Bobby Lea has never known a world without cycling. Time together with his family revolved around handlebars and pedals: they rode bikes, went to bike races, and traveled the world competing with those precious bikes. Spokes and chains run in Lea’s blood. Both his parents, Rob and Tracy, have been racing for forty years; they actually met on a bike ride. His younger brother, Syd, is also a competitive cyclist, one of the best in the Special Olympics. Bobby started cycling at four, and at 13 he won his first national title. Twenty years later, with over 20 elite national titles, four top-three World Cup competition finishes, and three Olympic appearances, there’s no arguing that the Lehigh Valley cyclist is one of the best United States cyclists.
A track cyclist since the age of seven, when he first began riding in velodromes, the Olympics had always been the ultimate goal.
“I was better at it [track racing] earlier and then I always had the Olympics in the back of my mind as the bigger goal,” said Lea. “I identified track as the better route to the Olympics than road. As I got older, I split my time between the two. Paid the bills on the road but still kept the Olympic dream going.”
He achieved that dream, three times. But it was the most recent Olympics where one of the best almost didn’t make the roster.
“It was a big relief to make it,” said Lea, “because certainly the year leading up to it was probably the most challenging of my entire career.”
The lead up to the most recent games was not challenging because of injury or age, but rather, due to fighting his doping suspension. Last August, he tested positive for noroxycodone at the 2015 Track National Championships, where he won gold in four separate events.
In his ‘Open Letter to Cycling’ posted on his website, Lea explained: “On the night of August 7th, in a state of post-race exhaustion and having run out of my normal sleep aid, I made the poor choice to take my prescription Percocet hoping it would help me rest. I failed to check my prescribed medication against the prohibited list, an action I have correctly executed hundreds of times over the years.”
Lea received a 16-month suspension for taking a legal drug at an illegal time. After his sentence was reduced to six months and an arbitrator ruled that he was eligible under Olympic Committee rules to compete, he was named to the U.S. team in late March. In his third and final Olympic appearance, the 32-year-old finished 17th in the omnium.
“With all the uncertainty surrounding the situation, it was a huge relief just to get there,” said Lea. “It felt like a victory just making it. I’m still working through the feelings, because it turned out to be a pretty emotionally complex experience.”
Lea and Olympic scandals are no stranger. Lea first competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he would place sixteenth in the madison, one of the team events in track cycling. Before he even made it to competition, Lea and three of his teammates had already attracted attention. Like every Olympic Games, there was an issue with the host country. For the Beijing Games, it was a growing concern about how the air pollution levels would impact the athletes.
“It felt like a victory just making it. I’m still working through the feelings, because it turned out to be a pretty emotionally complex experience.”
Lea and three other track cyclists stepped off their flight wearing masks over their mouths and noses, as they had been advised to by the United States Olympic Committee’s lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber. Unfortunately for them, they were the first athletes seen wearing masks publicly, and the photographs that quickly travelled across the internet drew considerable backlash.
Under the assumption that they were allowed to wear the masks because they had been issued by the U.S.O.C., Lea was confused as to why they were being chastised. After all, he was just preparing for the infamous smog that had left him ill the year prior. At the Olympic tests the previous year, the smog found its way into the velodrome, visibly hovering just under the rafters. Thirty minutes after flying into Beijing, Lea says he developed a “wicked sore throat,” a bit of a scratch that would morph into a week-long chest infection.
Riddled with scandal and scrutiny, he still says there was nothing quite like his first experience with the Games. Competing in China was the manifestation of the dream, and he was mesmerized by the whole process—from the spectacular lull of the opening ceremonies to the pandemonium of the Olympic village. London wasn’t as spectacular; Lea knew what to expect and the once entertaining village was now a mess of distractions. He placed 12th in the omnium. The Rio games were his final Olympics, and it was a miracle just to be there.
As for the future, Lea plans to retire at a race in Amsterdam this month. He’ll continue to work with the German team he’s been riding with since forming a connection with the owner a few years ago, hoping to do something bigger than just racing. He’ll be returning to his roots, circling the globe, all while riding his bike.
“It’s not such much about collecting wins anymore,” said Lea. “It’s about traveling the world and having the experience.”