STROHECKER: Sitler experiencing 'surreal' rise through ranks of professional cycling
Up through college, Jake Sitler's primary passion was always running, not riding.
He starred on the Shippensburg University track and field team, always driving himself to get better. But, there was a desire inside of him that burned just as much as his love for running, one that began maybe even earlier in his life.
He remembers attending cycling races when he was younger and having the opportunity to ride in the pace cars as part of a cycling team's caravan. Whenever the cycling tour would roll through Lancaster, his family's supermarket, Barry's Country Food Market, would be a main sponsor of the event and get him and his family greater access to the race than just normal fans.
"I was like, 'Oh, this is awesome,'" said Sitler, who's a Wrightsville native.
But, until college, cycling was always just a hobby for him. He'd watch it on TV with his dad and go on rides in high school, but nothing more. If only 12-year-old Sitler could see the present-day form of himself.
Now, Sitler is living out a dream of his that once he began to pursue it, quickly became a reality.
In the span of two years, Sitler became a professional cyclist, part of Astellas Racing Team, of the National Racing Calendar (NRC). His lifetime enjoyment of the sport has turned from hobby to profession in the blink of an eye.
Sitler, first began his pursuit of being a professional cyclist in 2013, when he started in Cyclo-Cross. In Cyclo-Cross, which is basically steeplechase on a bike, riders will race through all different terrains, ranging from the pavement of standard streets to the hills and trails of a forest.
He quickly ascended the ranks of Cyclo-Cross, becoming a professional within a year of competing. But, making the professional ranks in traditional road racing became his next challenge.
"The spring of 2013 was my first year of racing on the road," Sitler said. "And in that, I started as an amateur, a Category 4, like the base level."
Over the course of that next year, Sitler continued to push himself, much like he did with his running in college, and worked his way into some professional races as an amateur. That was last year, but now, the 2007 graduate of York Catholic High School is beginning his first full year as a professional cyclist.
Being a pro: When Sitler signed with Astellas Racing Team, it was the first time in his cycling career that he was part of a team and not racing for himself.
In his prior two years as a cyclist, everything he did was to get noticed. Now, his goal is whatever is for the good of the team.
"Last year, it was all about yourself and trying to get yourself noticed by a professional team," Sitler said. "It was never a team aspect. There was never really much of a team sport. It was pretty much whatever you had to do to get to the professional level. ...But, at the professional level now, we have a full-functioning team that each individual has a set task that they do every single race and we work as one for one singular result."
So, while he's had to put his individual goals on the back burner for the betterment of the team, it still comes with its perks.
Now, Sitler — and the rest of the Astellas Racing Team — get pretty much everything provided to them for free. Astellas foots the bill for the majority of their travel fees and racer salaries, but when it comes to food, sunglasses, shoes, bikes and anything else you can think of, there are other sponsors that supply the team with those goods.
'Surreal' rise: When Sitler was first trying to get his name out there, he was competing in anywhere from 12 to 15 races during the racing season, which begins early in the spring and lasts through September. This year, his team will compete in five of the seven events in the NRC. Individually, Sitler will compete in more, like when he competed in the Pennsylvania State Championships on May 2nd.
He still helps out at his family's market when he has the time, but during the season, Sitler said his family has to pick up more of the slack for him. Currently, the next event that Sitler and his Astellas Racing Team are preparing for is the USPRO national championships in Tennessee. To get set for that, Sitler is riding anywhere from 50-100 miles per day.
It's a long way from where Sitler was even two years ago and more than he could've ever dreamed. He's taken his life-long hobby and turned it into his profession, one that takes him all over the country and even the globe, as his team will qualify to compete in races in Canada and Europe.
"In two years (of cycling), I'll be racing at the professional national championships for a world spot," Sitler said. "It's kind of surreal. It is surreal, but it happens so fast that you don't even get time to digest it."
Pretty good for someone from the small town of Wrightsville.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org