Tour de France rookie began competitive racing as 12-year-old at Alkek Velodrome
It was just another day at the office for one young professional who cut his chops learning a trade in The Energy Corridor, nothing more than an arduous 134-mile bike ride over heat-soaked, rolling country roads squeezing past thick conifer forests, centuries-old villages and a tantalizing blue Lake of Viam just begging for a refreshing dive on a hot July afternoon.
But when Houston native Lawson Craddock finished his sixth category-level climb of the day, cranking his pedals like a ceaseless metronome into the French ski resort of Le Lioran, he looked back – 5,160 miles back, to be exact – to the place where his journey as a professional cyclist began, the Alkek Velodrome in The Energy Corridor. It was there that Lawson dreamed of standing on a podium framed by the Arc de Triomphe, tens of thousands of spectators and a bright yellow jersey about to be pulled over his head.
Riding the epic Tour de France (TDF) race as a rookie for the Cannondale-Drapac team, Craddock says he’s “been dreaming of it ever since I got on two wheels.”
But with mountain stages that mean conquering steep climbs up the Pyrenees, Alps and the brutally unforgiving Mount Ventoux (notorious for humbling incredibly fit athletes), Craddock’s ride across France is a long way, literally and figuratively, from the velodrome at Cullen Park.
Craddock’s dad, once a professional downhill mountain bike racer, raced at the Alkek Velodrome, taking Lawson and his brother Parker to watch. When Lawson was 12, his dad enrolled the boys in summer racing classes there.
“At the end, there was a series of races and the winner got a bike,” says Lawson. “I won.”
Lawson eventually started training six days a week at Alkek Velodrome, every day for an hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours. In 2010, he made his mark in the cycling world, taking home three junior national titles for road racing, time trialing and the criterium.
Hard work led to a development team with Bontrager, a bicycle components manufacturer. That, in turn, landed Craddock a contract with Giant-Alpecin, and in 2015 he earned a podium spot in a stage at the Tour of Poland and top 10 in a stage at the Tour of California. This year Craddock signed with Cannondale-Drapac, finishing in the top 10 overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, Critérium International and Tour of California – and emerging as one of America’s brightest hopes for a future podium performance at the Tour de France.
But a race that takes 21 days and more than 2,100 miles to finish is a different beast. It’s now up to Craddock to support Cannondale-Drapac’s team captain, French climber Pierre Rolland, while developing into a three-week contender.
“Being part of Cannondale-Drapac’s TDF team is special because we take the best nine riders available; that gives us a lot of strengths when it comes to the racing aspect,” explains Craddock. “We will have the opportunity to hunt for stages on all the terrain as well as giving the (general classification) a crack with Pierre.
“I’ll do my best to be up there on the climbs to support Pierre, but if there’s an opportunity in front of me I’ll have to take it,” he says. “This is the Tour de France, and these types of chances don’t come around very often.”
If watching this year’s TDF inspires riding, both adults and youths can begin their own racing trek with classes and races at the Alkek Velodrome, in Cullen Park, 19008 Saums Road. One of only 21 velodromes in the country, Alkek was built for the 1986 U.S. Olympic Festival and has held everything from Junior Regionals to Olympic Qualifiers.
The 333-meter concrete track banks from 33 degrees in the turns to 9 degrees in the straights. Open February through November, Alkek Velodrome programs include a Youth Cycling League, an Adult Cycling League, Friday and Saturday night racing and coaching of junior and senior racers. There are even free bikes to use at the track.