Up Close with Nico Deportago-Cabrera

By Mary Swanson, guest columnist
After interviewing Addison Zawada at Lockn, Ink had the chance to sit down with Nico Deportago-Cabrera, another Red Bull cyclist who specializes in courier racing. Nico, in addition to participating in courier championships and cyclocross, is the vocalist and guitarist in a garage punk/power pop band called Young Distractions [http://youngdistractions.bandcamp.com/] and has some of the best words of wisdom I’ve ever heard.

INK: At what age did you start riding?

Nico Deportago-Cabrera: I mean I guess I’ve kind of always been riding throughout my life, but when I was twenty-one, I had lost my license for drinking and driving, and I basically quit drinking then. I stopped drinking before I even hit twenty-two—I didn’t even make it through a full year of legal drinking before I was like, “I need to knock this off.” But during that time I started riding a bike to get around, you know, very utilitarian; I knew it was going to be a while before I got my drivers’ license back, and I just haven’t stopped riding since. It was probably a few years before it became anything more than just getting around or whatever, because while I was riding I started to realize, like, “oh, I actually kind of enjoy this.” And that was all within a city too; it was all urban riding through traffic that kind of got me turned on to riding for pleasure, and it kind of grew from there.

I: When did cycling start to become a part of your professional life?

NDC: Well in 2008 I was playing in this band, and music’s always kind of been my main thing; so I’d been in this band for years, and it was kind of falling apart, and we played our last show in July of 2008. And all the work I was doing, you know—I was putting up drywall in this recording studio and freelancing doing window displays for Louis Vuitton and some high-end fashion stores; and the work was good but it wasn’t very rewarding, and so I knew that the only other thing besides playing music that I really dug was riding my bike. So literally a month after my band broke up I quit my job and got a job as a bike messenger in Chicago, and that was kind of it, it didn’t take very long. I was working for this company called Apex Courier, and it wasn’t very long before I realized that this is actually work that I enjoy, and it’s also fulfilling. At that point I had never had a job that I really got anything out of, you know, it was all just whatever I was doing on the side to try and get my music going. For the longest time people asked like, “oh, what do you do?” and I’d say “I’m a musician,” and I found myself starting to say “oh, I’m a bike messenger” and that kind of became more and more the focus in my life—and it hasn’t stopped since. And I’m still doing music, for sure, but it took a few years; between my band breaking up and getting the messenger job, it was probably another three years before I started playing music seriously again. But even now that music’s a huge part of my life, cycling is still kind of what drives me and takes me places.

I: What was your first big breakthrough into competitive cycling?

NDC: In year one, when I was still a total rookie, pretty clueless as far as everything that was going on around me; I had been working for about a month and Chicago was hosting the North American Cycle Courier Championships—or the NACCCs as we call it—so I showed up to this event. It’s a race that’s supposed to simulate a messenger workday, and it’s a big competition that’s been going on since like the mid-to-late nineties. I was there as this rookie and I was pretty clueless as far as the culture that surrounded messengers and urban cycling. I didn’t have any friends that rode, like I said my background was all music so all my friends were like, band dudes or whatever; so I came to this event not knowing anybody, and I had a blast, but I kind of didn’t realize what was going on around me. I knew messengers had their own thing going on and their own weird little offbeat culture, but I was such an outsider. Even then still I didn’t really realize what was going on, but I had a blast so like a year later that same race was being held in Boston, and after having worked for a year, I had bonded with some other messengers downtown and decided, well, “I’m gonna go try this bike race again in Boston,” and that was the first time I had like, on my own, “oh I’m gonna buy a ticket to this city and I’m gonna go do this thing…” and I didn’t know anybody in Boston, I didn’t have a place to stay, and I was like “I’m just gonna go for it!” so I did and I wound up winning that race. I had done like one alleycat race prior to that and finished probably fifty-eighth out of seventy people, totally just purely for fun. I didn’t really expect to do so well, like I think when I finished that race in Boston I was like, you know, feeling pretty good about it, like I was like “man, I gotta be in the top twenty-five or something.” I felt really good, and then they called my name on stage as first place and it kind of blew my mind open, you know? I didn’t see that coming at all. I’ve always been athletic; I played a lot of sports growing up, I wrestled and played football in high school, I ran track, I was always up to something physical, so I think that was another reason I really latched onto this messenger thing— because it’s a very physical job and I feel like I get to be an athlete while I’m doing my job anyway. So at that point I was like, “okay, I’m hooked now,” and I’ve been to every NACCC since and I’ve been going to the World Championships every year since, just cause it’s like, it’s what I do now. I just kind of fell into it, you know? It’s like the stars were aligned.

I: What do you think has been your biggest accomplishment so far?

