In a cycling criterium last Sunday in Pennsylvania, Jake Silverberg found himself in a position that’s been all too familiar during his rookie season as a pro – on the pavement, in a crumpled heap and in pain as he watched other riders dodge the carnage.
“I took a bad line leaning into a turn at 35 mph and hit a pothole,” he said. “The bike vanished beneath me and I flew into the curb. While I was in the air I said to myself, ‘I hope I don’t break anything.’”
He did not, but because blood was gushing from a cut on his neck he was taken to a hospital, where he was bandaged up and released. He won’t allow the damage from the crash — road rash on his thigh and neck — prevent him from riding in his next race, “the biggest goal of my life so far,” he said.
Silverberg will be competing Sunday in the team time trial at the UCI Road Cycling World Championships in Richmond, Virginia. At age 19, he is the youngest rider in the entire field, which will include the world’s top cyclists competing in three events —team time trial, individual time trial and road race.
Silverberg’s Astellas team, a U.S. development squad, goes up against the top outfits from Europe, including Tour de France champ Chris Froome and his Team Sky in the23.5-mile race against the clock in which six riders on their custom aero bikes take turns at the front of the line pulling their teammates along the course at top speed, their wheels only a couple inches apart. Four riders per team must finish and the time of the fourth rider is what counts.
“It will come down to the length of each guy’s pulls, how smoothly we handle turns and the last kilometer up a hill,” Silverberg said. “Our goal is to average 32 mph. Crashes are common but our team has a strong chemistry.”
Silverberg’s coach, Steve Mlujeak, said Silverberg has the physical power and mental intensity that characterizes great time trialers
“It’s one of the hardest events because you have to go flat out and punish your body, and that is Jake, all the way,” Mlujeak said. “You have to fight to not get dropped or drag down your team. It will be fun to see how the younger guys do against the veterans, who are the best of the best.”
Silverberg, a 2014 graduate of Pembroke Pines Charter School, will see fellow South Floridian and mentor Andrew Talansky in Richmond. Key Biscayne’s Talansky, 26, who has had 10th and 11th-place finishes in the Tour de France for Cannondale-Garmin, will represent the U.S.
While I was in the air I said to myself, ‘I hope I don’t break anything.’
Silverberg hopes to cross the finish line on his bike after an eventful first year on the U.S. pro circuit.
“It’s been a turbulent transition year and I’ve crashed a lot, but I expected hardship,” he said. “As a junior if you’re an aggressive rider you can navigate through it. The pros are stronger and have more skill riding in the peloton.”
Before the season started in March, Silverberg got hit by a car while doing altitude training in Colombia and injured his knee. Plenty of mishaps followed in his 42 races.
“The day after you get your teeth kicked in you get yourself ready for the next day, which will be harder,” said Silverberg’s Astellas teammate Brecht Dhaene of Belgium. “If it was easy riding a bike for a living I think more people would do it.
“The next question for Jake is how he builds on what he’s learned. He has a great sprint finish but his weakness is on the hills. We trained together for a week in Miami and obviously you have no hills there. He needs to find the right place to train.”
Silverberg is considering moving to Athens, Georgia, where he can incorporate more climbing into his training.
“Growing up, I learned a lot from the Colombians, who come from a strong cycling culture,” he said. “But in South Florida, there’s too much traffic, no terrain, general craziness – it’s got a bad cycling reputation, unfortunately.”
When he’s home, he rides on the roads where he started. He rode a Chopper from Target and was a roller hockey player until the summer after his 13th birthday, when he became mesmerized watching the three-week Tour de France on TV. He used his Bar Mitzvah money to buy a road bike. He joined group rides in Weston.
Then he met Keith Harrod, an Englishman who had raced in Europe.
“We worked on bikes in his garage and he bought me pedals and tires and told me about the European classics, like Paris-Roubaix, and I loved the sport even more,” Silverberg said.
Harrod helped Silverberg enter his first race, around an un-picturesque lake in Medley affectionately known as “El Hueco” (the hole). Silverberg won and got a check for $8 which he taped on his bedroom wall.
At age 15, Silverberg won the junior national road race and switched from the local Z Motion to Garmin-Slipstream’s junior team. He joined Mlujeak’s Interactive Metronome team in 2013 and made the U.S. junior team, which took him to the junior Paris-Roubaix — where he crashed twice but still finished 28th. After winning the U.S. junior criterium title, he joined the junior Quick Step team and spent the summer in Belgium before signing with Astellas.
“I think Jake got his athletic ability from his mother and his focus from me,” said Silverberg’s father, Jeff, manager of Hollywood Chrysler-Jeep and a former mountain climber. Jake’s mother, Maria Lundstrom, was a swimmer on Sweden’s junior team. “He’s devoted to making cycling his job now. There’s no Plan B.”
Mlujeak, a former Coast Guard aircraft mechanic who was captain of the U.S Armed Forces cycling team, said Silverberg has the talent and mindset to succeed even as a native flatlander in a rugged sport.
Said Silverberg: “I remember those races at El Hueco and I dream about going back to Paris-Roubaix as a pro, the Tour de France, the Olympics. World championships is a sign that I’m getting there.”