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Student of Life: An Interview with John Lieswyn
By Staff
Date: 5/25/2004
Student of Life: An Interview with John Lieswyn

By Charlie Melk

Anyone who has followed the U.S. domestic cycling scene for the past 15 years or so knows the name John Lieswyn. Since his amateur days, he has been winning big races in an aggressive, attacking, and trademark style. Most of the teams of which he has been a part, such as Crest, Saturn, Coors Light, Shaklee, 7Up/Colorado Cylist, 7Up/Nutrafig, 7Up/Maxxis, and currently Health Net presented by Maxxis, have formed the backbone of domestic professional racing in the United States during the extensive time period he has been racing at an elite level.

You donít earn a coveted spot on one of these teams without big results, however, and John was always willing to not only show up to the race, but show up and race from the beginning of his career.

The 1989 Tour of the Gila provided the perfect backdrop for an example of Johnís determination as a young college student. Driving to New Mexico from Florida, where he lived at the time, on his own dime and unsupported, he went on to win the overall in a truly attacking style. When you consider the fact that the Tour of the Gila is a highly competitive, mountainous, high altitude race and that Florida is, well, at sea level for the most part and none too hilly, you get the idea ó this kid could flat-out ride.

Many more impressive results followed, and John earned a spot on the U.S. National Team with Lance Armstrong and Bobby Julich, among others, in 1991 and 1992, as well as 1995, representing the United States at the World Championships on several occasions.

With a professional palmares that surpasses 130 victories, including the overall GC titles at the 2003 Tour de Beauce in Canada (where he led from the first day to the last), the Tour of Southland in New Zealand, and the Nature Valley Grand Prix, as well as stage wins at Redlands, the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, the Cascade Classic, Superweek, The Tour of Willamette, The Tour de Toona, and many others far too numerous to mention, it is probably a gross understatement to merely state that Mr. Lieswyn knows how to win a bike race.

More than this, he is a student of the sport. He understands the ethereal, constantly shifting dynamics that make up a bike race like few others do, and by his own admission is far more likely to use his head to win a bike race these days, or help a teammate to do so, than simply get on the front and hammer ...not that he is averse to doing that, however, when the need arises.

As so many of his competitors know by now, the combination of his tactical savvy and his willingness to turn almost any race into a hard-nosed hammerfest if need be, especially the more difficult ones, is what makes John such a dangerous, feared, and respected rival in the U.S. Peloton. He always seems to be there at the kill, as not only his numerous wins attest to, but especially the incredible number of podium and top ten placings he has earned over the course of his remarkably consistent career.

Speaking with John both after the Heritage Criterium Series and during the Joe Martin Stage Race, I was impressed by his candor and generosity. Our dialogue left me with the feeling that, on top of being a skillful student of the sport, he is also an accomplished student of life.

John at team camp. Photo by Daily Peloton.

How did you get into racing, John?

After growing up in Indonesia, where my primary mode of transport was riding a skateboard while getting a tow from city buses or our familyís driver, I was really excited to ride a fancy ten-speed when we visited our extended family in Utrecht, Holland. It was dusty and had flat tires, but I got it out of the garage and wasnít seen again for the entire afternoon. The network of bike lanes and bicycle infrastructure throughout the city and suburbs was amazing.

Back at our U.S. home of Pittsburgh, I got my own ten-speed from Sears. It didnít last long, so Dad took me shopping at Pittsburghís Bike Barn. The salesman saw me staring longingly at a racy Italian model with skinny sew up tires and a ďcorncobĒ, narrow range, six-speed freewheel. I distinctly remember his crushing words: ďKid, youíll never need something that expensive. I have a Raleigh Grand Prix in a 25 inch size thatíll be just right for you.Ē (25 inch is about 60cm, and today I ride a 55cm bike, which is three sizes smaller).

When I won the stars and stripes for the 100KM TTT in 1991 (beating a certain Mr. Armstrong) I really wished I could have thrust that gold medal in the salesmanís face! Itís a big reminder to me that we should all be as encouraging as possible to all young riders.

What, in your opinion, is the most important attribute a hopeful Cat 1 or 2 cyclist can possess in order to reach the professional level?

Iím always amazed by how much misinformation is out there. Iím currently trying to help young Wes Hartmann (Team Mack) and Eric Nonnecke, from my current hometown of Ames, Iowa. These guys are constantly being told that if they want to be pro theyíve got to ride 350 plus miles a week.

First off, very few pros nowadays count miles only. The best measure is volume in hours and intensity. Iím a big proponent of low volume, high intensity for young riders. It does absolutely no good to have a ton of endurance if you get dropped in the first fast crosswind section or over the first big hill.

Secondly, donít spend your money on a fancy car or fancy bike gear. The only things worth spending money on are wheels, tires, and travel expenses. Get to the big races and put your name out there by getting results.

In your opinion, what needs to change to make competitive cycling a more popular sport in the United States?

TV coverage. Replicate the Athens Twilight Criterium in every college town in America. Build bike lanes in every community to provide a place for young riders to learn cycling safely.

How do you perceive the status of the domestic scene in the U.S. right now? Is it worse, the same, or better than when you first turned professional in í92?

