It’s been a rough offseason for the Atlanta Falcons. Last week, it was revealed that the team leads the NFL in a little-known category: accepting more than a million dollars since 2011 to honor veterans (mostly National Guard troops) at games — instead of, you know, doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. This comes on the heels of punishment from the NFL in March — a $350,000 fine and a lost fifth-round pick in 2016 — for pumping fake crowd noise into the Georgia Dome the past two seasons in a failed attempt to, well, make it sound like lots of people were there. Before that, they fired the best coach they’ve ever had, and their fans were revealed to be drunken, angry twerkers. Oh, and they’re 10-22 over the last two years.
But avert your eyes and ears from these disgraces, Falcons faithful. There are reasons for optimism: A $1.4 billion stadium (using, ahem, up to $600 million in public money) is in the works. The team picked wisely at the draft earlier this month. And last Friday, general manager Thomas Dimitroff led about 50 cyclists on a 17-mile ride around Atlanta to celebrate Bike to Work Week.
I showed up at 7:30 in the morning, having ridden two miles from my house to Falcons Landing, a grassy area between Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome. On the way over, I’d seen just one other biker on Atlanta’s mostly cycling-hostile streets. But there was Dimitroff, 49, in his light-blue kit with the words “Rise Up” on the back. He’s smaller than you’d expect, maybe 5-foot-9, but built like a pit bull. He took a bite of a banana, stuck it in his jersey’s back pocket, and addressed the assembled crowd of mostly large men in spandex. There was also a septuagenarian lady with fearsome calves, a 14-year-old boy on a pink bike, and a guy in loafers.
No one was actually “going to work.” The ride — through Atlanta neighborhoods both ignored (Summerhill) and historic (Grant Park) — started and ended at Falcons Landing. The point was just to ride on two wheels, which Dimitroff loves to do. “I’m a bike geek,” he said. “And I love beautiful bikes. I have a passion for them.”
“I’m so excited to be here today,” he said to the crowd. “We’re all passionate about biking. It’s just fantastic. Hopefully we can reach critical mass. Gotta turn this city upside down, in a good way — a polite way, obviously … ”
And then we set off, with a pretty serious police escort in front of and behind us. Dimitroff is all smiles on a $9,000 Look 695 bike. But it’s his cyan jersey that gets the most attention. “Everyone is like, What’s with that color? It says Falcons! Well, I’m in Falcons gear all the time, so I wanted to put together some kits that were off the beaten path with a sort of retro look,” he said. “Plus, when you lose, it’s nice to be able to ride around and not be noticed as easily.” Other riders, some of them Falcons staff, wear the traditional red-and-black.
A little about the man in the bright tight pants: He’s the son of a Boston Patriots quarterback of the same name. His first scouting job after college, where he played defensive back at the University of Guelph, was in the prairies of Saskatchewan with the Roughriders. After that, he coached a corporate football team in Japan, where he almost stayed to teach English. Then he painted football fields for the Cleveland Browns and eventually worked his way through the NFL’s scouting ranks, becoming the director of college scouting for the Patriots in 2003 and Falcons GM in 2008. Along the way, he became a rock climber, a snowboarder, and a cyclist. He once rode his bike from Vancouver to Tijuana, fueled mostly by plant matter. Vegan for 14 years, Dimitroff now sometimes eats fish. “Because of his personal lifestyle,” Scott Pioli, vice-president of Patriots player personnel in the early 2000s, once said of Dimitroff, “he doesn’t appear to be a stereotypical football guy.”
With a few stops for snacks and encouragement, it took an hour and a half for our peloton to cover the 17-mile circuit. (“Y’all look good!” a cop at one point said to Dimitroff, who responded, “Ditch the motorcycle and join us!”) We lost a few of the younger riders to shortcuts and one older rider to injury: He fell in the groove of train tracks we crossed. After it was over — well, the first half; Dimitroff did 40 more miles — the Falcons GM sat down to talk about the importance of bicycles in his life, riding with Lance Armstrong, and making the NFL more bike-friendly.
Where’d you get that fancy bike?
