Somewhere beneath all the lime-green Lycra, Lawson Craddock’s legs pump like pistons, propelling him through downtown Austin and up a three-decker hill into nearby Rollingwood.
His nose red from the 20-degree temperatures, the cyclist grinds away, making it look easy. Which it is, compared to the nearly 2,200 mountain-studded miles he pedaled during the 2016 Tour de France, when he became the first Texan since Lance Armstrong to complete the three-week stage race.
“It’s the work you put in now in these months that helps you through the whole season,” says Craddock, 24, tugging a scarf over his chin.
The 5-foot-10-inch, 150-pound cyclist with ginger hair grew up in Houston and moved to Austin six years ago. Today he splits his time between Austin, where he trains with other young elite cyclists — and, occasionally, Armstrong — and Spain.
Craddock credits his father for exposing him to the sport. Tom Craddock raced in the 1980s and ’90s and helped pioneer the mountain biking scene in Crested Butte, Colo. At one point the family garage held 31 bicycles.
“He was just always riding when I was growing up,” Craddock says of his father. “He’d put us on the back of a tandem and we’d ride before school.”
Craddock started track racing at Alkek Velodrome in Houston at age 10, traveled with the national team to Canada at 15 and began racing in Europe at 16. At 19, he joined Trek Livestrong’s development team; he’s been racing at the sport’s highest level since 2014.
He counts among his career highlights competing at the World Championships in Richmond, Va., in 2015, and winning a stage of a multi-day race on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 2011, where an official race car clipped him as he crossed the finish line, knocking him down. He still won the stage and saluted from the ground.
“My life has always been bikes, even when I was in high school,” Craddock says. “They’d let me travel the world as long as I kept up my schoolwork. The other riders would be taking naps while I was opening up books to study.”
Today he rides, on average, six days a week, pedaling up to six hours at a time. He lifts weights at a gym, stretches and does core work, too. On a recent day he woke up at 7 a.m., hopped on his bike at 8:30 a.m., rode until lunch, ate, napped, pedaled to the gym, worked out, rode home and pedaled his bike trainer until 7:30 p.m.
“At the end of the day, it turns into a full-time job,” Craddock says. “The sport is brutal. You kind of train your brain to do one thing, and that’s pedal a bike as fast as you can.”
Still, he describes getting the call last summer that he’d been invited to ride the Tour de France for Cannondale-Drapac a surreal, proud moment that he’d dreamed about for 15 years.
Craddock was among five Americans who raced the Tour in 2016, and he got his share of TV attention. The Cannondale-Drapac team leader rode well early on, but crashes set him back. Craddock crashed in spectacular fashion one day, too, finishing dead last on that stage and beating the cutoff time by a few minutes.
Still, he kept racing.
“You push your body so hard every day. It’s mostly just relief crossing the finish line. I was pretty wrecked,” he says. “That’s the thing with cycling. You really need a lot of luck as well.”
Craddock’s family, along with his then-fiancee, Chelsie, whom he has since married, watched him roll into Paris on the last day of the Tour.
“It’s a race like no other,” he says. “I thought I’d get used to it, but there are always people to see on the side of the road who take it to a whole new level. … It made me hungry to go back for more.”
But it’s not all about the Tour de France. “A lot of times what people forget is there’s 50 other races on the calendar,” Craddock says.
This spring he’ll focus on the six-day Vuelta al Pais Vasco in Spain, as well as the Ardennes Classics in Belgium and Holland, and the Tour of California.
He eats nearly constantly to fuel that pace and steers clear of manufactured and artificial foods. On a typical day, he might eat three egg and avocado tacos for breakfast, plus a handful of energy bars while he’s cycling. He’ll slug a protein shake afterward, then eat sweet potatoes, vegetables and chicken for lunch, followed by another protein shake in the afternoon and steak, potatoes and vegetables for dinner.
He also naps daily and relaxes by watching TV, playing video games like “Call of Duty” and watching football. “You push your body so hard you almost have no energy,” he says.
As for that other Austin-based Tour de France cyclist?
“He’ll come out and do 100 miles with us and push the pace,” Craddock says of Armstrong. “It’s pretty cool when you take a step back. Doping and other stuff aside, he was still the best cyclist who ever lived.”
The two aren’t close — “He’s never asked for any advice and I don’t offer any advice,” Armstrong says — but Craddock says it’s interesting to hear the veteran’s perspective.
“It’s a unique tool to have to be able to pick his brain,” Craddock says. “He’s the one person in the world who could jump on a bike and pound out 110 miles with three younger pro cyclists and still be ripping it at the end.”
Armstrong says it’s still too early to predict what’s in store for Craddock.
“He’s still very young. He has to decide or the sport has to decide for him what he focuses on, whether it’s one-day races, classics, smaller stage races or three-week tours,” Armstrong says. “I asked him the other day, ‘Do you think you can win the Tour de France?’ He said he thinks at some point he can.”
Cycling has changed since Armstrong’s heyday.
“A lot of people still see it as the dirtiest sport in the world,” says Craddock, who says he’s never been pressured to dope and has undergone random drug testing since he was 19. “But nowadays that’s just not the case. There are such strict laws and rules that have really cleaned the sport up so much.”