Three years since his latest brain surgery, Dillon Caldwell has immersed himself in cycling, knowing how lucky he is to be alive and to race his bike.
In this week’s Cascade Cycling Classic, Caldwell, who was born and raised in Bend, has the chance to race with some of the best cyclists in the world as part of a composite U.S. national team.
“That’s a big part of what motivates me on the bike,” said Caldwell, 27. “Just knowing what I’ve come through and what my life was like for a little bit. And knowing I was so fortunate to overcome what I had. I was feeling like there was a little bit of debt there, and I owe it to myself and to my family to try and make sure I’m living with the most vitality I can, and this is kind of my route toward that.”
In 2009, Caldwell was diagnosed with a ganglioglioma, a rare tumor originating in the brain’s nerve cells. After three surgeries over a difficult five years, Caldwell has been healthy since his third surgery in January 2014, and he said it is unlikely he will have to deal with the tumor again.
As part of the national team in the CCC, which starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday, Caldwell will help top U.S. riders Peter Stetina and Kiel Reijnen of the World Tour team Trek-Segafredo, and Alex Howes of Cannondale Drapac, another World Tour team, as they use the CCC as training for the upcoming Vuelta a España and world championships.
Because the Cascade is sanctioned by the International Cycling Union (UCI) this year, World Tour riders such as Stetina, Reijnen and Howes are not allowed to compete in the CCC unless they do so as part of a national team.
“They weren’t doing anything right now, and in preparation for some late-summer big events, they were hoping to do this event because they knew it was going to be good participation,” Caldwell said. “But they were a little disappointed that they weren’t allowed to do so. So USA Cycling stepped forward and helped them create a national team. They enlisted the support of a couple regionally based riders they had heard could be good help, and I ended up among them.”
Caldwell’s friend Ian Boswell, the Bend cyclist who races on the World Tour for Team Sky, put in a good word for Caldwell to help get him on the team. This will mark Caldwell’s third appearance in the Cascade.
“I’m just excited to race with riders of that caliber,” Caldwell said. “This will be the best team I’ve ever been a part of, and to support any one of those guys in a bid for either a stage win or some GC (overall) aspirations would be quite an honor. I’m just really looking forward to helping out the team in that regard.”
As a regional racer for Team Audi, Caldwell has posted some decent results this season, including a 13th place in the time trial at the U.S. National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, and a fifth place in a stage at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, in April. In that race, he recalls, he was in an all-day breakaway with Tour de France rider Andrew Talansky.
Caldwell was raised in Bend in an avid cycling family. His father was a mountain bike racer, and Dillon was determined to follow in his footsteps. He did not really take up road cycling seriously until he attended college at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where mountain bike trails are few and far between.
“Trail access is a lot more limited in the (Willamette) Valley,” Caldwell said. “Growing up here we’re so spoiled. I got hooked on road biking there. But I still mountain bike quite a bit.”
Caldwell has been undergoing regular MRIs since his last surgery, and he said his latest checkup revealed that he had achieved gross total resection, meaning that all visible parts of the tumor are gone and he will most likely not require another surgery.
He said that the lingering effects of the tumor include some issues with dexterity on his right side and his balance on his bike at slow speeds.
“It was definitely a challenge for a few years to figure out how to walk again, and then more intricate things down the road that still bother me, like my handwriting is still pretty awful,” Caldwell said. “I’ve become a lot more ambidextrous. There are things that I used to do with my right hand that I’ll do with my left now. Occasionally my balance is just a little bit off, and people will look at me funny, like I’m drunk or something at 10 in the morning.”
On the bike, he notices balance issues only at lower speeds.
“There’s this inherent stability when a bike is moving quickly,” he explains. “That effect is magnified when you’re moving at 30 or 40 mph. At slower speeds, I definitely have a little bit of a (balance) issue because of that. I just try to make sure when I’m riding a bike to go fast enough to not notice that.”
After graduating from Oregon in 2014 with a degree in philosophy, Caldwell returned to Bend. While bike racing has been his main focus, he has also found some marketing work within the Central Oregon bike industry. And he is passionate about his position on the board of directors of the Tour de Chutes, an annual bike ride in Central Oregon to promote cancer care and survivorship. The ride was held this year on July 8.
Caldwell has grown close to Gary Bonacker, the Tour des Chutes founder, who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in 2003 but is still going strong.
“In the race peloton, it’s really easy to become disassociated with the idea of how fragile our existence is …” Caldwell said. “But to keep that in mind and remember where I’ve come from I think helps me a lot on the bike, and also vis-a-vis helps a lot of others watching that journey come to fruition. It’s inspiring to me to have others tell me what I’m doing inspires them after what they’ve seen me go through.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,