It’s like kids coming over here to play baseball,” Jablonski said.
Paton upgraded to a $2,800 Specialized Marathon with a carbon frame for the 2013 season. His father Scott, who owns Arlberg Sports, is a great resource.
But his physical and technical progress has come as the result of intense training dictated by a strictly calculated regimen.
Paton works out with a heart monitor and performs a series of exercises meant to refine his technique, rather than build stamina or muscle, though he makes plenty of long-distance treks to cover his bases.
Jablonski is more concerned with building a rider whose energy output is economically sound rather than a physical specimen. Many of the exercises are meant to help Paton optimize the strength and movement of his lower body, improving his pedal efficiency while limiting the movement in his upper body.
“He has it down to a science,” Paton said of Jablonski’s workout program.
And Paton’s physical strength as a rider is burgeoning thanks to growth spurts and natural development, which is yielding huge gains.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that up,” he said. “But hopefully I will.”
The junior cyclist eats like an offensive lineman. After long, weekend regular-season rides on which he sometimes travels from Cashmere to East Wenatchee and back (“After a while, I don’t know where to go, so I start turning random directions,” he said), he might down an entire medium pizza from Brian’s Bulldog Pizza in Cashmere for carbohydrates and turkey slices for protein.
“I can tell you from paying his food bill, he’s hungry after the rides,” Scott Paton said.
Paton is packing light for his trip overseas this summer. He’s bringing riding clothes and the light-frame carbon bike that’s been so good to him early on in the 2013 season.
He doesn’t know what to expect from the upcoming trip. There will be roadways congested with cyclists, but beyond that, Paton — who’s never been to Europe — is taking the trip with an open mind and few expectations, other than that he will line up to race and he will do the best his growing body allows.
The teenage cyclist will be away from his parents and competing without his family supporting him for only the second time in his career. Paton was separated from his family at Sea Otter because of the heavy flow of traffic.
At this point, Paton is still enchanted by competitive cycling — the physical and mental obstacles, the conversations that strike up after the finish line.
“Everyone in the biking community is really fun to be around,” he said. “After the races, everyone talks to you, and it’s like a big family.”
That genuine exuberance could be the key to a long and happy career in a sport that seems to produce its fair share of washouts.
Meantime, Jablonski just aims to keep Paton happy.
He works out ways to make training relatively simple and straightforward. He doesn’t bog Paton down with complex charts to track his progress or push his physical limits too far.
And Jablonski wants his young rider to soak in the experience and enjoy himself this summer.
He doesn’t believe the trip is make-or-break for whether Paton goes pro, but it will definitely give him a taste of what to expect at the next level, where Jablonski insists Paton can thrive.
“I think Cole’s one of those few athletes that can go as far as he wants in the industry,” said Jablonski, noting that Paton is among the elite junior riders in his age group in the nation. “There’s nothing stopping him from making a career out of this.
“My goal for Cole is to be a national champion before he turns 18, and I think he’s perfectly capable of that. I don’t want to put any pressure on him. More than anything, I want him to enjoy the sport.”
Paton is still raw in many regards. He launches off jumps during races (a risky endeavor), runs track and cross country at school, and doesn’t follow any strict diet, although he abstains from pop and junk food by his own choice.
Jablonski knows Paton could go far if he chooses, and Paton wants to continue to ride and get better.
“That’s my dream,” he said. “But it all depends. I definitely want to be racing.”
Paton’s trip to Europe may not be the beat-all-end-all, but it will help pave the path for his future.
Time is on his side.