Ken Toman, with Schroeder in 2002
"Everything about this sport is hard" says Ken Toman. "From training, to getting on a team, to racing itself. Everything. But I love it."
Ken Toman, formerly of the Schroeder Iron pro cycling team, and I are enjoying a relaxed telephone conversation on a monday night. For him, he's just finished up a weekend's worth of racing in California, staying in shape, holding off pressure to join amatuer squads while staying race ready for when the inevitable call-up to another pro squad comes. For me, I'm wondering if I'll have to shovel before the night is through. Although that contrast is stark at best, once we start talking about the team sport that is cycling, it is apparent our viewpoints are quite parallel.
Ken's another one of those domestic professionals capable of lending himself to any number of pro rosters. I've seen the man race with my own two eyes, and he's an absolute (say it like Paul!) ANIMAL, but due to completely goofy UCI age rules, finds himself out of a steady gig right now. For every rider over 27 years of age, UCI rules dictate that the the roster must have a complimetary rider under 27 years of age, thereby ballooning budgets, rosters, equipments needs, etc. I suppose this system may work in Europe, but here in the states all it is is a hindrance.
Such focus on getting young riders on rosters, when in effect it squeezes older riders who can teach and pass on knowledge out of play. All Div III teams face the same quandary, and that's the crux of the bisquit for US cycling - knowledge. Although the super climbers or sprinters take the glory and the spotlight, it is the intrinsic team nature of the sport that Ken Toman completely understands and embraces. For a half an hour we talk, he tells me inside knowledge bits about blocking, allowing breaks with the right guys to get away, constantly treating the front group like a Rubik's cube, continually trying to get "the right combination" of guys that gives his team the best chance to win. It's obvious his knowledge of the sport supercedes his experience, as he fills me in in almost chessmaster-ish tones.....I take many notes, to bring to my own next team meeting.
So how is it that an experienced, knowledgable pro such as Ken Toman is not on a pro team roster right now? Well, the aforementioned UCI rules are first and foremost on the list, coupled with a glut of pro riders all searching for a few positions. Teams folding up (Did someone say Mercury?). Sponsorship dollars hard to come by. Add all of these up, and sprinkle on top a touch of cycling's exclusionary nature, and you have a recipe for leaving good riders out in the cold.
Cycling is exclusionary. Exclusion is it's basic component, from the idea of breaking away, trickled all the way down to that prick you just hate on your group ride, even though he can drop all of you while breathing through his nose. Leave someone behind. It takes all the fortitude in the world to stay commited and focused in the cycling world, at any level much less that of a professional, and Ken Toman possesses everything needed in this realm. Especially fortitude. In talking with him, it is apparent to me how much he adores the team ethic. The comaraderie. Not only winning as a team, but working as one, too. Work. Hard work. I guess the love of hard work is one of the primary building blocks of a midwesterner's character. Another parallel between interviewer and interviewee.
Mr. Toman is a native Nebraskan, who left his humble little midwest state back in 1988, to pursue higher education at Boston University. An exchange program in Spain found him racing for the upstart Telepublicaciones team, enjoying great success and adulation. After returning to the U.S. in '91, he fell a little askew with the domestic race scene, after having had a taste of the craze that is Spanish cycling. Between the step down in cycling, and going back to college to finish his degree, he came under a wide cloud of disillusioned between both cycling and career. Both cutthroat, both so viciously hard to get ahead in, he pulled the throttle back and waited for a while. Winning a few local crits didn't spark him the way he thought it would, and he "sat up" as it were.
He went back to another love: basketball. Playing pickup games in tough Boston neighborhoods, he battled every manner of opponent, from gang members to blue chip college kids. He took a job at a law firm. In effect, he took two years off thebike, before recommiting to the sport of cycling and moving to California to begin a wicked training regimen.
Fate chose to intervene, and at that point, sadly, Ken was struck by a car while training, and his leg was shattered. The accident had a bright side though, and making lemonade from lemons, the rehab brought into stunning clarity the mindset that must be present in order to really make a go as a pro: one goal. One life. Singleminded, all-or-nothing approach. And this is what Ken came away from rehab with. After experiencing a few hiccups on the recovery route, culminating with having the titanium rods removed from above his ankle, it was game on, and the training began again. Suddenly, good results started pouring in the door, winning a lot of tough races, signing up for the Schroeder Iron amatuer team, which then blended wih the then NetZero team to form the Schroeder Iron professional cycling team, which then became a Division III force in very little time.
From crushed leg to pro cyclist, and learning what it really takes to be a team player, working for the betterment of the group, arresting his own personal goals for those of the team. And that's what it takes in a professional midset. The team over everything, and Mr. Toman obviously has a very solid grasp on this concept.