LOVELAND, Colo. (VN) — Alexi Grewal had great expectations that, at age 50 and after almost two decades without training, he could return to elite-level racing. His bold experiment began just over a year ago and he reached high enough a level to compete in a series of Pro/1/2 races, including the Redlands Classic, earlier this year. But his grand three-year plan is now over.
“I could tell it was going to take a while, take a lot longer than I had,” he tells VeloNews.com. “If I were to keep doing it and I had the finances and the ability to train consistently then, yeah, then in three years I could have got to a pretty high level … but I didn’t have that amount of time. It unraveled as fast as it started.”
To find what went wrong (and what went right) with Grewal’s ambitious plan, we visited with the 1984 Olympic gold medalist at his home in Loveland, Colorado, this week. He lives on the western edge of town in a drafty antique house he’s renovating, getting a low rent in exchange for maintenance work he does on a partly built subdivision that was a victim of the 2008 recession. The poor economy also hit his high-end carpentry business, and to make ends meet the former pro with the Coors Light, 7-Eleven and Panasonic teams now works nights in a local restaurant.
Recalling the reasons for his comeback, Grewal says, “I let myself get talked into it, and once I got talked into it I had to do it. Part of it was, I hadn’t worked for a while, and I suppose it was a temptation. It was the temptation to wanna relive old glories. It was fun … but it was pretty impracticable.”
If it hadn’t have been for the start-up of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, his comeback would probably have never happened. “It started with what was fairly close to a dare,” explains Grewal, who says he’s an instinctive pessimist. “When cycling came up as a topic with my friends, my interest was to get a stage of the new Colorado race here [in Loveland]. And my friends were like, ‘You should ride in it.’ That was impossible. But once I started riding I found out I was old but I could still ride. For a few minutes I was an optimist.”
And once he had committed to the project, which began with fixing up his body (including his teeth), Grewal discovered that he generally enjoyed getting back into the sport after his long absence. “The things I liked the most were definitely traveling again and seeing people, but the most fun of all was being in the big fields going fast. Redlands was my worst race but it was the most fun,” he says.
“Two hundred guys going fast, moving ’round left, right, all those things I used to hate. When it was my career I hated it because I didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. I never liked that so I’d ride right near the front or in some safe place. This time, I liked the danger and I liked the speed.
“The Redlands crit was really fast and I liked diving into the corners. The bikes handle really good now; they’re grippy, go around the corners. And I found I still have most of those skills … and more experience than a lot of the kids I was racing with.
“So that part was a lot of fun. Just being in the field, going fast when it was dangerous. The crashes were fun too. Just being in them … having the reactions not to get hurt, and getting up with a big old smile. That part was a lot of fun.
“It’s the same sport as it’s always been. The light bikes make the racing a little more surge-y … you pick up speed faster so you have to react a little faster. Other than that it’s the same.”
In talking with Grewal last winter, it seemed that he reached the required stamina level pretty quickly. “Yeah, I could ride long distances pretty quick,” he agrees. “But I had trouble with the same things I’ve always had trouble with — mostly with my leg-length differences [his right leg is three-quarters of an inch longer than the left], and trying to find a biomechanical solution that would work. And I wasn’t finding it. So I was struggling with high-output efforts. I could ride all day long but I couldn’t, you know, go fast.”
Over time, Grewal believes he could have reached the level of contemporaries who are still racing, like his former 7-Eleven teammate Raúl Alcála and the one-time world mountain bike champion Ned Overend. But his under-funded comeback attempt didn’t give him the time.
“I was having mixed feelings about it all the way through: It’s maybe possible, maybe not,” Grewal says. “I was far enough into it — Pearl Izumi had donated clothing, Leopard had let me ride a couple of bikes and people were opening doors so I could go to the races — but it stopped when I ran out of money. Actually, three things happened. I was out of money, I needed to work, and I got a [carpentry] job here. So I did the truss job while I trained for the three or four weeks right before [racing the Iron Horse Classic on Memorial Day weekend in] Durango.”
In that iconic race over two mountain passes in the Rockies, Grewal recalls, “I could ride with those guys but it was not that good a field. We got to the foot of Coal Bank Pass and they just rode away from me. And Ned took nine minutes out of me in not very far [about 20 miles]. I was 16th … so it was long way between me and doing well, even on that regional level.”
His time for the 47-mile race, with its 6,700 feet of climbing, would have been good enough to have won his age division if had had lesser goals. But when he crossed the finish line in Silverton that May morning, he knew that his grand experiment wasn’t working.
“After the finish, Ned and Mike Engleman (who coaches four-time Durango women’s winner Mara Abbot) came up to me to say hi. Ned was so enthusiastic about riding still. He sure likes it and he’s sure good … he can still go! It was fun to be around bike riders, people I haven’t seen for a long time.”
But that race would be Grewal’s last. “On the way home from Durango, after I caught a ride to Denver, I was driving a car that was not registered,” he says. “I got stopped on the interstate and I didn’t have a valid plate, didn’t have insurance, and the car wasn’t mine. The car was impounded and I didn’t have the money to get it out. That put a kibosh on it … and three days later my bike got stolen.
“So I didn’t have a bike, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have any money … boom, boom, boom. And I’m thinking, well, that adventure is over. I kept riding a little bit, but my training bike didn’t have what the Leopard bikes had, that helped my biomechanical issues, and it hurt my hip a lot.
“I concentrated on getting work. And you get out of shape a lot faster than you get into shape … especially as you get older. So it was over. That was it. I knew it wasn’t going to work out. I went as far as I could and that was it. Game over.
“I’ve done a lot of things that haven’t worked out, and that was one of them. I’ll miss cycling, and there will always be certain parts of it that I’ll miss…. I had some moments in my pro career when I rode some good races, and when I started riding again you remember those kinds of successes and you still want them. So riding again was a little bit like reliving that to some degree, and if I had disposable time and income I’d probably still ride.
“But I think I realize I need to move on … to whatever. I’m in a place that a lot of people are in in this economy … it’s one hill after another, you know. It’s a different kind of space, mentally. You’re just trying to not be homeless. I’m just another person that’s kind of in a tough spot. And it takes a different mentality. I’m not looking to try to win the Olympics, I’m just trying to stay in my house and maintain a relationship with my kids.
“As I said, the funnest part about riding was being in the big field, moving fast. It was dangerous and it was scary and I was like, this is a lot of fun! And those were the things I hated about it before. But coming back into it and riding in the field, it’s a bloody exciting sport. It’s crazy dangerous, it’s crazy fast and it’s hard.
“I still have enough elasticity in my body to do it, but … um … it would’ve taken a long time to get good and by then I would have been really old. In three years, if that’s all I did, I could have gotten to where I probably could’ve stayed on Ned’s wheel at least another few minutes!”