Pro mountain bike racer changes gears to extend his career

“Jason (Sager) always had that sort of business mentality about himself. Even here in Baton Rouge he was trying to figure out how he can get sponsorships, how he can accomplish his next goal.” Joshua rosby, mountain biker

Jason Sager’s first mountain bike race was kind of a disaster.

Sager, then an LSU student, took off from a “standstill to a maximum effort” like everyone else lined up for the start.

“And 10 minutes later there I was, hunched over my bike, dry-heaving in the woods,” said Sager. “I knew nothing about pacing yourself or what that felt like.”

Now a veteran professional mountain bike racer and team manager, the 39-year-old Sager travels the world to take on the sport’s toughest, longest races.

But it was that first race in Mobile, Ala., nearly 20 years ago that hooked him.

“It was kind of cool because of this battle both with yourself and the bike and with other people, too,” he said.

Growing up a skateboarder in Baton Rouge, Sager bought a mountain bike for transportation when he started classes at LSU. Then he heard of mountain bike trails on Hooper Road in north Baton Rouge and started riding. He enjoyed the technical aspects, learning skills and testing them on new obstacles.

And he loved the speed.

Riding and racing, he sped ahead of friends and competitors.

“Genetically it was always there,” Sager said. “I just never chose to use it. I wasn’t interested in traditional high school sports where you could discover it.”

He rose quickly through the ranks of southeastern U.S. competition and placed well in national collegiate races.

“He was always the fast kid, the really fast kid,” said Joshua Rosby, a Baton Rouge-based mountain bike racer whom Sager coached.

Growing as a racer was difficult in Baton Rouge.

“You had to be pretty motivated to live in Louisiana because the cycling scenes were all pretty far away,” he said.

After college, Sager moved to Austin, Texas, to train and compete in professional races. For five years he focused solely on racing and earned top-10 and top-20 spots in the national professional race series.

A record like that “legitimizes you as a pro but doesn’t get you the big press,” Sager said.

After five years in Texas, Sager moved to Utah, where he took a job as a mortgage banker. It didn’t interfere with his racing and training.

By 2008, with the banking industry suffering, Sager had to find another job. Instead of competing with all the other out-of-work bankers, Sager decided to take a chance and devote his career to cycling again, but in a non-traditional way.

He started his own mountain bike team, hired some other racers and found sponsors.

Running a racing team fits Sager’s personality, Rosby said.

“Jason always had that sort of business mentality about himself,” he said. “Even here in Baton Rouge he was trying to figure out how he can get sponsorships, how he can accomplish his next goal.”

When he started the team, longer races that lasted three to seven days were growing in popularity. Sager found his niche in these races, including the Mongolia Bike Challenge, La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica and — his favorite — the BC Bike Race in British Columbia, Canada. In 2011 his team won the Trans Andes race in Chile, and Sager took second in the Transylvania Epic in Pennsylvania.

But whether his team won or lost, his photos and stories from these long, difficult races intrigued mountain bikers who followed his exploits on social media and blogs.

Instead of focusing solely on winning races and championships, his sponsors gained exposure through his brand of storytelling. His new sponsor, Backcountry.com, an online retailer of outdoors and cycling equipment, features athletes’ stories on a special section of its website

“It didn’t matter how your race went, in fact the harder or worse it went, the more if resonated with your readers,” he said. “Everyone knows what it’s like to have a hard day.”

Now, as a father to two sons — one 5, the other 13 months — and a team manager, Sager finds he’s busier, but he has a more balanced life compared to the years when he kept an “absolute razor-Olympian-type focus.”

“It sounds a little more counter-intuitive,” he said, “but the diversity of having a little more to do than your bike really made me more successful on the bike.”

Turning 40 later this month, Sager plans to keep on competing with younger riders.

“Hopefully, I’ll be competitive,” he said, “but if I’m not, I’m still going some pretty cool places.”