U.S. Stage races lost since í92: Solano, the Casper Classic, Mammoth Mountain., Willamette, Tour Du Pont, the 89íer Stage Race, Killington, The Zinger, the Tour of America.

U.S. Stage Races gained: the Dodge Tour de Georgia, the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

TV coverage: more coverage of events other than the Tour de France, but only on a small cable channel.

Number of juniors: 90% decline.

Opportunity to make a living racing your bike: for women, still very poor. For men, there has been a slight improvement. Overall, based on all factors, the state of the sport is basically unchanged.

Big improvements coming: USAís new indoor L.A. velodrome. The internet is linking cyclists together all over America in a common cause.

Do you see the doping problem in cycling getting any better in the future? Based on your experience, do you think that the problem is worse now, or perhaps has some progress been made during your years in the professional peloton?

I have no firsthand evidence of doping in the U.S. peloton. I believe that the authorities are making examples out of unwitting riders while not using regular blood testing to effectively exonerate or implicate the top end, high paid riders. Iím in the out-of-competition testing program and itís a urine test only. If I really wanted to cheat, I think it wouldnít be hard to get away with it, and thatís a shame.

Are you in favor of a union of sorts for professional cyclists? Something to guarantee health insurance and a minimum livable wage for D-3 pros? If so, what changes do you think need to take place to make this a possibility?

I advocated a rider's association last year but the level of apathy and back stabbing in the U.S. peloton is such that Iím burnt out on the idea. Iíve realized that being outspoken on issues makes me a lightning rod, and itís not a good position to be in. There still isnít enough money to be made for the majority of pro licensed riders to really do anything. The U.S.A.C. is in a position to offer health insurance to the riders who need it, and I think they are working on that.

How do you think the UCIís proposed Pro Tour will affect the predominantly D-3 US peloton?

Iím not sure, and considering that I am retiring this year or next, it wonít matter too much to me. Apathy again?

This seems like a great beginning for Health Net presented by Maxxis. You seemed to gel remarkably well at the Tour of Georgia.

We had gelled as early as the Tour of Langkawi. Itís a great group of guys. Some on the outside thought that I seemed like I wasnít having fun, but thatís not true. We are laughing and having a good time, win or lose. It is serious business but we get along very well, so thatís good.

A few people in the press were quite vocal about Health Net presented by Maxxisí performance at Redlands. Would you like to say anything to these people?

Nothing. We will do our talking with our legs this year. I hope that we can keep it rolliní at U.S. Pro Week.

What are the team goals of Health Net presented by Maxxis for this season?

Best to ask Jeff Corbett. My personal goal is a win at TT Nationals, Crit. Nationals, or Philly, plus it would be great to win the Olympic Trials. Itís really a shame that the Olympic Trials are the same week as North Americaís longest running major UCI stage race, the Tour de Beauce. I am still considering whether to miss a chance to win gold in the TT Nationals, and a chance at the Athens Olympics, to go and defend my title in Quebec.

Courtesy Health Net

Looking back on your extremely successful professional cycling career to date, what have you derived the most fulfillment and enjoyment from over the years?

There is absolutely no better way to see the world than from the seat of a bicycle. Itís really great to be able to fly somewhere, put together the bike, and ride anywhere. Dirt paths, forests, decaying urban neighborhoods, people of all colors and socio-economic classes ó racing has brought me into all these places in a unique way.

Do you see yourself keeping in touch with professional cycling in some capacity once you retire?

I will stay involved in some way, Iím just not yet sure how. Iíve always wanted to promote races and teach juniors.

Can you think of anyone whose influence has had the most influence on you and your success as a professional cyclist and person?

Early on, Jim Mahaffey (a former Little 500 winner) made a big impression. Roy Knickman, as the only member of Coors Light who would try to teach me tactics (the rest just assumed that I knew what I was doing). My team managers, from Pettyjohn to Scioscia and especially Jeff Corbett. My wife Dawn has been a big inspiration for me these last six years of racing. Jonas Carney and Kevin Monahan are two of my best friends and former teammates who made a big difference in my confidence and in my tactics.

How has the equipment you use now evolved from when you first started racing?

When I started we were wearing Bell V1 Pros. Todayís Bell helmet is a quantum leap in every respect, and I canít even tell Iím wearing it, itís so light. Sunglasses were the Oakley goggles and now weíve got ultra light, ultra flexible Rudy Projects that work in all conditions. Shoes are stiffer, and the Speedplay Zero pedal is a revolution, especially for my quirky knees and physiological discrepancies.

When I started, tubulars were the only choice in tires, but today the Maxxis clincher is good enough to win world class bike races on. My first steel bike was considered light at 23lbs., but todayís Giant TCR carbon with Dura Ace and Reynolds Carbon wheels weighs in at under 16 pounds ó thatís amazing. Rehydration drinks have advanced from simple sugar stuff like Gatorade all the way up to todayís multiple mixes for different needs, all made by Cytomax.

The science of training now includes wireless computers that can track unbelievable amounts of data with no user input required. Andy Hampsten was revolutionizing training in í86 with the first HRM!

Thank you for your time, and good luck in Philly!

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