NDC: Well, I’ve been steadily getting better in my standings in the world championships, anytime being able to break the top ten in something like a Messenger World Championships or a North American Championships, it’s like a pretty big accomplishment. Usually the top fifty people in these finals—it’s usually the same mix of people. So sometimes this person does better and sometimes this person does better, but I’ve found that when you’re racing in these finals, you’re kind of racing against the same people every time, so being able to just get to the finals and be in that batch of people—that’s a pretty big accomplishment. In Warsaw in 2011 I took seventh place and I worked my ass off in that race and I felt really proud of it. And the following year, which actually to me is kind of like—as far as this messenger world thing—2012 we got to host in Chicago. In 2010 in Guatemala I put in the bid for Chicago to host and everybody voted like, let’s go to Chicago for 2012; so I worked with a crew of about seven or eight people to make that happen, and although it’s not a race that I got to compete in, I got to design the race and I got to host this event in my hometown; and we had like four hundred sixty-five people come from all over the world, every corner of the planet. People came to Chicago to see my city, to party in my city, to race in my city, and although I didn’t get to race, because I was kind of like the brain of the course, that was huge for me just to be able to see; after having done this for a few years and being able to experience it in other places, to really like bring it to the city that I love, that meant the world to me. I felt like if I had to retire then, that would have a great retirement point.

I: I understand that you also compete in cyclocross? Can you explain what a typical cyclocross race is like?

NDC: Yeah, I love racing cyclocross. So cyclocross is kind of like the bastard child of mountain biking and road racing. As I understand it, it has its roots with Belgian farmers, where they would make these crazy races where people would race their bikes from farm to farm, and so with that came all kinds of weird terrain—you’re riding your bike through these rolling hills, having to cross through rivers or creeks, and it’s all very technical riding. So as the sport developed, essentially a cyclocross course is like… you’re doing laps around this course for an hour. And the course involves all kinds of technical riding, so it’s a mix of bike handling skills and speed and endurance. I love it because it’s like all my favorite sports growing up—I was a wrestler, and wrestling was all about pushing your body as hard as you could go and hoping it was harder than the other person’s, you know, and that’s kinda like what cyclocross is, you’re essentially just red-lining yourself for an hour. Maybe I’m just oversimplifying it, there is strategy involved, a little bit; but essentially, you’re just pushing your body as hard as it can go for an hour around this course, and you use a lot of the skills you get racing messenger-style races or working as a messenger; when you’re riding your bike in a city your line is always changing because of all these variables—traffic, pedestrians, all these things—and so throughout your workday you’re sprinting and then recovering, and then sprinting and recovering, and that’s kind of like exactly what a cyclocross race is; you’re finding these sections in the course where you can push really hard, and then you come to a really technical section and then your fitness recovers a bit but then as that’s happening you’re having to deal with really technical riding—off-camber turns, being able to get on and off your bike and jump over barriers or run up stairs, run up through muddy hills, it’s really grueling. And the funny thing is you never really get to go that fast on the course because you’re off road through all those gnarly sections; so you’re working so hard to go like 15 miles an hour and you’re just like punishing yourself. It’s kind of masochistic, and I think that’s why I like it a bit—and I also race single speed cross which is even more so masochistic, because you’re dealing with one gear for all of these different kinds of terrains, and so it’s really just like putting your head down and grinding—and I think that’s the perfect metaphor for being a bike messenger.

I: How do you prepare yourself mentally for competitions like that?

NDC: It’s been the same since I was a kid, it’s been the same even as a musician—if my band’s playing a show, you go in, you load in all your gear, you do your sound check, and then you’re like, sitting and waiting to play. And that period between sound check and set time is agonizing for me. I suffer from anxiety, I get crippling anxiety; it doesn’t matter if it’s a show for 10 people or 10,000, it doesn’t matter, the smallest shows and the biggest shows, I get crazy nervous for. And I feel the same way with racing—the morning of I wake up, I’ll eat some oatmeal and get some nutrition in me, pack up, I’ll get to the race course, do a lap or whatever, do a test ride on the course, and then I’m sitting and I’m waiting to race. And that period, I’ve never found a good way to shake that anxiety—so I let it run its course and I think that kind of fuels me a bit; all that potential energy, like building up in me, I’m like “ah, I can’t even fucking take it anymore,” and then when the whistles go it’s like I just get to release it all, it’s like a firework or something. It’s very much the same between music and competition—I let that anxiety build up because at that point I’ve done everything I can do, I’ve filled my body with fuel or whatever, and then once it’s time to go I get to transfer all of that energy into the bicycle or into my guitar and that’s that, and I think it’s served me well.

I: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I have this saying and it’s kind of been compiled from all the best advice I’ve been given over the years, and I tell it to myself all the time whenever I’m questioning whatever it is I’ve been doing, it’s “everything works out all the time, every time,” because it really does. My life has been like a very strange journey and there are a lot of crushing lows and soaring highs and through it all, everything, all the bad things that have happened in my life—and this can be transferred to really anybody’s story—is like, if I hadn’t have gotten myself in trouble with alcohol and gotten through this really low part of my life I wouldn’t have discovered things like cycling, and I wouldn’t have been able to take those experiences and put them into my music and have the experience that I’m having with my music now or the experience that I’m having with my cycling now. So it’s like, no matter what’s happening—I know it sounds corny like “oh, everything happens for a reason,” and I guess that’s kinda what I’m saying with that—but it’s like… we are the sum of everything we’ve been through in our lives, and you know, if you can learn to love that then you can learn to appreciate everything that happens, whether it’s good or bad, because if you can love yourself then you can truly appreciate everything that life has to give you… because it does! In the end it all works out—wherever you’ve been, it’s gotten you to wherever you are now, and even if wherever you are now is a bad place, that’s going to get you to a better place later.