Little Rock’s Ernie and Scotti Lechuga prepare for a 1,000-mile race in Kyrgyzstan.
By Molly Mitchell Photography by Rett Peek
Little Rock pro-cycling power couple Ernie and Scotti Lechuga never met a challenge they didn’t find a way to overcome. Known in Arkansas for the Leborne Coaching service they launched in 2010, which now includes the Kickr Studio training facility in Little Rock’s Stifft Station neighborhood, they credit cycling for carrying them through some of the greatest physical and mental challenges in life. After clearing obstacles both terrifying and beautiful on the road to professional cycling — injuries, cancer, surprise twins and more — they are looking forward to a wild new challenge: the Silk Road Mountain Race, a 10-day self-supported race in August on some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world.
In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Ernie and Scotti will have 14 days to traverse 1,000 miles of mountain passes and forgotten Soviet roads at 10,000 feet above sea level. The weather will be harsh and they have to support themselves the whole way. They must bring all their own food, camping equipment and all the grit they can muster. “I started looking into it and I was like, this looks like the hardest thing ever,” Scotti said. “Something in me was just like, ‘You need to do this.’ ”
Ernie and Scotti find themselves facing this monumental task with little experience bike-packing but much experience overcoming daunting challenges and taking unlikely roads.
In 1998, Ernie’s lifelong dream had come true. He was racing professionally in Europe, in the Under 25 Tour de France. “It just doesn’t get any better,” Ernie said. “All the stars of the future are there.” But on a rainy day three days into the 10-day race, he crashed and tore an ACL.
“I think it was already meant to happen. That’s the only reason I found out that I had cancer,” Ernie said. In the course of his treatment for the ACL injury, it was discovered he had testicular cancer, which had spread up his torso toward his lungs. Two surgeries and six months of chemotherapy left his body scarred but his spirit unbroken. His team had assured him he would have a team to race with in Europe when he came back. Laser-focused on returning to racing, Ernie came back in 2001 and raced the Under 25 Tour de France a second time. “But I think if my team hadn’t given me that opportunity to come back, I think it probably would have been a different outcome. I think I probably would have lost hope. Was it difficult? Yeah. But I really don’t remember it because I just had a goal in mind and needed to get to the other side, so I could race my bike again,” Ernie said.
Then, Ernie met Scotti.
Ernie’s professional cycling days had run their course, and he was looking for the next challenge. That challenge walked in the door of Chainwheel, the bike shop Ernie was working in at the time, in the form of Scotti. With no road bike, a little experience and a lot of moxie, she issued the challenge to herself and Ernie: “I want to turn pro.” From there, the pair fell in love and got married.
Scotti’s story is unique to the world of cycling. Few women cyclers go pro after having children rather than before. “I kind of did things backwards,” Scotti said. “I had my boys and I was still an amateur cyclist who had just gotten my feet wet after I’d met Ernie a couple years before.”
When Scotti and Ernie found out Scotti was pregnant with twin boys, Scotti was worried that her pro cycling career was over before it began. “After I had the twins, I would say for about two and a half months all I did was try and breastfeed,” Scotti laughed. “And that was frustrating to me because I really wanted to get back on the bike. I was about 10 weeks out from having the boys, and finally was starting to feel good, and I put my bike on an indoor trainer and just started pedaling real easy. And that was how I started. Just 30 minutes one day, 45 minutes the next, and eventually I was able to get back on the road. I was just building, building, building, and then when the boys were 7 months old, I jumped in a pro race.”
Ernie had fewer doubts. “I’d already done the professional thing, and she wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Look, if you want to be a professional, I can help you out. I know what it takes and you have talent. So why not?”
Ernie and Scotti’s strategy was to develop a training program that focused on handling skills. “It’s one thing to be fit,” Scotti said, “but it’s another thing to be really nimble and quick on your bicycle. Because you’re right next to other people, you know; it’s a big cluster. And so we spent a whole year honing those skills. And before I knew it, I was hanging with riders who were much more talented than I was; I just knew how to hide really well in the peloton.”
Scotti was signed to her first pro team in 2014. Being a pro racer and a parent turned out to be a good thing for the Lechugas. “From 2014 to basically now,” Scotti said, “I’ve gotten to race in four continents and all over the world, and definitely the best part of that whole journey so far has been the year that we bought the RV and did the whole thing as a family. It was a really special journey.”
After so many peak experiences, the Silk Road Mountain Race comes as a moment of truth for Scotti’s relationship with cycling. After five years of successful professional cycling, a funk led her to take a beat. “Last year I’d had a really rough season, just with some mental struggles and health struggles. I actually stepped away from racing last year, professionally. I wasn’t in the right place in my life and definitely not in the right frame of mind to put my best foot forward in competition,” she said. “I’m really glad I stepped back because it made me see the things that I had become blind to. So when I stepped away, it helped me take those blinders off my eyes and see the big picture of what cycling has done for my life. When I started to see that again, I started to become a lot more passionate about the sport again.
“There’s this journey that you walk through when you’re dedicated to a passion in life, where you go through these valleys and mountaintop experiences, and it just is funny that when I was in one of my valleys I found the Silk Road Mountain Race, and it kind of inspired me to dig in deep and figure out why I really love cycling in the first place,” Scotti said. “And to do an event like that, you have to know that you love it. I brought it to Ernie and said, ‘Hey I really want to do this. I think this is kind of the experience that’s going to take me to the next place where I’m for sure that this is what I want to do with my life. And I’m going to do something really uncomfortable to prove it to myself.’ ”
As experienced as Scotti and Ernie are, the Silk Road will be an entirely new ballgame. “I’ve done a 10-day stage race, the women’s Giro de Italia,” Scotti said. “But you race for about 3 hours, and then you’re done and you go recover, and you eat at your hotel and you get a massage, and you get cleaned up, and your clothes are washed for you,” she laughed. “Everything’s done, you know? You’re basically just an athlete. Your job is to perform,” Scotti said. “Now our job is to survive.”