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John Lieswyn
Photo: © Jeff Tse

The John Lieswyn Diary

A pro racer who now mostly concentrates on the US domestic scene, John Lieswyn is one of Cyclingnews' most popular and sometimes controversial diarists. He has been racing since 1985 and a Cyclingnews diarist since 1999. John likes both criteriums and longer road races, and seems to particularly like it when the going is hard. He has raced in the Regio Tour, Peace Race, Tour of Poland, Vuelta a Guatemala, Tooheys GP and Commonwealth Bank Classic with success, as well as winning stages in the Sun Tour, Killington and Superweek. In 2004, he moves from 7Up/Maxxis to Team Health Net presented by Maxxis.

US Olympic trials, Redlands, CA, USA, June 19, 2004

A bittersweet victory

John (right) leads the front bunch with Chris Horner (Webcor, left)
Photo: © Russ & Nancy Wright
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For the twelve hours following the trials, including every time I awoke with a start, my mind has drifted back to the 'moment'. I keep telling myself "change the subject!", but I can't stop thinking about it and I fear that I never will. The moment was not the soft pedal that opened the gap for Jason McCartney, it was half a lap later…

All week I'd been improving steadily. Last week's win at the tough Stillwater (MN) criterium gave me confidence, and my sinuses and legs gradually seemed to be clearing up and strengthening. While the time trial nationals weren't my best ride and I never really felt like I got into a solid rhythm, I did manage a very distant second place and another confidence boost. The morning of the 120-mile Olympic Trials selection race, someone said, "hey, did you hear what Horner said about the TT Nationals? He said something about Zabriskie winning against a weak field!" Even if (a big "if") true, it got me riled. Was it really necessary to denigrate someone's performance? If Horner had attended TT Nats and won, would he have pointed out that his win was less important because "nobody good was there"? Now I'm sure that he'll be quoted all over the place, saying that it was everyone versus Horner. It couldn't be further from the truth. On team Health Net p/b Maxxis we were just as concerned with Fred, Kirk O'Bee, the tenacious Bergman, Ollenrenshaw, and Andy Bajadali, amongst others.

Once the race began, the muscle strain from Thursday's time trial would not subside. Halfway into the race I still felt generally strong but worried that increasing knee pain and compensation issues were going to take me out of contention. One thing I know now, post race, is that you don't have to have a great day to win something big like the Trials. I should have known from Fred Rodriguez's amazing third place at Lancaster with food poisoning. You just have to be good on the day, and opportunistic. The only times this doesn't work is if the race is completely controlled (ie, the Hamilton World's with Italy on the front all day) or absolutely dependent on strength (the finish on Brasstown Bald in this years TdGA).

The first four laps were raced at a painfully slow pace, but few riders complained or attacked. It was generally acknowledged that between 13,000 feet of climbing, heat and distance, the race would be a test of attrition. Horner's Webcor team took the bull by the horns early, which effectively disengaged the normal cycle of attacking and counterattacking. Everyone else settled in to wait for the inevitable cracking. I figured that as long as the break didn't exceed 1 minute per 10km remaining, it wasn't dangerous. Wherry and I quickly decided on a team attack point of the freeway bridge at three and three-quarter laps to go. The only hiccup in this plan was when Horner suddenly pulled his team off the front at four and a half laps to go. We couldn't effectively attack en masse on a downhill, so we had three-quarters of a lap to be patient. That was very hard to do, but when time checks revealed that the break was still stalling out at 6:15 despite the absence of a Webcor tempo, we settled down again and waited for the preplanned attack site. Once there, our attacks were joined in by the rest of the peloton, obviously everyone had a lot of pent up energy! Within a few kilometers the group was down to twenty and the real action began.

Along with Tony Cruz (USPS), Andy Bajadali (Ofoto) and another, I bridged the gap to the leaders in just over one lap. No sooner than we had made it seven and I was just starting to think I only had to beat three relatively fresh guys to make the Olympic team, then all of sudden Horner appeared. He'd taken half a dozen riders with him, making our group about fifteen, and I had no teammates! If Horner could bridge a minute gap to me while I had been bridging a four minute gap to the early break, he must be having a reasonably strong day. Hmm… how to win now? Everyone else had at least one teammate.

Not to worry; by the bottom of the descent with 25km (1.5 laps) to go McCartney had rejoined as well. From feeling futile to empowered in a flash… Jason recounted how he'd cramped on the last hill and stopped to release a rubbing brake (from a bad wheel change), and said he wasn't too flash. I reminded Jason about his win at Tri Peaks a few weeks ago, when we were both just coming back from food poisoning and he'd been dropped on a small climb. He had caught up on a descent and attacked right past the bunch, which was stuck in "wait for the next hill mode". Jason said "right, you are going to the Olympics!"

A couple kilometres later as we approached the base of the small hill on 16th (the last hill before the long descent to the s/f line and 1 lap to go) Jason stepped off the wheel and we attacked together. A quick glance over the shoulder to ascertain the effectiveness of the move brought bad news: Horner was coming up to us with a decidedly bedraggled and single file group strung out on his wheel. Jason and I said nothing to each other, but our next move was fairly textbook. As Horner got my wheel I eased off the pedals a bit and opened a gap to Jason.

