When two doors appeared in Senior Airman David Flaten’s dream, a voice told him one door would reveal whether or not he’d reach his goal as a professional cyclist; If he chose the other door, he’d awaken and continue training with an uncertain future. Still, he opened it.
“During the dream, I had the thought process of asking myself, ‘If I open the door on the right, will I train tomorrow as hard as if I wouldn’t have known if I would be successful?,’” he said. “The answer was obviously no. So, I chose to open the door on the left in this dream. I woke up from my nap, and it’s still unknown. All I can do is work as hard as I can on a day-to-day basis and hope I can achieve what I want to.”
For the past year, the Air Force World Class Athlete Program has helped put Flaten into position to work toward his dreams in the sport he loves. Each day, he doggedly pedals the rocky hills near Harrisonburg, Virginia, such as those at Massanutten Mountain, or those leading to the 4,200-foot peak of Reddish Knob in the George Washington National Forest. Flaten’s most recent short-range focus has been on the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, a 40-mile mountain bike race in Wisconsin held in mid-September. But his ultimate goal is to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro next year.
“Riding a bike is a metaphor for anything that you do,” Flaten said. “As long as you’re pedaling forward, embracing that grind and what it takes to knock out that 100-mile loop or get that paper to your boss at the end of the week, that’s the winning mentality it takes to be successful.”
Last fall, shortly after he was selected for the Air Force sports program, Flaten moved to Harrisonburg — an area known for its challenging rocky terrain.
The selection allowed him to be released from his primary duties as an 811th Security Forces Squadron protective services Airman at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, for two years to train under coach Jeremiah Bishop, an internationally accomplished mountain biker, and compete in national and international cycling competitions.
“I’ve been given an incredible opportunity from the Air Force,” Flaten said. “The whole time I was at Andrews, my primary duties were to be a security forces Airman, and in front of me, I had that carrot dangling for this elusive program that I’d heard about that allows you to train full time.”
Bishop believes Flaten’s focus and motivation are his greatest attributes. The coach writes Flaten’s training program, advises him on conditioning and nutrition, and builds customized race scenarios tailored for upcoming competitions. Together, they see each of Flaten’s achievements as a small step to push him further along in his career.
“For David, it’s important to have stepping-stones, since as a rookie pro he is up against the best (cyclists) on Earth, and many have 10 more years of experience,” Bishop said. “A podium performance at his home pro race is David’s next goal. Performing at a high U.S. level is the first step in performing internationally. A Top 10 U.S. ranking is the next step in his progression, and these marks build confidence as we take on the next level.”
If there had been a third door in Flaten’s dream, it might have shown him his past, when he was growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. As a boy, Flaten felt frustrated because he had the drive, but not the athleticism, for major sports. Even today, he sometimes reflects on his sports struggles during his youth, such as on the baseball field, when he timidly approached home plate, almost afraid to make contact with the pitch.
“In Little League, there aren’t many balls going out to left field, and I always spent a lot of time kicking the grass and wondering why I wasn’t playing first base,” Flaten said. “I wanted to be the guy who was good at something.”
But he said he always felt comfortable on a bike, starting out on rides with a neighbor when he wanted to tackle a steep hill in the highest gear. Today, he incorporates similar rides into his training in a workout he calls the “Hill Smashers.”
In 2007, Flaten began racing at the age of 15 and completed his first mountain bike race on a 9-mile forest race in Wausau. He quickly moved through the Wisconsin Off Road Series rankings and reached Category 1 status two years later. He took a year off when he enlisted in the Air Force in 2010, but returned to the sport after he arrived at JB Andrews, where he balanced his cycling training with his security forces duties.
The competitive nature that remained hidden during Flaten’s past athletic pursuits shines when he’s on his bike. He’s more driven when he faces other cyclists in races, a lesson he learned in his first two years as a professional.
“This year, I’ve fully embraced showing up at mountain bike races and just racing my own race,” he said. “If you had a good day, you’ve had a good day. It doesn’t matter who you beat, and it doesn’t matter who beat you. If you felt great from start to finish, that’s a good day on the bike.”
Even after a four-hour ride on the bike, the training day isn’t over when Flaten returns to his apartment. He spends about 20 minutes on planks, pushups and squats — a vital part of training to prevent injury and improve his handling of the bike.
“When you’re on your bike, it’s not like you can do anything other than ride your bike,” he said. “When you’re at home, that’s when I think your biggest gains can be made, because you are consciously choosing not to turn on the TV as soon as you get in the door. Sometimes the dedication isn’t just getting out the door and going to work, it’s getting back in the door and realizing your day isn’t quite done.”
With winter nearing, Flaten still maintains the same philosophy about training, even when the weather doesn’t cater to a postcard-perfect day for a bike ride in the mountains. When brutal outdoor elements arise, he imagines what his competition is doing to force himself outside.
“There are days when it’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard to go and ride in the rain when it’s really cold. It’s easy to tell yourself how dangerous that it is to go and put yourself in that situation. But other times, it’s also easy to tell yourself that this is one extra training day that my competition decided to pull the plug and sleep in.”
Despite a slow start to his 2015 racing season, Flaten earned his first international ranking points in Norway and competed in his first World Cup races in the Czech Republic and Germany before returning stateside for more U.S. Cup competition.
It may be the disappointment from his results in Europe that could eventually pay off, because of the motivation it’s given him. He was pulled from his first World Cup race in Nové Město na Moravě in the central Czech Republic after a crash gashed his arm, resulting in stitches, and he watched the hometown hero cross the finish line.
“I watched the Olympic champion from 2012 win his hometown race with 20,000 to 25,000 spectators absolutely losing their minds as he crossed the finish line with his hands in the air,” Flaten said. “I’ve never experienced something like that, and I don’t know if that will ever happen to me, but it looked like he had a great time as he was crossing the finish line. That’s something I would love to feel.”
Flaten may not have his daily security police duties for at least another year, but his Air Force training still impacts his daily life. He meticulously takes care of his bikes and equipment as he treats his uniforms, and core values also play a factor in his approach to both his training and competition.
“I pride myself on being a clean racer,” he said. “Being able to look yourself in the mirror every day and to say I ran my race clean is important to me to represent not only the armed forces, but my family name, as well.”
Late in the day, Flaten balances the adrenaline of biking up Virginia’s hills with a more relaxed sport — fishing for trout alone on a forest creek. Flaten has no problem with solitude. In fact, it has actually become a useful tool in his training. During one six-day period, while his coach was out of town for his own race, without even noticing it, Flaten was so engulfed in his training that he didn’t speak a single word to anyone.
“I didn’t realize it until the last day, when I was resting in my apartment, that I hadn’t called my parents for a few days,” he said. “I called my mom, and that was when I realized that I hadn’t said a word for six days. That was a very strange sensation to have, but it was also one of the most constructive weeks of training I’ve ever had.
“It wasn’t until I joined the military that I discovered that I really thrived on alone time. I really see progress in my numbers and training results when I train by myself. Not only have I discovered that I thrive in it, but I kind of enjoy it.”
Each hill Flaten climbs, his focus is on his hometown race. This year, he believes he has a shot at making the top five, if not winning the same race once won by cycling greats like Greg LeMond, a three-time winner of the Tour de France.
The Chequamegon race is really just another stepping-stone that Flaten hopes will draw him closer to his goal of representing his country and the Air Force in 2016.
“Making the Olympics next year is going to be very challenging and the likelihood of making it is very slim, because there are a lot of guys going for those slots,” he said. “But I’m up to bat now. This is my chance to hit the home run, and I’m not afraid of the ball.”