Searching for one’s passion can often be a long journey. Some people wait half a lifetime before they discover their source of unexplainable joy. Many wait longer. But for Emory senior Micah Cotton, the discovery came easily.
Over the past few years, cycling took hold of Cotton. Beginning as a pathway to adventure, he has now set his sights on the realm of competitive racing. Cotton doesn’t just love to ride a bike – he loves to ride fast. With hopes of taking his cycling to the next level, Cotton is racing ahead to the next step, lifting his head from the pavement every now and then to enjoy the journey.
As a competitive cyclist, Cotton raced in both the Grant Park Criterium, where he took second place in the category five division, and in the River Gorge Road Race, placing fifth in the category five division. His cycling resume boasts numerous multi-100-mile trips in the US and abroad, traversing both road and off-road terrain, in addition to completing a few triathlons. At Emory, Cotton started the cycling team under the Cycle and Tri Club, and successfully got the team certified by USA Cycling. Yet, while competitive cycling advances to center stage in his life, Cotton’s story is about much more than racing.
Unlike many serious athletes, Cotton had little experience with his sport as a child. It was not until the age of 18 that Cotton’s love affair with bikes truly began. Taking a summer job as a delivery boy, Cotton cycled every day for an entire summer. Biking began as nothing more than a means to getting from point A to point B, but the summer of 2013 changed that, and much more
What hooked him?
“The freedom,” Cotton immediately responded. “You are completely exposed to the air, the wind. You get to enjoy being outside. The feeling of coasting and going really fast on a bike is a beautiful expression of movement.”
After his summer delivery job, Cotton began his education both in the classroom and on the bike at Oxford College in Fall 2013.
“When I came to college, I bought a mountain bike,” Cotton said. “Actually, I bought a couple, because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Located just a short ride from the Georgia International Horse Park, the home of the first-ever Olympic mountain biking trail, Oxford College proved the perfect breeding ground for Cotton’s cycling habit.
“I would ride on the fat bike [a mountain bike with 4 inch tires] out there, do a couple loops, and ride back. I would do it in between classes … which is kind of funny because riding a mountain bike on the road sucks, but riding a fat bike on the road is like glue on the pavement. But I loved it — that was my saving grace throughout freshman and sophomore year,” he remembered.
Even now, cycling and what Cotton calls “adventure” are inseparable. Cotton talks about adventure the way most people talk about a close friend — someone you frequently hang out with for no other reason than to experience the pleasure of their company.
“Adventure stems from using the bike as a means of transportation,” Cotton explained. “You can go a long ways on a bike; you can move at a pretty good speed … but there is a real connection to wherever you are.”
Great adventures make for great stories. Already, Cotton has more than enough content to write a hefty memoir filled with laughs, failures and incredible people.
In one such story, Cotton and a friend departed to bike the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile hiking range. However, they encountered a major roadblock on the first day of their journey: the trail was completely unbikeable. The pair of bikers only made it a few miles on a day when they planned to cover over 60.
“After that day, we basically just had a hitchhike, hobo adventure,” Cotton said. “We decided we didn’t like mountain biking. So within 24 hours, we each sold mountain bikes and bought road bikes.”
What ensued was a journey fraught with bargains for sleeping arrangements, lost equipment, hitchhiking with pot grandmas and a brief run-in with a nudist colony.
Adventure is what started the journey, but it did not take long for racing to enter the mix. After a summer spent with Bike and Build, a program that works for affordable housing and youth empowerment, Cotton challenged himself to go further and faster.
“[Bike and Build] is where I started wanting to be competitive and trying to push myself,” Cotton said. “A couple of months after I got back I did a 200 mile bike in a day — just to see if I could do it.”
If adventure lay on one side of the cycling spectrum, racing lay on the other. Fortunately for Cotton, he loved both.
“I am not sure I have ever heard of anything that has the word passion thrown around as much as I have about cycling, and it’s because there is that joy of riding a bicycle,” Cotton said. “Some people, myself included, have a joy for beating themselves up. I have heard it said that endurance sports are a contest of who can hit their head against a wall harder and longer. It kind of is what it is.”
Racing in a full and a half IronMan along with the Grant Park and River Gorge races, Cotton pedaled right into the competitive cycling world. Yet with no team or coach, Cotton had to embody all of those roles himself if he was going to be successful.
“There is definitely a lone wolf aspect to it,” Cotton explained. “When it comes to cycling and training, I am a voracious reader. I just read books about it for fun.”
Now, with hopes of expanding his competitive racing portfolio, the goal is clear: become as fast as possible. Whether or not that will be fast enough to pursue a career in professional cycling at this point remains unclear, but the drive is there.
“If it’s not fun, then there’s no point, but for me it’s really fun,” he said. “And if that path takes me to racing at a high level, or not, that [it’s fun] is what matters to me. That pipedream exists for me. I can’t say that it doesn’t.”
If you haven’t noticed, the words “professional cycling” rarely escape Cotton’s mouth and when they do it is generally done quietly and quickly, like a back-alley drug deal. But unlike those back-alley dealings, it is not shame or fear that slows Cotton, but simply a hesitance to put too much hope in an all-too uncertain dream.
Between school, work and training, Cotton has unfortunately had little time for racing. But with graduation looming, the opportunity to chase his goals grows near. This summer, Cotton plans to bike The Great Divide, a 2,800 mile trek from Canada to Mexico that passes straight through the Rocky Mountains. He also has plans to compete in the Shenandoah 100, an ultra-endurance mountain bike race held in Virginia.
Whether the future holds a professional racing career or not, one way or another Cotton will find his way onto a bike.
“I found a passion at a young age and it’s something that brings me a lot of joy,” Cotton said. “I couldn’t imagine my experience here at Emory without it. It is always going to be a part, big or small, of who I am.”