Horner did not come around me, either hoping someone else would do it, taking a chance that Jason couldn't make it an entire lap, or just too redlined to try. I could hardly believe it, but nobody else countered either. What? This is working? I smiled broadly; if Jason stayed away he'd be going to Athens and if he didn't, then I was going to get a free ride on the tail of any chase after him. Flushed with adrenaline, I waited… and waited… and nobody twitched. Within a couple kilometres Jason had nearly a minute. Doug Ollenrenshaw (Jelly Belly, away all day in the early move but riding awesomely nonetheless) tried to go across alone but he was obviously too late and he was trying on the descent; again nobody twitched. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the final set of 5 hills.

On the first hill of the last lap, the ascent of Ford (past where the bisexuals, homosexuals, and straight girls… or was it all a joke? were waving posters and yelling encouragement much to our amusement) Horner attacked hard. The group blew apart and I had to jump from wheel to wheel. Just as I got to the front Bajadali attacked again and I went to his wheel without hesitation. Over the top and on to the next long uphill drag I sat on his wheel. A look back showed that the group had not responded; we were well clear and now gaining on the solo Jelly Belly guy. To Andy's credit, he didn't even ask me to pull through. He knew that with Jason up the road I wouldn't, and rather than hemming and hawing Andy just drilled it. I'm really impressed by his ride today.

Onto the freeway overpass climb we are now catching Doug, while Doug's teammate Adam Bergman (Jelly Belly) is closing alone from behind. It looks like it will be four guys including myself by the summit of the steep section. This is where, in hindsight, I should have gone on a full out solo attack with everything I had left. However at the time I was still stuck in "kill the chase by sitting on" mode, and I'll never know whether I could have made it across to Jason solo or not. On the second to last climb of the race I did drop the other three guys, but not convincingly enough to make a full unencumbered chase of my own teammate.

At the 1995 Colombia Worlds, the five time Tour champion Miguel Indurain went across to his teammate Olano solo. It would be completely within normal team tactics and totally cool to do so. You must be 100% confident that chasing groups won't gain added impetus because they see that the chasing teammate may be physically blown if caught, so I was only going to make this move under those circumstances.

I was belatedly realizing that not only was I strong enough to try, but my companions were crackable. After half a dozen jumps failed to dislodge the tenacious Doug Ollerenshaw, who was by now "tongue on his stem" but not giving up, I had to relinquish the dream.

Andy came back and for a little while these two guys tried to stay away for a top four finish. On the descent group after group rejoined us. The only two guys doing any real pulling were a dejected Rodriguez and Horner, but it was halfhearted at best. Everyone knew that Jason was not going to be caught. Despite the lack of prize money or prestige for any place other than first, and perhaps just for the NRC points or to work out frustration, a couple guys jumped away in the last two kilometres. I rolled across for a totally inconsequential seventh place, and went to congratulate my friend and USA Cycling's newest Olympian.

After Jason crossed the line, he'd gone so deep that he threw up. Perhaps a touch of heatstroke, perhaps just the effort.

A deserved win

Before anyone tries to draw conclusions about whether Jason's win was "lucky" or "uncontested" or whatever, I need to point a few things out about the man and the ride he had on Saturday. One, he's a selfless teammate. He rode a whole lap flat out on the front for ME, and only went for it himself when he saw how Horner was marking me. Two, not many riders have the power, recovery and pain tolerance that Jason used to win with such style, riding the entire last lap and a half alone. As far as his strength, I can only relate the end of Philadelphia's US PRO Championship this year as evidence. When he and I were trying to keep Gord at the front in the last 5km, Jason pulled so hard that when it was my turn I couldn't even come through. The difference between him and I is usually in sustained climbing, where I have the edge. In most TT's and flat to rolling roads he can just flat out haul butt.

He'll do what he's asked without question in Athens. I believe that he is a very good selection for Athens and will fill a very important role in the Olympics: that of the dedicated worker and perhaps if things work out, the opportunist...we all know how good he is at the latter!

I do wish for the USA team's sake that Rodriguez had made the automatic selection; he's obviously on the form of his life.

Taking satisfaction

What one does with one's opportunities is what differentiates Olympians from athletes who are merely very good at their craft. It's been five Olympic Trials for me; the first when I was hopelessly out of my league. The second when I missed selection by one point. The third when I sat out of cycling, too proud to race for free. The fourth when the skies opened and my cautious nature kept me out of position, and Tony Cruz stormed to victory on wet roads. And finally this one, when team tactics overrode my strongest desire and I elected to ensure the team win over taking a chance on personal glory.

Rather than succumb to bitterness, I must learn to take satisfaction in the life I have had and will lead. A local cat 3 envies the cat 2 who wins the 'Tuesday night worlds' training ride, while a continental pro wonders what might have been had he taken drugs and gone to race in the big leagues of Europe. For 99.99 percent of us, there is always someone faster, richer, or more powerful.

My career has included three world championships, two world cups, two Regio Tours and two outings in the 'forgotten fourth grand tour' the Peace Race. Three years racing amateur and open (mixed with pros) in Europe. I figure over 1,700 races all told, with a good third of those UCI international level stage races. Okay, it's mostly double A instead of the majors, but I've done it all clean and I still have my health. And I feel good, really good. In fact, despite all the thinking I've been doing now that I'm 35 years old about this being my last year, I'm more motivated than ever, and still hoping for another marquee result. Chicago or San Francisco, perhaps? Definitely another try at the World's. With the few dogged injuries behind me, it should be a great summer and fall season!


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