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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!