We were out in France two years ago and I told my wife I was gonna rent a bike. But I couldn’t find a high-end bike to rent, so we went to this French shop. It was always my dream to go to France or Italy, buy a bike on their soil, and ride their terrain. So I bought one in Dijon. And I ended up biking all through Burgundy and then down into Nice and down the coast to Monaco and back.
How’d this all start?
I’ve been biking all my life. My dad — great man — never allowed me to have a car growing up. My first bike was some four-times-over used thing that my brother, my sister, everyone had. I painted it using a paintbrush!
I read that you had a bike with a funny name in college.
The weather is harsh in Southern Ontario. I called that bike “Steel Wind” because that thing went through a lot of really crazy sleety, snowy days. It was a heavy Raleigh — a big old, ugly clunker. But that’s how I got around. I honestly didn’t even lock it up, because no one would take it.
When did you get serious about riding?
I played defensive back at a Division III level. I’ve always loved competition. As I rode more, I realized I wanted to compete. I got into mountain bike racing in Georgia — my first stint here, in the early ’90s, just when I got out of university. I was in Atlanta for two years before I moved to Boulder to scout for the Detroit Lions. Then I got focused. I rode-slash-raced for Dean. I usually say “rode” for Dean because I was kind of a wannabe mountain bike racer. But I loved it, put a lot of time into it. In Boulder, if you’re not putting 20 hours a week in — like I was — it’s tough to be competitive. I also got into road biking more out there. Going peak-to-peak on the highway, there’s nothing like it. I remember so many times I’d have my music in my ears — listening to “Into the Mystic” or something else from Van Morrison — flying through the mountains. And I thought, This is it.
When did you get to know Lance Armstrong?
Last year, I became friends with [former pro cyclist] George Hincapie while visiting his hotel, Hotel Domestique, in South Carolina. George went out with me a few days, and we had some really good riding. He knew I was going out to Colorado, and he texted me later: “You interested in riding with LA?” I thought, Is he really asking me to ride with Lance? I figured it’d be on the road, but I communicated with Lance and he said, “Look, I’m in Aspen. I’m not riding road at all.”
Were you nervous?
I thought it was gonna be a handshake from Lance and then I’d go out with a big group of people, but it was just Lance and me. We rode three days straight, two and a half hours a day: full-on, heavy, hard-core MTB. Obviously, I couldn’t climb with him, but I took pride in hanging with him on the descents. I’ve never rode my bike harder than when I rode with Lance Armstrong. He’s pretty versed in football, too. He had some strong opinions about the drafts of the Cowboys. He didn’t talk too much about the Falcons, though he thought the world of Matt Ryan as a competitor.
It must have been weird. Lance is polarizing.
I don’t care what anyone says about Lance. To be around the leadership and competitive elements to him, there’s nothing like that. This guy — seven-time all-world everything — it’s like being around Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice. It brings you to another level.
How can the NFL become more bike-friendly?
I’ve spent a lot of time teaming up with Tim Blumenthal and People for Bikes, a fantastic nonprofit out of Boulder trying to bring more awareness and accessibility to bikes around the world. So I’ve teamed with them to put together ideas, [use] my platform in the NFL, reach out to other teams, find out who their cyclists are. There are some coaches and executives who ride. And we laugh, but there are some closeted players that we’d like to bring to the forefront. Some ex-players are open about their riding.
Would you encourage your players to bike to work?
We have it in our contracts where we have to be smart about what we’re doing. I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but I’d have to talk to Coach [Dan] Quinn to see if he’s fine with it. We have a number of guys on our team who ride. Matt Bryant, our kicker, is an avid cyclist. I’d love to get Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and some of our big names out on a bike. A lot of the guys are realizing the fitness aspect to it. Many are spinning already; they just have to realize the benefits of getting on a safe trail.
I understand that you spin while reviewing film.
Yep. I’d like to think I could outspin every one of my players. And I say that because I know they could kick my ass any other way.
A writer-at-large at Atlanta, Charles Bethea (@charlesbethea) writes for the New York Times, Outside, GQ, and The New Republic, among others.