At only 20 years of age I signed my first pro contract with the then ranked 2nd in the world Team Farm Frites. Riding for Team Mercury I had taken the domestic scene by storm not necessarily by being the best U-23 time trialist (who was by far Dave Zabriskie) nor by being the best U-23 one day racer (easily Danny Pate) but by being the best stage racer and notching consistent top 5 and 10 results in NRC multi-day events.
This is me with my sister Elise only days before hopping on a plane with a one way ticket Holland. I left everything behind to compete in the 1st Division (now "ProTour").
So when offered by then Team Farm Frites manager Jacques Hanegraaf before the ink was even dry on my first D1 Pro contract to compete in arguably the worlds most difficult stage race, I could do only the reasonable thing...
Of course that first race was a real eye opener. Competing against the fully "topped off" Italians was no easy feat for a 20 year old, 140lb neo pro with a hematocrit of 40. I digress, that was the business I had chosen and to be honest I couldn't have cared less... I was having the time of my life.
I had fame. (can you name the riders in the background 2nd pic down?)
I had fans.
... And in Italy, I had the best agent/aunt a kid could ever ask for. Only months after this photo was taken this innocent little lady in pink talked hard-ball to legendary Team Saeco manager Claudio Corti and negotiated my 2001 contract at the Saeco corporate offices in Gaggio Montagna, IT.
So did I finish the Giro D'Italia? Hell no I didn't! You try racing against guys who are riding up mountains in their 53s while only breathing through their noses!
But I had some great memories. Here I am waving to the camera (look close). I am flanked by my teamates Robbie Mcewen to my right and Miquel VanKessel to my left. That's Mario Cipollini on the front with Ludo Dierckxsens a couple riders to his left. Axel Merckx won this stage, a little 280km jaunt through the hills of Tuscany.
Up next: Look out Mario... Here I come! The Saeco years.