Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith doesn’t run anymore. Not even around the block. “I’ve ran enough in my lifetime,” he says. Now the three-time Super Bowl champion proudly calls himself a cyclist, rides dawn patrol with his coworkers, and launched a fondo.
To find out what drew Smith into the saddle, Bicycling caught up with all-time rushing leader ahead of the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo (join him on September 22). In its third year, the event offers a $10,000 prize purse and explores the rolling country roads north of Dallas.
How did you get into cycling?
I started about three years ago, biking with some brokers at my real estate firm [Editor’s note: Smith has since left that firm and founded another]. They encouraged me to get a bike so we could ride together as a company bonding activity. We started out with about 13 people, riding early in the morning before work, about 13 miles. I had to go get me a bike just to keep up with some of the guys. I was just not gonna ride with my regular 10-speed. My first bike was a Trek Domane [which Trek supplied him]. It’s the bike I use today.
What was your first impression of the sport?
One of the things I found out about cycling was my ability to burn calories was pretty high. Not only that, but getting off the bike and the next day, I didn't feel sore, I didn't feel worn out, outside of my butt still hurting! I began to enjoy it a lot more, compared to getting on a Precor [elliptical machine] or a treadmill, looking at a television screen and not going anywhere. I got a chance to see roads that I hardly ever drove down. I appreciated being outdoors, especially early in the morning.
Did you find it challenging to learn at first?
I'm coming from a world of football, so adapting was not a big deal. But understanding what it required to go farther was something that I did not have a clue about. I started training with my guys. We'd go out two times a week, and then I started riding on my own. I would ride six or seven miles and then pick them up at the office. My ride would be about 15 miles or 20 miles total.
Unlike riding the bike when you were a kid, it became about my speed, critical power, kilowatts, kilojoules, and everything. I was like, "Good Lord, I'm going back to high school!" There’s bike geometry, aerodynamics, friction... I have a power meter on my bike, and a Garmin. I'm learning all this new stuff. Before you know it, I’m riding 45, 60 miles.
What does your training look like?
Right now, I go into a performance cycling studio one or two days a week, and ride outside. It's not like a Peloton gym. You're actually doing resistance training, and sometimes you're on a treadmill with your bike, which is hard, or a Wahoo KICKR. In some workouts, we do 9- to 10-minute intervals with an increase in gradient from 2 to 5 percent. My first two minutes might be at 3 or 4 percent, then 4 minutes at 5 percent. Then my remaining time could be at 3 percent. I’ll do a couple of those. I'm building power for endurance in my legs.
How does your football background translate for you as a cyclist?
Let's be honest. Most cyclists are not real thick individuals. They can fly on bikes like you wouldn't believe. And going a long distance, that's something that football players don't really do. I had to be in condition to run 80 plays at eight seconds each. On a bike, you're constantly going, so managing your energy level is critical. You don't want to have your legs blow up too fast.
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Is cycling at all a competitive outlet for you?
No, I'm not out there to compete. My mission is to stay in great shape, go whatever distance I want to go, and just enjoy the ride. I'm not trying to ride a hundred miles in three hours and 50-something minutes, no. I’ve had my fun in the sun.
You mentioned you like riding with groups-what are some of the typical rides that you’ll do?
I did an event here in Dallas called Tour de Cure. It was a hundred-mile ride, but I only did 31, because I was just beginning riding at that time. That was the farthest I'd ever ridden a bike. I enjoyed that immensely. Now, the farthest I’ve ever ridden has been 100K. I did that to check out the [Medio Fondo] route on the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo.
What inspired you to start the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo?
My broker friends and I have a charitable golf event and gala. But you only have limited space to put people on a golf course. I felt like the Emmitt Smith Gran Fondo would give me the ability to have more people involved, and raise more dollars for our charity [the Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities, which funds educational opportunities for children in north Texas]. We have a 100-mile course, we have 22-milers, we have 45-milers, we have the 100k, so you give people the opportunity to be involved at whatever level that they want to be involved in.
The fondo has a pretty big prize purse, $10,000. Is that spread out over the top three spots?
No, the winner takes $10,000. Ain't no second place and third place.
Tell us about your best ride and your worst ride.
I guess my best ride would be going 100k. My worst ride… I haven’t had a worst ride yet. I really haven't. I mean, a worst ride would be falling and breaking something. How do you define a worst ride?
Sometimes during a very tough ride you can go to a dark place mentally.
I would say all rides can be tough. And there's always a reward. The reward is finishing the ride. That's my mindset. Finishing a ride is always a good thing. Now, if I finish a ride, depleted, empty, cramping on the bike, that could be the worst feeling. But I don't know if it would be the worst ride.
One of my buddies was riding in the Hotter’N Hell [a century ride in Wichita Falls, Texas]. He broke his shifter. The bike was, for 50 or 60 miles, locked in one of the high gears. For him to finish, that's incredible. That could be a worst ride.
Yeah. Mechanicals definitely contribute to a worst ride.
I blew a tire a block away from my house once, and I walked the bike back home. This was the first time I've ever had to change a tire on this type of bike. It took me almost an hour and half, two hours to change that daggone tire. But it still wasn't worst ride. Know why? Because it happened a block from my house.
Tell us about your fondo routes.
What I like is, once you get out of the city, you're out on county roads. In the city, you see nothing but asphalt, or concrete buildings, a lot of cars. Out there you get to see farmland. Pretty farmland. When you're riding out in the open, it's just a cool feeling.
And you’ll be at the finish line greeting everyone when they come back?
I ride out 22 miles, then turn around to come back so I can be at the finish line greeting the 100-milers. The first ones are back probably within an hour and 15, hour and 30 minutes after I get back [from riding 44 miles]. Those guys are amazing
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