Enginerve : Bikes

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Time to Drop the Fork and the Competition


The peloton of the Tour de France
Image via Wikipedia

I wanted an inspirational piece of advice to begin the new year with and this article Back in Racing Form After Dropping the Fork published in the NYTimes.  They have a clever picture on the front page, and a great article about a racer getting back in the game at the old age of 34 and while I have never been a racer, I also don’t have to get back to that level.  The question remains, what level can I get back to?

December 31, 2009

Back in Racing Form After Dropping the Fork


TRAVELING in the South of France in recent weeks, João Correia, a former Manhattan publishing executive who shed 60 pounds in recent years, found temptation everywhere: oven-fresh baguettes dabbed in oozy Camembert, sugary tartes Tatin. A morning pain au chocolat, washed down with a rich café au lait? Off limits.

“Oatmeal and black coffee is the ticket,” he said. Even in France. Talk about willpower.

But Mr. Correia, with his wiry 145-pound physique, is not a walking testimonial for the latest fad diet. Rather, he arrived in Europe this month as a new member of Cervélo TestTeam, one of 25 men on a top professional European cycling team.

A former professional cyclist who last raced at age 21, he left the sport for a desk job and, over a decade, ballooned toward the weight of two professional cyclists. Now, at 34, he is back, at an age when many riders are ready to retire. He hopes to compete in the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France in coming years.

As an athletic achievement, it is remarkable, said John Eustice, a TV cycling commentator, tour promoter and former professional rider. “It’s like a high school football star quitting the game, going into business and all of a sudden finding himself back in the N.F.L. in his 30s,” he said.

As an odyssey in personal fitness, Mr. Correia’s comeback is no small achievement, either, given that for most of his adult life, his appetite for pasta outpaced his appetite for victory.

“Food was like training,” he recalled of the days when dinner was a six-course affair that would unfold over five hours. “I’d get to the restaurant, I’d stretch out a little, maybe wear some sweat pants. It takes a lot of practice to put away that much food.”

To understand how he got back into racing shape, it helps to understand how he fell so far out of it in the first place.

Mr. Correia had raced bikes since he was a child in his native Portugal, and he continued to rise in the amateur ranks after his family moved to Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., when he was 11. During his teens, he juggled high school in Sleepy Hollow with racing for teams in France and the Netherlands.

Cycling always took precedence. After promising finishes in the junior world championships, he joined a professional team in Portugal in 1995 and enrolled at Fordham University in New York.

But Mr. Correia’s early college experience was disastrous, and he was nearly expelled for bad grades. “I’ve always been one of those people, if I can’t do something, I figure out a way to do it,” he said. “It was that way with cycling, same with college. I failed, so now I’ve got to conquer this.”

He threw his energy into school and quit cycling. After graduation, he started a career in publishing and eventually landed at the Hearst Corporation, handling Italian fashion accounts for Esquire magazine. There, his old taste for the physical extremes exerted itself in new ways.

“My business was a relationship business, and you build a lot of relationships at the table,” he said. At dinners with clients, he said, “I’d start out with a whole piece of mozzarella di bufala, get a full order spaghetti Bolognese, then maybe the rabbit, some wine, some grappa.”

“That was a typical meal,” he said. “I’d say it was a light meal.”

Eventually, his weight topped out at 205 pounds. But when he took a job as associate publisher of Bicycling magazine in 2004, he found himself riding with clients on the weekends — and embarrassing himself. People who used to know him as a top rider on the circuit could not believe he was the same person.

“People would be saying, ‘Little John, is that you?’ ” he said, referring to his childhood nickname. “I was huge.”

During the rides, he said, “you’d be going up a hill and pretty soon you’re dropped, you’re gone, you’re not even in the group anymore.”

“Stuff like that was super humbling,” he said. “You go from going out there and killing everybody to saying: ‘Why are we going so fast? Can’t we just talk?’ ”

In 2006, he was riding in a recreational race in Italy with a client, who noticed his strong technique and asked if he had ever raced. After Mr. Correia recounted his former glories, the client urged him to give it one more shot.

Inspired, Mr. Correia contacted a cycling trainer in Salt Lake City, Dr. Massimo Testa, and flew out to visit. He told Dr. Testa he wanted to get back in shape in time to compete in the Portuguese national championships in less than a year. Dr. Testa, he said, was dubious. “My first test, I had something like 23 percent body fat,” said Mr. Correia, who is now at 8 percent and aims for less than 6.

Dr. Testa said: “If you bring in a 185-pound guy who is 30 years old and says he wants to be a pro, I would say it’s basically impossible — it could be one case in a million. But he had been pro. If you’ve been that good, those genes are still there.”

Mr. Correia also started seeing a nutritionist, who set up a low-fat, high-protein diet, like spaghetti Bolognese with turkey, not ground beef.

On Dr. Testa’s orders, Mr. Correia began nightly training sessions riding from his apartment in Brooklyn Heights to Central Park, where he would do intervals — measured bursts of specific exercises on the bike — for at least two hours around the park’s loop. Twice a week, he would ride across the George Washington Bridge to train on hills. On weekends, he rode five hours or more in Westchester County.

In 2007, Mr. Correia did enter the Portuguese nationals and came in 12th in the time trials — not bad, considering he was up against professionals who had not taken a decade off to eat. In 2008, he joined an American team, Bissell Pro Cycling, and last fall, Gérard Vroomen, an owner of Cervélo, invited him to join. The team, sponsored by the Canadian bike manufacturer Cervélo, was ranked No. 1 in the world in June and is now seventh.

Mr. Correia admits that quitting his day job for competitive cycling was not easy. The job requires him to be out of the country for 260 days a year, which is hard on his wife, Tiiu McGuire, who works in marketing at The New York Times, and two young children.

But his wife gave her blessing, and he jumped at the opportunity. “I always had this feeling,” he said, “that I left some skin in the game.”